Cultivating a Culture of Debate

By Carlos Fraenkel

About 12 years ago, while studying Arabic in Cairo, I became friends with some Egyptian students. As we got to know each other better we also became concerned about each other’s way of life. They wanted to save my soul from eternally burning in hell by converting me to Islam. I wanted to save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife by converting them to the secular worldview I grew up with. In one of our discussions they asked me if I was sure that there is no proof for God’s existence. The question took me by surprise. Where I had been intellectually socialized it was taken for granted that there was none. I tried to remember Kant’s critique of the ontological proof for God. “Fine,” Muhammad said, “but what about this table, does its existence depend on a cause?” “Of course,” I answered. “And its cause depends on a further cause?” Muhammad was referring to the metaphysical proof for God’s existence, first formulated by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna in the 11th century: since an infinite regress of causes is impossible, Avicenna argues, things that depend on a cause for their existence must have something that exists through itself as their first cause. And this necessary existent is God. I had a counter-argument to that to which they in turn had a rejoinder. The discussion ended inconclusively.

I did not convert to Islam, nor did my Egyptian friends become atheists. But I learned an important lesson from our discussions: that I hadn’t properly thought through some of the most basic convictions underlying my way of life and worldview — from God’s existence to the human good. The challenge of my Egyptian friends forced me to think hard about these issues and defend views that had never been questioned in the European student milieu where I came from.

The other thing I realized was how contested my views were. I completed high school in a West German town in 1990 in the middle of Germany’s turbulent reunification (I ended my final exam in history describing the newest political developments I had heard on the radio that same morning). For a few years after the breakdown of the Soviet bloc many thought that everyone would be secular and live in a liberal democracy before long. The discussions with my Egyptian friends brought home that I better not hold my breath.

Since that time I have organized philosophy workshops at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem, at an Islamic university in Indonesia, with members of a Hasidic community in New York, with high school students in Salvador da Bahia (the center of Afro-Brazilian culture), and in a First Nations community in Canada. These workshops gave me first-hand insight into how deeply divided we are on fundamental moral, religious and philosophical questions. While many find these disagreements disheartening, I will argue that they can be a good thing — if we manage to make them fruitful for a culture debate.

Can we be sure that our beliefs about the world match how the world actually is and that our subjective preferences match what is objectively in our best interest? If the truth is important to us these are pressing questions.

We might value the truth for different reasons: because we want to live a life that is good and doesn’t just appear so; because we take knowing the truth to be an important component of the good life; because we consider living by the truth a moral obligation independent of any consequences; or because, like my Egyptian friends, we want to come closer to God who is the Truth (al-Haqq in Arabic, one of God’s names in Islam). Of course we wouldn’t hold our beliefs and values if we weren’t convinced that they are true. But that’s no evidence that they are. Weren’t my Egyptian friends just as convinced of their views as I was of mine? More generally: don’t we find a bewildering diversity of beliefs and values, all held with great conviction, across different times and cultures? If considerations such as these lead you to concede that your present convictions could be false, then you are a fallibilist. And if you are a fallibilist you can see why valuing the truth and valuing a culture of debate are related: because you will want to critically examine your beliefs and values, for which a culture of debate offers an excellent setting.

Of course we don’t need to travel all the way to Cairo to subject our beliefs and values to critical scrutiny; in theory we can also do so on our own. In practice, however, we seem to need some sort of unsettling experience that confronts us with our fallibility, or, as the great Muslim thinker al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) puts it in his intellectual autobiography “The Deliverance from Error,” that breaks the “bonds of taqlîd” — the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization rather than from rational deliberation.

In his own case, al-Ghazâlî writes, the bonds of taqlîd broke when he realized that he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he was a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community. He explains taqlîd as the authority of “parents and teachers,” which we can restate more generally as all things other than rational argument that influence what we think and do: from media, fashion and marketing to political rhetoric and religious ideology.

The problem of taqlîd (or what social psychologists today call “conformism”) has a long history. Socrates explained the need for his gadfly mission by comparing Athenian citizens to a “sluggish” horse that “needed to be stirred up.” Note that philosophers, too, fall prey to taqlîd. Galen, the second century Alexandrian doctor and philosopher, complained that in his time Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans simply “name themselves after the sect in which they were brought up” because they “form admirations” for the school founders, not because they choose the views supported by the best arguments.

If we take taqlîd to be a fact about human psychology and agree that it is an undesirable state to be in — at least when it comes to the core convictions that underlie our way of life and worldview — then we should particularly welcome debates across cultural boundaries. For if we engage someone who does not share the cultural narratives we were brought up in (historical, political, religious etc.), we cannot rely on their authority, but are compelled to argue for our views — as I had to in my discussions with Egyptian students in Cairo. Consider a theological debate in the multicultural world of medieval Islam, described by the historian al-Humaydi (d. 1095):

At the […] meeting there were present not only people of various [Islamic] sects but also unbelievers, Magians, materialists, atheists, Jews and Christians, in short unbelievers of all kinds. Each group had its own leader, whose task it was to defend its views […]. One of the unbelievers rose and said to the assembly: we are meeting here for a debate; its conditions are known to all. You, Muslims, are not allowed to argue from your books and prophetic traditions since we deny both. Everybody, therefore, has to limit himself to rational arguments [hujaj al-‘aql]. The whole assembly applauded these words.

We can consider ourselves lucky to live at a time in which societies are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and multicultural and globalization forces us to interact across national, cultural, religious and other boundaries; for all this is conducive to breaking the bonds of taqlîd.

Of course diversity and disagreement on their own are not sufficient to bring about a culture of debate (otherwise the Middle East, the Balkans and many other places would be philosophical debating clubs!). Instead they often generate frustration and resentment or, worse, erupt in violence. That’s why we need a culture of debate. In my view, the last years of high school are the best place to lay the groundwork for such a culture.

The high school curriculum already includes subjects such as evolution, which are much more controversial than the skills required for engaging difference and disagreement in a constructive way. To provide the foundation for a culture of debate, the classes I have in mind would focus on two things: conveying techniques of debate — logical and semantic tools that allow students to clarify their views and to make and respond to arguments (a contemporary version of what Aristotelians called the Organon, the “toolkit” of the philosopher). And cultivating virtues of debate — loving the truth more than winning an argument, and trying one’s best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent.

When we can transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace. I now live in Montréal, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. When a couple of years ago I had to see a doctor, the receptionist was from China, in the waiting room I sat between a Hasidic Jew and a secular Québécois couple, the doctor who attended me was from Iran, and the nurse from Haiti. This was an impressive example of how Canadians, despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical differences, can work together to provide the basic goods and services that we all need irrespective of our way of life and worldview.

But while I certainly didn’t want to get into a shouting match about God’s existence in the doctor’s office, or wait for treatment until everyone had agreed on how to live, I see no reason why we should ignore our differences altogether. Some advocates of multiculturalism ask us to celebrate, rather than just tolerate, diversity, as if our differences weren’t a reason for disagreement in the first place, but something good and beautiful — a multicultural “mosaic”! Others argue that our moral, religious, and philosophical convictions shouldn’t leave the private sphere. A good example is French laïcité: you are a citoyen in public and a Jew, Christian, or Muslim at home. Both models try to remove our reasons for objecting to beliefs and values we don’t share — one tries to remove them altogether, the other tries at least to keep them out of sight. A culture of debate, on the other hand, allows us to engage our differences in a way that is serious, yet respectful and mutually beneficial.

Some object that a culture of debate is of no value to religious citizens. Don’t they take God’s wisdom to be infallible, claim to have access to it through revelation, and accept its contents on faith rather than arguments? Yet a brief look at the history of religions shows that plenty of arguing was going on about how to understand God’s wisdom — within a religious tradition, with members of other religious traditions and, more recently, with secular opponents. Al-Ghazâlî for one writes how, after the bonds of taqlîd were broken, he “scrutinized the creed of every sect” and “tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community” in order to “distinguish between true and false.”

The rich philosophical literatures we find in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as in the Eastern religious traditions offer plenty of resources for a culture of debate. The privatization of moral, religious, and philosophical views in liberal democracies and the cultural relativism that often underlies Western multicultural agendas are a much greater obstacle to a culture of debate than religion. My friends in Cairo at any rate, and the participants in the workshops I subsequently organized, all enjoyed arguing for their views and criticizing mine.

This article originally appeared on the Opinionator.

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6 Responses to Cultivating a Culture of Debate

  1. I thought it interesting that in the quote, when debating those of other faiths, sacred texts from your faith are disallowed. This requires one to have a strong foundation in philosophy and current science and theological understandings to even participate. It seems a challenge as we acknowledge that due to our limited position the only way we can understand truth is via revelation; ie, sacred text. I think it is essential for interfaith debate though. Just last night someone was speaking for about an hour pointing out how their faith was so strongly supported by the bible, and their literal interpretation of it. I was unmoved, and frustrated, as I simply don’t accept that as a valid source of information, making his speech simply noise to me. I respected his faith but it was not convincing for me.

    • Hello Margaret, Hare Krishna!

      “It seems a challenge as we acknowledge that due to our limited position the only way we can understand truth is via revelation; ie, sacred text.”

      My thought is that we do acknowledge that, and there are wonderful quotes in our vaishnav scriptures and commentaries that assert this uncompromisingly. But also, the scientific method of sambandha, abidheya and pryogena (hypothesis, methodology and conclusion) is an integral aspect of the “understanding” process. These three divisions comprise the contents of the Vedanta Sutra.

      In other words, our acceptance of scriptural revelation should be based on our personal revelation which is earned though application. Blind following will not provide stability. But personal revelation will be unshakable.

      When personal revelation is established, all of truths of the transcendental science can be seen in the workings of nature, and the affaires of the world. And the mature spiritual scientist can point out these insightful lessons with or without quoting shastra.

      And still, the horse can be lead to water. But he cannot be made to drink. All we can do is qualify ourselves to walk the talk, and share with those who are sincerely seeking answers. Then the seeker must submit himself to the process, and draw his own conclusions.

      Again, in Gita, Chapter Seventeen, Krishna discusses the subject of faith. And in commentary on Text 3, Tripurari Swami writes:

      “..every individual’s mind reflects his heart’s condition under the influence of the three gunas. Thus one’s nature reflected in the mind producs a particular quality of faith, be it sattvic, ajasic, or tamasic.” So there will be people with every variety of faith – and some like the man that you mentioned, who presented his version of the biblical truth.

      The Bible also says “Thou shalt not kill.” But most Bible enthusiasts will support the slaughterhouse institution. Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita that when people are attracted to worship the various demigods, He makes their faith strong, even though he is advising us to surrender our hearts to Him alone, “mam ekam..”.

      When I meet such a person, I generally simply agree whole-heartedly by trying to find the statements in Bible that support complete surrender and devotion over and above all other teachings.

      When Jesus says, “Not my will but Thy will be done.”, this indicates that we ask God for nothing, spiritual or material, but only live for His pleasure, i.e., pure devotional service.

      In other words, Jesus is preaching pure devotional service. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, etc.” He said that this is the Law of all laws, although the Hebrew scriptures are filed with hundreds of laws.

      All we can do with such a person is to encourage him to continue in his faith, and try o help him to understand the heart of his own scriptures. It’s not about being a good person. It’s not about material gain through religion. It’s not about salvation. It’s about pure devotional service. Jesus taught this and we agree.

      And Jesus also taught, “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” And we agree whole-heartedly. We must take up the Holy Name of God. And what will be the result? “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words the Name of God is sacred and if we take it up, that will create heaven on earth. We believe this. So we should encourage such a person that Jesus is preaching pure unmotivated devotion with no expectation of any kind of personal gain. And he is telling us that this consists on chanting the holy names, not just individually, but congregationally, “Where two or more are gathered in my name…”. How can he reject this?

      But basically, why should we be interested in interfaith debate? They are already on a spiitual path. Great! Let us simply congratulate them, wish them all success.

  2. An intelligent man. Liberal. Even good-hearted. That’s my impression. I also get the hint that he is more interested in people sharing information, thoughts and ideas in a nice way than in making an ultimate solution to the challenges of living in the material world.

    If we all learned how to co-exist peacefully, that might be enough for him. And if people who aspire for an eternal life could learn to do this that also could be good for us.

    As far as how does one proove his sambandha, it ain’t going to be by force of logic. First we have to be a living demonstration of it -walk the talk. Then interest can be generated. And then the burden of proof will still rest with the seeker. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. There is no substitute for trying it on for size.

  3. Ishan says:
    “In other words, our acceptance of scriptural revelation should be based on our personal revelation which is earned though application. Blind following will not provide stability. But personal revelation will be unshakable.”

    Personal revelation, according to my understanding of Gaudiya vedanta, is a result of application and grace, right? In rare cases, only grace maybe.

    But not just application, right?

    I’ve often heard this said too: “our effort is to get grace”.

    And grace is uncertain, because Krishna is independent, no?

    So, even with many lifetimes of sincere application,it is likely that one may or may not achieve personal revelation, right?

    • Hare Krishna!, Anand Prabhu,

      First point is, of course, that I am definitely not an authority on our vaishnav siddhanta.

      But as far as I understand, you are absolutely correct.

      “The lotus feet of our spiritual master are the only way by which we can attain pure devotional service.”


      “By the mercy of the spiritual master one is benedicted by the mercy of Krishna. Without the grace of the spiritual master no one can make any advancement…”

      So, when you write:

      “I’ve often heard this said too: “our effort is to get grace”.”,

      then I agree that this is part and parcel of the application process. Or, I am not intending to make a distinction between “application” and “our effort… to get grace.”

      As I understand it, we apply ourselves to the process of cultivating nice Krishna consciousness,thereby hoping to convince our spiritual master of our sincerity, so that we can invoke his divine grace. And we daily engage in beseeching that grace. “Oh master, be merciful to me, give me the shade of your lotus feet.”

      And we meditate on the qualities of the pure devotee as well, as indicated in our gayatri mantra, in order to derive enthusiasm in our sadhana. Once in 1968, before being exposed to any literature that provided a conception of Krishna’s personality (other than an abridged edition of Bhagavad-gita), Srila Prabhupada asked me, on a walk, “Are you always thinking of Krishna?” To which I responded, “I don’t know much of Krishna, but I try to always think of you.” And Srila Prabhupada said, “You can just think of me as always thinking of Krishna.”

      So it remains as a personal question as to how intimately we engage in our sadhana under his guidance. Do I perform my practices, in the name of doing them on his behalf, or do I carry him in my heart during such practices, consciously trying to please him, from moment to moment, understanding that because our connection with him is spiritual, there is no separation from him in terms of material space and time. And so we can be intimately in his association in all that we do, always seeking his guidance, always being enthused by his divine presence, always trying to please him, and always aspiring for his grace.

      We have the same concept with regard to Lord Caitanya in Caitanya-caritamrita: “May that Lord Who has appeared as the son of Srimate Saci Devi be transcendentally situated in the innermost chamber of your heart. Respelendent with the radiance of molten gold….”. So our devotional life can be anywhere along a spectrum of offically engaged in devotional service to intimately engaged in devotional service. Srila Prabhupda referred to the offical position as “Krishna consciousness on the mental platform.” We can go through the motions but the degree of devotion, actually trying to please him from moment to moment – that is a personal issue. I had read that Srila Prabhupada once counselled Satsvarupa Maharaja, “It is not simply that I give you task and you perform, but if you love me I will love you.”

      I tend to be long-winded. but I am grateful to you for raising this point. Everything in our literature seems to indicate that if we are gracious in our transcendental dealings with our spiritual master then he will be gracious with us. “Attachment to his lotus feet is the perfection that fulfills all desires.”


  4. As long as people engage in religions or spirituality primarily to better their afterlife, they will be duped into accepting things which are essentially unprovable. Waiting until after you die to verify the value or benefit of one’s spiritual practices is not a very smart thing to do. It is something that has to be tested and evaluated in this life. What is a value of some doctrine or belief system if it does not transform us into a person we really want to be still in this lifetime? Do you want to become pure ‘like an angel’ in the afterlife? Well, are you seeing that happening in your life? Do you want to become happy in the afterlife? How about now? Are you becoming happier and happier as the years go by? Do you want to be closer to God? How about doing it here and now? Can you feel the Divine presence all around you? Really feel it, not just imagining it? These are critical questions to ask any religious person. In order for any religion not to be a scam, it has to produce tangible results for it’s practitioners here and now. We are encouraged to chant the holy name in order to experience God in his sound vibration form. We are told to live a pure life so that we will gradually become pure ourselves. And these things should make us happy and content here and now, not only after we die. After we die we will simply continue to be essentially what we are now.

    All these incessant arguing between adherents of various religions boils down to the fact that for most of them religion is a purely theoretical imposition on their mind and body, something yet unproven, an expectation. “My belief is better than yours”. That element of uncertainty causes us to argue among ourselves about a way to resolve these questions. And blind faith in one religious dogma or another is hardly a way to resolve any existential question.

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