My junior year of high school, I was a reporter for the school newspaper, The Oracle. (It wasn’t online back then; “online” didn’t exist for common people until I was out of college; when I was in college, e-mail was new-fangled.) I don’t recall what controversy prompted the assignment, but I was ordered to go interview one of our English teachers, Dr. Cognard, about whether she thought there should be prayer in schools. I was totally intimidated by this assignment, mostly because I was 16, she was the AP teacher, and she had a title other than Mr., Mrs. or Ms. I wouldn’t be in her class until my senior year, and she was as formidable once I got to know her as I feared she would be going into this interview.
The interview itself didn’t go well, and while she explained it to me several times, my head still couldn’t wrap itself around what she was saying, and I walked out of her office feeling completely moronic and certain she hadn’t answered my question.
She hadn’t, really, but in time, I did understand what she told me that day, which was that there was no debate to be had between people who thought there should be prayer in schools and people who didn’t, because faith couldn’t argue with logic, and logic had nothing to say to faith that faith would ever be willing to hear. I think her take on it was that there was no point in discussing it, because there was no hope that the two sides could ever come together on it. They weren’t even operating in the same spheres when they argued about it.
Twenty years later, I have to agree with her.
It’s not that a thoughtful spirituality cannot coexist with a rational mind; I absolutely believe it can and does for a great many. The problem is that what many people refer to as “faith” is merely culturally reinforced mental habit, a set of rules that they must follow, and not thoughtful at all. Thoughtfulness requires a certain amount of flexibility in your ideas, and a willingness to consider alternative viewpoints. Thoughtfulness is defined by questioning, not the lack of it. What some people call “faith” is merely rigidity, but it is rigidity championed and defended with the zeal of true believers.
I don’t really want to “discuss” anything if there’s no hope of anyone on either side learning something new, and when it comes to personal articles of faith (religious or otherwise), people are relentlessly resolute, whether you’re talking a belief in god, or a belief that racism and sexism and classism don’t exist, or a belief that our president is a Muslim Commie illegal alien. (I don’t know how that works; I’ve never heard of a Muslim Communist.)
On the latter point, I am continually astonished at how many people believe that. I understand ignorance; we’re all ignorant about something. What I don’t understand is willful ignorance, to the point of violent opposition, in the face of overwhelming evidence. But my teacher was right; when people are arguing from a place of belief, you cannot get through to them with facts, because they believe all your facts are fiction. And not only are they fiction, they are a special kind of malicious fiction, where everybody is trying to kill you and your family, or at least take everything you have, including your most cherished values and myths. People all over America are afraid that they’re going to be forced to be “Socialists,” when a) they already are, and b) it’s never going to happen. Jesus, even Russia isn’t communist anymore. The USSR is non-existent. People are afraid of ghosts of things they never understood in the first place. But when you try to turn the light on and show them it’s just tree shadows on the window shade, they just close their eyes and scream all the louder.
It is frustrating to me that other people cannot see what I find abundantly clear, like the idea that a person shouldn’t die just because they don’t have enough money to live. I have spent a fair amount of time trying to understand folks like this, trying to understand how you get through a seemingly impenetrable fortress of misapprehension leading to apprehension, and have come up empty over and over. And then I got the answer the other day:
And the answer is, you don’t. You leave them to throw rocks at the moon and you move on.