I walk a different philosophical and religious path than many of the people around me. Though I enjoy a good discussion — even a good debate (so long as everything is kept civil) — on religion, ethics, spirituality, or philosophy, I sometimes keep my views in reserve. I suppose this has something to do with an effort to debate things in the abstract and for my discussion partner not to feel as if I am pushing what I think or believe, but I think there is also the caution of being sure my beliefs will be respected.

I’m sure we’ve all had to deal with disrespect or incivility at one time. My experience (at having my beliefs occasionally insulted) has led me to an observation.

There are, I think, two epiphanies that we as sentient creatures may have in our lives relating to our sense of identity, our sense of self. While the first is an epiphany that happens to us all, the second — the more abstract of the two — is not at all guaranteed. Unfortunately, when it comes to our ability to get along with each other or our ability to respect each other, the second epiphany is far more important.

The first epiphany is simply the awareness that develops in very young children as they come to understand that their parents, grandparents, or other care-givers are, themselves, individuals separate from the child. You can note this epiphany in a child’s growing independence. A child realizes that s/he is capable of making a different choice from mom or dad.

The second epiphany of existence is this: the understanding that everyone’s beliefs are, to them, as true as yours are to you. As my World Religions professor said, “No one goes to a false church to worship a false god.” Everyone believes to the best of their ability based on the evidence they have seen. Note that I didn’t say, “everyone chooses to believe….” This may range into the realm of presuppositions and the formation of beliefs, but it is enough to say, for now, that belief is non-volitional. One believes — or one does not — based on one’s presuppositions and the way they interact with the evidence one encounters. One might profess a belief that one does not truly hold, but when we are talking about the truth of what someone believes, those aren’t the sort of beliefs under discussion.

Where the first epiphany is a realization of the self, the second epiphany is a realization of the other. To put it another way, the first epiphany is a realization of the uniqueness of the self; the second is a realization of the commonness of the self. Not only are you separate from others (first epiphany), those others are separate from you (second epiphany). They are to be afforded the same respect, the same indulgence, the same tolerance as you would desire.

As I said, this is not an epiphany we might call “universal” (i.e., developmental, or had by all). Some people go through their lives believing not only that they are right, but that others choose to be wrong. How might this manifest itself? What might it look like in a discussion?

In its purest form, the disrespect is one of motive ascription. Here are some examples:

1) “You’re letting Satan do your thinking for you.”

2) “The Left [or, Right] wants to destroy America!”

3) “Do you have a God in your life, either the real one or a man-made one?”

Taken on their face, these statements (and others, below) employ some logical fallacies to make (or not, as it were) their point (straw man; dicto simpliciter; circulus in demonstrando; others). For now it is enough to see the ascription of motive in action, a clear sign that we’re talking about a failure of the second form: a failure to understand the truth of a person’s beliefs. In the first statement,  the subject is choosing to let Satan do his thinking. In the second, the motive is the whole point (and fails on numerous logical levels save for the rarest of cases, rare enough to render any warrant of generalization as a figment of the speaker’s imagination). In the third, the implication is that the subject of the statement would be aware that he worshiped a man-made god, that he chose to do so even knowing that it was man-made.

There are two other ways the disrespect might manifest, but as these other forms do not deal directly with the ascription of motive we might call them corollaries to the above. Both corollaries are more subtle than the pure form we examined, above, structured as they are to hide the barb of disrespect under an excusing layer (usually of ignorance). In the first category, the ignorance is beyond the means of the subject to rectify. Some examples:

4) “If you were in my tax bracket, you might think differently.”

5) “I hope God opens your eyes before it’s too late.”

Here, the insult is not in the ignorance, but rather in the inadequacy of the subject’s beliefs. One might not be able to, by feat, climb into a different tax bracket, but there is nothing inherent to that inability or ignorance that we’d call morally reprehensible. The subject is just poor and dumb, and the knowing of truth, simply beyond his reach. Similarly, until God sees fit to show you the truth, how could you be held responsible for your ignorance? Of course, with this statement we often see the subject still held responsible, for the statement rarely stays the way I’ve written it. It quickly takes the pure form of disrespect, ascribing to the subject motive, since (under some evangelical interpretations of Christianity) Jesus died for the world’s sins, but salvation is not universal. Perhaps to render God innocent of that disparity, the speaker might go further than statement 5, above: It isn’t that God hasn’t done enough to open the subject’s eyes; the subject must let God open his eyes, but he chooses not to.

The second corollary is like the first, but this time the ignorance lies within the subject’s ability to correct. Because of this, the insult is not only the devaluation of the subject’s beliefs, but also (and more pointedly) the ignorance, itself. Some examples:

6) “How could you believe [x]? Think of the kind of world you want to leave for your children.”

7) “You need to educate yourself about this…”

Obviously, most well-adjusted people take into account what they might do to shape the world of the future for the good of their children. And, before you might claim otherwise, realize that this is exactly the structure of the insult implicit in statement 6, above. The statement itself assumes the nature of the average parent (considerate of the world they want to leave for their children), a group that does not include the subject of the statement. The subject is derelict in his parental duties.

Statement 7 is even stronger, not bothering to hide the insult. Such a statement is hardly fitting in the context of constructive discussion.

Both corollaries fall short of the pure form of disrespect (injuring the beliefs of the subject by the ascription of motive), however, the net effect is the same. There is no self-reflection for the speaker’s beliefs, no acknowledgment of doubt or possibility of error. The speaker’s beliefs are the standard by which the subject’s beliefs are to be judged, without the awareness that, for the subject, the roles are exactly reversed. Though the delivery of the injury to the subject’s beliefs is different, the injury itself is the same, and so we have a clear violation of the second epiphany.

Just some thoughts I’ve been kicking around. Let me know if you agree, or have your own examples of breaking the second epiphany, or if you would frame yet another epiphany I haven’t mentioned here.

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