I've upset someone again. After an excellent panel on the role of faith communities in the LGBTQ movement at the LGBT Momentum conference, I posed some questions which I thought were respectful, if challenging. Why, I wondered, do progressive people stay in religious communities and try to salvage them, fighting with traditionalists of their own faith, instead of leaving those communities (many of the central commitments of which they no longer seem to share) and making common cause with Humanists and other non-religious groups who have always supported queer rights?
This question has always perplexed me. From the outside, it seems that most faith traditions have taken every opportunity to oppress everyone they can get away with oppressing, and that the history of the reform of faith traditions toward more Humane values is precisely a history of the secularization of those traditions. But the purpose of this post isn't to take up this issue in particular, but to question how far it is really possible for Humanists like me to engage in fruitful "dialogue" with a religious other.
The responses of the panel to my question - four well-respected figures in the struggle for queer rights from within faith communities - were passionate and fair. But as I approached the speakers to continue the conversation afterwards, well... Let's just say it didn't go so well. After a few short exchanges my interlocutor thought I was being dismissive and rude, and that I considered her "unreasonable" and "stupid" (although I never used those words). I felt my partner in "dialogue" was being prickly and aggressive, and failing to respond to my points. We both felt in the right, and both felt that we were being misunderstood.
It soon became clear that much of the problem came down to a disagreement over the very standards of discussion themselves. My appeals to reason and evidence were received as an overbearing attempt to impose one epistemological framework over others. I experienced my interlocutor's appeals to different epistemological frames as an illegitimate attempt to shield certain ideas from critique.
This experience has become all-too-common with me, and leads me to question the potential for real dialogue between those who have deep disagreements over fundamental metaphysical and epistemological commitments. But what do I mean by "dialogue"?
Dialogue, to me, means more than simply sharing personal stories with each other. For a true dialogue, there must be some potential for change - for people to shift their position based on the reasoning of others. Simply talking about our own experience, and getting to know others through listening to theirs, is at best valuable sharing of monologues, but it is not true dialogue. Like two ships passing on the ocean, we might appreciate each others' semaphore but we aren't going to change direction.
No, true dialogue requires the possibility for parties to change their position. And to realize that possibility, the parties in the dialogue must be able to agree on some fundamentals. Standards of reasoning and evidence must be shared so that claims can be assessed against a common yardstick. And this is, I think, the sticking point in interfaith discussions.
In a conversation between a naturalist and someone who believes in the existence of supernatural forces, is there hope for establishing shared understandings of reasoning and evidence? In a discussion between someone who rejects the validity of arguments from authority, and someone who maintains the epistemic authority of Scripture, how can we meaningfully assess our differing arguments? In a back-and-forth between someone who thinks personal revelation is sufficient basis for the truth of a claim, and someone who does not, how can we expect someone to change their mind?
In short, when epistemic common-ground is in short supply, can we really talk?