I have a dear, cherished friend who lives in Vermont, half a continent away. We knew each other way back when she was senior in high school and I was taking a year off before college. We would have those long, meaningful conversations that would last hours. We also smoked a lot of pot, which apparently made the conversations even more meaningful (if not incomprehensible to anyone else not sufficiently stoned!) We lost touch for about 20 years and finally met up again on Facebook in the past year.
Why are you telling me this quaint, if not banal, story? I will tell you why. She is spiritualist who believes in a god of sorts. I love my friend dearly, but I have to confront various forms of magical thinking in my friend while at the same time respecting and valuing the beauty, love and joy she brings me. I’m telling you this because I want to talk about how to not just talk to, but be friends with, believes.
My friend, Bre, is an artist, a spiritualist, psychology major, bi-sexual, polyamorist, and a fierce defender of the rights of others. I love her and cherish her more that I can say. Still, she has, what many of us would consider, some less than rational beliefs. She knows my position on magical beliefs well, having both read some of my writings on the subject and listened to me explain them to her.
She is stridently non-religious, but believes that there is a God who has spoken to her. She is a psychology major who has a clear understanding of psychologic conditions like delusions, psychosis and other conditions. In short, she is a walking contradiction of experiences and thinking.
We had a debate last night on the phone about our beliefs, or non-belief in my case. She started the conversation by saying that though she loves me dearly, she could never be in an intimate relationship with me because I am an atheist and she is spiritual. My response was that she should only become intimate with someone with whom she was totally comfortable being that way with. I also told her that I understood her point of view completely because I would find it difficult to form an intimate relationship with a believer because at some level, to be truly intimate with someone, there needs to be an intense level of comfort and acceptance. Something as important as a core world view concept such as belief in spirits and such would preclude my being able to have complete and total comfort with someone.
She also shared with me her story of when she was 14 years old and had decided to kill herself. She said to god, please show me a reason that I shouldn’t kill myself. She said that she felt a presence, which she identified as god, telling her that she was worth something and that she should be the artist she knew she was. That, for her, was proof that god existed. She understands that she can’t prove this to anyone else, but that it didn’t matter because this was real, important and valid to her.
But (and I know I should never start a sentence, never mind a paragraph with “but” but fuck convention!), and this is a very big “but”, I can still respect and value Bre and most of her beliefs and values. Just because we have this important difference does not preclude us agreeing on so many other important things.
We both agree on the basic human right of people to have any sexual identity they have (notice that I did use the word “choose” in there. But that is a subject for another post). We both believe that everyone has the basic human right to believe what they want to, as long as those beliefs aren’t harmful to themselves and other and as long as you don’t try to use your beliefs to tell others how to believe and live their lives. We both agree that owing dogs is way better than owning cats. What it comes down to is that we have many more things in common than we do differences. And that is a very important thing to realize in our relationships with others.
While we can disagree about the reality of her experiencing god, the fact that she experienced something profound and life changing is not in dispute. While we can disagree about the empirical existence of this god of hers, the fact that it is deeply meaningful to her is accepted.
Not once did she ever try to convince me that because god was real to her, god should be real to me, just as I never once tried to convince her that she should give up her belief in her god.
Now, you are probably wondering how our conversation ended up. The conversation was a long one and there was much defending of our respective positions. It also ranged into other related areas such as the theory of mind and the empirically of internal experiences. My basic, final argument was this.
As long as her belief was internal to her and she wasn’t trying to make others believe it, than it was ok. As long as her belief cause no harm to her or others, than it was her right to believe it. We found common ground upon which to continue our friendship, while agreeing to disagree about certain things.
In a wold full of people who hate one another just because of their beliefs, finding the things we have in common and agreeing to disagree on others is possibly the only way we can continue to live together as a human race without destroying ourselves with hatred born of prejudices based in differences of beliefs.