, Salem, MA

June 20, 2013

Column: The problem of faith and true believers

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — 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.

With talk radio, CNN, the Internet, social media, and 24-hour news feeds providing saturation coverage, analysis, provocation, hype and emotion, there are more opportunities than ever before both to express and have reinforced one’s unyielding beliefs.

Especially on websites and blogs, the dogmatism and intolerance that can be on display are staggering. And it is especially disturbing to see that high levels of hostility and aggressiveness routinely accompany the most categorical rhetoric.

There have been other times in America’s history when divisiveness and even violence have plagued the country. During the Civil War, the Red Scare, the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, there were terrible divisions within our country and plenty of ugly beliefs.

But today’s often nasty climate is particularly distressing because many harsh speakers seem to be aware of and glorify in their obdurateness. And although America is not faced with actual civil war, our fevered speech has rendered us nearly impotent to solve extremely pressing problems — problems that require compromise — such as legislating an economic “grand bargain” or reducing CO2 emissions.

Extremes of prejudice and faith are even worse overseas. The most obvious examples are seen in countless Muslim countries where many people who subscribe to different versions of Islam are so fervent that they engage in continuous campaigns of violence against other Muslims they disagree with.

Lest you think it is only Islam that can produce murderous followers, we can see in every religion the consequences of true believing. Last month in Myanmar, Buddhist mobs carrying machetes and iron pipes attacked Muslims and torched their shops and a mosque.

For 65 years, Jews and Muslims have fought each other. The dispute over land in Palestine has its roots in dueling religions. Unreasonable minorities on each side prevent the majorities from creating peace.

The Christian religion has its fundamentalists, too. In many European countries, some of the white supremacist and anti-immigrant movements are peopled by Christians. And consider the recent Balkan war. Terrible atrocities against Muslims were committed by Serbian and Croat Christians.

Today, 300 years after the Age of Enlightenment, it can feel bizarre to observe so much fanaticism around the world. Whether the impetus for fundamentalism is nationalism, patriotism, religion, ethnicity, political position or some other factor, the resulting ugliness and tribalism is scary and dangerous. And although the extremism being acted out in some of the more isolated regions of the globe is partially understandable, what is the excuse in so many other places that have long been exposed to education, the idea of reason, modern media, and modernity — especially in the United States and Europe?

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at