Big Tents – Inclusive or Confining?

There has been a lot of heated reaction recently to a couple of incidents in which people have apparently denied the sincerity of others’ statements of belief.

Oprah Winfrey responded to atheist swimmer Diana Nyad’s expression of wonder and awe at the universe with “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.” And Richard Dawkins, in conversation with Bill Maher, declared that Barack Obama and Pope Francis must really be atheists.

Most of the commentary has been outrage expressed with less restraint than by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush in How Not to Talk About the Beliefs of Others where he at least acknowledges a positive aspect in both cases. “Oprah and Dawkins/Maher are being simultaneously arrogant and complimentary. Arrogant, in that they assume that anyone who has a similar world view as they do is secretly ‘one of them’; and complimentary, in that they are saying I admire you enough to claim you for my own belief system.”  And “What we can learn from these two vivid examples is that we all have the right to decide how to identify ourselves in terms of religion or lack thereof. It is not for others to affix their identity upon us, or strip ours from us.

But rather than interpret these two events as someone claiming to know the content of another’s mind better than they do themselves, it may be more charitable to interpret both as explaining that their own professed label is actually more inclusive than perceived by the other.

With this interpretation it is not denial or stripping of identity but just a clarification that the speaker’s own identity label is intended to be more encompassing than may have been thought.

The downside, which is there of course, is that defining one’s own view as a ‘Big Tent’ is often used as a strategy for discouraging self-identification with the alternative label. Oprah discouraging self-declared atheism, and Dawkins discouraging self-declared religious feeling, may not be denying the actual beliefs of the other but are threatening them with censure for their choice of label.. You may not be a bad kid, but if you dare to wear the wrong colours then you belong with the gang from the other side of the street.


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