Fear Of The Unknown

I work about an hour from my house, which sucks out loud for any number of reasons. For many months, I rode with a carpool to try to mitigate the financial and environmental downsides of the commute. I found two guys who also lived in the general area, and after some initial hurdles relating to how ridiculously early they liked to get to work in the morning, we settled into a fine little carpool.

That’s not to say it was perfect. For one thing, our compromise departure time still had me leaving the house at 6:45 a.m., which is not my favorite time of day. If that wasn’t enough, while they’re both very, very nice people, the three of us have different pain thresholds when it comes to more-or-less inane small talk before 8:00 a.m. They like football; I only follow baseball. They enjoy talking about work on the drive there and back; I want to forget about work the minute I leave the building. And so on.

The biggest difference between them and me, though, is this: they’re extremely politically and socially conservative Christian Republicans. I’m none of the above. Our carpool boasted a fundamentalist Evangelical (whom I’ll call “Mark”), an extremely observant Catholic (whom I’ll call “Dan”), and me.

Our political and religious differences really were not, on their own, a problem. I think there’s real value in confronting oneself with people who think differently. It’s healthy to talk, debate, and even argue with people who believe things that you don’t. Most of the time, I really enjoyed talking about religion, politics, and morality with people on “the other side.” I got to hone my arguments, understand the other position, and maybe even start to make inroads towards convincing them of my way of seeing things.

I wasn’t surprised to find that we had different perspectives on the war, on abortion, contraception, on stem-cell research, or on gay marriage. On the other hand, I was (perhaps naively) stunned to find that I shared a carpool with two college-educated software engineers who didn’t believe in evolution. We spent several car rides talking about evolution and I like to think that I made some small amount of headway against their knee-jerk opposition. I don’t think I changed any minds, but I might have planted the tiniest seed of doubt. I even lent Mark my copy of Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, hoping that he might get something out of it and maybe even learn a little.

A few weeks ago, Mark came by my office to say that he was dropping out of the carpool. I wasn’t heartbroken to see it come to an end. I’d been thinking about leaving the carpool myself. The opportunity to sleep an hour later in the morning was, I’m ashamed to say, worth more to me than the opportunity to save a tank of gas a week, and I had some angst about associating so closely with people who opposed what I believe to be fundamental principles of fairness. What was shocking to me was the reason he chose to leave the carpool. It wasn’t that he could no longer stand to associate with heathens such as myself; rather, he wanted to spend more time praying in the mornings, and to use the hour-long ride to and from work to work on “Scripture memorization.”

A few days later, I found my copy of Finding Darwin’s God in my mailbox at work. A year after I’d lent it to him, Mark had returned it with a post-it saying, “I didn’t quite get through it, but it was very interesting. Thanks.” I wrote him the following email: “Didn’t finish? What happened, man?” He wrote back saying that he just “didn’t have time” to finish it, but that he’d read another book instead. It was a book on “Intelligent Design,” a concept I thought we’d thoroughly dispatched with in the carpool.

I find the entire saga somewhat dismaying. It points out what I think is one of the most damaging and depressing aspects of the fundamentalist community (of any fundamentalist community) – its insularity. Mark passed up the opportunity to associate with two people with different beliefs (because let’s not forget, I might be Jewish, but Dan’s Catholic, and apparently Catholics and Protestants really don’t get along that well, theologically speaking) in favor of spending more time by himself. How many other people in his life, do you think, would argue with him about whether English should be the national language, or whether condoms lead to promiscuity, or whatever other half-thought-out opinion he holds?

About a year ago, Mark was very proud to have delivered the (hour-long) sermon at his church, and he sent the other two of us a link to his church’s website, where MP3s of each sermon could be downloaded. I confess that I didn’t actually listen to much of his particular piece, but I did look at the titles of the various “messages” from the weeks around his. At a time when the news was full of stories about the war in Iraq and torture at Abu Ghraib at Guantanamo, Mark’s church was talking about personal repentance, sexual purity, and about a deepening personal relationship with Jesus. These religious communities, of which American Evangelicals are a notable example, are failing themselves and their society by their insularity.

I don’t mean to indict all religious activity here, but I think there is something deeply irresponsible – something willfully blind – about turning so far away from the world. It is, I believe, fundamentally immoral to elevate one’s personal spiritual concerns above an awareness of what is going on in the world. An insistent, solipsistic focus on the ritualistic repetition of unchallenged beliefs, and the masturbatory pre-occupation with the familiar and internal over the external, represents an inexcusable abdication of moral, ethical, and intellectual responsibility.

It has practical consequences. There are facts about the world that these people don’t know and aren’t learning because they are reading the Bible (for the twentieth time) instead of the newspaper. They perpetuate a cycle of intolerance and ignorance because their children are educated at home, and aren’t exposed to the inevitable diversity of opinion and experience that public or private schooling provide. They put aside books that would challenge their preconceptions in favor of books that reinforce them. And they deprive themselves of the opportunity to broaden their minds by interacting with people they disagree with.

I recognize that some of these charges could be leveled at me. I talk a good game when it comes to diversity, but how much time do I really spend exposing myself to opinions I disagree with? One of the reasons I enjoyed the carpool so much was that it kept my argument “muscles” from atrophying: there are few things more stimulating than mounting a stirring defense of the right to sexual privacy, and few things more entertaining than telling a Catholic that, really, you don’t care if he thinks you’re going to Hell.

But aside from these occasional skirmishes, how often do I face thinking that’s really different from my own? I only skim conservative political blogs, and I’m not going to waste my time reading a book arguing that evolution can’t account for “irreducibly complex” biological structures and processes, or that purports to give the “politically incorrect” truth about the evils of Islam, or that claims that I, and those who agree with me, are liars, traitors, and worse.

So what’s the difference? Why do I think Mark needs to read Ken Miller while I’m excused from reading Ann Coulter? One obvious and facile answer is that Miller is right while Coulter is an idiot. Even so, my own bookshelf isn’t above rebuke: I don’t read anywhere near enough sensible conservative writing, and I should fix that. I like to that I’m a leg up on people like Mark because I have the tools to distinguish what’s worth reading from what’s not – but he’d probably claim that he has as much right to dismiss Richard Dawkins as I do to dismiss Bill Bennett.

So, am I just as blinkered and small-minded as poor Mark, whom I’m raking over the coals here? I don’t think so; a discussion of why will have to wait for the next essay.

Fear Of The Unknown