I find this an interesting phenomenon. Maybe you will as well. I am teaching a course in Inter-religious Dialogue. The first third of the course is on some principles of IRD, while the second deals with the beliefs of some major word religions.
We had covered Rabbinical Judaism already and were now in Islam. One of my students is much more of an expert in Islamic beliefs than I am since he was raised in a culture where these beliefs were really deeply ingrained in the educational system. I was happy to let him teach parts of this section. So he gets up and says that he will teach Islamic beliefs from an insider perspective. As he started to teach, it was interesting that some of the other students begin to challenge him in some of the points and bringing up counter-arguments. I found that interesting because:
- The student who was teaching Islamic beliefs is not a member of that faith, and yet the very fact that he was teaching it from an insider perspective appeared to make some of the fellow students uncomfortable.
- One of the principles I drilled into my students is that one should try to “walk in the shoes” of those of another belief system. That is, listen respectfully and try to understand their faith from their position. After all, beliefs (no matter how crazy they may sound from an etic position) make a lot of sense from an insider (emic) position. I recall reading an Islamic tract that was trying to convince Christians that they should become Muslims. It became pretty obvious that they did not understand Christian theology. The writers were writing from a specifically Islamic perspective to people they were not even trying to understand.
- I have equally pointed out the general futility to argument in changing people’s minds. Generally, argument leads to backfire where the beliefs of the two parties tend to diverge rather than converge via argument.
So when the students were bumping up against other belief perspectives and standards of authority, they became defensive and started drifting into argument mode. Even though the person “on the other side” was also a Christian, the circumstances triggered the response.
I am sure that some in the class would look at the situation differently. They might say that the arguing was a fun or even humorous response. However, that response, whatever the cause, still tended to sabotage the learning experience because it involved a rejection of trying to understand things from the non-Christian perspective. They were listening to respond rather than to understand.
When I brought this up, the class adjusted. But I don’t think this response is unique. Much of my class went to the local mosque for Friday noon prayers, and also did a tour of the school at the mosque where they teach Arabic and the Tawhid. While there, one of the Islamic students tried to strike up a theological argument. One of my students did respond well. He said, “That’s really not why we are here today. We are here to learn, not to argue.”
Our religious beliefs are not only what we believe, they also become part of our values and self-understanding, so the very existence of people who don’t value those beliefs, and even have counter-beliefs, tend to trigger a reaction.
It is curious that many people think that arguing over faith is a good method to convince others to change to their own beliefs. This is simply not true. Most people respond to warm words and actions rather than cold logic.
The trigger for argument in many cases is not a desire to evangelize, but ego response.