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How to disagree well

Reasoned debate is very difficult if you refuse to engage in good faith

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It was on Christmas Eve that I realised I’d been subjected to a social media drive-by shooting. That pinnacle of modern ecclesiastical power, the president of Humanists UK, Professor Alice Roberts had deduced from the headline of an interview I gave to the Telegraph that I was emblematic of Christians “who think that non-Christians are incapable of tackling moral questions”.

My delight at being emblematic of anything died quickly as a Twitter pile-on began, of people who, I suppose by definition, had nothing better to do than spend the Season of Goodwill getting angry at strangers via their phones. I suppose you’ve got to do something.

Instead of engaging in proper debate, Roberts has indulged in drive-by Twitter shootings

It will come as little surprise to you to learn that I was not saying that non-Christians are incapable of tackling moral questions. What I was saying is that the loss of a shared underlying morality makes discussing difficult ethical questions during a pandemic much more difficult, because the underlying principles on which we each build our moral assertions are necessarily different.

The question of how to prioritise the physical and psychological needs of care home residents was the main body of the discussion, where questions of death and life, and what it means truly to be alive, simply have not been adequately explored over the course of the pandemic.

But that’s a different topic that merits a column all to itself. What interested me in the exchange of Christmas joy with Professor Roberts is that she didn’t so much prove my point, as add another whole layer to it — one that sits pretty awkwardly with one of Humanism’s core arguments.

Much of the output of our humanist brethren is (understandably) devoted to attacking Christianity and its systems of ethical and moral reasoning. Theirs, when held up in contrast to Christianity’s reliance on ancient texts and the moral reasoning of ancient societies, always stresses the importance of reasoning out questions yourself. Don’t take my word for it. This is what the British Humanist Association wrote in 2011:

Humanism is an approach to life based on humanity and reason — humanists recognise that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone … Our decisions are based on the available evidence and our assessment of the outcomes of our actions, not on any dogma or sacred text.

Good old Richard Dawkins says much the same, “I arrived at my beliefs, as everybody should, by examining evidence.” This is their main thrust: that they form their morality themselves, by use of reason and debate.

Evidence and reason. Which is why Professor Roberts is such a disappointment. Instead of engaging in proper debate, she has indulged in drive-by Twitter shootings. And in this she reflects something all too common in public discourse. Reasoned debate is very difficult if you refuse to engage in good faith.

Even more concerning is the way in which so much of political discourse is now being put outside of normal civilised discussion. There are whole swathes of issues where people dare not express a view for fear that this would damage their employability or bring down vile abuse — both on social media and off it. 

Debate is very difficult to have in these circumstances, and without it, so is any claim to have formed one’s opinion using reason. The brighter Humanists know this, and are justly concerned — most notably, of course, Richard Dawkins.

What we are discovering about the freedom to debate is that even in a secular culture people bring their priors to any discussion, and hold certain truths to be, for want of a better word, sacred. Certain documents are given an authority beyond all others — most especially, according to the teaching material put out for schools by the Humanists, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Which is all well and good, but none of these is any less contestable than the Gospel of Matthew or Gregory of Nyssa’s objections to the killing of newborn girls for being girls. If you demand that everyone entering into a debate professes that transwomen are women (or the opposite), you exclude the possibility of people changing their minds. Reasoned analysis of the evidence cannot take place in any discussion where the outcome has already been determined. 

Funnily enough, this is all stuff that has been considered before. The question of how to balance authoritative texts, moral traditions, and reasoned enquiry is one that Christians (not of the straw man variety) have been wrestling with since the beginning, most especially the Church of England. 

Scripture, tradition, and reason have been called the three-legged stool of the Anglican Via Media, and it is what has gifted Britain’s political and philosophical culture its truly liberal thought world. 

The last generation of humanists lived in and breathed that world, even as they rejected it. Their heirs have grown up in a world where gentle Anglican norms of disagreeing well no longer hold sway. We might all benefit from remembering them before they disappear from sight completely.

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