Recently I was having a discussion with my wife, where we reached a difference of opinion. We were talking about Rick Warren earlier and I was complaining his interview with Sam Harris a few years back. I basically was frustrated that Harris (who I admire for his clarity of thought) comes across articulate and non-crusading, versus Warren, who is argumentative and somewhat belligerent.

I find Warren’s status  interesting. He gets lumped in with a lot of evangelical Christians but makes himself out to be part of this paradigm shift, where traditionally conservative leaders break away on select issues like social justice and global warming. But, ultimately, he retains his evangelical-cred by sticking with the “gays are bad, atheism is totally foolishness, abortion’s wrong,” etc. And I find this attitude disheartening. Not that I disagree with his opinions, but really the way he presents them.  Now, this is where my wife had an objection. She said, when asked or challenged with what were basically deal-breaking questions like “is abortion wrong” or whatever, that people should be resolute and firm; just give a simple, direct answer to a simple question.

But it’s not a simple question, I said. Why is somebody asking you that in the first place? They probably have one of three reasons:

1. “I have my own strong opinions on this issue (articulated or otherwise) and I want to see where this person stands. Are they with me or against me?”

2. “This question has personal relevance to me and I want to see how this person would judge me based on my opinion. Are they against me or with me?”

3. “I have no idea what to think and I just soak up other people’s opinions like a sponge.”

Granted, that last one is probably pretty rare, but the first two have a simple commonality. It’s all about putting people into groups. Is this person part of my in-group or are they in the out-group? How should I react to them? In the first case, someone’s personal feelings may be based on a long prejudiced or a highly reasoned argument, but either way, it’s typically ingrained so well that they ask as an “argument-check.” Like one experience I had, where some fundamentalists asked me “Did you vote for Obama in the last election?” A simple, concise, way to know whether I was an ally or a foe. Honestly, I’m usually not interested in participating in these throwdowns; either Point A is true or its false, and I’m not interested in fighting with someone else’s conception of what IS AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON because it just wastes everybody’s time, makes us upset, and then we dislike each other even more.

The third reason is unfair; people should determine what they believe for themselves. There’s an axiom in film-making: “Show, don’t tell.” Why are we so compelled to tell people what we think the truth is instead of living it day by day? And even then, we must be humble and remind others (and ourselves) that we’re only human.

But the second case is the most relevant to this post; if we are going to share ourselves honestly and openly, we have to address people as people without making blanket statements and generalizations, and not assuming that everyone who disagrees with us is some part of homogeneous group that loves to cavort in whatever we consider evil (“all atheists hate God and have no morals!!!”).

People have personal experiences that are more complicated than our basic assertions; to answer them we have to understand the question. Why are you asking that? What is the issue at heart? Is it because of something you’ve experienced in the past, or because of a preconception about someone else, somebody other than me? This is a lot harder than just slamming out an absolutist YES or NO. Single syllable answers don’t create relationships and simplify what are deeply important topics to others. While some can gloss over an issue they are unfamiliar with (for instance, people against interracial marriage who have never really known an interracial couple), it does us no good to remain arrogant when a human being with issues and a life of their own is staring us in the face. I won’t answer a yes or no question if I can help it, because it doesn’t do me or the person who asks any good.