At times, and under the right circumstances, perhaps the bleakest and most terrifying things in the history and development and present of civilization and human thinking are prejudice and faith.
Here I’m not talking about the gentle, preconceived notions and prejudices that we all walk around with and that are a perfectly normal consequence of having any experiences at all. After all, we have to have some way of organizing our experiences, making sense of them and the world, and just plain learning. We can think of healthy prejudices as temporary placeholders along the path of continual learning. As long as we hold our prejudices — which, as I mean them, are really just evolving beliefs — lightly and without defensiveness, we are free to change or adjust them as we read, observe, live, grow and become wiser. Who among us cannot deepen our understanding of things that we think we already know much about?
And regarding faith, here I’m not talking about the gentle, tolerant practices of believers who are members of a church or temple or mosque or other institution, and who simultaneously respect the rights and choices of others. Here, I’m not talking about people who believe in one religion or god and who also celebrate the solace and joy that other people take from other religions and gods.
No, the bleakness today that I am referring to comes from observing people who hold prejudices and faiths in some sort of mental vise grip. Sure that their belief is the only correct one, and that only it can be utilized to accurately interpret and describe events, behavior, the past, present, and future, these true believers have minds that are substantially closed off to any thinking that would challenge their views.
In the United States today, we can find many examples of this fanaticism. Pick almost any topic or issue that is controversial — tax rates, the national debt, immigration, gun ownership, privacy rights and more — and you won’t have to search deeply to find shrill and uncompromising voices.