When people learn that I’m a columnist, the first question is always, “What do you write about?” My answer: All the things a polite person is NOT supposed to talk about: religion, politics and sex.
I belong to a writing group, a great bunch of people, some published, some not, but all serious writers with different stories to tell. We have only one rule: We can write or talk about anything except the aforementioned. We avoid controversy. On the other hand we miss something.
The other day only one person other then myself showed up. Mila (not her real name) is articulate, well-educated and well-traveled. She speaks several languages and has lived in several countries. We’ve been in the group together for three or four years; and in one sense I knew her well, in another, not at all.
This was my opportunity get to know her on a more personal level. We fell into easy conversation and were about to adjourn to a local coffee shop when another member of the group showed up. The dialogue continued.
Finally two more people joined us. Five people all sharing their views on the untouchables subjects — religion, politics and sex — for over two hours without a break. Since then we have all commented on how rewarding the experience was.
What kept the discussion on tract and prevented us from becoming hurt or angry? It wasn’t agreement. We all had differing opinions. Looking back now I realize we all wanted to learn from each other. No one tried to convert anyone. We sought stimulation, not conquest.
We treated one another’s ideas with respect, and always in the background was the thought, “I may not agree with you, but it’s possible you could be right.”
That’s the key: “You could be right.” However, those four words are impossible when people are caught in the thrall of religion, politics or sex. The true believer accepts no God other than his own. Politicians define issues in terms of right or left, conservative or liberal, and refuse to look beyond these boundaries. The moralist believes that sexual mores are absolute.
Not only does this attitude dampen good conversation, it stunts good thinking. When thinking is compromised by absolutism, every other aspect of society suffers. Art, education, community, even scientific research because the believer is encouraged to ignore or reject findings that undercut his belief system.
Today we know so many things. We have sent probes to the bottom of the sea. We have looked deep into outer space. We have split the atom. It is amazing that we have learned so much about our universe, but we have also come up against barriers. There are some things we can’t know, will never know.
If you have a taste for physics you’re probably aware of the uncertainty principle. Scientists can predict the position of an atomic particle or the speed at which the particle moves, but not both at the same time because one observation fundamentally distorts the other. This is the first example that comes to mind, but there are others. We can never know all there is to know.
Yet people fight and die because they believe they know the truth. Of religion, politics and sex, the most absolutist and the least amenable to reason is religion. Sexual mores are changing, politics swings this way and then that, but religion with its promise of a life to come has the strongest hold on the human psyche.
Almost nothing can be proved, not God, not life after death, not the existence of the soul. I do not deny any of these things, but I don’t expect others to see them in the same way I do. To do so is pure arrogance.
Faith works wonders, but gravity operates on believers and unbeliever alike. Of course, I could be wrong. Some yogis are said to levitate.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.