If you are unfamiliar with Bart or uninterested in his whole story, you can skip to about minute 15 for the part I’m highlighting here. The movie he is talking about is about him and his dad and their religious differences. Bart left his dad’s ministry work and became an atheist. He was a Humanist Chaplain at USC up until recently and is interviewing Ryan Bell who just took over that job. Ryan is also a former pastor.
The story Bart wants to tell is how people seeing the movie were not so interested in the reasons for choosing or not choosing religion, rather they enjoyed how a father and son worked to understand each other and discussed their shared values. He maps this on to the work they both do with young people.
In the secular groups they work with, people with different foundations come together and they aren’t interested in taking away their foundations, instead they want to know how that foundation generates their values. He lists three layers; the values, then the worldviews that generates them, then the reasons you adopt that worldview. The lowest of these is the reasons. It’s the least interesting and we often aren’t aware of why we believe what we believe, yet we spend a lot of time there.
Ryan points out it’s interesting to explore the reasons if you have the time and interest in philosophy and psychology, but that’s not essential to living a good a life. “You don’t need a master’s degree in philosophy to be a good person, thankfully, otherwise we’d all be a bunch of jerks.”
For many people, beliefs and identity are wrapped up, hard to separate.If you question why they believe something, they react as if you are attacking them, as if you are attacking who they see themselves as. This comes up when a value comes up, like how we treat children or should teens have sex or who should own what kind of gun.If instead of asking how they came to hold that opinion or why they hold it, ask, “how does your belief generate your value?” Like, what does Christianity make you want to do? Or, how does belief in some principle inform your political decisions? People can talk about that. They want to say how their beliefs function, not their validity or some logical explanation for them.
As Ryan says, we want people to explain their reasons when we are critical of their beliefs or actions. But when someone criticizes us, we find it hard to separate the reasons from our identity.It may not be satisfying to hear their story, and by definition, not logical, but it’s more likely you will find common ground with the values. When we meet someone we don’t know much about we find more success if we don’t go looking for foundational differences. We talk about kids and grand-kids and how we want to see them grow up healthy with an honest view of the world and to be able to explore choices and to apply their talents to maintaining and improving an open society so they can pass it along to another generation. You will eventually bump into those differences and some people can’t get past them, but this approach Bart and Ryan discussed seems more likely to lead to continued relationships with a wider range of people.
Ryan sums it up by thinking about his goal for life, how he will look back and judge himself. His goal isn’t to get people to have his same philosophical underpinnings. He’s not going to judge his accomplishments based on getting 87 people to adopt his beliefs. But he will think about the lives he’s touched and how that expanded into the world. He hopes his being alive will make some small improvement on the overall well-being of others.