It has been very quiet at work lately, and yesterday’s rain made it even more so, so I had plenty of leisure to think about a conversation on evangelism that Sighkey and I had, and to extend the thought further to the entire idea of agreeing to disagree.

Ozarque (if I understand her view correctly) considers any discussion that ends in “agreeing to disagree” a failure of communication. I think it depends on the communicative goal of the conversation.

Sometimes our goal is to persuade someone. Yesterday, for example, That Man was showing me his new spreadsheet. He was pretty excited about it, but the computer was not cooperating. I was able to persuade it to do some of the things he wanted at one point while his back was turned, and was emboldened by this to suggest that he try my special method of working with computers.

“I just do random stuff till something works,” I explained.

That Man continued staring at the screen.

“Why not just try ‘find’ under ‘edit’?” I suggested.

He explained why that would not work. I continued to press him to try it. I used a cajoling voice and nicely-judged frequency of nudging. Of course, it did work. This is because of a special branch of Murphy’s Law that ensures that when a person who knows what he is doing is showing something to a complete tyro, the irrational suggestions of the complete tyro will work when the reasonable attempts of the expert do not.

Had I been unable to persuade him, That Man and I might still be standing there. I would have failed in my communicative goal.

But a discussion seems to me to be a different thing altogether. Some topics are a matter of fact, and we can look to a handy reference book to solve the question of who is right, making for a very brief discussion.

It has been pointed out to me that not everyone uses reference books in conversations. It was phrased more strongly than that, but in fact we do it all the time chez fibermom. Just yesterday #2 son was telling us about the natural pedometer of the ant. #1 son expressed polite scepticism, and #2 went helpfully to his source, read it aloud to us, and rephrased his claim more precisely. #1 son and I responded with fascinated murmurs. I felt that this showed the boys had been brought up right.

If it is clear and indisputable that one view is right and the other is wrong, there is, it seems to me, no point in discussing it. For most nonfactual topics, though, there are many different ways of looking at the same set of information. Blessing was telling us recently that she was charmed by cowboys, pirates, and firemen. I see the charm of pirates, but the other two groups hold no special fascination for me. A customer weighed in on the side of Schwan’s men. Now, a guy who brings ice cream to your door may have some automatic appeal, but I have to say that I have never found any special sexiness there. However, like Voltaire, I would defend to the death that customer’s right to harmless speculations about her Schwan’s man.

Well, probably not to the death, but Voltaire was most likely exaggerating a bit himself.

There are some topics on which more than one viewpoint seems to me to be equally just and well-supported. For these topics, such as stem-cell research, I read and listen to everyone’s viewpoint in order to make up my own mind. These may be the most interesting things to talk about.

There are subjects on which I am unlikely to change my mind, but which are still very interesting. I like to know others’ thoughts on these things, and am particularly interested to hear a new and different idea. Recently, for example, I was expressing a conventional point of view on strip bars (a big political issue locally, from time to time). My interlocutor said that his objection to them was that you were doing something specifically intended to be arousing, and then there you were with a bunch of guys. I would never have thought of that on my own — and it doesn’t change my views — but it was quite an interesting point.

I am particularly interested in knowing why people hold positions that strike me as incomprehensible. I greatly appreciated Jamie’s explaining her support of President Bush, for example, and Partygirl’s explanation of the Catholic custom of indulgences. So often this sort of question can’t be asked without offence, so we run the risk of going along without ever grasping the point. A willingness to discuss these topics without rancor makes not only for good conversation, but also for greater understanding between groups.

But then there are the things which we believe so firmly that we want to make other people agree with us. This is where evangelism comes in. “Evangelism” properly refers to the proclamation of the Christian gospel, but is often used by extension to describe other sorts of proselytizing (I looked this up to be sure). The word is used in different churches to describe different things, ranging from buttonholing strangers to ask if they are saved, to setting up coffee in the hall.

As I have said before, I understand the reason that the evangelical groups are so aggressive about their attempts to change other people’s beliefs. For one thing, they believe that God told them to do it. But beyond that, they also believe that they are personally responsible for whether or not other people spend eternity in Hell. I don’t even believe that I am personally responsible for whether or not I spend eternity in Hell, so of course I am not going to pester people to change religions.

But I do believe that I have a measure of personal responsibility for child labor and slavery — and that you do, too. I believe that my ability to persuade people to support Fair Trade can lead directly toward the end of slavery in our lifetimes. Do I seize every polite opportunity to mention this? Of course I do. This is evangelism of a sort, it seems to me.

And does it go with respect for other people’s views? No. I am prepared to respect the views of any passing follower of Poseidon, to consort with known Republicans, and to listen with interest to the views of people who despise books, but I truly have no respect for alternate views on child labor. This is not a topic on which I am prepared to be open-minded.

The Wooden Overcoat, my current book for the Autumn Reading Challenge, is filled with people who are open-minded on the subject of murder. This is amusing in a book, but if I knew anyone who sincerely held those views, I would do my best to change their minds. And turn them in to the police if it seemed necessary.

Dawkins, in The God Delusion, shows an evangelical level of devotion to atheism.

In chapter 2, he states the hypothesis which he intends to disprove in this book: that there exists a supernatural being which created the universe. He goes on to object to agnosticism, which strikes me as a perfectly respectable position. He offers us a continuum of levels of belief. At either end is complete and certain knowledge — either that God exists or that He does not.  In the center is agnosticism, the view that it is impossible to know for certain whether or not God exists. The other views include belief that God very likely does or does not exist, and living one’s life on that assumption. Here is where Dawkins puts himself, and I would choose that option too — though on the other side from Dawkins. Dawkins is not prepared to tolerate anything closer than his own position to faith in God. I look forward to learning why, since he doesn’t seem to think that belief in supernatural beings will lead to everlasting torment. In fact, from his other books, I would assume that Dawkins would have to say that belief in God is merely a byproduct of physical processes, like sweat, so why should he care? But he does. Passionately. The suspense mounts.

Having responded with pique to agnosticism, Dawkins proposes that it is highly probable that there are sentient beings elsewhere in the universe that would seem godlike to us. This is thrown in to make the point that such beings would not be supernatural, but would have evolved from simpler life forms just like us. I find the existence of  godlike extraterrestrials a less plausible hypothesis than the existence of God, and one which rests on far less evidence, but Dawkins likes it.

There is, as you know, one other topic on which I am capable of evangelical fervor: namely, that socks are not hard to knit. But I am still able to entertain the hypothesis that I could be wrong.