Thursday, February 7, 2013

Religion, Twitter, and Tolerance: What Can We Learn by Listening?

Two of the granddaughters of Westboro Baptist Church preacher Fred Phelps have reportedly left the church. One of these women, twenty-seven-year-old Megan, was profiled by the Kansas City Star about a year ago, and at that time she seemed fairly set in the dogma of her family's church, saying:
That there would be something or some person that would draw me away from this church, this place that (is) the only place that I’ve ever seen, in all my travels and all the places I’ve been and picketed, that I see people who serve God in truth. 
I don’t want to be led astray.
So what did lead her "astray"? A Twitter fight.

Okay. It wasn't really just a Twitter fight, but that does seem to have played a role in pushing a nascent doubt into action. I don't think we can ever really pick a "start" for the questioning of our own belief systems (as I think that questioning the world around us is really the definition of thinking, of living), but it seems that the catalyst for a particularly powerful snowball of doubt for Megan included arguing with detractors on Twitter and reading about religion and philosophy at a public library.


This story made me think about how important it is that we question our own ideas and avoid echo chambers. 

When confined to the walls of the Westboro Church, Megan had no reason to question the veracity of her family's claims. It didn't take much exposure to the world around her to start breaking cracks into those walls, to start illuminating a different way of looking at the world. 

If we only read and hear ideas that are already in alignment with the ones we hold, how can we even know which ideas we really hold? If you only hear echoes of your own thoughts bouncing back at you, how can you know that your thoughts deserve to be held onto at all? 

Last year I wrote about the day that I walked out of church

I didn't walk out of the church because I couldn't handle hearing ideas that weren't my own. I had already heard those ideas several times before, and I had already examined them. I walked out of church because they were handing out voters guides that they claimed were "un-biased" when they were full of homophobic, misogynistic language that was anything but. In short, I walked out because they were creating the worst kind of echo chamber of all: the one that pretends it's hearing other views. 

Listening to other ideas does not mean merely propping up strawmen versions of them and shooting them down with glee. Listening to other ideas means actually hearing them from the people who believe them. It's easy to decide that everyone else is a walking stereotype of hate and fear if you only view them through the lens of their opposition. 

I recently walked back in to church. 

The comments on that earlier post had several people suggesting that I check out a Unitarian Universalist church. It took me a while, but I took them up on it. One of their key principles is the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning," which is one of those things that I thought sounded nice in principle but wouldn't really be embodied by the congregation. As far as I can tell, I was wrong. 

It seems to me that this group of people is truly dedicated to hearing different ideas from the people who actually believe them and using them to form their own world views. They use the knowledge and passion of others to help them test their own knowledge and passion, and it seems that everyone is stronger for it. 

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." 

I cannot believe everything I hear in the world if for no other reason than that I hear conflicting ideas every day. You do, too. There are conflicts in our world because our world is large, complicated, and shaped by human perception. When we think we've found a simple answer, then we probably aren't paying enough attention. 

What I can do, though, is make sure I am willing to put every belief I hold to the test, that I am open to hearing ideas that are new or opposed. If I do that, I can go to sleep each night with the comfort of knowing that the ideas I have are the best that they can be. 

Even Twitter fights can make us stronger. 

Photo: pbyrne

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  1. We will attend a UU church once we're done dropping Holly's nap and can get to the family service at 11:15. I also love the religious education offered there for kids: at our local UU, they visit a mosque, synagogue, different Christian churches, and talk to them about their beliefs. I want my kids to have an understanding of religion that I didn't when I was a kid. From what I can tell, UUs really are that into embracing contradiction.

  2. I am a black female Southerner, doc student, wife, and mother. I stopped attending church about four years ago after hearing my third sermon against homosexuality in a two month period. My children were unhappy with the dogma and so were my husband and me. About six weeks ago, I stepped into a UU church and loved it. Even though I am one of about three African-Americans there, it felt like home. My tween daughter begs to go to church now. It's one of the best decisions I made in a while.

  3. My husband is black, and our daughter is biracial, and the lack of racial diversity is one of the things we noticed in the church, but we've felt very welcomed.

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