Presentation of an intrareligious disagreement in which the question is whether one should follow what other people do or their own beliefs.
Although the assignment requests a case of inter-religious conflict, I wish to address a religious conflict (could be intra or inter-religious depending on how religious is defined) that I am very often confronted with. In my entourage, people often have arguments around the question of sending children to follow religious instruction1 or not. This question often arises in couples of Christian background either of protestant or catholic faith. The conflict often starts when agnostic or atheist parents send their children to religious instruction and others (also agnostic or atheist) don’t. Sometimes one parent is of Christian religion but does not practice the religion and the other is an atheist.
I wished to use this example to further analyse the issue and values at stake and potentially find ways to address future discussions and conflicts. For the purpose of this assignment, I interviewed two couples who I know have differing opinions on the subject.
The conflict takes place between two couples who both had a Christian upbringing (husbands catholic and mothers protestant). Neither couple had gone to church since their adulthood. Both husbands had become atheists and the mothers agnostic. The discussion starts when one couple (X) says they are going to baptise their children and the other (Y) asks what the reason for this is as they do not believe in God, did not get married in a church and do not go to church. To this couple X replies that this is what they felt they should do and that is what people around them did. Couple Y reacted by saying that they should have thought this through a bit better and have an opinion of their own without having to follow others. And so the discussion went on along those lines.
After the argument, I interrogated both women and one husband separately to try and understand the reason(s) for their decision. I couldn’t talk to husband X as he was travelling at the time of the interviews.
The discussion and value positions at stake
Wife of couple X (in italic what the person says)
At the beginning of the discussion, the reason mentioned for baptising her children was to continue or repeat a certain cultural tradition and Christian upbringing. She had followed a Protestant instruction as a child and said she had taken the decision not to believe in God when she was an adult. By baptising her children and giving them a religious instruction, she would not enforce her adult belief on them but give them the choice to decide for themselves when they were grown up. She also said that her husband and she had chosen the protestant church because she had had a good contact with the minister of her parish.
One could ask why there is a need to impose a certain way of thinking for freedom of choice to be possible later. One could dispute that imposing nothing would be freedom of choice. Then again, one has to choose based on something. It would be like saying that one would not teach a child any language so that he would be free to choose later on.
After a while, she mentioned that she probably also wanted to baptise her children because of a certain fear. She was not sure what her fear was about but she did say she was afraid of not doing what one was supposed to do, of not doing the right thing. My feeling is that this probably also gave her a sense of security. Feeling that one does what is right meant to her that she was like most others like her family had been. One could think that the children are in the right place and also doing the right thing, the children will be safe by being baptised, that they have a place in the kingdom of God and will go to heaven if anything happened to them.
Further along in the discussion, she talked about the good times she had spent when she attended religious instruction. She had liked the play groups, the stories that were told, the people she was with and the people who taught her. She felt they were good people and she wanted her children to experience the same things as she had and to be part of this type of community. The fact that they had children also facilitated the contact with other members of the parish and helped them be part of a community. She also mentioned that respect and humility were important to her and that she felt these values would be taught and reinforced in her children’s education.
There is a strong value of belonging in what she says. She and her husband live in a big village just outside the town of Lausanne in Switzerland. I wonder if being part of a village, where people know each other and see what others do more easily, also encourages or obliges people to act as the majority. When one has children this becomes even more important because, through school and activities, one is in contact with more people. Talking to others and comparing oneself to them or children seeing what other children are doing also raises desires and questions. A working couple without children will probably not be in contact with as many people or not the people of the village in which they live. Colleagues at work are not necessarily aware of what one does in terms of one’s private life which is not much discussed in such an environment (at least in Switzerland).
Husband of couple Y
The husband had had a catholic instruction. He could not remember much of his catholic education but said he had loved singing in the choir. Today he says he does not believe in God as there is no explication or proof of his existence. What is “beyond” is simply what one cannot scientifically explain today. He does not feel strongly about religious instruction but would not go against it if his children showed an interest and wanted to attend. He said that at a certain age, for children to be integrated they feel they have to belong to a majority “be like the others” and not be different. If this could help his children feel like others he does not see why they shouldn’t be baptised and then confirm. According to him, when people send their children to religious instruction or catechesis, it is also giving them a sense of security as to life and death as they will find an explanation of death. He says that for a child to think there is heaven and life after death are much more reassuring than trying to explain that there is nothing after.
Here again, the notion of security and safety is highlighted through the reassuring explanation of life after death. The fact that he wants his children to be integrated and be part of the “norm” is also something very reassuring. No parent wants their children to be excluded from the group of friends or by the school. In fact, he is not far away from the what the wife of couple X said about belonging to a community.
Wife of couple Y
The wife of couple Y had had a protestant upbringing. She now calls herself agnostic but admits to still singing bedtime “religious” lullabies to her children as it reminded her of her childhood. She also catches herself expressing wishes to God in the shape of “oh Lord let them be safe” but says it is probably out of habit. She has many fond and good memories of her religious instruction as it started when she was very small when she went to spend time with her grandparents. Her grandfather was an Anglican vicar and her whole religious instruction took place in a fun and happy environment. Many bible stories were told; she sang in the choir and met her friends when she went to church. Interestingly, there is the same notion of security as one could see with the wife of couple X. Singing lullabies to children before they go to sleep, asking (even if out of tradition or routine) for angles to guard them while they sleep is also a quest, a wish for them to be safe and looked after.
She thinks that their children should have a Christian religious upbringing as it is part of the culture they live in and grow up in. When she talks about religious upbringing she does not necessarily mean religious instruction through attending catechesis at church as neither she nor her husband goes to church. However, if her children wished to attend she would let them but it is not something she would ask them upfront. However, she does not wish to educate them in the catholic faith as she cannot relate to it.
There is one thing that she values which are to carry through one's beliefs. She does not do things that are not thought through and when she does something she follows it through to the end. She has issues with people who are not consistent with what they think and say and their actions. If people are not consistent on this subject then they may not be consistent with other things in life. This makes her doubt the extent of trust she can have in them and the degree of reliability.
This is one of the reasons for the argument. As she is agnostic, she does not see why one should baptise children before they are even at an age where they can decide for themselves. Giving them a religious instruction upon their request or desire is a different thing. It is something one can enable, but it is not an imposition. One could debate that the entire education and upbringing of a child is made of impositions. The beliefs of parents of what is right and wrong, how one behaves, how one dress, eats and speaks or where one lives and goes to school can be considered as impositions.
Mediation strategies and actions
One of the first mediation strategies that can be considered is what was done through the discussions with each person individually. This enables each party involved in the conflict to have reflected on what happened and give a more detailed explanation of what they really meant. When doing this the mediator can get a better understanding of the thinking process that went on behind each couple’s decision and what the underlying reasons are. One also takes the emotion away from the issue which often prevents people from reflecting on and expressing their reasoning. This way reasons for misinterpretation and misunderstanding can be clarified.
This can also be applied to a group that is in conflict with another group whereby each group would be able to express and explain their point of view separately without the other group being present.
Deconstruction and definition
A second strategy would be to discuss the values at stake and deconstruct them. We often all know what the most used values mean and we all use them on a daily basis but it is not until we try and define them and take them apart that we realise how little we have thought about them. We all have values and very often value the same things such as security, friendship, honesty, loyalty. However, how we define these values varies from one culture to another and often from one person to another. If we take the example of friendship one person may define friendship as a relationship with a person they like and know and with whom they spend time together. Another person may define friendship as a relationship with somebody they have known for a certain amount of time, with whom they have common interests, who they would support in case of difficulty and who they could trust if ever in difficulty themselves. The fact that the definitions of the value labels differ can raise many unmet expectations.
When deconstructing a word or issue, the emotional side of the discussion is removed and the focus shifts to facts. The issue at stake is no longer the other one but the word or situation that one is trying to define. Doing this makes can make us realise that it is, in fact, the definition of a term or value that we don’t agree on and when one understands the other person’s definition, one understands how the misinterpretation started.
By actually asking each couple how they defined baptism or religious instruction, by challenging their definitions with the objective to get to the bottom of their thoughts one could have realised that the same words do not imply the same. Baptising their child for couple X meant more a quest for security, belonging to a certain community that shared and taught the same values that they considered as being important. It was not merely the search for God’s blessing of the child which was more what couple Y had in mind when they thought of baptism. Further discussing the words and concepts in question would enable each couple to reach a consensus on the word’s meaning or use different wording better suited for what they were explaining.
Deconstruction can be done if one of the people involved can distance himself emotionally from the argument to act as a mediator and not impose his way of thinking. In certain cases, this is not possible, and a mediator is needed to facilitate the discussion.
When people do not agree the focus is on what they don’t agree on and the discussion and argument can be never ending and lead to the end of discussions altogether. However, when the focus is shifted to highlight things that one can agree on, one realises that there are more things that we share than disagree on. In many cases, the discussion for integration and accepting others is showing and explaining differences. Very rarely does one talk about commonalities.
There was one example in my children's’ school where they learnt to say hello in the different languages that were spoken by the children in their class. They then learnt how things were done differently in the different nationalities present in the class and how they eat different food. It is good to learn that people are different but these differences were shown through this experience when children (especially children up to a certain age) do not even focus or see these differences until they are highlighted. I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be worth trying to focus on commonalities. I can think of an extreme case which is the genocide in Rwanda. Hutus and Tutsis lived together for centuries without any conscious feeling of being either Hutu or Tutsi. It was not until the colonisation when they were given identity cards indicating that they were either Hutu or Tutsi and were treated differently that their origins become an issue.
In relation to the religious instruction argument, one could try and highlight the notion or value of security and safety as this seemingly was important for both couples. By turning the discussion around the sense of security and safety that religious instruction could bring to both couples they could share their fears as parents or adults and explain why they would turn to the Church to find such security.
Discussion together and dialogue
Another mediation action can be dialogue. Through dialogue, I mean a discussion that would take place after the argument in an attempt to try and understand the other’s point of view and thought process. This could even lead to agreeing on certain points. This dialogue should not take place immediately after the argument as too many emotions may hinder the positive outcome of the exercise.
When trying to determine the reasons for an action and further discussing them one often understands that they are not what they seemed at first. In the example of religious instruction, the underlying motivations are not necessarily religion but the desire to have children be part of a certain community together with other children who share and learn a similar set of values. One then understands and knows more about the reasoning. What one knows and understands scares us less and are more receptive to differences.
Discussion with others
Discussing the divergence of opinion with others can also shed an entirely new light on one’s perceptions. Others can be people who share our opinion or people who have a totally different opinion altogether. Through what they say and how they reflect on the question may address a question that had not been thought of before.
It can also happen that through the exercise of explaining a situation to certain aspects become clear that one hadn’t even noticed. It is also through others’ views, opinions and questions that further questions arise that may well explain and put words on reactions, attitudes be they our own or the other one’s.
Each couple could be encouraged to discuss the conflict with others to understand other points of view and opinions. By explaining a conflict over and over again, aspects of the conflict surface that would not have been obvious before and a different light are shed on the situation. Depending on the extent of the conflict, the mediator could organise such discussion groups either with the Minister of the Church or other couples who went through similar thinking processes.
Although the dialogue is a good way of communicating, it is not the only way. Writing can be a very powerful alternative. When one writes down what started the argument and what we said during the discussion one may realise how emotionally involved we were. What we said could have been totally beside the point but had been triggered by a comment that made past experiences and feelings surface again. Writing takes away a great deal of emotion and helps structure one’s thoughts. In certain cases, one realises how little thought one had brought to the subject and that we needed to think about it more and take the others’ views into consideration. By simply writing down the facts and the sequence in which they happened one can even realise how very close we, in fact, were to what the other was saying but that we were so involved in what triggered our emotions that we did not hear them.
An additional step, but not necessary, could be to share what was written with the other party we had the conflict with which brings us to the last mediation strategy.
In our case, both couples could write down their perception of the argument and provide further explanations to what they said and what they thought they had heard and understood. They could exchange their “reports” so each couple to have time to read and understand the other’s point of view without the emotional context of when the argument took place. They could even realise that they both had totally different perceptions of what had happened.
Reading and Listening
One may not be totally emotionally detached when reading something from the person that we had a conflict with but there may be fewer emotions involved than when the argument took place. It is a different moment, a different time, and the reader had time since the argument to reflect and digest what had been said.
Certain paragraphs or the whole text can be read several times, notes can be made and time is taken to digest what has been written. The fact that one cannot reply immediately forces the reader to finish the text. This may not bet what he would have done in a face to face discussion. Often one interferes and does not let the other person finish what they were saying thus jumping to conclusions before waiting for explanations.
Listening is also a very powerful tool. By listening, and not reacting to what the other person is saying one has time to better analyse what is being said. It also enforces the notion of respect whereby the listener considers and is interested in what the speaker is saying. Through creating these impressions, they can also generate positive and constructive climate for further discussions.
In the case of a mediation effort for couple X and couple Y, one could ask them to read the report written by the other as explained earlier. Another solution could be to organise an encounter whereby, in turn, each couple would have to listen to what the other had to say and explain regarding the argument. During the explanation, the couple listening would not be allowed to talk. The same would then take place the other way round. Following the two rounds of listening and talking, the encounter would be ended for each couple to further reflect on what they had just heard. This session could, at a later stage, be followed by a dialogue between the two.
Although the two last mediation strategies and actions could be applied to the conflict in question and can be very powerful, I wouldn’t apply them myself. I would find it difficult to actually have to ask friends to write and read what had been said during the argument. However, I could well envisage a combination of strategies in one mediation session where one would start by listening to the other. As a mediator, having met with each person individually I would be able to guide the dialogue so that the couples understand what each one is really looking for when they want their children to be baptised and follow religious instruction or not.
After having further analysed the conflict, one realises how little is in fact related to religion itself and that the underlying values at stake are not religious at all. One also realises that what comes out in the discussion are apprehensions, fears or memories that people carry in themselves and that surface when certain decisions are taken or when arguments arise.
When somebody does not agree with what we do or what we say it can create a certain feeling of unease and insecurity. It makes us realise that our views of the world and of how things should be done are not universal. It shakes our assumptions and puts us outside our comfort zone. When in danger and when we don’t understand something or if it is too different to what we are used to, it creates a notion of fear. Claude Levy-Strauss illustrates this when he says that the most ancient attitude is to repudiate the cultural forms that are most distant to the ones to which we identify ourselves. We shiver and are repulsed in the presence of ways of living, of believing or of thinking that is foreign to us.
By putting certain mediation strategies and actions in place, one can encourage people to find solutions to try and understand what is at stake in a conflict and get to know, not only the reasons for the conflict but also what is in the individuals involved in the conflict.