“You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into” (Jonathan Swift, 1721).
This quotation informs as to why, when we discuss politics and religion, we can’t seem to come to an agreement. Instead, these topics usually end in arguments and anger. Afterward, most participants are more convinced than ever that their viewpoint is correct.
As an example of this, I had a discussion about politics with my 94-year-old aunt during a recent trip to Montana. She got angry and decided to drop the subject. Later, we had a discussion about our differing religious views. We were able to disagree without anger. I noted the irony to her that we could discuss religious differences calmly but couldn’t do the same with politics. Her response was that she didn’t get angry about politics, an argument I chose to remain silent on.
Why are religion and politics often considered forbidden topics in polite conversation? The answer comes from Swift’s quote. Most of us believe what we believe because our parents believed it and we simply absorbed their views as we grew up. Reason played no part. They became our “truth.”
Some of us rebelled against our parents’ views and came to hold contradicting positions, but the truth of Swift’s insight still holds true. Very little of what we believe is based upon reason.
Before Benito Mussolini became a fascist, he was a communist. He changed what he believed, but his absolute certainty and dictatorial treatment of others continued in his opposing viewpoint.
So, how can anyone know whether they are living examples of Swift’s assertion? I have a theory to consider. If you find yourself involved in a heated discussion about politics or religion, ask yourself whether you can take a stance of curiosity toward the other person’s view. If you find yourself, instead, attacking the person, or deflecting the argument by creating a “straw man” which distracts from the original argument, then Swift’s quotation applies to you.
On the other hand, if you can change your point of view when confronted with contradictory information, then Swift’s truism is not in play.
When I joined a cult in my late teens, I joined because, based upon my naive understanding, the cult’s arguments made perfect sense to my young mind. Mainstream culture was in tumult at the time. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution brought on by the birth control pill, and the feminist movement are four examples of the cultural confusion. I was looking for absolute certainty through religion that I couldn’t find in American culture.
How was I able to leave the cult? When I started studying history for my master’s degree at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, I came to realize that what I had so gullibley accepted out of ignorance made little sense in the light of a more nuanced knowledge that came from studying all the varying views. One example that deeply affected my thinking was the study of the theories of the cause of the Civil War. There were multiple points of view, all having historical examples to support their positions. Most were plausible.
I found I was growing smarter because I was confronted with contrasting positions. Intelligence can be increased by presenting others with varying views that force them to compare and contrast. I had to give up my bipolar thinking in the light of multi-polar arguments. I’ve used that approach as a teacher and as a parent. Providing others with contrasting views both humbles us and at the same time makes us aware that no one’s arguments are without weaknesses and unexplained questions.
Most religious and political arguments today adhere to Jonathan Swift’s observation: “You cannot reason someone out of something that they were not reasoned into.” There is a solution, though: listen to others’ arguments and be willing to see the flaws and weaknesses in your own beliefs. Let the contradictory information work on you to make you smarter.
Remember, “Only by pride comes contention: but with the well advised is wisdom” (Proverbs 13:10).