As a philosopher, I spend a lot of time talking about contentious issues. If you’ve ever taught topics like abortion or affirmative action to undergraduates, you know how precarious such conversations can be. They can be anything from fruitful to frustrating.
One thing I’ve learned from these discussions is just how much our initial approach determines the direction of the conversation. I’ve found that when students approach moral or social issues as if they were talking heads on a cable news channel trying to attack the other side, they accomplish little more than annoying the other students who don’t share their views. However, when students explain their views in a respectful, non-judgmental way through gracious dialogue, the other students tend to listen, engage, and ask questions. They often comment that they had never thought about the issue in that particular way before. When they are willing to listen to new perspectives, they learn from each other.
The same is true for origins conversations. We often think that if we can just educate those who disagree with us, they’ll see the truth and we’ll be able to reach a consensus. The problem with this assumption is that disagreements about origins are not just disputes about scientific facts. They are not like our beliefs about the existence of gravity or the atomic mass of hydrogen. Our beliefs about origins are connected to deeply held beliefs about God, meaning, and our place in the universe and they are heavily shaped by our particular social and cultural environments.
We can’t just dump scientific facts and theories on people and expect them to change their views. Given the significance people place on their views of origins, these conversations require as much thought and care in how we approach them as conversations about abortion or affirmative action.
As a moral cognition and behavior researcher, I study how people respond to controversial issues that are deeply intertwined with our values and identity. By tapping this research, the following framework can help us avoid some common missteps and facilitate more productive conversations about how the universe began and how we ended up where we are today. This framework is meant to apply to a wide-range of origins conversations—between family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, teachers and students, and pastors and parishioners.
1. Start with shared values and shared experiences
One way to set a positive tone in a conversation about origins is to start with similarities rather than differences. When you’re talking with other Christians, you share some common core beliefs and values, even if you differ on the exact process God used to create the universe. Start from these shared beliefs and values and explain why you view the theory of evolution as being compatible or incompatible with them. By sharing our own experiences, we can help each other see why a fellow Christian might believe that God created the universe in a particular way.
One of the biggest shifts in my own faith perspective came from having conversations about origins with fellow Christians in college. Growing up I had naively assumed that all Christians shared the same view of origins. Learning that Christians could share core beliefs and values and still disagree about origins helped broaden my perspective of what it means to be a Christian and helped me distinguish between the essentials and non-essentials of Christian faith.
2. Try to understand the other person’s perspective
For Christians who don’t see a conflict between Scripture and evolutionary theory, it can be difficult to understand just how deep this perceived conflict can be for those who do. If you don’t feel a particular conflict yourself, it can be easy to just dismiss it.
If we want to be able to relate to others, we need to put ourselves in their shoes. If we are not moved by conflict between evolution and Scripture, then we can imagine conflicts that resonate with us. Consider how you would feel if you thought a certain scientific theory contradicted what you were sure was the ultimate truth. If this scientific theory went against a belief that was central to how you understand God, yourself, and the world, would you be inclined to think there must be another explanation? Don’t just try to imagine what the other person’s experience is like, though; ask them about it. Ask them what conflicts they see and why.
Similarly, Christians who see a tension between evolution and Scripture need to know what it is like for Christians who don’t see this conflict. If you think that someone can’t be a Christian and accept evolution, talk with Christians who accept evolution. Find out what their experience is like and why they think it is possible to accept both.
Hearing different perspectives also helps us better understand and challenge our own views. When we consider our views in isolation, we don’t always notice the flaws in our own views. By looking at our beliefs from a different perspective, we can see new places for correction, which can help us improve our own views and get closer to the truth.
3. Critique ideas, not individuals
When other people hold different views than we do, we may assume that they are ignorant or irrational, don’t care about the truth, or have bad motives. But if we want to have fruitful discussions with the people with whom we disagree, we can’t start by assuming the worst about them. Showing respect for the other side starts by interpreting their position charitably, by viewing it in the best possible way, rather than the worst. We should think of the other side like we think of ourselves—as honest but fallible truth seekers.
I’ve seen students completely shut down dialogue by making accusatory generalizations, such as “conservatives are greedy” or “liberals are evil.” Most students respond to these indictments with frustrated silence. They feel like their moral character is on trial and they don’t want to have to defend it on the spot in front of their peers. By shutting down dialogue, students miss out on an opportunity to learn that their generalized assumptions don’t apply to everyone. If they hadn’t put their classmates on the defensive, they would have learned that they have conservative classmates who are quite generous and liberal classmates who are quite moral.
Before we rush to assume the worst about others, we should stop and think about how we want the other person to treat us. What assumptions do we want them to make (or not make) about us and our motives? Do we want them to assume that we’re ignorant or irrational, that we don’t care about the truth, or that we have bad motives because we have a different view than they do about origins? What would it look like for them to treat us with respect even though they disagree with us? How can we treat them in this same way?
Showing respect for others and interpreting their position charitably doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with them. When we disagree, though, we need to remember to disagree with the views rather than attack the character or the motives of the individuals who hold them. We shouldn’t raise potential objections in a “gotcha” kind of way. The purpose of dialogue is to learn about others and about the world, not to “get” people.
4. Choose curiosity over certainty
Instead of aiming for certainty in our conversations about origins, we should encourage and model curiosity, the motivation to pursue inquiry for the intrinsic pleasure of awe and surprise at the world God has created (and how God has created). Approaching our conversations with curiosity stimulates open-minded engagement and leads us to interact more with contrary sources of information. It makes us more likely to actively listen and learn from the other person’s views. While there is often value in being committed to our beliefs, believing that there is no chance we could be wrong can lead to closed-mindedness and ideological extremism.
We can avoid being overconfident by contemplating how complex science and Scripture are and by considering alternative interpretations and reasons why we might be wrong. We can also be careful about using terms like “always,” “never,” or “proven” when they are not supported by the data.
Two extremes need to be avoided here. On the one hand, if we refuse to challenge our own or other people’s views, we won’t grow.
Too much threat, however, also inhibits growth. When we feel that we are being attacked rather than challenged, we become defensive and we don’t make any progress. The purpose of dialogue is to listen, understand, and learn from one another, not to trap people or make people feel dumb.
If we want to have productive dialogues, we need to find a balance that encourages thought-provoking engagement but doesn’t make people feel under attack.
By approaching conversations about origins as an opportunity to share, listen, and learn from each other, rather than as an opportunity to knock down another person’s beliefs or prove our own position, we can turn hostile debates into fruitful conversations.