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Thou Shalt Reeducate Thy Neighbor

Every year, my family visits my grandparents in Florida and spends a week or two on the beach and in the ocean.

Every year, my favorite thing to do is walk along the edge of the water looking for the little black shark teeth that I’ve been collecting for years. My younger cousin once asked me why they were black. I explained that they had been fossilized over millions of years, the white bone slowly being replaced with dark minerals. My aunt and grandmother cut me off and demanded to know where I’d heard such stories. They were angry with me. I was asked not to say these things in front of my cousins. When my family returned home from vacation, we started receiving a monthly Young Earth Creationism magazine addressed specifically to me.

I was surprised. I was raised as a Christian, and I was raised to be tolerant of other people’s views. My parents stressed the importance of listening to different beliefs without trying to change them to match my own. I am a member of the most widely accepted religion in America, and I grew up in a heavily Christian small town. No one had ever told me outright that my religion is wrong. So I was amazed that when someone finally confronted me to try to change my beliefs, it was someone who attends my church every time they’re in town.

This argument has raged since Darwin’s theories were published. Each side points to inconsistencies in the other in an attempt to prove their own superiority and truthfulness. Each side accuses the other of teaching false information to our youth and leading them astray. One side says that if you do not adhere to their specific beliefs, you cannot be truly Christian. The other says that if you do not support their views, then you are ignorant to the facts in the world around you.

This intolerance seems ironic when one of the core tenets of the religion is love and understanding for your neighbors. The problem is, when you dismiss a person’s beliefs as false and blasphemous, you are attacking not only the person themselves but also the way they were raised. You are saying that you were raised and educated correctly, and thus they should take your word and learn from you. You are placing yourself in the superior position, and then trying to explain why your view is correct. But now the other person is on the defensive side, faced with disdain for their views. Chances are, they are no longer interested in hearing justification. They are now only interesting in proving the value in their own beliefs, protecting themselves from this attack. The conversation has turned into each person standing on either side of a gorge, throwing facts and quotes across the gap like rocks at the person on the other side. There is no connection between them. None of the information actually makes contact because neither side is focused on catching the rocks; they are only focused on staying standing longer than the person on the other side.

Nothing is gained from this debate. There is no real discussion because the focus is not on understanding or gaining knowledge. Christianity centers around kindness, mercy, understanding, and compassion, but this division shows none of these traits.

I still visit my grandparents every summer, and several times I have approached my extended family to try to talk through this difference. The first few times they happily provided me with a long lecture. Other times it devolved into an argument. Later on, the topic was avoided entirely. This seems to be the trend in this debate; it is either one-sided, or it is competitively two-sided, or it is completely ignored. None of these outcomes are remotely helpful in closing this gap between people who should feel unified in the beliefs they do share.

The only way to bring these opposing sides together is to approach the problem differently. It should not be a match or competition. At the end of the discussion, there does not need to be a drastic change in the beliefs of either party. What matters is that both parties have been made to think about their own stance as well as the other. If both sides can emerge from the conversation with a greater knowledge of the other view, without animosity or offense, then this is a step closer to understanding. This gap can be closed, so long as we stop throwing rocks across the gorge and start building the bridge from both sides.

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