The lost art of talking things out

By Brenda Kay Zylstra

Last Thursday two campus groups whose core beliefs are in diametric opposition came together for an honest and frank discussion. Representatives of the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers and the Campus Crusade for Christ aired their dissonant views on a wide range of contentious issues. Though the evening was intended to highlight the differing worldviews of atheists and Christians, it ended up as a striking blend of that which makes us pulls us together and that which pulls us apart.

Each panel of four came prepared to answer a few pre-determined questions posed to it by the other side. For three hours a rapt crowd of several hundred students watched as their peers dealt with divisive topics from the limits of science to the occurrence of natural evil in the face of benevolent God. This was not a debate or an attempt at conversion. This was not two rival gangs trying to verbally outmaneuver each other. This was an opportunity for straightforwardness framed within sincerity, a moment to dispel the notions that atheists are morally depraved, cold-hearted heathens or that Christians are judgmental, close-minded elitists.

These were my peers, struggling as I do to come to terms with big questions, the biggest questions. How did we get here? Why are we here? What happens when we die? There was something so poignant in the vulnerable honestly displayed by the panelists as they laid bare their deepest motivations and left themselves wide open to attack. It takes a certain strength to say things you know some people are desperate to rip apart.

Both Christianity and atheism possess aspects that the outsider could easily find unappealing. Many non-Christians take issue with the ideas of Christian exclusivism and hell. Many non-atheists wonder how it is possible to build a life philosophy, or a community for that matter, on the only common premise being a rejection of God. Instead of lightly treading on points of contention, the panel addressed such topics with candor and conviction.

I couldn’t help thinking as I sat and listened how refreshing it was to witness completely open dialogue and discussion without having to worry about political correctness or delicate sensibilities.

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Last month when issues of race again exploded on our campus, this time in the form of stereotype parties and blackface, any mention of the controversy immediately degenerated into a screaming match, both sides viciously attacking without regard to reason or restraint. Aside from the essentially meaningless actions of a few University officials, the outcome of all this righteous anger and name-calling amounted to little more than a slew of hateful diatribes immortalized in the comments section of these pages. By jumping to conclusions and refusing to accept moderation in any form, the dialogue was lost. Without calm and clear dialogue, you cannot learn, you cannot hear yourself think above the shouting, and you will never change another person’s mind.

During the whole stereotype party fiasco, I would read the comment boards and marvel at the absurd things people would write, the clearly false connections they made. Sometimes the comments were awful and malicious; oftentimes they were just stupid. The entire situation turned into a mockery of informed political discourse. The hurt feelings of a select few threatened to reduce the right to expression for all. Poor taste aside, perhaps stereotype parties and their rejection are caused by, rather than a cause for, free speech restrictions.

Last week’s discussion was both a reminder and an example of how extremely antagonistic topics can and should be discussed in mixed company. At the end of the night, the discussion did not – could not – reach any conclusions, but it proved how the quest to find those answers, the desire to explain this world and the need to be heard motivates us all. As eight people disagreed on that which they most passionately believed in, they proved that agreeing to disagree is indeed possible, if one is only passionately thoughtful.