How skeptics and believers can learn to hear each other

T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford who studies the religious experience of evagelicals, describes the day she went on a Christian radio program to discuss her book and research. Instead she found herself confronted about the state of her soul.

Her experience, she says, sheds light on how believers and skeptics talk past each other and how they might learn to connect.

She wrote about her experience in the New York Times:

So it was a shock to have my host grill me about the state of my soul. It reminded me that one of the things that makes mutual respect between believers and nonbelievers difficult is that there is a kind of line in the sand, and you’re either on one side of it or on the other. Skeptics do this too, of course. I remember a dinner party where I was explaining my work among evangelicals to a colleague, and her face grew longer and longer until she said, “You talk to them?”

The in-your-face confrontation makes it that much harder to connect. The more my interviewer pressed me, the more my faith — such as it is — grew strained. I had come to live (theologically speaking) in a messy in-between. My interviewer wanted clarity. The more he put me on the spot, the more I wanted to say that I shared nothing with him and that his beliefs were flimsy dreams. And the more I resisted, the more he just got mad. He was determined. I was exhausted.

Anthropologists have a term for this racheting-up of opposition: schismogenesis. Gregory Bateson developed the word to describe mirroring interactions, where every move by each side makes the other respond more negatively, like those horrible arguments with your spouse where everything you say makes the other person dig in their heels more fiercely….I think that schismogenesis is responsible for the striking increase in the number of people who say that they are not affiliated with any religion.

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