The Importance of the Voices of Others (A Personal Story)

June 19, 2009

From speaking with a number of humanists, as well as reviewing some research on the subject, I am aware that many of us were raised in religious families. Each of us has traveled our own path to humanism—and many of our stories are interesting—but permit me to talk about my own experience for a bit because it ties into a larger point.

I was quite religious when young. I could be described as a traditionalist, conservative Catholic. How conservative? When 12, I wrote a letter to the local bishop asking him to restore the Latin Mass. My first published article—written when I was 19—was an argument against birth control that appeared in a right-wing rag that was considered extremist even in Franco’s Spain. (Yes, it was written in Spanish.) I stopped short of calling for a return of the Inquisition.

Moreover, I consciously took steps to make sure I stayed on the true path. My eldest brother went to MIT and when he returned home after his first year, he was spouting nonsense about the Vietnam War being a mistake and Jesus being only a human. Obviously, he had lost his mind, so when it came time for me to apply to college, I applied only to Georgetown University and a state college back-up. Didn’t want to be corrupted by some liberal, Ivy League school.

My plan didn’t quite work out as anticipated. Since I was Catholic, Georgetown required me to take two courses in theology. My course on the New Testament proved to be a life-changing event for me. Like many Christians, I had gone to church regularly, heard the familiar gospel stories over and over, and never paused to question their accuracy. I had never heard of form criticism or redaction criticism; didn’t know of the existence of other, rejected gospels; was totally unfamiliar with the history of how the New Testament was cobbled together. After recovering from shock, I began to experience my first doubts about the one true faith. Didn’t become an atheist immediately—it took a subsequent encounter with David Hume to seal the deal—but I ceased being a committed Catholic.

Why am I relating this story? Because it illustrates the importance of having the opportunity to hear other viewpoints. Had I not taken that class, had I not been assigned that particular professor, I might now be picketing abortion clinics or be known as Father Ron.

We can learn a lot from others—but only if their voices can be heard. This is one reason CFI recently launched its Campaign for Free Expression. The right to express one’s viewpoints freely is perhaps the most important right. It is important not only for the individual who wants to speak out, but for those who might be prompted to reconsider their own beliefs based on what they hear. Other people can “corrupt” us—but this can be a good thing if corruption implies erosion of our entrenched, unexamined patterns of thought. The free expression of others can force us to confront the world from a different perspective.

Voltaire is often credited with remarking “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Some historians believe this is a misattribution. No matter.) I used to think this was a remark made just for effect. Would someone really risk his/her life to defend another’s right to express a view considered mistaken? But such a position does not really require extraordinary altruism. It only requires the recognition that in defending the rights of others to express their views, we are preserving our own capacity to grow, to change, and to discard erroneous beliefs.