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…
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)
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.
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,