Let us know better, and work together for a better world

I’m sure you’ve noticed how people can be so dogmatic in their religious and political views. Religiously, many believers think that they have the only truth, with the result that there are myriads of divisions within religious belief systems. Politically, America is at one of its most divided times in history, with both left and right claiming to have the absolute political truth that should result in policies forced on everyone.

But why? Why is it that people on opposite sides of an issue can be so certain that their view is correct and the other view is wrong?

Perhaps it’s because one side represents the facts and if the other side just knew the facts, everyone would agree. But that’s not it, since both sides generally are well-researched.

Perhaps it’s because one side is more intelligent than the other, and the less intelligent side just doesn’t get it. But that’s not it either, since raw intelligence alone doesn’t get one to the truth of a matter. In fact, intelligence just makes one better at defending his/her beliefs. It doesn’t make one right.

Perhaps it’s a good and evil thing. One side has the true facts because it is good, whereas the other side disagrees because it is evil. But this is just demonizing the opposition to score points with those on your side. Such an argument is rooted in human pride. It will not get you closer to the truth of a matter.

The truth is, the positions we take on a variety of issues are rooted in a combination of our nature and nurture. Biology and upbringing/life experiences each play a role. Our ability to reason has little to do with it.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the author of “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics”, has found that in our viewpoints, our passions lead and our reasoning follows. What this means is that we arrive at our positions on various issues, both religious and political, primarily based on our emotions (formed both by nature and nurture), and then use our reason to defend those positions. Reason becomes a tool to justify and explain what we already believe. It rarely leads us to our beliefs.

You may be asking, what about those who do change their beliefs? People change beliefs not primarily because they were reasoned out of their old beliefs into new beliefs, but because they were moved intuitively by a new belief or an experience. To put it another way, a new belief or an experience spoke to their hearts. Once that happened, their reasoning began defending the new belief reached initially by their passions.

In my next column, I will write about our core moral foundations and how they shape our belief systems. I will also show that morality binds and blinds, as Jonathan Haidt put it so well.

In the meantime, it’s time to tone down the rhetoric. No one is going to win an argument by demonizing others. All that does is seed discord and promote anger among one’s “base” against the other side. Religious and political leaders that do such things ought to know better. Let us know better, and work together for a better world.

Mel Emurian is a minister with the Living Hope Freethinkers in Gloversville.