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I wish to God I knew

By the editor, Jan 31 2020 04:50PM

I remember listening to this, many years ago, from “Summoned by Bells” by John Betjeman, and remain as puzzled by it now as then:


“Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,

Some start upon that arduous love affair

In clouds of doubt and argument; and some

(My closest friends) seem not to want His love -

And why this is I wish to God I knew.”


My puzzlement will be shared by other atheists: how can you reject love when there’s nothing to indicate that it’s being offered to you?


But my puzzlement at Betjeman is matched by the puzzlement Betjeman felt about people like me - as to our mental states; as to “why this is”.


It’s for this reason that there isn’t much point in an argument between those with faith and those without, as to who is “right”. They are mutually incomprehensible positions.


There are some political positions, too, that become articles of faith. So for some, the virtues of socialism are self-evident, and for others capitalism is immutable. Such opinions may be in part based on evidence, but become matters of moral certainty. The same is true of other political philosophies, and some more specific issues, whether it might be nationalisation, immigration, criminal justice, HS2 or Donald Trump. We’re all guilty to some extent of tending to adopt and defend positions on matters before we’ve considered the evidence in any particular case. We like to think we’re open to being persuaded if the right facts are put before us. But there comes a point in many disagreements where the dispute is really about values rather than empirical truth. And at this point, there’s nothing to gain by arguing further. Neither side will prevail, or even make any headway; neither side will understand the other side’s point of view. It doesn’t stop people continuing, of course, and this is often when disagreements turn nasty – they turn personal, because they’re essentially about values, and by implication about character.


Betjeman’s lines came back to me at this time because of the feelings generated by the UK’s departure from the EU tonight. Despite the bitterness and sadness from some on one side, and the glee and nastiness from some on the other, there are signs of people (from both sides) wanting to heal the divisions of the last few years. One step in this process may be recognising that differences of view can’t easily be understood, and that people can’t be reconciled simply by attempting to resolve factual disputes.


It’s odd from one perspective that the EU has caused such strong feelings. It wasn’t previously high on people’s list of concerns. Such ideologies as there are on either side (theories of fraternalism versus theories of national sovereignty) aren’t widely shared. Instead, I think (as others have suggested) that Brexit became a proxy for a more deep-seated cultural divide - highlighting, exacerbating and warping it.


This means that sometimes we engage in our Brexit battles on the assumption that our differences are to do with Brexit itself, when in fact they’re to do with something quite different. That can make it even harder than in other contexts to understand where another person is coming from. Meanwhile the tone of the debate has become at times so vitriolic, simplistic, and tribal, that it’s difficult to make the effort to understand in the first place. And at the core of some of these issues are differences of values, which run into the difficulties mentioned above.


Someone’s concerns about “sovereignty”, for example, may have one of, or several, many different causes. But it may well be that at core this person has a different view on the importance of “place” to someone else. And that is likely to be a difference about something deep-rooted and instinctive, rather than something reducible to reasoned argument. So it may be that there’s a fundamental psychological difference between that person and someone who isn’t as bothered about the issue, and it isn’t easy for either to comprehend the other’s perspective.


It still seems worth trying to understand such matters, if we’re to avoid simply trading insults. But perhaps we ought also to acknowledge that we may end up, like Betjeman, saying - and really meaning it, not out of exasperation, but out of recognition of our human limitations – “and why this is I wish to God I knew.”


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