Can you truly be friends with someone you totally disagree with?
by Daniel Fenn-Tye
We live in an age of ideological opposition. The same could equally be said of any other time in human history, but it is perhaps now the case that a person’s ideology affects their day to day existence more than ever before. We are constantly picking sides in ideological debates, tagging and naming ourselves as for or against, pro or anti and all the while broadcasting our membership to these groups on social media.
The internet has allowed us to be more engaged, more informed and above all more vocal about our beliefs; it has enabled us to see more easily what other people are thinking and align ourselves with those we consider to be in the right. I think we would all agree that this is, in general, a good thing.
However, an unlucky consequence of our new, politicised online existence is the now infamous “echo chamber”.
Every cultural commentator and their mum won’t stop going on about how we all live in safe, little online bubbles, being spoon-fed only that which will reinforce our pre-existing world-views, and how it’s ruining all our lives. Unfortunately, as annoyingly pervasive as that particular thought has become, I think they are right. I believe there is, however, something I think more damaging than our online echo chambers, and that is our real-life ones.
University is perhaps the time in your life where you are, through no fault of your own, the most likely to be completely surrounded by people who agree with you. Aside from your first-year flatmates, who you are thrown together with at random, you will probably only hang out with people from your course, and people from the societies you decide to join who, for obvious reasons, have a much higher than average chance of sharing your ideas on religion and politics.
There was an excellent article written last month arguing that universities are not as much of a monoculture as people claim they are and describing her experiences with the Christian Union by way of example. While I agree with that there are far more diverse opinions present on campus than one might expect, there are in my experience very few people who actually interact with those on the other side of the fence. For the majority of students, they may as well be living in the monoculture that university is accused of being.
There is a notion, in modern political discourse, that whatever someone believes, that they take it less seriously if they spend their time engaging with people on the other side of the debate.
How committed to your faith can you really be if you’re making friends with all those atheists? By the same token, how much of a feminist really are you if you’re befriending misogynists?
These are sentiments often expressed, either silently or explicitly by both ends of the theistic spectrum.
On the contrary, I would argue that one can only truly believe something by making a concerted effort to look for the best counter-arguments available. I grew up in a Christian household and was myself a practising Christian until the age of sixteen when I decided that I no longer had faith. Since then, I would describe myself as an active and engaged atheist (devout seeming to be the wrong word). Rather than separating myself from the church I have tried to seek out continued relationships with religious people and kept up an occasional and sporadic attendance at church.
While perhaps not everyone should go to such lengths, I believe some kind of relationship to the religiously inclined is beneficial for everyone, for many reasons. First of all, it means that when you hear religious perspectives on the world, you are hearing what they actually think, rather than the strawman positions that are often cited by atheists in our own forums. Secondly, during my time at university, some of the warmest and most genuine people I have encountered have been people I have met at CU events or church. There is a sense of community in faith that more of us could take inspiration from and try to emulate in our own lives.
We live in an age of free thought and free expression, and as incredible as that is, we need to resist the urge to huddle together in exclusionary groups with people who won’t challenge us. I feel I should acknowledge that I’m saying this as a straight, white, cisgender, middle-class man, and am consequently very unlikely to encounter anything by leaving the bubble that will offend or attack me, but I still believe that everyone stands to gain by reaching out. Enrich your life, strengthen your arguments and escape your echo chamber by seeking out people that think you’re wrong.