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I won’t “agree to disagree”

Last Sunday my friend “Sharon” came over to play some music. She is, in addition to being an excellent singer, a law student who is about to complete her studies. Resultantly, I enjoy her company because she is exceptionally witty, enjoys discussing things in depth, and knows her way around the finer points of a good argument. We hadn’t talked in a while, so before we started playing music we sat down to chat for a bit, and as I was telling her what was going on in my life, I mentioned this blog. She interrupted the conversation to ask what my definition of atheism was.

A few months ago, Sharon and I went out with some of her other friends to a bar, and she and I ended up getting in a very drunken debate over whether or not it was possible to know something to be true or not. My argument was that while absolute, unchanging truth may not be achievable, we could rely pretty well on provisional truth gleaned from examining evidence, and that while scientific truths were by definition mutable, it does not mean that some day all of science will be thrown out.

I should have known, or perhaps remembered, that getting into this kind of discussion was heading for a fight. What I should have done is moved off the question and start playing music instead. What I did, however, was tell her the simple definition of atheism – a lack of belief in a deity. What followed was was an hour-long fight (too heated to truly be called a ‘debate’) about Sharon’s entire epistemological framework, in which sincere belief was offered as a substitute for empirical proof. I will not detail the full extent of the woo Sharon believes, except to say that deism, reincarnation, and chakras all came up in the conversation.

At several points in the conversation, Sharon exhorted to me that we ought to simple “agree to disagree”, which I archly refused to do. At any point I could have acquiesced to what would, to a polite person, have been an entirely reasonable request. There are two reasons I repeatedly refused to accept this call for truce. First, because I am extremely stubborn when my back is against a wall – particularly when I am being accused of being dogmatic, arrogant, condescending and closed-minded for simply answering a question, and for refusing to eat bullshit and pretend it’s cherry pie.

The second reason I wouldn’t “agree to disagree”, either in this conversation or in others, is because “agree to disagree” is an incredibly lazy tactic. It ranks up there with “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” among the pantheon of dishonest and self-defeating statements made in lieu of actual argument. I cannot heap enough contempt on the idea of “agreeing to disagree”, but I will try to spell out exactly why it irks me so.

The argument could be useful, I suppose, if it meant no more than what it says – mutual recognition of a disagreement. Some arguments are intractable – issues of personal taste or the subjective importance of certain values cannot be resolved empirically. In an argument like that, once both sides have expressed themselves as clearly as possible, if there is still no agreement then there is nothing left to do but acknowledge there is a disagreement, and leave it at that.

That is not, however, the sense in which I most often hear the phrase “agree to disagree” used. What is usually meant is “we’re both equally right, both equally wrong.” It is an arch-liberal dodge, invoking the most ludicrous type of relativistic equivocation. If I am holding a flamethrower and you are holding a lit match, it is true that we can both start fires, but pretending that we can just “agree to disagree” about which is better suited to the task is nonsense.

Two positions, one demonstrably true and the other based on nothing more than feelings, do not share the same level of validity. If we can agree on some basic definitions like “true” and “evidence”, and if we can agree that it is important to have true beliefs rather than false ones, then we can and should examine different ideas. While it might be nice to pretend that this kind of dispute is simply a difference of opinion, it most certainly is not. I refuse to pretend that a poorly-argued position, based on straw men refutations of legitimate questions, holds sufficient validity to be granted any more respect than belief in aliens or the Loch Ness monster.

It would have been another thing entirely if Sharon had said “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” That is another kind of “agree to disagree” that I can support. In fact, at several points during the conversation I was prepared to drop the whole enterprise and play the music that was the intended activity that afternoon. Having your beliefs challenged and/or put down is certainly not easy to handle, and the conversation was certainly not so important that it needed to continue to a resolution. If Sharon had expressed a wish to change the subject, I would have gladly done so.

What she did instead was continue coming back to it, even after we initially dropped it altogether, so “agree to disagree” didn’t mean that – it meant “I want you to agree that my position has just as much merit as yours”, and I was certainly not interested in engaging in masquerading a clear true/false dichotomy as a simple difference of perspective. Truth is not established easily, and that’s a good thing. In a universe where an infinite number of explanations for a given phenomenon are conceivable, we must scrutinize and test to see which ideas are worth keeping and which can be discarded safely. “Agreeing to disagree” is simply asking to lump the good, demonstrated ideas in with the fanciful or debunked ones in the same of some misguided sense of fairness.

The other thing I really like about Sharon is that she is accustomed to argument, and despite feeling more than a little miffed at the way the conversation went, she came out to the open mic the next night to watch me play. She even brought friends. Despite my dicketry, all was not lost.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks, Crommunist, this does a great job of explaining my vague intuition that there was something untenable about “agreeing to disagree”. I completely agree that one needs to drop subjects when one’s interlocutor does not want to fight anymore. But the “agreeing to disagree” has always smacked of something unacceptably relativistic to me. Thanks for articulating what exactly that was.

  2. says

    I typcially take the agree to disagree option when one of the religious offers it. However, I add the caveat that the fact-based evidence supports my position.

    I understand that tactic wouldn’t of worked in your situation. Lawyers often mistake the ability of crafting a logically consistent argument with making a provisionally true assertion.

  3. Crommunist says

    I’m not trying to date Sharon, we just play music together. That being said, I have had some disastrous first dates with people who were seriously into astrology. Even a palm reader once. I think the only way to make that work is if theist belief is not a relevant part of the relationship, and becomes one of those things like snoring or leaving the toilet seat up that you just learn to deal with.

  4. Beth says

    I don’t think agreeing to disagree implies that each person agrees the other’s person’s argument has equal merit with their own. I think of it as recognizing that each person has an equal right to their own opinion, no matter how wrong it may be. I also think a request to agree to disagree is equivalent to asking to drop the subject.

    I’m not saying this is the only interpretation of this phrase, just pointing out that my perception of what that phrase implies is different from yours and they both have merit. I hope we can agree to disagree on that point. :D

  5. Enkidum says

    Yes to everything you said here. I’m sick of pretending that it’s ok to be an adult and believe… well, the shit that the majority of adults believe.

    That being said, my wife’s a big believer in TCM (see PZ’s post today), so there are times when, for strategic reasons only, I won’t argue further. But that doesn’t constitute agreement or acceptance.

  6. Crommunist says

    But the issue of whether or not someone has a right to believe in nonsense was never in dispute. At no point did I say “you’re wrong, and you are not allowed to be wrong”. I was very careful to point out the fact that I tried to drop the subject, several times in fact, and so “agree to disagree” was not a request for a subject change. We don’t have to agree to disagree, you just have to read the whole post.

    Thanks for your comment.

  7. alex fairchild says

    I don’t think the phrase implies that both viewpoints are right; the opposite in fact. Both parties strongly feel the other is off the deep end, so to prevent any further acrimony they agree to end the topic.

    Let’s just agree to disagree, m’kay?

  8. Crommunist says

    Man, it’s like people didn’t actually bother to READ the post, just skimmed through and looked at the pictures. I spend time painstakingly pointing out why this wasn’t the case at all in this argument.

  9. says

    I’ve honestly never heard a plea to “agree to disagree” except when someone was afraid they would feel offended by a disagreement if it continued.

    In this situation, I would agree to disagree only on the condition that your friend acknowledges that she has no basis for claiming any belief as factual knowledge (that she “knows” XYZ) without providing evidence and reasoning which supporting the factual basis behind such a claim.

    In short, she can’t say she “knows” something without providing evidence to back up that claim.

    Why? Because otherwise, it’s a lie. No matter how badly she may want it to be true, or how much it means to her, or how upset she gets, or how badly it offends her to acknowledge the reality of that situation, it’s still true: Claiming factual knowledge without basis is a lie.

    For pretty much anything else, I’ll agree to disagree because we’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.

  10. Crommunist says

    I would have been fine to leave it even without such acknowledgment. Our friendship is not based on shared belief, and except when she brings it up I don’t talk much about my atheism. But if you’re going to insist on a debate, then you can’t just pull “agree to disagree” out whenever you’re losing.

  11. savoy47 says

    “What I did, however, was tell her the simple definition of atheism – a lack of belief in a deity.”

    I have modified my answer to the question to: The only difference between an atheist and a person of faith is their belief threshold. An atheist needs much more evidence before they will believe something. It’s like pain; with some people it takes a lot more of it before they get to Ouch.

    It has worked well for me. I think it’s because the focus is on the nature of belief and not on the existence of a god. It is not perceived as an attack on their belief or their god. They don’t seem to adopt a defensive posture right out of the box and their ears remain open. But there are those that just want a fight no matter what you say, and I’m up for that too.

  12. Crommunist says

    That’s a better definition for a skeptic atheist than an atheist in general. I did my best to explain along those lines, to the point where she said “so you don’t believe anything unless it’s scientifically proven?” and I said that was more or less the case. I thought we had reached a point of mutual understanding, but then she kept going. Some fights can’t be resolved.

  13. Obstruct Tenet says

    Hey Crommunist –

    Good subject! I enjoy your posts, and this post particularly hits close to home. I have many friends with strong-willed, yet unsubstantiated beliefs.

    I have been using the FTB to learn and better understand my position regarding science and religion, and have also run into the “agree to disagree” shuffle. I do NOT agree with anything based on a belief system. My dogmatic friends say, “you believe in Science! What makes that any different that my belief in God?” My reply is I do not “believe” in science. Science is not a belief system. I apply logic, reason and best scientific principles to understand the world around me. Anything outside of observable, testable theory falls into a belief system.

  14. Crommunist says

    It’s pretty incredible when you read someone’s writing and say “that’s exactly how I’ve felt, but I didn’t know how to say it”. I get that all the time reading Tim Wise. It’s incredibly flattering to hear that my own writing sometimes triggers this response in others.

  15. tms says

    Hey Crommunist,

    I’m afraid that I disagree with your characterization of the phrase, “Agree to disagree”, at least in the way that I usually employ it.

    When I suggest that we agree to disagree, it is a suggestion to the effect that I hold the value of my relationship to the person in higher regard than I do my ability to win the argument, or “be correct”. Before you accuse me of not reading your post, I do agree that it can be used as a lazy debating tactic for gaining time to gather one’s thoughts, in which case, it is a disingenuous practice. In fact, in such cases, the person suggesting, “agree to disagree”, does not agree to disagree, they are only struggling with weak, or no, evidence.

  16. Crommunist says

    If it is used as a way to stop debate, that’s one thing. It still smacks of equivocation to me, but whatever – I don’t get to dictate tactics to the world. I have only ever heard it used in this kind of “there’s truth on both sides” way, which annoys me. There is a small subset of arguments where both sides have points that cannot be resolved – that is never the case for an empirical question like whether there’s evidence for reincarnation or chakras.

  17. Obstruct Tenet says

    I am new to non believing, and I am truly grateful for the blogs you and the others write at FTB.

    Critical thinking doesn’t seem to be as important to those that believe. I am baffled by my intelligent friends who still believe, yet agree with the sciences on everything outside of religion. They always have the final say – “you just got to believe!” Now I say – no…I do not have to believe.

    I understand your position on the “agree to disagree” statement in the context of your conversation with your friend. The statement was a cop-out to end the argument without stating one person is wrong or right. The statement allows her to walk away from the conversation feeling like you did not grasp her side of the story. You reject her belief system, and therefore do not agree on any level, her statements up to and including the “agree to disagree” comment.

  18. Brandon says

    Thanks for the post Crommunist, I couldn’t agree more and you’ve articulated an explanation for my dislike of “agree to disagree” better than I’ve ever been able to. Like you, I’m entirely fine with dropping a subject if someone desires to do so, but I can’t stand the “agree to disagree” out, which seems to always imply that the individual knows they’re right and you’re just not being reasonable. Of course, reasonable people won’t agree about everything, but I’m unwilling to agree to disagree regarding the value of 2+2.

  19. says

    I have always interpreted the phrase as “I recognize that further attempts to persuade you will be ineffective at this time”, not as a recognition there is no correct position (why would I argue against something I thought was incorrect?).

  20. tms says

    Exactly!

    “Since I concede that I am unlikely to change your mind, and you are as unlikely to change mine, let’s move on.”

    Isn’t it also a disingenuous practice to read ulterior intent into a statement that can be taken at face value? How could that improve on the communication of ideas?

  21. P Smith says

    I have personal rule for dealing with anyone who starts a discussion that might end in argument:

    “If you ask me my opinion on this topic, you agree not to criticize me or question it, nor try to convince me of your views. YOU asked to hear it, I didn’t bring it up.”

    Of course, it goes without saying that if I bring it up, then it’s open season on me if the other person wants to criticize.

    It doesn’t always work since there will always be dishonest cretins who raise a topic only so they can tell you theirs. But when dealing with the less zealous, it tends to be effective – either killing the conversation, or making them aware that they will be shut down if they try, that their point of view will not be listened to nor respected.

    .

  22. Dale says

    the moral of the story is – Being a smug self-righteous prick is OK if you believe you’re right.

  23. Crommunist says

    I suppose you’re as good a demonstration of that as I am.

    Unless you were hiding in my kitchen, you have no way of knowing whether I was smug or self-righteous during the conversation, but I always appreciate when canards get thrown around in the place of actual argument. Saves me the trouble of having to figure out whether to take you seriously or not.

  24. Brandon says

    That sounds like a rather effective way to yourself off from having ideas questioned. I don’t really follow why you’d have absolutely no desire to receive any critiques whatsoever on your opinions, unless you’ve set them forth without being prompted. Doesn’t that pretty much mean that you have to set the topic for every conversation that could potentially involve any disagreement?

  25. says

    Thank you for articulating one of the problems I have with that phrase. (on of the others being the wording. What, you’re going to not allow me to disagree? Agreeing on that point is meaningless, you have little control over how I see things.)

    It always comes across as incredibly patronizing: “Well, I still think you’re wrong, but since you’re being stubborn and won’t see the light, I guess I’ll have to accept that you are going to hang on to your silly wrong opinion. Aren’t I generous?”

    Which would explain why my first reaction to that phrase is “Yeah, how about we agree for you to go fuck yourself.”

    I also think the unfortunate tendency towards binary thinking to be part of it. “NO! YOU CANNOT DISAGREE WITH ME AND ONE OF US NOT BE WRONG”. Also the whole “two people enter, one person leaves” school of thought. There can be only one, etc., yadda. “Agree to disagree” isn’t a truce, or even a cease fire, ala “Can we drop this for now?” It’s a declaration of “you’re wrong, because I can’t be, but I’ll put up with your crap for the moment”. You know it’s going to come up again, and it won’t get better, or change, and it’ll still be war.

    It is good to see that she didn’t take it such that she didn’t want to be your friend any more. That’s all-too-common these days as well.

  26. Beth says

    Your welcome. I’m pleased to comment and I did read the entire post the first time.

    I don’t think you understood what I was attempting to communicate. “Agree to disagree” is often uttered in an attempt to end the dispute without either party having to feel they lost and move on to other subjects. It’s not that you were mistaken about your friends use of the phrase, merely that it isn’t always to be taken the way you are perceiving it. Honestly, sometimes I think people just like feeling offended and seize every opportunity to do so.

    So I guess I’ll just agree to disagree with your stance on the phrase and drop the subject now. :D

  27. Aquaria says

    You obviously haven’t lived in Texas, particularly East Texas.

    I’ve used the tactic for people in work situations who are rude enough to ask you things that are sure to cause trouble, namely the “What church do you go to?” question. Because the people who ask that manipulative scumbag question are looking for recruits for their churches so they can get gold stars with their genocidal scumbag deity.

    I don’t appreciate these assholes proselytizing to me, and laying down the law that way makes it clear that I won’t welcome the crap, up front. Because you have to be rude to these jeebus freaks, or they won’t get the fucking hint.

    Maybe you live in a place where this isn’t common–not all of us are that lucky.

  28. Happy Camper says

    It all comes down to the absurd postmodernist notion that every ones opinion carries equal weight.

    One of my favorite quotes from Dam Barker.

    “Faith is a cop-out. It is intellectual bankruptcy. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can’t be taken on its own merits.”

  29. says

    I don’t have as much problem with the phrase as you do, though I can see where you’re coming from.

    I think one of the main reasons would be that, as a geek and a gamer, the main places it comes up for me are where there is no absolute verifiable truth; where we have a source, but we’re arguing about the details between the lines, something beyond what the game, setting, or whatever defines for us (‘I think character X would do Y’, ‘I think this power is out of theme for Z, and/or it is just overpowered).

    The main other time I use it is when I just can’t be arsed to keep arguing with someone.

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