Love

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Dear Russell & Friends,

I know that it has been a while since I’ve written.  For a while, I’m pausing here.  Why?  Do I owe an explanation?   If I’ve taken the time to write, and you’ve taken the time to read and write back then the answer is yes.  I do owe an explanation.  TIme.  Time is the explanation.  We all have the same amount of it.  No one is more busy than any one else.  We just spend our allotments of time differently.  For a season of almost two years, this blog was a wise use of time as I poured my heart out to a friend and opened my mind to those with whom I disagreed.  Honestly, in some areas – – I’ve been convinced.  If time is a zero sum game, and I argue that it is, what was I missing?  The pages of my paper journal are sparse.  My academic productivity has waned.  And I’ve read many new books and learned new things that may take me several years to absorb.  One revelation of this blog to me was my own personality and just how strong my trait of introversion is.  I think that I need about a thousand pages and a thousand miles to think in the best way I know how – – prayer during long journal entries and long runs.  Will I return and share some of those thoughts and prayers?  I hope so.  I don’t want my solitude to be selfishness, but for now I ask your leave to enter the solitude that has never left me lonely.  Russell may continue to write here in my absence if he chooses.  There are several other competent and compassionate interlocutors both here and elsewhere.  In fact, Mrs. Pascal and I are looking forward to dinner with two of them on Sunday night.

Thank you for joining this season in my life.  I pray blessings on this season in yours.  I have learned so much more about skeptics and atheists.  Two things are most important – – I know that I love them and I know that the time spent listening was well spent.  I’ll see you later – – here or elsewhere.

Love,

Pascal – – 1:16

The Egg

The great moral leaders throughout time have sought a narrative that could drive humanity one step closer to compassion and connectedness — one step further from the divisiveness and pain that comes from focusing too much on ourselves. What follows is one of the most profound short stories I’ve ever read. It contains parts of a philosophy that I’ve tried to adopt, and one that I hope you will also consider if you haven’t already.

I’m copying this story in full from http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html.

The Egg

By: Andy Weir (author of the book that led to the recent movie blockbuster, “The Martian”)

 *****************

You were on your way home when you died.

It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”

“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.

“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”

“Yup,” I said.

“I… I died?”

“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”

“More or less,” I said.

“Are you god?” You asked.

“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”

“My kids… my wife,” you said.

“What about them?”

“Will they be all right?”

“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”

“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”

“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”

“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”

“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”

“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”

“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.

“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”

“Oh lots. Lots and lots. An in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”

“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”

“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”

“Where you come from?” You said.

“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”

“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”

“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”

“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.

I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”

“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”

“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”

“Just me? What about everyone else?”

“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”

“All you. Different incarnations of you.”

“Wait. I’m everyone!?”

“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.

“I’m every human being who ever lived?”

“Or who will ever live, yes.”

“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”

“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.

“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.

“And you’re the millions he killed.”

“I’m Jesus?”

“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.

“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.

“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”

“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”

“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”

“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”

“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

 *****************

That’s where the story ends, but there are several adaptations which you can watch on YouTube. Here’s one…

I may not be able to convince myself enough in the veracity of the Bible to use its lessons as the central foundation for morality, but I can take the good where I find it. While there’s no evidence that Andy Weir’s short story is true (we probably aren’t collectively a budding God and we probably aren’t reincarnations of each other), I find great moral wisdom in its central message. It harmonizes with my belief that there’s no justification for being certain that we would be any different from our enemies if we were born as they were.

If we could believe that our neighbors literally might be, in some real sense, ourselves (and they could because we could have been born as them) — that would help us struggle against those naturally selfish tendencies to forcefully promote our desires and opinions over theirs. It would make the call to “love our neighbors as ourselves” both more obvious to secularists and more attainable for everyone. Collectively, such a fast-track to genuinely caring about our friends and our enemies would change the world.

Every person you can think of is a person, like you are. We share hopes, joys, fears and pains. If you could master the art of seeing your interlocutors as literally yourself (with the exception of a few circumstances outside of your control), would your words change? Mine often would.

Gentleness and respect,
—Russell

Family Forgiveness

Dear Russell & Friends,

A brief companion to yesterday’s reflection on how a family must sometimes fight to preserve itself and maintain integrity.  Families also don’t leave.  They don’t stop when members do painful things.  They love deeply, especially in the context of disagreement and disappointment.  That is not acquiescence to wrong.  It is the decision to love someone even if her opinion is wrong.  It is the decision to love when you just can’t like.  It is patient and kind, neither envying nor boasting.  It is not arrogant, rude, irritable or resentful.  It rejoices in truth, not wrongdoing.  It does not insist on its own way.  It bears, believes, hopes and endures and never ends.  This is the love of a family in a fight and it is so damn hard.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.  John 13:35

Even when you’re wrong family, I love you and will not leave.

Pascal – – 1:16

Family Fight

Dear Russell & Friends,

This won’t be long or profound.  There is no image I borrowed to entice you.  It is only a heartfelt response to the last week and the people I love – – my family.  My family is now nuclear after the passing of my mother this year preceded six years ago by my father’s death.  One wife and three sons.  My older brother and I are not close at all.  My sister and I love and respect each other, but are not entwined, let alone enmeshed.

This family is the family of Christ.

I call myself a follower of Christ rather than a Christian for reasons that are apparent to any who have tried to unpack the baggage of the latter term.  I want to follow the example of Christ as a man, and I acknowledge the divinity of Christ as the firstborn over creation.  Perhaps that is the litmus test for a Christian.  Is Christ divine?  ‘No’ or ‘I don’t know’ are legitimate answers held with integrity by those I consider friends.  But, for orientation, my answer is ‘yes’ and now is not the time to argue why.  It does, however, identify me as part of the family of Christianity in at least the primary color of its enormous spectrum.

If you’d like to read this post by Russell’s wife, it gets very close to my heart on this. If you choose not to read, I’ll summarize the thesis:  she is confused and disappointed by Christians who don’t welcome Syrian refugees or Muslim refugees in general.  Further:  those who don’t welcome Muslims, or [insert other human here] confuse and disappoint her.

Do I, a member of the family of Christ, share her disappointment?

I do.  Deeply so.  It is like the disappointment I felt when I first discovered why Southern Baptists were so named.  It was like the disappointment that stained my subconscious even after the apology twenty years ago for that evil stance on slavery and racism.  How could that be prospectively tolerated 170 years ago then willfully maintained for 150 years?  Didn’t my family read the scripture?  Didn’t my family think?  Didn’t we argue?  It was like the disappointment I felt after learning that Martin Luther was a rabid anti-Semite.  I thought Jesus was Jewish.  What did I miss?  How could such a brilliant theologian have such a hateful blind spot?

So, here’s the thing about a family.  We will confuse and disappoint each other.  We will hold diametrically opposing views at times ensuring that one of us is wrong.  I’ve certainly been on the wrong side of many arguments.  On this one, I’ll stick to an anchor of scripture:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Micah 6:8

Why would a follower of Christ cast out the refugee?  Why would the follower of Christ not welcome a fellow creature of God?  Why would the follower of Christ fear death from a bullet or a bomb?  I just don’t get it.  Isn’t this life to be lived to his glory with gratitude and the next life to be eagerly anticipated?

I love you family – – but you are wrong.  The brothers and sisters who want to love, want to accept, want to understand will need to disagree and even fight within the family to keep the family together.  Are we not light?  It doesn’t feel like it now.

Love,

Pascal — 1:16

Compassion for Terrorists?

Hello friends,

There is a problem in all of us. For every in-group, there is an out-group. We are each rejected by many people in some way and we likely reject others whether or not we know it, just by the nature of the identities we adhere to. Neuroscience shows that each of us subconsciously values some groups of people more and others less in some ways. The problem is, when we don’t learn about this and take real and regular action to fight against that tendency, it can lead us to dehumanize others. Unchecked it very often leads many of us to devalue some groups of humans so much that the moral laws we normally follow regarding how we treat other humans no longer apply. One key weapon that exacerbates this is propaganda. In this time of terrorism and racial divide, we all need to be vigilant. We need to examine ourselves every day with every news article, Facebook post, Tweet, comment from a friend or family member, political debate and media report. Each bit of information that comes in has the ability to shift the needle of our heart away from the humanity of a group that isn’t our own. When this goes unchecked long enough, we believe the lie that “they” aren’t as valuable as “us.” Then… death.

I’m going to ask you do something. Please, watch this video. It starts slow, but it is so good and relevant to the recent events that I’m willing to beg you to engage with these ideas. If it helps even one person realize that we’re all capable of dehumanizing and withholding normal morality towards other groups, and you and I are not exempt to this – I’ll gladly beg. Please, watch it.

That was just a clip that wasn’t very explanatory of the video. Please see the full episode called “Why Do I Need You? from David Eagleman’s series on PBS called The Brain.

I’m not writing about this solely because of the deep sorrow we now feel about what happened in Paris. A friend recently posted these links along with the statement, “It is estimated that around 100 people, many being innocent men, women, and children, die in Syria EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. What happened in France is tragic. So is the murder of ANY human.” Here’s the death toll count and a wikipedia article about the casualties. This is about human nature. And I don’t mean to universalize it. It’s about my nature. It’s about your nature. We each need to understand how you and I work and how to combat the things about us humans that lead to suffering – in us and those around us. I’m working on it as well. It’s about raising the bell curve, and we can only do that collectively – as a collective of individuals.

Compassion fatigue. That’s a term my wife used last night and I love it on so many levels. But for some groups, the phrase falls short of the deep bias that we don’t see because so many of our neighbors share it. I’ve heard about the “blue eyes–brown eyes experiment” from the video several times before and found it extremely useful for helping people visualize the injustice and irrationality of prejudice. In today’s racially divided world full of terrorism, I think we all need to consider what it means and find a way to convey that meaning to others.

Identifying with terrorists

I just saw an article saying “Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents.”

I, like many of you, am now seen by some others as a terrorist. It doesn’t matter that, in my case, my “atheism” isn’t a belief that no God exists. I much prefer weak agnostic weak atheist possibilian, with a big focus on the possibilian part. Technically, I’m as much of a theist as an atheist since much of the time I think some causal prior intelligence is as likely as no prior intelligence. Some moments I think it’s even more likely. Just owning the atheist label has marked many of us, as most labels do, with a misrepresentation of our actual views.

The last thing I want to do is write about events of suffering and pain and death. When I experience activation of the pain matrix (see the video for what the means), I’m not drawn to writing about it. I usually suffer in silence. If it’s about the loss or pain of another that I cannot affect, I want to hug my children and my wife. I want to hit the pavement, the trail, or the gym. I want to spend time in quiet contemplation, identifying and grieving with the families, those suffering in the hospital, and the families of those who caused such devastation, and yes I even offer up prayers. Where I’m drawn though, is to the terrorists themselves. Always to them. I don’t know if this is normal and I understand that many will disagree. I did not lose my child to the actions of a terrorist, so I cannot possible imagine how I would feel or judge those who default to hatred. I only know that my heart gravitates to those who are committing or have committed the atrocities. Christians may find themselves unconsciously whispering, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I identify with the notion I’ve repeated many times on this blog.

  1. We should be both humble and allow some uncertainty in our ideas about the universe and God because statistically some of our ideas must be false, especially some closely held ones since those are, on average, the least objectively examined ones.
  2. We cannot know for certain that – if we were born in someone else’s environment with their DNA (neither of which any of us have any control over) and shared their exact experiences – that we would be any different from them.

These are both relevant to everything I write on this blog as they are central to my philosophy and why I respect those who disagree. Part of my goal is to illuminate the first point (1) so that all cultures can exercise some caution and expand their understanding of the flawed reasoning that plagues us all (cognitive biases and logical fallacies).

The second point (2) is an explanation for why I respect all people, even when I do not share their conclusions or opinions. They are me. I am you. I’m not saying that things are completely deterministic. Quantum uncertainty affects some percentage of our decisions in some ways, but we are still bound up in our DNA and experiences. Everyone’s beliefs are rational and justified to them at the time. There’s another level at we each judge another’s beliefs or actions, and we form groups and collectively judge them. That is necessary for societies to function and we all understand it. The point in this post is to explain that I, personally, may disagree with you but I don’t judge your beliefs too harshly, because I can see myself in your actions and in your beliefs. I did not choose to be me and not to be you when I was born. Can you offer me the same courtesy and recognize that you could have been me? Can you do the same for the victims? My father once said that there is a fine line between being willing to die for a belief and being willing to kill for one. Can you see yourself in the beliefs and actions of terrorists, were your birth in accordance with theirs? Can you love them? And not because you feel God commands it, but because you identify with them as a human. Not a sub-human. A person… just like you.

I am certainly not advocating that we justify their actions. Because I understand someone does not mean I lay down my objections to the consequences of the beliefs and actions they impose on others. Nor would I want you do allow me to trample another. But we all already know how to hate, and rage, and seek death, and prosecute, and yearn for revenge. I know of few who will benefit from a post encourage such a response to the perpetrators of violence. That’s built into being human. I do believe we need to fight against the ideology that leads to terrorism, but terrorism is just one example of those on the other side of the bell curve. The best way to do it may not be involve being completely devoid of understanding and compassion for those engaged in the extremist beliefs (potential terrorist are one example). This post isn’t about how to hate jihadists (if you aren’t one) because that’s natural. It’s about the part we don’t often see through the rage – the subtly shifting compass needle of compassion that eventually prevents us from caring about those whose views we see as extreme.

I’ll be picking up Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism to help me understand the culture that creates beliefs that would lead to terrorism. I think if we’re serious about loving others who disagree with us then beginning to identify with the hardest-to-relate-to will move us a long way in that direction. Things like – certainty that God calls you to some beliefs and actions towards other groups, witnessing genocide of your people caused by these “other” groups, belief of a reward in the afterlife for certain faith and actions, continual “anti-other-group” propaganda poured into you from your in-group throughout life – these things and more continually reinforce that belief that the “other” group is sub-human. We could be them. I hope they can look at you and see the same of you. They may hate you, but if they only knew they could be you, and that you have reasons for you beliefs that make sense to you, if only they’d take the time to get to know you.

I disagree with terrorists, but I respect them as people just like I respect you. I don’t want them to dehumanize me, and I want to be careful not to dehumanize them. For the sake of our shared existence, and our shared humanity, I pray for them. If there’s a God listening, perhaps it may help on some level. But ultimately, I pray because it helps me synchronize my heart with theirs. Wars, and the fear of them, will rob us of our humanity as we blow past compassion fatigue and into red hatred. Our only hope is to actively and intellectually carve off the calluses that our nature secretly encases around our heart. Cling to the message of Jesus, or Buddha or the scientific rationality that our similarities outnumber or differences. Let us build on those similarities. Maybe, in time, as we try to understand one another, our similarities will diffuse the power of the ideologies that lead to human-human suffering and death.

Conclusion

As we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves, but we also dehumanize a version of us that we could have easily been (and in some real sense, a version of you that is). We are all biased against other groups in our subconscious. We can only prevent that bias from growing and resulting in dehumanization by consciously fighting against it through attempting to understand those with whom with differ. That’s the point of 1 and 2 above and the recent posts on raising the bell curve. David Eagleman’s video is immensely useful in understanding the complexities we’re talking about.

As a final effort to let this resound, I want to share a story with you that, if it were believe to be true by a society, would lead to the most moral behavior of any society I can imagine. It’s like the Veil of Ignorance but with narrative and a compelling call that echoes for long after the end of the story. It was written by Andy Weir who wrote the very excellent book that just became a blockbuster movie, The Martian…

Please read The Egg and let me know if it moves you. I may put the full contents of that story in a future post.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

A Challenge for Atheists and Believers – Will You Accept?

Hello friends,

I am inspired by Pascal. While I do not share all his strengths, I do recognize his character is an image that my best self desires to reflect. If that sounds like high-praise, it is. As an oncologist, his compassion is regularly exercised and deepened by his engagement with others in their time of suffering. He fights for them and his hope and solicitude are a bedrock in the face of their own mortality. If you’re on the fence about Pascal, please get down and embrace him. Even in his disagreement, he’s respectful because his understanding of other people and their reasoning is immense. The genetic parts of his personality have been cultivated by years of actively struggling to learn about those who differ from him – and that foresight and sacrifice is what I value so deeply.

A model to follow

A few years ago, Pascal invited my family into his home. When he found that my faith did not match his own, he invited me to breakfast. When I couldn’t afford to go, he paid for my egg and cheese burrito. When I avoided faith conversations, he waited patiently, week after week, growing a friendship over hours spent in the enthusiasm of shared interests. The bond formed quickly because he’d already taken the time to strengthen his knowledge in areas that I enjoy, and he continued to do so over time. It took months, but eventually I opened up to him about my lack of faith and he accepted me. He challenged me, he listened, and we communicated. I read some books he like, and he read some books I liked so we could understand how we each think. Through the investment of time and the effort to understand one another’s point of view – especially where we didn’t share it – we grew from our opposing poles and related to one another in a stronger way. That transition was easier to the degree that we already respected each other. He had that respect from me from the beginning, because he’s a human just like me. This blog is a continuation of some of those discussions in a way that encourages others to join in the respect we already share.

Pascal and I still meet for breakfast, but we rarely spend much time on shallow things. Our topics often meander, but they’re usually quite deep and earnest. This isn’t a recipe that will work in every situation for every set of two individuals with opposing views – but it worked for us. My point is, it wasn’t easy, but he hasn’t given up yet and I’m much better for it. His actions are the inspiration for the challenge to come. I believe that everyone needs at least one person like Pascal in their life, and needs to be a Pascal for others. Ultimate, that will raise the bell curve. So…

The challenge

1) Think of someone who disagrees with you on some world-view issue (especially if they do so strongly) and schedule a time and place to meet with them this week.

Right now, give them a phone call, voice mail, text, email, Facebook message, Tweet, or something, and let them know you want to meet over a meal in your home or at a restaurant this week or next (include some dates/times). Confirm the meeting and then leave a comment letting us know your meeting is scheduled and anything you want to discuss with us before you meet with them (don’t forget to use good judgment if it’s someone of your gender-attraction).

2) Meet with them and work on your friendship (don’t try to convert or de-convert or tackle the issue(s) you see as extreme right away).

Try to understand them and see the world through their eyes. Find some shared interests to work on for next time. Feel free to refer them to this blog (or a specific post) or any other blog or information that may lead to mutual respectful conversation. Try to talk about something deep before you leave to set that precedent. Be honest, authentic and humble with them when you do, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers and that at least some of your closely held beliefs, statistically, must be false in some way. Their position is worthy of respect because they’ve had different experiences than you. If you were born in their circumstances with their parents and environment and DNA you might believe exactly as they do. If you see their view as extreme, they probably see yours the same way, so try to get to understand theirs in the same way that you would want them to try to understand the legitimacy of your own. So try to understand their views that you think are extreme, but don’t force the topic at the first meeting if the timing isn’t right. Schedule another and another until your friendship builds the needed respect. If you’re a believer, pray for them. Also, whether you’re a believer or not, spend time thinking about how you can prioritize friendship and respect with them rather than the issue you want to understand. That will come with time.

Remember that your goal through all this is to genuinely understand your opposition by seeing the world through their eyes. Don’t count what your group says about people who think the way they do as “knowledge” about how they actually think. There are likely more straw men than true representations of your opponents arguments in the impassioned cries of your in-group, because straw men are easier to knock down. Go with an open mind and a heart that seeks to connect with the heart of a friend.

Don’t wait to respect them until what you hear what they have to say. Respect them now, because they are you in a different set of circumstances, and you are them. As they speak, listen to how your life might have been if, outside of your control, you were born in their circumstances instead of yours. Find a way to legitimize them as a person and to help them grow through your shared time and your shared humanity. Love them as yourself. It’s likely that meeting them on this level, with this heart, will bring them closer to you as well. If so, encourage them to use this model as they engage others.

3) After your first meeting, comment back here in a response to your first comment and let us know how it went. Try to set a follow-up meeting if possible and appropriate.

I’m immensely grateful that we have the ability and privilege to unite together in this blog and others to discuss theology and world-views, but if those ideas never turn into action, we’re stopping short of achieving the level of potential improvement we seek in the lives of our friends and perceived enemies. If we rise above differences and focus on humanity, and if we commit together to act in the world, we really can raise the bell curve.

I’ll start the challenge in a comment below. If anyone else joins me I’ll do something unique for them in a future post. 🙂

Have a great week!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Challenge Extremism by Raising the Bell Curve

Hi Pascal and friends!

This post is a set-up for the following one which will be a challenge to atheists, christians and everyone in between.

I often mention my desire to make the bell curve taller. Some may understand that intuitively while others may benefit from a bit of an explanation. I’ll try not to let this get too dry for too long. 🙂

A bell curve is a statistical model that can be representative of most sets of sufficient complexity and size, be it a set of heights in a population, grades on a mid-term in English class, or political ideologies. If you’ve had statistical training you’ll be thinking of standard deviations from the mean, but the specifics of that terminology are more advanced than we need for this illustration. What we’re focusing on is the ends of the curve (at the tails or the poles – “polarization”) which represent the less common entities in the set being modeled – the outliers, the extremes. When we talk about extremism, this is literally what we mean. Here’s an example of a bell curve…

bell_curve

The existence of extremes is a statistical certainty in most types of data of sufficient size. In things like height or grades, there’s little or no harm to the population as a whole due to the presence of the extremes. In things like world-views, political ideologies, or most germane to this topic, religious ideologies where a percentage of the population believes a divine agent wants them to act a certain way towards the general population – extremism can be very bad for humanity. It can quickly lead to impassioned conflict, loss of dignity, injustice, inequality, violence, war, and death. Gone are the days when the most harm a person with extreme views could do is the actions he or she could perform under his or her own power. Today we have unlocked many powers in nature (biological and atomic to name a few) that can greatly augment an extremist’s ability to affect a wide percentage of the population as their views dictate. This is one of the greatest threats to humanity today and in the foreseeable future.

But aren’t differences in opinion inevitable? Yes, but there is a difference between a disagreement and an extreme disagreement. That’s when those standard deviations from the mean are relevant. I’ll skip that and just say that some topics lead to wider bell-curves than others. Consider legalizing marijuana vs abortion rights. Also, in reality the threshold between healthy argument and extreme disagreement is often much more fuzzy when it comes to ideological issues.

So who decides what’s an “extreme view”? We each do. We believe things that, given our experience and way of reasoning, we think are most rational. Therefore, when we evaluate the beliefs of others, we tend to place ourselves in the middle of the bell curve and place their views somewhere in relationship to ours at the middle. What I see as extreme, you may not, and vice versa.

Sometimes this tendency to compare other’s beliefs to our own “right ones” leads us to place theirs at a wrong place on the curve. For example, if you’re an LGBT-equality proponent and you hear that Pascal is a Christian from the south, that may lead you to wrongly assume he’s anti-LGBT rights (thus holding a potentially extreme view in your opinion). Similarly, if you’re a believer, there may be some beliefs you think I hold that, to you, may border on extreme. If I admit that I’m an atheist you may naturally think I believe that God does not exist (I do not think that). That assumption may force you, consciously or subconsciously, to place me into an area of the bell curve concerning “how we got here” or “why we exist” that is “extreme” in your view (given Romans 1:19-21). Such cases are often the result of a misunderstanding based on the frequent reliance upon assumptions when information is lacking. Assumptions are often necessary, but we should remember to recognize assumptions and hold them in low confidence, since they can easily be false – driving a wedge between us unnecessarily.

The further tendency to draw lines around those we see as different from us in some vital way and then to view them as less (less logical, rational, moral, compassionate, educated, etc. – less fully human) is really an “us vs them” survival mechanism to help us justify using means we normally object to (e.g. hatred and/or violence) to dominate what we rationalize as a “lesser being.” Seeing others as sub-human is how we justify wars and every other injustice. There is a tool we can use to fight these tendencies, and Pascal wields it well.

So what can we do? We can follow Pascal’s example of making an effort to understand our opponents. Pascal and I have long realized and embraced the lesson from Ender’s Game that knowing your enemies makes them your enemies no more (knowledge often turns into compassion and love). I tend to think in sweeping mathematical abstractions, so I summarize all this as “making the bell curve taller” or “raising the bell curve.”

Making the bell curve taller (a buffer against extremism and a bridge to understanding and love)

raise_the_bell_curve

What does it mean to make the bell curve taller? It allows actual information directly from another person to supplant the often faulty assumptions we’ve made. It also lets people connect, relate to one another, empathize, de-propagandize, and generally care about another person, which makes them seem less extreme to you and you to them. It humanizes our opponents and breaks down the stereotypes our monkey-brain erects for our protection. It involves individuals investing time and interest into the concerns of other individuals with whom they have a fundamental disagreement, to the point that they can understand that person deeply enough that they respect them, despite their differing opinions.

The more often this happens in the society, the fewer people on average are assumed to belong (and over time, the fewer actually do belong) in the extreme ends, or tails, of the bell curve. As people see their former ideological enemies as fellow humans worthy of respect, the society begins to move in towards the mean (the center, tall part of the curve) but the number of people under the curve doesn’t change. As a results, the curve gets narrower and taller. That’s raising the bell curve (see the image I just made above).

It’s depolarizing humanity (at least the ideological extremes of humanity) to safer levels that are more conducive to peace and shared concern. It’s “bearing one another’s burdens,” “knowing them by their fruits,” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and other such commands, but it transcends religious ties.

Question

It’s likely that there are many specific ways to raise the bell curves in our respective cultures. Do you have any suggestions we can try which will unite hearts across spanning ideological distances?

I want to highlight one approach to honor Pascal’s efforts with me which led to the eventual formation of this blog. I’ll do that in the form of a direct challenge to myself and to you in my next post. Stay tuned…

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Morning Person

1200px-Ermita_de_la_Virgen_de_la_Peña,_LIC_Sierras_de_Santo_Domingo_y_Caballera,_Aniés,_Huesca,_España,_2015-01-06,_DD_08-09_PAN

Dear Russell & Friends,

As usual, I titled my post before visiting Wikimedia Commons to find an appropriate photo.  This was the photo of the day and it was perfect in every way but one.  The sun is setting.  I think and write the best before the sun rises.  I pray best while running trails or climbing stairs.

Here is the story that accompanied this image:

Sunset view of the Ermita de la Virgen de la Peña (Hermitage of the Virgin of the Rock), province of Huesca, Spain. The village of Aniés is seen on the left. The oldest parts of the sanctuary date to Roman times, while much was built in the 13th Century. The hermitage is only accessible on foot, via a steep path in the forest and through caves in the mountain.

A hermitage.  In a mountain.  Overlooking a beautiful valley.  Accessible only by foot.  Through a forest. Sigh.  I can relate to the hermit and to her temptation to allow solitude’s reign.  But a hermitage is something else.  Alone together.  Isn’t that the motto of an introverted friend?  We are so happy to see you, to listen, to radiate your warmth back to you.  We just recharge alone.  My favorite saying about love and marriage comes from Rilke as I describe my bride in his words, “the guardian of my solitude”.  I’m in the mood for quoting, so to do it justice, from Letters to a Young Poet:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

So, this morning and in my mind, I hiked that path, jogging here and there and approached that hermitage in the civil dawn.  Coffee was brewing as I arrived and I sat to a rough hewn table to eat simple bread and drink a clear, cold water.  Thirsty parchment and an old pen waited as I sat to write you.  Morning in the hermitage, awaiting the rising of the sun.

Why do I like the mornings so much?  It may be my neural wiring.  It may be the training in my profession that required long hours deep into the nights and shallow into the next mornings.  But everyone works long at times.  Some prefer to work and talk and play deep into the star dotted night.  I find night is best for sleeping and dreaming and recharging a body that is frequently depleted.  But morning!  Morning is my best time.  So that is the time I give to God, and will be the time I give to others.  Don’t run for exercise if you don’t love running.  It will never stick.  And don’t read or write in the morning unless it is your best time. You won’t have the same joy.  The internet is gleefully asynchronous and the world so small.  My dawn may very well be your dusk.  Let’s just find each other in the infinite space between, and enjoy our fellowship alone together.

Pascal – – 1:16

 

photo credit:  “Ermita de la Virgen de la Peña, LIC Sierras de Santo Domingo y Caballera, Aniés, Huesca, España, 2015-01-06, DD 08-09 PAN” by Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons