Why do we polarize, fight, and misunderstand each other

I have had a hundred unpleasant conversations in the last few months. (I suppose it’s my fault because I dive into controversial topics). One thing that stuck out was the absurd amount of polarization that is prevalent in discussions of faith and reason. Polarization is the tendency of people to fall into one of two very opposite ends on the spectrum on some topic. (In physics when a substance contains two opposite poles, think + and – on a battery, it is considered polarized). It seems most people cannot comprehend a middleground, but instead must take a radical extreme position that is in alignment with or opposite to other people.

Let me give you some examples (these are all summaries and direct quotes of conversations that I have had, as they say “in real life.”)

  • Polarizer: “God hates divorce, I can’t believe people would even talk about divorce”
  • Nonpolarizer: “You know St. Paul mentioned one type of divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:15”
  • Polarizer: “The Christian divorce rate is very high, how can all that divorce be okay with you!?”

 

  • Polarizer: “Halloween is the devils own birthday, don’t eat the candy or you will be cursed”
  • Nonpolarizer: “Actually the tradition of Halloween comes from a Catholic holiday, All Hallows (Saint’s) Eve”
  • Polarizer: “Why are you supporting such a horrible satanic holiday? Here is a picture of satan, why do you support him? ”

 

  • Polarizer: “I can’t believe some so called Christians believe people came from monkeys, that’s why they act like monkeys.”
  • Nonpolarizer: “Primates, not monkeys. There is nothing more embarrassing about coming from that than coming from dirt. There are plenty of ways Christian scholars think about this, let me explain.”
  • Polarizer: “Why do you reject the Bible and you support Hitler’s evolutionary agenda to kill the Jews?”

 

  • Polarizer: “All women need to wear skirts and headcoverings!”
  • Nonpolarizer: “Perhaps a careful contextual reading of the text doesn’t actually mandate that”
  • Polarizer: “Let’s just throw out the whole bible, and promote the homosexual agenda to change men and women into one sex!”

 

  • Polarizer: “Evolution is stupid and completely against the Bible”
  • Nonpolarizer: “It is possible that Genesis is not a historical account but something different, many Christians believe this”
  • Polarizer: “ Why don’t you think God did it in 6 days? It’s because you are a sinner and don’t have faith that God is powerful!”

 

  • Polarizer: “The Bible is the Word of God, and it says you need to do this now!”
  • Nonpolarizer: “That is actually only one hermeneutic approach, here are two others that are often cited”
  • Polarizer: “I don’t need your scholars and professors, Jesus was against the Pharisees too. Scholars are sinful men who hate God”

 

  • Polarizer: “Women and men must cut hair exactly as specified in the Bible”
  • Nonpolarizer: “Sometimes the Bible has a very specific context, Paul argues against men having long hair, yet this long hair is part of the sacred Nazarene vow”
  • Polarizer: “Have you accepted the Lord Jesus into your life?”

 

  • Polarizer: “Wow, I cannot believe there are people don’t think Noahs ark really happened”
  • Nonpolarizer: “There are many significant reasons, based on the text and logic, and promoted by many biblical scholars”
  • Polarizer: “You just don’t know anything about the Bible. Don’t be be deceived by the father of lies who is smarter and craftier than you are.”

 

  • Polarizer: “Just believe in miracles, you don’t need logic, Christianity is illogical and against numbers and facts”
  • Nonpolarizer: “Perhaps we do need logic, there are logically consistent miracles, and illogical miracles that simply can’t happen.”
  • Polarizer: “You sound like Lucifer. Who are you to limit God? careful or God will punish you for saying that.”

 

  • Polarizer: “Homosexuality is a huge abomination, it is the most wicked sin.”
  • Nonpolarizer: “It is a huge issue that requires careful and gentle approach, there are some things that don’t make sense, for example all of chapter 11 of Leviticus also lists eating certain foods as an abomination, but we don’t hold up signs with this verse in front of the grocery store.”
  • Polarizer: “Why do you fight for homosexuals? You might as well support bestiality and pedophilia, unless you already do”

 

Why is everyone so polarized?

So why do people do this? Why do we get so polarized? I’ve identified four common themes that I have personally witnessed, perhaps there are more you can think of, feel free to comment and share.

1. You are extrapolating what their action/belief means in your personal ideological system, it may not mean the same in theirs

Imagine that I am a great fan of bacon; I eat it all the time and with everything possible, I love bacon! (this is actually true, but my wife is ensuring that I eat healthy, so for now bacon and I have a long distance relationship.) As I am having lunch, a Jewish friend sits next to me, sees my bacon, and in his head begins to extrapolate what I am doing. In his religion, bacon is a sin (which is great, because that leaves more for me, praise the Torah!) In his religion people eat bacon to reject God. His gears turn, eating bacon means hating God, Yuriy is eating bacon, ah! This means Yuriy is hating God. Yet in my head, all I am thinking is “bacon is really good, hope my wife can’t see this.”

2. You are mistakenly creating false dichotomies (either/or), without realizing many things can coexist

In many cases we are prone to think that there are many positions that cannot coexist together. The theory of evolution and Christianity is one such example. There are millions of people that somehow think evolution = atheism. Most of these people are not aware of the fact that the biggest name in evolutionary biology, a Ukrainian scientists (my racist pride made me write that) Theodosius Dobzhansky, was also a Christian. In fact, the irony is that many Christians say textbooks that teach evolution are all atheistic, yet most of these textbooks make effort to highlight the famous words of a Christian biologist: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (Dobzhansky)

3. You are mistakenly seeing only two polar opposites, while there can be abroad range of views in the middle

This is the “black or white” fallacy, and that is, that many people cannot see the world without seeing it in polar opposites. Consider the issue of homosexual marriage and American politics, most people involved in this debate see the issue as a sequel to Hitler vs the free world. (And of course, both sides are dang certain Hitler is with the other guys). Very few people seem to be able to detach themselves from this discussion and identify other potential options. Some of these could be “I simply don’t care, both sides are entitled to believe what they want.” Or “I personally don’t want to be involved in homosexual activity, but the government should not force this issue on people either way.” Or “The state should leave this issue alone and let different religions/churches/denominations decide who they want to marry.” Or “because biblical scholarship casts doubt on the sin of homosexual marriage, I’m a conscientious abstainer from giving my opinion.” There could be many views, the world is a rainbow of colors, not just black and white. (How could I go without a rainbow pun in a “gay” post?)

4. You are unable to empathize with other people, only sift through them, and assign labels.

A great difficulty for many people is the ability to emphasize, especially with those who have strongly differing opinions and beliefs. This requires a few things that are very hard to come by, including a heart, a conscience, decency, and courtesy. What’s so much easier than listening to someone with the intention of kindly understanding them, is pretending you are a one man electronic label printer. All you have to do, is just create fancy labels to stick onto everyone you don’t like. “Calvinist here, atheist there, fundamentalist here, liberal there” and so forth. By creating these labels and using them towards others, we are dehumanizing and depersonalizing them. It becomes far easier to reject their ideas and often them as people, because hide the very real and raw humanity that is behind each label, ideology, and belief. It’s far harder to polarize yourself against a kind-hearted person that genuinely disagrees with you, it’s far easier to become polarized against a scary sounding “ist.” (Insert your favorite: Buddhist, Marxist, Calvinist, Open Theist, Communist, Atheist, Seventh Day Adventist, etc)

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