Religion caught my interest long before politics did. I’m sure my own unusual religious background has a lot to do with this fascination. I’ve written about some of my experiences before. It’s a long story and tough to explain to people who don’t share a similar background, but here it goes.
I grew up in an environment where religion was not just a part of my family life, but where religious beliefs determined every aspect of our lives—everything we did and didn’t do. In the very legalistic religious group we were in, emphasis was placed on the “didn’t.” We didn’t watch TV, listen to “unclean” music, or go to public school. For women, the rules were even stricter. We didn’t cut our hair, have jobs outside the home, wear makeup, or even wear clothing that was considered immodest such as shorts, short skirts, bathing suits or even pants. Yes, you read that correctly. To give you a visual, we basically walked around looking a little bit like the characters of Little House on the Prairie. That was just the beginning of the long list of rules.
Sounding a little strange? It wasn’t to me. In fact, the world outside this religious bubble was all very strange to me throughout my early childhood. The group had a tendency to pick out small passages and obsess about their literal meaning. Corinthians II says, “come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.” Because of this, the group made a lot of effort to separate themselves from others who didn’t believe as they did.
I was taught that what was “out there” was evil and would send me straight into the fiery pits. What’s worse, religious leaders taught that even considering different beliefs was an insult to God and would make room for the devil. It’s humorous now, but not so much then. Since my parents kept me out of public school and away from television, most of my exposure to different types of lifestyles was through books. My family, the ones who are still close to me, often joke about my early obsession with books. Luckily for me, at that time my parents had no idea why books were such a fascination for me. Through them I learned about lives that were completely different from mine, people with entirely different sets of experiences and world views. Like the wardrobe into Narnia, books were my outlet to a completely different world.
My entire adult life was really defined by a haircut, which was my first concrete step to rebel against my upbringing. I was twelve or maybe thirteen when I took this bold step to distinguish myself from everyone I knew. I was shocked when my parent’s decided not to punish me. Little did I know they were already having their own issues with the group. On top of that, they knew my action would not be without consequences. They were right. My friends no longer wanted to associate with me. Even if they did, their parents wouldn’t approve.
My parents didn’t tolerate this for very long. Propelled by witnessing the treatment I received for my actions and additional controversies within the group which included the infidelity of a religious leader and other interpersonal conflicts, my parents’ stringent beliefs began to shift. Soon they stopped going to the church we had attended for my whole life and began to reassess our lifestyle. I know this was harder for them than they ever told me. After all, this meant breaking deep family ties and losing close friendships. Since the group isolated themselves, they had very few connections with people who would not reject them because of their lifestyle change. For quite a while, my parents and my three sisters only had each other. Looking back, I think this might be why my family is so close now.
The transition into a different mode of living was not a smooth one. We tried to do some catching up on the movies and music we had missed and acclimate to a completely different environment. My sisters and I were allowed to wear some of the clothing that had been forbidden, although my parents struggled with where to create new boundaries, and my youngest sister was still worried we were bound for hell. Old beliefs aren’t easily shattered.
Perhaps the most earth-shattering experience for me was getting a job. When I turned 15, I was finally able to gain a little more independence by working at a local ice cream shop, and my world really expanded. Still lacking in experience with interacting with people who did not share my background, I was painfully shy and didn’t say much. I just listened and learned.
Despite my attempts to stay under the radar and just make a few bucks, my manager took on my social awkwardness as her personal project and made every attempt to place me in uncomfortable situations. I see the humor in it now, but at the time I was mortified. It was bad enough that I lacked the frame of cultural reference shared by my peers, but now she insisted on putting the spotlight on me by asking pointed questions and pushing me to interact with people who were very different from me. Through this uncomfortable experience I gained confidence and broadened my perceptions of people.
Others wonder how my family could have believed they way they did. My parents are very intelligent people. I knew their religious experience was more complex than most people realized, but I struggled with understanding how things went so far with the group. In college, I took religious studies classes whenever I could fit them into my schedule. Studying religion not only helped me understand cultures and religions that were different from mine, it helped me understand my own family and look at them in a more understanding way. I began to notice that other people created lives around other beliefs—spiritual, philosophical, and political.
Later, when I started paying more attention to politics, I looked at it in light of my religious background and my study of religion and found parallels between political beliefs and the beliefs I was taught. These parallels became more fascinating when I took a class called Magic, Religion, and Science, which delved into the neurology of religion and belief in general. The professor told the class about people who dropped his class because they were uncomfortable or offended by these ideas. Given my background, I was not surprised this had happened. Whether the beliefs are religious or political, right or wrong, letting go of them is no easy task. My own unconventional background and the things I learned about belief have helped me realize some things that I can apply to politics. Here’s what I have learned so far.
1. Everyone is biased.
Different experiences lead to different perspectives, different perspectives lead to different perceptions of reality. One of my most valuable educational and life experiences was reading the book Born to Believe. This book helped me articulate some of the things I had perceived about beliefs and deepened my understanding of my own biases. Republicans, Democrats, and yes, even libertarians are all biased. The book lays out 27 biases that impact each person’s perceptions and beliefs. Here are some examples.
- Confirmation Bias: the tendency to unconsciously ignore information that contradicts our beliefs and emphasize information that confirms them.
- Perceptual Bias: our brain’s automatic assumption that our own perceptions and beliefs reflect objective truths.
- Perseverance Bias: The propensity to insist that a belief is true, even when contradictory evidence is presented because the beliefs become ingrained in our neural circuitry.
- Uncertainty Bias: the brain’s dislike of ambiguity and preference to eliminate uncertainty in favor of either believing or disbelieving.
- Bandwagon bias: the tendency to go along with the belief systems of any group we are involved with.
- Out-Group Bias: the rejection or disparagement of people outside our own group, particularly when their beliefs are very different.
Despite my recognition that they exist, my biases are something I must constantly strive to keep in check. I have struggled to keep my bias against religion in check by recognizing that other people have religious experiences that were not negative as mine were.
2. Interact with people who are very different from you.
This is a suggestion directly from Born to Believe. One of the main reasons the religious group I grew up in was able to maintain such extreme belief systems was by shielding themselves from “outsiders,” people who believed differently. Even though you might not intentionally separate yourself, everyone is susceptible to this Out-Group Bias to some degree. We can reduce its impact by exposing ourselves to ideas that are much different from ours.
3. Be humble.
Exposing yourself to other ideas is not going to be nearly as helpful if you go into the interaction, not to learn something new, but with the assumption that you are right, AKA the perceptual bias. When a person believes something strongly, there is a tendency to focus on talking rather than listening in an effort to convince. When both sides do this, nobody really gets heard. I like Penn Jillette’s approach to discussion with people who disagree with you. Listen at least as much as you talk. There is nothing wrong with being wrong or being uncertain. People are just people, each of us has limited knowledge and different experiences, and each of us can learn from others.
4. If something makes you uncomfortable, pay attention.
Like the students who walked out of the Magic, Religion, and Science class, it’s easy to become uncomfortable when foundational beliefs are questioned. It’s sometimes automatic to scoff and dismiss without even considering these types of ideas. However, if I had avoided the things that made me uncomfortable, I would still be in the religious group. I probably would have never gone to college or experienced the many opportunities I have enjoyed in my life.
5. Be kind.
Look on people with different beliefs with kindness. You don’t know their experiences. Although beliefs certainly have consequences that can be very negative, a belief alone does not make a person good or bad. On top of that, you only help fuel the biases of other people when you treat them unkindly, creating unnecessary dualism that perpetuates hate and misunderstanding.
I know my life is definitely an extreme example, eerily similar to The Village, with the isolation, scare tactics, and manipulation by religious leaders. However, we all have beliefs that impact the way we process information and ultimately, the way we see the world. We all tend to surround ourselves with others who share similar beliefs and build lives around those beliefs. What seems strange or even ludicrous to you could be a strongly held belief for someone else. That belief might be wrong, but yours might be too. If we can recognize the limits of our own beliefs and try to minimize our biases, we can make more progress towards solving political problems.