Stereotypes of Religious and Secular Groups
A. SBS: Part of what we hope to accomplish in Secular Bible Study, as many of you know, is not merely to study the Bible from various perspectives that we might attain better understanding of it. Secular Bible Study’s mission is simultaneously to support the building of relationships between folks who may not otherwise interact, who may indeed avoid each other, as well as nurture those relationships. We’ve expressly sought to do this already through the piece on inner and outer history: That information meant to give religious and secular folks a way in which to think about the other that could affirm the other’s point of view. This meeting on stereotypes is an attempt to deepen our relationships with each other within the group that, it is hoped, will alter our approaches to each other in our interactions with one another, which I also hope will extend into our everyday lives.
B. Stereotypes: Stereotypes are generalizations applied irresponsibly, which hinder not only our understanding; they affect how we relate to each other. Generalizations are necessary, however. Thinking depends on language, which seeks to represent our experience of reality, and since language can never fully encapsulate the complexity of our experience, we are always limited in our understanding and expression of our experience. Furthermore, as particular, finite human beings, our experience of reality is also limited: We’ll never be able to experience reality as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, for example. These limitations are reasons language, categories of thought, and even what is considered rational or reasonable develop, must and should develop. So while generalizations can aid our understanding of people, groups and things greatly when their limits are acknowledged, when they seek to represent a whole – as what it is, and worse, what it must always be – they finally only misrepresent, they become what we commonly refer to as stereotypes. When we stereotype, we too often take the next step, the more dangerous one: We use stereotypes as a basis and justification for dealing unjustly with others.
C. General Instructions: For tonight’s meeting I am confident that this group can respectfully relate to one another regarding the stereotypes of religious and secular groups. This requires each of us to relate what we think, honestly, but doing so is not an excuse to be mean or degrade others. Using “I statements” along with a qualifier, “think” or “feel,” is helpful to this end. So for example, if you feel the need to speak a thought regarding a group, say something like, “I have always thought teenagers are reckless,” rather than, “teenagers are reckless.” At the same time, in order for people honestly to reveal what they think or have heard, they have to feel safe doing so, confident an attack won’t be elicited. That requires listeners to listen without responding in a knee-jerk or disrespectful fashion, despite however much the comment might aggravate and itself be disrespectful. We simply seek to acknowledge thoughts and opinions and, hopefully, gain some understanding of them. In my instructions, you may have noticed that I have intentionally not used the word, “stereotype,” and have instead said, “thoughts” and “opinions.” I have done this because the word stereotype has attached to it a negative moral valuation: For most people, to label something a stereotype is already to judge it immoral. So if I said to Christians to reveal your stereotypes about atheists, you would likely reveal things you already at least suspect are stereotypes, i.e., opinions you already suspect are problematic. I am not saying to hold back from discussing such kinds of stereotypes, especially if part of you believes them, even if you know better. What I am saying is that our true stereotypes we don’t think of as stereotypes, but as truths or at least as fairly accurate representations. For example, does our thinking associate Al-Qaida with anything other than “terrorist”? Don’t worry, by the way: We are not requiring any of you to speak first-hand to the group regarding your thoughts and opinions of others. The set-up for the discussion allows us to express our opinions anonymously. I mainly offer these instructions in case some folks or a group engage more directly.
D. Purpose: Is the purpose of the meeting to foster tension or somehow exploit tension around religion? I hope nobody thinks so! But neither do I grandiosely promise, in what I regard to be false optimism, that this exercise will necessarily lead to some utopian co-existence. We might walk away understanding each other better and why we think what we do, which may lead us to become more tolerant of one another, but understanding does not necessarily eliminate some fundamental differences that are sources of tension that sometimes do lead to conflict. It certainly does not result in the elimination of tragic consequences that, it seems to me, are inherent to life. However, it is the case that stereotyping can result in terrible consequences, which exercises like this can, hopefully, attenuate. At best, the exercise can expose stereotypes, which are barriers to relationships, and so open the way to deeper relationships and a more nuanced understanding of one another that, hopefully, enables us to work more constructively as a diverse whole.
Edited by Chester O'Gorman on Apr 30, 2009 10:26 AM