Different Realities

Paradigms are sets of assumptions about the world that condition our view of reality–worldviews that preclude recognizing other possibilities. Management consultants sometimes use paradigm theory to explain the failure of businesses to adapt to changing realities. An often-cited example is the digital watch. When inventors took the concept to Swiss watchmakers, they were dismissed because "watches have mainsprings," and a Japanese industry was created.

they were dismissed because “watches have mainsprings,” and a Japanese industry was created.

I thought about paradigm theory when I read Bill Moyer’s recent speech accepting a “Global Citizen” award from Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Moyers is no Michael Moore. Not a polemicist, he is known for sober, meticulous reports on policy issues—the sort of journalism that is all too rare in the politicized world of Fox and Clear Channel.

Noting the difficulty of conveying complex issues to a general readership, Moyers addressed an “even harder challenge—to pierce the ideology that governs official policy today. One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality.”

Moyers then described the millions of Americans who believe in “the Rapture,”—a worldview based upon a particular biblical narrative. When the prophecies that constitute that worldview are fulfilled, believers will be transported to heaven while the rest of us burn. For believers in the Rapture, war with Islam in the Middle East is to be welcomed, not deplored, because it is essential to salvation. Concern for the environment is misplaced, because droughts, floods, famine and pestilence are signs of the apocalypse from which believers will be rescued.

Those of us who live in a world structured by a different paradigm—those of us who value empirical evidence, who welcome peer-reviews of our conclusions, who are leery of comprehensive doctrines and unsupported assertions—truly do not see those who populate this other America. We believe that enlightened self-interest means not leaving our grandchildren with a crushing national debt and a despoiled environment on an increasingly hostile globe. We simply cannot conceive of a self-interest that requires and welcomes apocalypse.  Because we do not comprehend this worldview, we are astonished by the election of people who are guided by it, and appalled by policies out of Washington that reflect it.  

This is not a conflict between “religion” and “secular humanism.” Deeply religious people read their holy books to require stewardship of the environment, tolerance of other beliefs, and respect for science and reason.

This is fundamentalism, and non-fundamentalists must enlarge our own paradigms in order to comprehend—let alone deal with—people who believe that jihad will be rewarded with seventy virgins or that apocalypse will bring the Rapture.