Difference in beliefs need not diminish quality of relationships

Rite & Reason: Key to the ‘God question’ is the ability to enter into the worldview of others

A cross over  the village of Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Photograph:   Jack McManus

A cross over the village of Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Jack McManus


Earlier this year in “An Irishman’s Diary”, Patsy McGarry wrote of a falling out between his late friend and himself over the existence of God, an event that is not uncommon in Ireland. Though the two men eventually manage to park the God question, the piece raises, very movingly, how difficult it can be to negotiate this question that is capable of creating tensions in friendships and in family relationships.

Exhortations to tolerate the beliefs, values and commitments of people that differ from ours pepper contemporary discourse but it is not easy to exercise such tolerance. The psychological disposition required to do so does not come easily.

In psychology there are two concepts called egocentricity and its opposite, decentring. Egocentricity means that we see everything from our own point of view and cannot make a connection with the world as perceived by others. Decentring refers to the capacity mentally to step outside our own universes and see things from the point of view of other people. For example, many Irish people find it almost impossible to discard the baggage of history and to feel warmth or enthusiasm for anything English. History prompts an egocentricity which takes the form of an ethnocentricity that seems to run very deeply.

Inside the mind
For non-believers to appreciate religious belief and for committed believers to get inside the mind of atheists can also take quite an effort in decentring. To understand how this can be achieved literature and autobiography are rich sources of insight.

A fascinating portrait of this process is to be found in La Messe de l’Athée / The Atheist’s Mass , a short story by Balzac.

The story concerns a successful surgeon called Desplein who does not believe in God but who is discovered by a colleague on occasion surreptitiously attending Mass.

The colleague, Bianchon, is a convinced atheist and he is disappointed and shocked at the apparent hypocrisy of Desplein. Bianchon attempts to prompt a confession from Desplein by raising questions of faith in his company but the latter claims to be resolutely opposed to religion and very negatively disposed towards its historical manifestation in institutional Christianity.

Further questioning does yield the following explanation about his presence at Mass.

Desplein tells his colleague that when he was an impoverished medical student bereft of family and friends, a poor water seller called Bourgeat came to his assistance and offered him financial and psychological support during his studies. Though he was well aware that Desplein was not a religious man, never once in the course of their friendship did Bourgeat comment on Desplein’s lack of belief. For the poor water seller friendship created a bond that was far more important than the presence of shared convictions.

In this context, the life story of Sr Emmanuelle, the Franco-Belgian nun, who died in 2008 just before her 100th birthday, shows that difference in beliefs need not diminish the quality of relationships.

‘Nourished her faith’
She found that atheists, Jews and Muslims all “nourished her Christian faith”. They extended her understanding of God and enlarged “her vision of God, goodness and beauty”.

This led her to see value in human beings irrespective of their allegiances. Yet she did not consider that all religions were equally true. “Truth is an absolute and cannot be contradictory. Either Jesus is the son of God or he is not” – there cannot be two views of this defining belief.

She believed that people accept or reject God on account of their education and upbringing, their reading and life events. These criteria of judgment are difficult and even impossible to change. Each individual reaches a decision according to her or his lights.

Like Balzac’s characters, Sr Emmanuelle was able to decentre and to enter imaginatively into the worldview of others. Where family members and friends disagree on the matter, it is not necessary to park the question. Each should rather seek to enter with imaginative sympathy into the mind of the other person.

Dr Kevin Williams lectures in Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University, and is working on a study on religion and the literary imagination

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