Religion and Politics – Why are they Hot Topics in Public Discourse?

This entry is written as a response to Paul Graham’s article, “Keep your identity small.” (http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html)

Graham states that any mention of religion or politics on an online forum degenerates into a religious or political argument. Unlike other fields of expertise, people who engage in such religious or political arguments do not need to “have any particular expertise”. Instead, all they need is simply “strongly held beliefs” and “strong convictions”. Everyone seems like an expert on such topics.

He argues that the reason why people act this way is because religion and politics are part of a “person’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity.” It’s not politics or religion itself that caused the trouble. Instead, it is more a conflict of identities. Only certain topics can ruffle our feathers if it poses a challenge to our identity, and it is usually issues on religion and politics that tends to do so.

While Graham is right in picking out identity as a factor that leads to such heated debates on the Internet, I think that Graham has presented an over-simplification of the matter. Identity is not the only factor. It is a big factor, but it is not the only one.

Political and religious beliefs are very different from beliefs about who’s team is the best. Why? Because, unlike issues such as which programming language is the best, or which soccer team is the best, political and religious beliefs affect every single aspect of our lives simply because beliefs influence our perception of the world, our hopes, how we decide, and the way we act. Ultimately, all these things will affect our identity. But identity itself is not the motivating factor for such heated debates on the Internet.

Since beliefs influence our perception and understanding of the world, we look at the world out there and, in a sense, re-interpret everything according to these beliefs, very much like looking at the world through tinted lenses. And because we keep seeing things through those lenses, our experiences are coloured in a certain way, thereby meeting our expectations about what the world is. This feeds back to reaffirms our beliefs. After a while, our beliefs become strongly re-affirmed.

If you constantly look at the world with green-tinted lenses without realising it, your belief that swans are green will be re-affirmed each time you see a “green” swan. Likewise, if you believe person X is evil, everything he does will seem to have an evil motivation behind it even if he meant to do something good. In the end, you will have greater reason to believe that he is evil. Your initial belief about him has more or less condemned him as an evil person, and it will take a great deal of effort to convince you that he is not evil at all.

In the same way, because our beliefs are constantly affirmed over and over again, we feel as if we have strong reasons to believe that our beliefs are true, and very little motivation to believe that the opposing belief may be right. From our perspective, things work the way we believe it to be, and not in accordance to the other. As a result, we tend to see the other as a less rational person since, from our perspective, we are wondering why he can’t seem to see what looks so obvious to us. “Why can’t they see it this way? Is it really that difficult?” Well, the answer is yes, they do not share the same perspective, and it is difficult for them to see it that way. We are, however, often unaware of that fact.

But even if someone were to present us with very compelling reasons as to why we should give up our religious/political belief about X in favour of Y, it is still very difficult for us to be convinced.

Part of the difficulty lies in our implicit understanding that giving up belief X in favour of Y means having to give up several other things: our current perception of the world, our hopes, our dreams, our way of life, and even our personal identity which has been shaped by all these things. Too many things are at stake that we often times feel very uncomfortable (whether we realise it or not) about really sitting down to look at the truth of the matter. Sometimes, we prefer being in denial than to face the truth.

Some friends of mine have told me that this point seems a bit too far fetched. But I think it is quite reasonable. Let us consider some real life cases: (a) realising the possibility that you may be adopted, (b) discovering the possibility that your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse may be cheating on you, (c) being told that you are the cause of a major problem and not someone or some other factor. We would rather hold on to our existing beliefs because the other belief – no matter how compelling it may be – can be very terrifying because of what is at stake. This is especially so for religion. The last thing people want to hear hear (unless they are truly open, which few are), is that their religion is false, that their god doesn’t exist, or that their conception of the afterlife is wrong. What’s at stake is not just the religious items you have in your house. What’s at stake is your whole way of life – how you look at the world, what you hope for, what you work for – basically, everything including your own personal identity. For a person who is not yet ready, having one’s beliefs challenged so strongly can lead to this great big fear of a total change in one’s life.

Apart from this, other reasons why Internet debate can be so heated is the fact that we don’t like to be told that we’re wrong. Unfortunately, this is often the case in such public discourse. The content of public discourse is often very polemical, and I rarely come across content that tries to win people over by showing them the beauty and goodness of the opposing belief. Instead, people tend to be on the offensive, constantly emphasizing the negative points rather than providing positive arguments.

And what happens whenever someone tells us that we’re wrong? It’s usually the case that we become very defensive. We shut our eyes and our ears, and we refuse to listen to what’s being said, no matter how reasonable the points may be. Furthermore, when some anonymous stranger on the Internet takes the offensive and openly declares that we’re wrong, we not only go on the defensive, but we begin to form a poor perception of such a person, and people who side with him. Usually, our typical profile of someone who disagrees with us will be: An ignorant, angsty, self-righteous, and possibly an evil person who thinks that he’s right, when the reality is that he’s wrong (and stupid).

Since we rarely find people who can effectively communicate to the other side without offending them, it is often the case that in most public discourse, people simply do not listen to each other, but instead are just simply shouting at each other, pouring out information but not communicating.

I used to be one of those who engaged in such heated debates. Eventually, I stopped when I realised that nothing anyone says will get into the head of the other. It’s not that the other is a moron, but the whole conversation is so heated that nobody wants to listen anyway. Everybody is trying to prove that he or she is right, but nobody is willing to give a fair hearing. When I realised that these debates were not getting us anywhere, I realised that the approach which I (and many others) have taken are simply unproductive. With this realisation, it soon became apparent to me that most discourse on the Internet are like that too. Even if we want the discussion to be less heated and more productive, we cannot simply go on the offensive (or if attacked, go on the defensive).

Someone – it doesn’t matter who – has to be willing to listen and understand what the other has to say, and be open to him before trying to engage. That’s what communication is about – a two-way process. The usual heated debate where two sides are simply shouting at each other is not a two-way communication. Instead, they are more like two one-way monologues.

Before ending off, I would like to further address the issue of identity, since both Graham and I agree that it is a factor to such heated debates. What I would like to do though is to attempt to elaborate on how identity is a factor.

As I have mentioned earlier, our beliefs shape our perception, hopes, and actions, thereby shaping us to be who we are. But at the same time, we all start off usually uncertain about the beliefs that we have picked up. And so we go off trying to find the truth about the matter. This search usually leads us to like-minded people who share similar beliefs. Sure enough, we find more and more reasons to support our belief thanks to these people and the information which they have shared with us. This deeper understanding, as well as their friendship, affirm those particular beliefs, and we begin to identify ourselves with these people who share the same beliefs.

As such, when our shared belief is challenged, we feel as if our group of “comrades” are “under attack”. This is especially so when someone goes on the offensive against our belief (as mentioned earlier). This gives rise to what I call the “Soccer Team Syndrome”, where it ends up becoming a pointless argument over whose team is better, instead of who has the valid points.

We can all easily succumb to the “Soccer Team Syndrome”. No one is immune to it. But I think what’s important to prevent this from happening is that we need to be open. We may believe that our religion is the one true religion. But I think it is important to keep in mind that we may not have understood our religion correctly. I say this because there are more heated debates within particular religions than there are heated debates across religions.

We can never know enough about things – especially on complicated issues like religion and politics. Yet the “Soccer Team Syndrome” can deceive us with strong feelings in support of our favourite belief/team/religion/group. Sometimes, the feelings can be so strong that it makes us feel as if we know enough about the issue. Sometimes, we feel that we know enough after having received so much education from like-minded people. This is perhaps why we feel so qualified to speak on certain issues. The reality, however, is that we are ignorant about many things, but we don’t realise it simply because we don’t know that we don’t know enough.

This problem is not new. It has been around since ancient times. Socrates and Plato have complained about it a lot. People often give their opinions about issues, but few possess true knowledge. Like I said earlier, religion and politics are very complicated, and it is very tempting to look at things in a very simplified manner. It’s never so easy that X is wrong, or policy Y is bad. (Do read my article, “Are Things Really Black  and White, or are they Grey?”, for more information.) Doing so will make it easier for us to succumb to the “Soccer Team Syndrome”, since our thought process will probably go something like: “Since the issue is so simple, why are they so stupid not to see it as such?”

At the end of the day, politics and religion are touchy issues because of the many factors listed above. Our beliefs shape the way we look at the world that it is difficult for us to see how it could be otherwise and we tend to look at the opposing belief as quite implausible from our point of view. Even if we are confronted with compelling reasons to give up our beliefs, it can be difficult because of what is at stake – a change of one’s whole life and even one’s identity. But such discussions tend to become very heated because, in the first place, we don’t understand why the other person could rationally believe that opposing belief. And it’s usually the case that one side goes on the offensive and the other side returns by being defensive, thereby leading to two one-way monologues. No communication is really taking place. It is also the case that we identify ourselves with people with shared beliefs because they affirm our beliefs and give us deeper insights into it. But that can lead to a “Soccer Team Syndrome” when we feel as if our whole team is under attack when our shared belief is challenged. The strong feelings, coupled with the amount of information learnt from our “comrades” can make us feel as if we are experts qualified to particpate in the debate. However, it is important for us to be open and, most importantly, be aware that we are usually quite ignorant (which is often the case). The openness is important in ensuring communication takes place. Without it, public discourse will be, as it has usually been since ancient times, a matter of two parties shouting at each other.