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.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!