Inciting Incident Blog #7 – Research on Political and Religious Divisiveness

The election cycle of 2016 was a unique one among all its predecessors. A non-politician ran for President, breaking every rule in the book of political correctness and polite society, and still ended up winning despite the minority of the votes by a few million. Supporters of Donald Drumpf were particularly vicious in their “Make American Great Again!” slogan, while detractors were equally as emotionally opposed to the views brought forth by the Republican candidate, now President-elect. It’s no secret that America has been cast as polarized and tense; the country fought a Civil War over it 150 years ago, so what is it about this particular election cycle and rhetoric that increased our vigor and vitriol? Why are people so divided by controversial topics, religion, and politics? And, if we have those answers, what can we do about trying to bridge those gaps that were set ablaze with differing opinions and perspectives? This paper will demonstrate both the identities of the cause and solutions for what can be done to help the very issue of political divisiveness.

Political divisiveness and polarization are not new to discourse, even within our own country. In fact, it’s very likely that those traits were developed selectively through evolution. As evolution can be the survival and reproduction of the fittest physically, those with certain mental mindsets and intuitions could just as well be a selective trait in the modern day human society. Homo sapien is a social creature, and part of being social is forming a community. These communities range in size from small groups of nomadic bands to cities in the millions. Therefore, it stands to reason that the intuitive feeling of finding something in common with a fellow human being, while also being unified by characteristics that are different from the other goes back to the very beginning of modern human civilization.

Dr. Jonathan Haidt describes these feelings as intuitionism in his book The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.He describes how our feelings are triggered, “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments. Yet friends can do for us what we cannot for ourselves: they can challenge us, giving us reasons and arguments that sometime trigger new intuitions, thereby making it possible for us to change our minds. (Haidt 2012, p. 55)” Social experiments have been conducted show that when placed in an environment, humans are innately tribal, in that they both form communities and work together based on common goals, and also get intuitively defensive and aggressive toward other groups simultaneously.

“It now appears that warfare has been a constant feature of human life since long before agriculture and private property,” Haidt explains. “For millions of years, therefore, our ancestors faced the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions that could fend off challenges and attacks from rival groups. We are the descendants of successful tribalists, not their more individualistic cousins. (Haidt 2012, p. 163)” The reason for this is that those who were loners were much more likely to get killed by a rival tribe or a natural predator, but those who formed those coalitions and groups could withstand the attack. Our ancestors forged common bonds with each other to survive, and socialization and cooperation between groups of people became selective in an evolutionary sense. It also created tension with others who weren’t part of that group, and the groups of humans could organize against those differences in an effort to unify themselves based on commonalities.

Religion is very much the same way; it harkens back to our need to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Haidt uses the example of attending a college football game to demonstrate these effects, showing how they are unified for a common cause. They aren’t there just for the game, but they gather in similar areas beforehand, socializing and bonding. They dress in similar colors and then march to the stadium, where they collectively know what to sing, what to yell, and who to hate. “Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? Showing support for their football team may help to motivate the players, but is that the function of these behaviors? Are they done in order to achieve victory?” While that may be the conscious idea, it runs much deeper than that, and that’s where the intuitionism comes into play. “A college football game is a superb analogy for religion. From a naïve perspective, focusing only on what is most visible… college football is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally… But from a sociologically informed perspective, it is a religious rite that does just what it is supposed to do: it pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are ‘simply a part of a whole.’ (Haidt 2012, p. 287-88)

Being a part of a bigger whole, something greater than yourself, is a fundamental core of almost, if not all, religions. Since there are different religions across the board, it’s similar to Haidt’s metaphor of college football, where different tribes do battle against each other with a single, unified goal: winning the war (game). Tensions are difficult to work through in this scenario because that’s not the goal, and it’s intuitive to see the Other as the enemy. Whereas a single person might be rational in discussing alliances with someone from a different team, being part of those thousands of people taps into a completely emotional force, which is much more difficult to rationalize. Therefore, it would make sense that our views of religion are very similar.

Moral Psychology has done a great deal of research in this area so answers can be found at times of seemingly-extreme polarization, and 2016 is no exception. Sam Harris also researches this question of religious divisiveness in his book The Moral Landscape. “The question of whether religion (or anything else) might have given groups of human beings an evolutionary advantage (so-called ‘group selection’) has been widely debated. And even if tribes have occasionally been the vehicles of natural selection, and religion proved adaptive, it would remain an open question whether religion increases human fitness today… There are a wide variety of genetically entrenched human traits (e.g., out-group aggression, infidelity, superstition, etc.) that, while probably adaptive at some point in our past, may have been less than optimal even in the Pleistoscene. In a world that is growing ever more crowded and complex, many of these biologically selected traits may yet imperil us. (Harris 2010, p. 148)”

Bringing about these traits being adaptive then puts people in the position of wondering what they can do about it. After all, if it’s all emotional and not rational, doesn’t that mean that it’s natural, and therefore nothing can be done about it? Of course not. As demonstrated by Harris, it doesn’t matter if it was a selective advantage; it isn’t now, and by being aware of that, we can move past the instinct to fight anyone who might be different. It’s hard to argue that unifying against an Other without having a rational or logical reason to do so is good for society. Commenting on this social evolution, albeit while explaining a different principal, Noam Chomsky dissects this idea and questions not if it’s harmful, but how harmful it could be. “Still more remote are the fundamental questions that motivated the classical theory of mind – the creative aspect of language use, the distinction between action appropriate to situations and action caused by situations, between being ‘compelled’ to act in certain ways or ‘incited and inclined to do so.’ (Chomsky 2002, p. 61-91)” What stands to reason here is that the sociological effects of these instincts may have caused early humans to selectively develop that trait, but being at a time and age where those distinctions can be made is essential to figuring out how they can be solved.

Once it’s established that religious and political divisiveness is inherently natural, intuitive, and emotional, that brings us to practical solutions. It must, however, start not only with acknowledgement of human evolution being a scientific fact, but that it doesn’t stop. Having a past trait does not necessarily mean it will be the one that’s passed on, and if the conscious choice is made to work through this intuitiveness, then that will be the trait that transcends generations as it did for our ancestors. “We cannot step away from evolution,” Bill Nye argues in Undeniable. “Our genomes are always collecting mutations, and we are always making mate selections. Are humans preferentially mating with other humans who are tall” Blonde or not blonde? Sweet, or bitches and jerks? With all of our glamor magazines and self-help books, are we solely producing offspring who are smarter and better-looking? … I can’t help wondering if that is part of the selection effect. (Nye 2014. P. 262)”

The first step toward fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and with the great intelligence of humankind, polarization within countries and communities is a large one. Therefore, by pointing it out and acknowledging it, humans can work toward making the world less polarized by stepping back from themselves and reconsidering what their instinct tells them to do and how they emotionally react. Nye’s explanation of continuous evolution shows that it can be done, and if humans learn to react with empathy rather than defensiveness, that will become an innate trait in future humanity. Asking why one person reacted that way to something one said, rather than attacking them because they said something that’s of a different perspective, leads to learning, empathy for others, and one less fight in the world. If that can be done on an individual level, it will become a selective trait. The awareness of its existence provides the opportunity to change it, and gives people the advice to step back when they feel emotionally charged over something divisive. Once that step is taken back, empathy for another human may allow them to go beyond their first instinct and find out something about the other person, and in turn themselves, the same way enthnographic anthropologists have been doing for years. Or, as Noam Chomsky put it in his interview with me, “Become seriously engaged in things that matter (sic), ranging from research and education to organizing and activism… Which is not new. That’s how it has always been, and thanks to those who decided to care and act, over time it has often become a better world. Same in the future. (Chomsky 2016)”

Dr. Chomsky is correct in asserting that it isn’t new, as can be evidenced by writings from hundreds of years ago. In regard to religion in society, Immanuel Kant had many of the same sentiments toward religion and the application of reason. “More modern, though far less prevalent, is the contrasted optimistic belief, which indeed has gained a following solely among philosophers, and, of late, especially among those interested in education – the belief that the world steadily (though almost imperceptibly) forges in the other direction, to wit, from bad to better; at least that the predisposition to such a movement is discoverable in human nature. If this belief, however, is meant to apply to moral goodness and badness (not simply to the process of civilization), it has certainly not been deduced from experience; the history of all times cries too loudly against it. The belief, we may presume, is a well-intended assumption of the moralists, from Seneca to Rousseau, designed to encourage the sedulous cultivation of that seed of goodness which perhaps lies in us – if indeed, we can count on any such natural basis of goodness in man. We may not that since we take for granted that man is by nature sound of body (as of birth he usually is), no reason appears why, by nature, his soul should not be deemed similarly healthy and free from evil. Is not nature herself, then, inclined to lend her aid to developing in this moral predisposition in goodness? (Kant 1794, p. 370)” This writing from Kant predates Darwin’s voyage, and yet bears that all-important truth upon which we can build: we can count on the fact that humans can be inherently good, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be.

If human beings can discern that being divided by politics and/or religion is inherently bad for the future of the species, they can start working toward ways to work past those intuitive biases. Acknowledging our own and reaching out to others not only develops empathy, but makes one naturally more relativist in their mindset. In the age of nuclear weapons and instant military action, preventing mass destruction will rely upon the majority of the human race coming to the decision that everyone is equally human, and in the words of Bill Pullman in Independence Day, “we cannot be consumed by our petty differences anymore. (Independence Day, 1996)” Let’s not let it come to the end of the world before making that realization.

In summary, humans being divided by religion and politics is a product of intuitionism being a selective trait in the social being they are. With this knowledge and the ability to step back and rationalize, rhetoric and the quality of life between peoples of all different kinds can be immensely improved. Philosophers and scientists of many varying fields have come to similar conclusions about the problem, the symptoms, and at least somewhat sure of a solution. It will take a long time, it won’t be easy for many people, but working past that which was once selective is what brought the world our modern civilizations as they are. If humans can survive those, they can survive learning to recognize when they’ve acted and reacted emotionally, and compel themselves to consider alternate perspectives with empathy and relativism. Perhaps this knowledge can bring about one solitary evolutionary trait: the future human society having the social bonding power with all humans, regardless of origin, race, or any other characteristic. Humanity has the ability to accomplish this, but the question will be if they also have the willpower to do so.

Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. Personal Interview. September 30th, 2016. Email.

Chomsky, Noam. On Nature and Language, ed. Adrianna Belletti and Luiigi Rizzi. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Compilation.

Emmerich, Roland. Independence Day. 20th Century Fox. 1996. Film.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage Books. 2012. Book.

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press. 2010. Book.

Kant, Immanuel. Basic Writings of Kant. Edited and with an introduction by Allen W. Wood. Modern Library. 2001. Book.

Nye, Bill. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2014.


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