Saturday, June 4, 2011

Wrong vs. Stupid

I’m going to take a break from my comments on Daoism to discuss something that concerns me about some personal interactions I had.  The interactions are not necessarily recent, but I drew the conclusion only recently.

The first interaction took place during a summer internship.  I was having a discussion with an intern I’ll call Mary (not her real name) about another intern, who was a devout Catholic.  Mary commented that the other intern seemed to think that Protestantism was wrong, which made her feel awkward.  (Mary knew I was a Protestant.)

Me:  Well, I’d hope he doesn’t believe Protestantism; if he did he shouldn’t be Catholic.

Mary: But I think he doesn’t just think Catholicism is right for him; he seems to think it’s right for everybody.

Me:  I’m sure he does think that, but it doesn’t offend me that he thinks I’m wrong.  I’d only be offended if he thought I was stupid or didn’t respect me.

Mary:  But how is it possible to think someone’s religion is wrong and not disrespect them?

Mary and I had talked about my belief in absolute truth in religion before, but it seemed like she still didn’t understand my position.  I thought for a moment about what I knew about Mary.  She was politically conservative but very open-minded and regularly read books she disagreed with to see what she could learn from them.

Me:  It’s the same way you might respect someone who’s a socialist.  You think they’re wrong in their political views, but they may otherwise be really smart, and you might even be able to learn from them in other areas.  Similarly, I can think someone is wrong about religion without thinking they’re completely stupid.

A look of comprehension dawned on Mary’s face, and she said, “Oh, that makes sense.”

In contrast to Mary, I have another friend who I’ll call Brian (not his real name either).  Brian has a tendency to get into arguments with people on the internet.  Before I go on, I should admit that online discussion boards scare me.  They tend to quickly turn into heated arguments that go around in circles while both sides rehash the same arguments and neither side actually listens to what the other says.  I realize that this is not true of everyone on these sites, but there are enough angry, argumentative people to stress me out and convince me to use my time another way.

Brian, like Mary, is politically conservative, but he tends to have more or less the opposite attitude toward those who disagree with him.  He tends to take his political and religious views very seriously, and unfortunately becomes overly upset by the people he argues with.  Although he is very nice under most circumstances, when political or religious issues come up, he sometimes turns into one of those angry, argumentative people who turned me off of internet discussions in the first place.

In defense of Brian, his argumentativeness is caused by a commitment to truth.  He believes that his views are true and that false beliefs have negative consequences.  More importantly, he sees the arguments for his views as conclusive, which he thinks means that people who disagree with him are denying the facts, either out of stupidity or just from blindly believing what they have been told.

Even though their actions were completely different, I think Brian and Mary ultimately made the same mistake.  They both failed to separate the issues we were discussing from the people who held opposing views.  They concluded that, at least in dealing with certain issues, thinking someone was wrong meant thinking they were stupid.  Mary was so concerned with respecting people that she was unwilling to think they were wrong.  Brian was so concerned with the truth that he said they were wrong and then concluded that they were stupid.

I think there should be a middle way in relating to people.  We need to recognize that even smart people occasionally make mistakes, and sometimes even make mistakes about very important things.  I think we need to address those mistakes and confront the people who make them, but we can’t afford to forget that there is a reason that religion and politics are some of the most divisive topics of conversation.  They are very important but also very complicated.  The people we are talking to may simply have overlooked, or not been exposed to, an argument.  We should have the humility to recognize that we might be wrong and the grace to recognize that other intelligent, intellectually honest people may also be wrong.  As my father says, “I’m absolutely sure that my theology is wrong on some points.  I’m just waiting to find out which points those are.”

On the other hand, these issues are important, and there is a true answer.  Knowing the truth is important, so if you believe that your view is true, the most loving thing you can do for someone is to show that to them.  Just make sure your tone and attitude show that you are acting out of concern for them, not hostility or arrogance.  Otherwise no one will be convinced, either because they won’t know what you believe or because they’ll be so turned off by your attitude that they won’t take you seriously.


  1. My pastor recently posted a beautiful blog post with a similar point: