Reading Time: 13 minutes

Parable of the ElephantEvery once in a while I write about American politics and it never fails that each time I do, at least somebody chimes in and asks why a blog otherwise devoted to unpacking the post-Christian experience would wander so egregiously off topic.
I always reply that atheism as an isolated subject doesn’t carry much appeal to me, abstracted as it is from every day life. What interests me and keeps me writing is that intersection of religion and daily life which continues to impact every facet of my existence. Remember that I live in the most religious state in the union, and virtually everyone around me is a Christian. Love for Jesus is everywhere around here, and shame on you if you don’t feel it yourself. And whatever you do, if you don’t feel it, you should never openly admit it.
But there’s more to it than just my geographical location. I’ve gotten to know enough folks now to know that my experience isn’t all that unusual for people in my country. I’m not just critiquing my own religious tradition simply because I’m an atheist living in the heart of the Bible Belt. I’m also doing it because I’m seeing a consistent pattern among so many other people’s experiences that it leads me to talk more about that intersection between atheism and everything else. In fact, that’s a pretty succinct explanation for why I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than just an atheist. It communicates more of what matters to me, once you understand the semantic difference.
That said, a train of thought occurred to me recently that helped me sort out why I continue to grow so irritated at the quality of public conversation here in this (surprisingly micromanaged) information age. I see numerous red flags gathering at both ends of the political spectrum, even though if I’m being honest I’ll admit I get more indigestion from listening to conservatives as they rationalize the actions of their own leaders who are doing the exact opposite of what they keep saying they’re going to do, excepting only those goals which were the most injurious to those who have the least. But people on the right aren’t the only ones capable of swallowing nonsense.

The Good Old Days

It started with hearing Jimmy Stewart’s voice as a hook in a song. I realized how soothing and familiar it was to hear it, and it occurred to me how much he has come to symbolize a simpler time. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anybody trash Jimmy Stewart because, not only was the man both a successful Hollywood big shot and a Nice Guy to boot, he was also a war hero who left his successful acting career to put his life on the line to serve our country in the Second World War.
Back then a lot of successful people left their careers to help in one way or another to fight a war that just about everyone had decided was worth fighting. Our enemies seemed more obvious then, and you didn’t see a whole lot of people protesting our involvement in that violent campaign. It’s not that they didn’t exist, it’s just that they were so much in the minority that you never even hear about any of them today. Their protests had more to do with how we were handling things than whether or not we should be fighting in the first place.
I thought next about how I don’t see that kind of sacrifice happening as much anymore, particularly among Hollywood actors. Sure, there are lots of men and women on the big screen who used to wear a uniform, and I feel like they get mad respect for laying their lives on the line the way men and women in our armed forces do. But you don’t see many these days who make it big in show business only to leave it behind to fight in a war, draft or no draft.
As a Southern man raised and educated to be a conservative, my gut reaction at first is to be disappointed in the loss of intestinal fortitude among the young folks these days (git off my lawn). But then I stop to ask myself why celebrities stopped doing that, and I remember how much we have learned as a country in the last century.
See, back when Jimmy Stewart took flight over Nazi Germany, we were fighting back aggressive empires and looking out for the underdogs while we ourselves were still the new kids on the block. But things changed after that, and in time we seem to have developed a different national characteristic which changed that entire dynamic.
Somewhere between Korea and Vietnam, our country forayed into the nation-building business, which is a benign way of saying that we decided our way of life should be everybody’s way of life. Funny, after all that work we did in the beginning NOT to be like our parent country, England, the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree after all. We ourselves became the new empire.

The New Empire

The craziest thing is how many young people came back from fighting those later wars to tell us that they weren’t really about what we were told they were about.
Whether or not you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s recent movie The Post (starring Tom Hanks, who is arguably the Jimmy Stewart of our day) you may already be familiar with the notion that we took and lost all those lives in Southeast Asia simply to protect our global reputation, to save face. We didn’t want to look like losers, because you can’t very well convince people to adopt your way of life if you’re not widely admired. Or if not admired, then at least feared.
An entire generation of young people burned their draft cards and refused to fight in that war only to grow up later to vote for and then re-elect a man who unilaterally decided to invade a country which, although ruled over by a murderous despot, had not demonstrated active aggression toward us as a country. That’s largely why the United Nations wouldn’t throw in their lot with us when we invaded Iraq.
During that unprompted campaign, I remember President Bush (the second) announcing that “Freedom is on the march,” assuring the world that they shouldn’t fear because America is here to spread our own priorities abroad, no matter what the cultural soil we find in place when we get there. Freedom is on the march? Am I the only one who saw something Orwellian about that sentence?
This was a war in which we were the aggressor, hastily invading a sovereign country based on unverified intelligence from another country which now those same aging voters believe we cannot trust for information—at least not so long as it’s about people we like.
So why don’t the white-haired folks see their inconsistency? What happened to the age-old American tradition wherein one can be both a patriot and a watchful critic of those who lead us? I can understand why that critical impulse atrophied during the days when we were the ones fighting back the forces of empire.
But now we ourselves have become the colonists. We are the ones who believe that everyone would be better off if they would just let us come in and show them how it’s done. We’re the best, you see. We want to be winners. We feel we deserve that.

The Short Memory of Successful People

And then it finally dawned on me: That’s what fundamentally changed: we went from being the have-nots to being the haves, and that seems to be true whether you measure success in wealth or prestige or political and military power. That’s what changed about us as a country, and it’s also what changed in the personal lives of the individuals who seem to have forgotten everything they’ve ever learned about politicians.
To be sure, the people who consider it patriotic to dictate how others express their own patriotism feel embattled by the cacophony of cultures impinging on their former cultural hegemony. But the truth they don’t seem to see is that they themselves are now the ones enjoying the greatest benefits of The Way Things Are, which totally explains why they’re against New Things Happening. There is a reason why people in this camp are called “conservatives.” The name suits them in more ways than one.
People who have it better don’t want to see things change. They may even strongly prefer The Way Things Were once upon a time. In fact, it appears they are willing to put up with an awful lot of misbehavior so long as the people engaging in it are helping to bring back a way of life that better suited these people’s interests. They want to see America “made great again” which means giving them back the upper hand they once enjoyed, and now sorely miss.
But supporting the people they now support requires forgetting huge chunks of their own history. Maybe they were just too damned high to remember all the stuff they saw and heard. Like the old quip says, if you can remember the sixties, you probably weren’t there. Or maybe old age has done what it does to many people’s memories, bringing the earliest memories back into crystal clear focus even while blurring or erasing the many decades in between. Maybe that’s why they’re all pining for the 40s and the 50s and have forgotten the 60s and 70s almost entirely.

These People Aren’t Stupid

I suspect, however, that there may be another dynamic at work, here. These people who used to understand that it pays to be suspicious of those who govern us have turned not one but two blind eyes toward the mushroom clouds of smoke currently billowing out of the halls of power. It makes me wonder if they can even remember how to question anything?
People like me who don’t feel the benefits of The Way Things Are (I’m an atheist in Mississippi, and a school teacher in a state hellbent on defunding public education) probably find it easy to villainize those on the opposite end of the political spectrum because we cannot understand how they can see the world the way they do. To us, they appear to be either incredibly stupid and gullible or else completely aware of what’s going on and utterly heartless.
But hold on a second. I don’t think it’s that simple. I live around enough intelligent, well-educated (and well-meaning) conservatives to know some of the reasoning for the views they maintain and I know that they have substantive reasons for thinking the way they do. For example, I come from a medical family, and anyone who practices medicine knows first-hand how ridiculously inefficient our government can be when dealing with the daily needs of the general populace. In time it’s all too easy to make the government out to be the bad guy. I can understand why so many people want to see less government intrusion, not more (unless it involves sex of course, at which point they want to see the government dictating everything we do because religion).
I’ve observed first-hand how easy it becomes for people on the political Left to decide that people on the Right are just too stupid, too gullible to see the way the world is. And as a person who loves and knows a whoooole lot of conservatives, I’ve also observed how easily and similarly they have concluded that people on the Left are too stupid, too gullible to see the way the world is. It reminds me of a brilliant scene from the movie Babe where the narrator says:

Narrator: Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and no one would ever persuade her otherwise.
Fly: “Please, please…would you be…so kind as to tell me…what happened? Quiet! Please…tell me…what happened this morning!”
Narrator: The sheep spoke very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and nothing would convince them otherwise…

I would submit to you that the real problem isn’t just about which side of the spectrum is more stupid, more gullible, or more deeply duped. It’s more about the way information is disseminated in our current phase of the Information Age. If I could alter a common phrase, I would rather term this The Misinformation Age wherein we honestly admit that misinformation is just as powerful, and travels just as fast if not even faster, than information.

“A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can even tie its shoelaces.” –not Mark Twain

The real problem isn’t stupidity, or a lack of education. Most of the conservatives I know possess as much or more education as I do, and I have a post-graduate degree myself. No, the real problem is that the dissemination of information has become so skillfully manipulated and controlled by people, organizations, governments, and corporate interests ($$$) that even the smartest people are being taken in by the power of the echo chamber.

Living in Separate Realities

People where I live are increasingly inhabiting mutually exclusive epistemic enclosures in which separate sets of facts and separate maps of reality cohere internally and make sense of the way things are. Each socially-constructed reality bubble is self-contained, with all its internal information systems corroborating each other to reinforce the same consistent view of the world. And of course all those people in the other bubble are completely wrong and stupid, just like they are saying about you and your bubble.
What scares me most about this (other than the power of large groups of gullible people in determining public policy) is how pliable these masses can be without them ever discovering that they are being led at all. People in these epistemic enclosures are certain they know all the relevant facts and that they are making their own decisions of their own free wills.
But the reality is that we are mostly serving as pawns in a vast game of human chess between competing forces for finanical profit and political power, and they are using our own social media against us in order to keep us under control. We never even see the strings that move our own arms, and that’s what makes this game so very dangerous. We are like sentient puppets who think we are free to do as we please.
Raised to be a conservative myself, I was taught that the national government should be kept small so that people will remain free. But the federal government isn’t the only oppressive force we have to watch out for. Those corporate interests which measure all things by their ability to generate capital do not care about your life as an individual no matter how pretty their smile or how inviting their advertisements. Who will check their power to control what we see?
We have learned too well how to be obedient consumers of our surrounding cultures that I wonder if we are really free at all?
And if we are indeed bound to forces we don’t really see because they work underneath the digital structures that guide our thinking, what can we do to escape them? How can we best expose their aims and interests so that we can become more self-aware consumers of our own culture?
I suppose this is where balance and moderation come in handy, reminding us that both government and the free market need to be strong enough to keep each other in check because each one, if not watched like a hawk, will try to destroy the other and enslave us all for their own self-serving benefits.

Not Everything Goes Back to Religion

In midst of this, some people keep waving their arms and shouting that all we really need to write about and think about is how too many people are still religious. Forgive me, but I fail to see how getting over religion is the end-all-be-all of the human race. And believe me, I would love as much as the next “freethinker” to see credulity demoted as a virtue, but I really don’t think religion is the only thing we have to fight or fear.
Religion is only one single handle by which the powerful can control the masses (I’ll be writing about that next, in fact, attempting to explain how the late Billy Graham came to personify the interdependence of politics and religion). And with all due respect to Professor Marx, I believe we have to be very careful not to fall too quickly into thinking our own class’s perspective is the only one that’s worth anything. People in that ancient elephant analogy really did discover different parts of the same animal, and it did them no good to insist the others were all wrong about what they were feeling.
What the people in that parable needed most was to communicate better. They needed to consider the possibility that the others were grasping aspects of the same thing which, if they would only put their heads together, they could easily compile together into a more coherent explanation.
But people are cocky, and we tend to think whatever new thing we’ve learned is the final stage of discovery in whatever subject we are considering. I’m not exactly sure why we’re so much this way, but we are. And we would do ourselves a world of good if we could only learn to consider that people in those other bubbles may have some aspect of the truth to share with us. But that would require learning to respect people who are very different from you, and who wants to do that?
Nor does it help that the people who have the gold make the rules. Which brings us to an even deeper problem than the one we have surrounding our miscommunications. Even when they are exposed to the information they need to better understand the world around them, they only internalize and remember the parts that support their own interests and they conveniently forget the rest. That’s how our memories work. And it keeps things perpetually going the way they are going until something finally snaps and we all make a mess of things.
Maybe Marx is right and those messes are inescapable. Maybe from time to time the only way to bring any justice in the world is periodically for the have-nots to rise up against the haves and make them release their death grip on the amount of money and power that would make more sense in the hands of far more people. I would love to see a better solution than that, one which sheds less blood and destroys fewer helpful institutions.

Bigger Problems to Solve

But in the meantime, you’re going to see those of us who actually have eyes and who care about the world making sense writing about other things besides just atheism. I mean I can’t even imagine what it would be like for my only care in the world to center around the separation of church and state. That must be nice.
To be sure, I want to see religious neutrality restored to the republic as much as anyone else. I could tell you stories about things I’ve seen that would make you sick to your stomach. But I also know what it’s like to have bigger problems than state sponsored prayer breakfasts or nativity scenes on government lawns.
For example, I’ve spent the last week teaching six classrooms full of inner city teenagers in near 80 degree heat with no functioning air conditioning. They’re taking the ACT during school hours this week because many of them either can’t afford to pay for the test themselves or they can’t even figure out a way to get to the testing location on the Saturdays on which it is ordinarily offered. Most of them probably didn’t even have any breakfast before they got here, and they probably don’t have any money to buy lunch when that time comes, either.
These kids don’t care if the church oversteps its responsibilities into civic government. Hell, they probably get more help from churches than they do from anything or anyone else. And until I see people around me accomplishing more for them than these churches are accomplishing, I’m not going to be willing to place the blame for all of our national ills on the buildings with the crosses on top of them. It’s just not that simple.
I’m more worried about the hidden strings being pulled by people and groups with so much power that they can buy legislators from both sides of the aisle, leaving us with the illusion that we have some control over what happens to our world when really it’s all just a game, and we the unwitting pawns. In particular I’m most concerned at the moment by those groups possessing the power to control what we even see in our social media spaces because that allows them to control the public conversation itself.
So what are we going to do about this? How do we burst these little bubbles in which we live so that people can at least be exposed to what’s happening right under their noses? I suspect some kind of government involvement must be necessary (because corporate interests will not police themselves, don’t be daft). But I am open to suggestion. What can we do?
[Image Source:]

Avatar photo

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...