February 22, 2011

One Hump, or Two?

I’ve recently begun participating in the pilot run of a discussion group called “Skepsis”.   The goal of Skepsis is to encourage openness and dialogue among atheists, agnostics, and believers, in an atmosphere of healthy skepticism which, in its purest form, simply means “exploring truth claims from all angles”.   (For more on skepticism, see my earlier post, “The View from the Skeptic Tank”.)

In the introduction to this eight-week
experiment, a “bell curve” was used to illustrate how, in the matter of discussions regarding faith, 90% of what we hear these days tends to come from the 5% at either end of the spectrum — the vocal hard-line atheists at one end, and the unyielding “bible-banging” fundamentalists at the other end.  The point of the illustration is that while the fringe groups are interested only in one-way communication (monologue), the vast majority of us reside in the “skeptical middle” where we honestly struggle with unanswered questions, and where true two-way communication (dialogue) should be taking place.

While the illustration made some sense, I began to wonder:  If there really is this large dromedarian peak in the middle, why there isn’t more dialogue taking place?  Perhaps one of the reasons is that wrestling with doubts, listening to dissenting viewpoints, and testing our own belief systems requires humility, willingness to change, and the hard work of thinking.   Why go to all that trouble, when it’s so much easier to let someone else do our thinking for us?

So for the most part, those of us in the middle have long ago decided which of the competing voices we’d rather listen to, and have drifted away from the center, where we can better hear the voices we like, and ignore the ones we don’t.  It happens in “red state vs. blue state” politics, and it happens in discussions of faith. The result is a polarized distribution that looks much more Bactrian than dromedary:
Whenever a controversial issue arises, we know just what radio or TV show to turn to, or what web site to go to, to let us know what our position should be.  As a result, we become increasingly polarized, and the gap in the middle, where independent critical thinking takes place, becomes wider.

Not only is independent critical thought difficult, but you’re likely to be labeled a traitor when your independent thought doesn’t toe either side’s party line.  Take, for example, Francis Collins, director of the human genome project, head of the National Institute of Health, and outspoken evangelical Christian.  He’s been vilified by fellow scientists for his belief in God, and demonized by Christians for his acceptance of basic biological science.  But the way I see it, being shot at from both sides is a pretty good indication that you’ve actually achieved some measure of truly independent thought.

So give it a try.  Move out of the comfort zone of your chosen “hump”, strike up a conversation with someone who holds an opposing view, and listen.  Each time you do, you’ll take another step forward on your journey towards Truth, and leave behind those at the fringes who are sure they’ve already arrived.

[For more on the polarization (and resulting lack of dialogue) in America's Christian community, see Dan Merchant’s Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. For my perspective on dealing with a lack of independent thought in the church, see Encouraging Critical Thinking in Evangelical Churches.]