Disagreement is life

Libby Anne did a great post on disagreement the other day – on the value of it, and especially the value of being allowed it. She hasn’t always had that, you see.

Growing up on the line between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, in a family influenced by the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, disagreement was not allowed. Or to be more specific, disagreement simply did not happen. I have to be completely honest, the first time I learned that mainstream couples are okay with not agreeing with each other on everything regarding religion or politics I was shocked. Coming from my background, that made no sense. 

As a child and teen, I never disagreed with my parents, or with my church. Why would I? What we had was truth. When I reached college and began asking questions, my parents and my church had no ability to agree to disagree. Why? Because if I disagreed with them, then I disagreed with truth, and that meant I was flat wrong.

And that means you can’t find anything out for yourself (you can only be told things), and you can’t explore.

This is similar to the feeling of claustrophobia and exasperation I always have when religious apologists talk about the questions that science can’t answer but religion can.  No it can’t. The answers religion gives aren’t answers; they’re pseudo-answers, and dead ends. They’re not fascinatingly complicated and difficult, they’re short cuts.

When you believe you have absolute and final truth, and that having that truth is necessary to keep you from eternal torture and send you to the bliss of heaven, you lose the ability to agree to disagree. You also lose the ability to look beyond what you have and consider other ideas.

This was one of the biggest problems I faced when I started to question the things I’d been taught. Disagreement was not accepted. It was not okay. It could not be tolerated. This put me on a collision course not only with my family but also with the friends I grew up with and the church I grew up in. I had gone from one of them to an outsider overnight.

It makes me twitch just to think about it. It’s the death of thinking, and I can’t stand that idea.


  1. Brownian says

    The answers religion gives aren’t answers; they’re pseudo-answers, and dead ends.

    At best, they’re useless what ifs: “What if there was a God who arbitrarily defined some rules the breaking of which meant eternal torture, but still somehow had to be the definition of good? Describe what would happen if you wore a condom.”
    “That’s stupid.”
    “Wa-a-a-ah! No fair, you’re not playing the game right.”

  2. says

    Or… “Where did you get your degree in philosophy(theology, whatever)? Don’t have one? Your view is invalid and you’re ignorant!” Simple ways to silence, rather than to actually listen to, internalize, and then discuss what the other person is saying.

  3. Nathan Sinclair says

    Is it just me or is there a kind of tolerant relativism being quietly advocated in the post?

    Agreeing to disagree doesn’t mean not believing in ABSOLUTE TRUTH and that at least one of us is FLAT WRONG.

    When any two people disagree at least one of them is flat wrong.

    What’s important isn’t to deny that some people are flat wrong, nor to dismiss the issue as unimportant, but to admit that we aren’t certain who’s wrong and who isn’t.

  4. Robert B. says

    @ Nathan Sinclair:

    I read it as being less about truth values and more about cognitive process. Absolute truth theoretically exists. (In other words, the universe is itself and we can only become correct by matching our beliefs to it.) But if you think you know absolute truth, or that what someone else thinks is “flat wrong,” you stop looking at evidence. When you stop looking at evidence, your mind stagnates and your knowledge departs (exponentially?) from accurate. This, I think, is what the post was so vividly describing as “claustrophobia.”

    In other words, the right thing to do is to accept “absolute truth” and “flat wrong” as valid philosophical constructs, but then completely ignore them in your everyday life. If you ever decide you have identified either one in the real world, it can only end badly for you.

  5. says

    @Nathan – Robert is right. Believing you have absolute truth and there is nothing more you can learn is about closing your mind rather than opening it. It’s not that there isn’t truth out there, and it’s not that we can’t be fairly certain we have it. Also, if you go to my blog and read the whole thing you’ll also see the point is that this sort of thing should not tear a family apart. Just because you believe you’re right and someone else is wrong shouldn’t mean a rejection of that person, and that is what you often see in evangelical and fundamentalist religious circles.

  6. Sam C says

    Nathan Sinclair:

    When any two people disagree at least one of them is flat wrong.

    What’s important isn’t to deny that some people are flat wrong, nor to dismiss the issue as unimportant, but to admit that we aren’t certain who’s wrong and who isn’t.

    Wow! That’s a strange view. It’s possible to disagree and neither or both persons are right (or wrong). How about disagreeing on “Joe Montana was a better quarterback than Dan Marino”? OK, that’s trivial, but what about “it’s good to give a quarter of your income to the church”? Or “Newt Gingrich would make a better president than Rick Santorum”?

    On some questions both are wrong: arguing between the doctrines of transubstantion and consubstantiation of the eucharist at communion might be important to some and a distinguishing feature of different cults of Christianity, but ultimately it’s absurd because it’s still just a piece of dry bread with a guy in a frock saying some words over it.

    On the existence of gods, most of us are pretty certain: they don’t exist. Anybody who has useful proof of the incorrectness of that is welcome to present it. In fact, yooohooo!! Goddd!! why don’t you do something to demonstrate it? What do I hear… silence? Whoops. Looks like he doesn’t exist. Or is perhaps too busy doing… er… what? Not a lot.

  7. Kevin says

    On matters of fact, there is generally only one right answer. Aaron Rogers won the NFL Most Valuable Player award, Drew Brees did not.

    On matters of opinion, there is no such thing as a right answer. Eli Manning is a better quarterback than either, because he won the Super Bowl. (Most would disagree with that, but it’s a rational logically supportable argument.)

    What Libby is talking about is neither matters of fact, nor matters of opinion. She’s talking about decisions made for her about her everyday behaviors. “We’ll go to this particular church at 8 am, dress in this particular manner, behave in this way, read this book, avoid these people, seek health care in a particular way (or not).”

    It’s about control of others’ bodies and the subjugation of their minds. Not about whether someone is “right” or “wrong” about a fact.

    And in those instances someone can be right for the wrong reasons. No, Libby, you’re not going to date the meth-dealing biker because [choice A] it’s a bad idea to associate with people who will get you addicted, imprisoned, or dead, versus [choice B] Jesus says it’s a sin and since I’m the alpha male in the family, I get to control your behavior.

  8. JoeBuddha says

    @Robert B.:
    As a godless Buddhist, I might put it a bit differently:
    It’s perfectly OK to look for truth, as long as you never find it.

  9. Robert B. says

    @ JoeBuddha

    Not just OK. It is excellent to look for truth and never find it. I recommend it to everyone.

  10. carpenterman says

    “Death to thinking” I agree… I can’t think of anything more abhorrent.
    And as for searching for the truth and finding/ not finding it; finding the truth is always the point of searching. The wonderful part is, no matter how hard you look, you’ll never find it all. There is so much to know, so much to learn, that a person can spend a lifetime discovering just a tiny piece of it; and it would be a life well spent.

  11. piero says


    As a godless Buddhist, I might put it a bit differently:
    It’s perfectly OK to look for truth, as long as you never find it.

    Personally, I believe you are referring to Truth with a capital “t”, which is in my opinion a metaphysical, and hence unitelligible, concept.

    In science, “truth” always means “truth in a certain range”. All concepts are fuzzy, and fuzziness could be a fundamental property of the universe. For example, from what height would you have to fall in order to make sure that you die? Some people have survived 300 ft falls (admittedly, with some help from canopies or car roofs); others have died after slipping on a banana peel. So there is a range of values for lethal heights. Nevertheless, we can be quite sure that no-one will ever survive a fall from 2,000 feet. So even if we cannot specify the “true value” of the lowest lethal height, we can specify a lower bound.

    What is Truth with a capital “t”? So far I have received only vague answers, like “the ground of all Being” or “the fundamental principle of continued and renewed transcendece”, or “om” or even “unask the question and you’ll know the answer”. Deepities. Bah!

    We live in statistically deterministic universe, and that implies that free-will is but an illusion. Hence, I could not possible welcome disagreement from Phelps or similarly obnoxious people who regard homosexuals as an abomination. They are just wrong, and that’s that.

    We usually picture disagreement in the context of a reasoned discussion about deep questions between intelligent people who have thoroughly considered the issues involved. In most cases, however, the situation is intensily asymmetric: on this corner, Ophelia Benson; on this corner, Fred Phelps. Come on!

  12. says

    `no ability to agree to disagree’

    Once in a discussion with a couple of JWs who had come knocking at my door trying to make me a creationist, they tried to end the conversation by agreeing to disagree. I pointed out that scientists never agree to disagree. This surprised them very much. I said that scientists analyse the disagreement until they find its core. And then what do they do with it? The JWs had no idea. They turn it into a research proposal and eventually it ends up on the desk of some poor sod of a PhD candidate who does the work and finds out what really happens. Some times it turns out that one of them is right, sometimes the other, but very often it turns out that both are wrong and the real world is much more interesting than anyone knew.

    This seemed to frighten them. For them, if A disgreed with B then one was right and the other wrong and the idea that it was possible to find out which was completely foreign, and the idea that both might be wrong was inconceivable.

    (They were also under the impression that people went to scientific conferences to hear things that were familiar to them. I tried to point out that the opposite was the case; that if a conference didn’t present a lot of new insights and information it was considered a dead loss, but I don’t think they believed me.)

  13. Robert B. says

    @ Keith Harwood

    That’s how scientists like it to happen. In practice, sometimes the necessary experiment can’t be performed. String theory and supersymmetry have been kind of staring grumpily at each other for some years now, for example, because we can’t yet perform the study that would resolve the conflict. But string theorists and supersymmetry theorists don’t have horrible screaming matches and kick each other out of physics. The worst they do is ask each other evilly difficult questions at conferences. In other words, they continue with (approximately) cordial relations despite a conflict of ideas – they agree to disagree.

  14. Nathan Sinclair says

    gday, I don’t know the conventions here, so I apologise for responding to comments on my comment if we are meant to focus directly on the article.


    I did read your whole article, and there is so much I agree with you about. It is about making family life work for everyone. I used to think that I wanted to parent in a way that was always open to discussion, and would only involve commands that could be defended by reasoned argument. Now I have a ten year old who argues about everything, I begin to think I want a more balanced approach. There is so much I celebrate about your approach – I just focused on the part I disagreed with.

    I wanted to make sure we could agree that we could achieve and embrace the kind of diversity and disagreement that you were celebrating WITHOUT having to accept a kind of relativism, or “no-one really knows anything” approach. I think I want the same thing you want, but I want to make sure I’m not paying too high a price for it.


    On a couple of other issues:

    Sometimes we do find truth: on the 10th of feb 2010 I have two legs and ten toes, not 10 +/- 2, but precisely 10.

    For what its worth I believe that all there is to truth is the truism ” ‘x’ is true if and only if x” (replace x with any sentence of your choice). This is not a deepity, its a shallowity.

    On “Joe is a better quarterback than Dan” or “Newt is a better president than Rick” or “strawberry is better than Vanilla”. The very fact that there is no absolute truth about these matters (as presented) is what makes me believe that these are personal preferences being deceptively packaged up as objective truths. “I like strawberry better than vanilla” is as objective as could be (if we flesh in a few details). My slogan here is “Own your own values”, stop trying to foist them on the world or blame god for them, just admit they are your values rather than a feature of the external world.

  15. Dave says

    Truth – the word and concept ‘truth’ – is always more than any specific collection of known and attested facts. It carries the connotations both of the coherence of that collection, and of the meaningfulness of that coherence. So there are always at least two layers of implicit additional significance between saying ‘X is true’, and ‘X is the truth’. ‘Truth’ strongly implies that there is a meaningfulness to the ‘true-ness’ of what we claim.

    That’s why ‘the truth’ is actually a very difficult concept to deploy in argument – by the very nature of the word [which we would doubtless have to attribute to the heritage of thousands of years of religious thought in our syntactic development], it asserts profundity; it’s a closer, not an opener.

  16. says

    Nathan, no that’s fine – sure you can address commenters’ comments. (If the thread goes way off topic and I ask people to bring it back, then sticking to commenters’ comments may be a mistake, but that happens very seldom.)

    “But string theorists and supersymmetry theorists don’t have horrible screaming matches and kick each other out of physics.”

    So not like The Big Bang Theory then. Not that Sheldon manages to kick Leslie out of physics, but he would if he could.

  17. piero says


    My slogan here is “Own your own values”, stop trying to foist them on the world or blame god for them, just admit they are your values rather than a feature of the external world.

    I disagree. What you’ve stated is practically the moral relativist manifesto. I certainly won’t blame god for my values (though I’d rather use “desires” instead of “values,” but that’s another discussion), but I will try to foist my values/desires on the world if, after careful rational consideration, I come to the conclusion that foisting them could help reach a higher point in the moral landscape.

    Of course, I don’t mean that forcing anyone to adopt my desires is a good thing. Indeed, that would defeat my purpose. But expressing my views and trying to convince others is legitimate, even if I do it as forcibly as I can.

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