Modernity, Ambiguity..And Polarization

Back when I was in college (many years ago!), one of “the” raging intellectual arguments concerned the absolute versus relative nature of evil. We weren’t far removed from WWII and the discovery of Hitler’s “Final solution,” and “relativism” was a dirty word. Most Americans looked askance at people who suggested that different cultures might judge behaviors differently.

I haven’t encountered replays of that particular debate lately, but a recent newsletter from Pew brought it to mind. The newsletter–reporting on studies conducted by Pew’s Research Center–included the following paragraph:

About half of U.S. adults (48%) say that most things in society can be clearly divided into good and evil, while the other half (50%) say that most things in society are too complicated to be categorized this way, according to a new analysis of data from a recent Pew Research Center survey. Highly religious Americans are much more likely to see society as split between good and evil, while nonreligious people tend to see more ambiguity.

Ah–either/or. Good or evil. Right or wrong. If only the world was that simple…

Back in those youthful college days, most of us ended up by concluding that the fight between relativism and certainty was being vastly oversimplified. Although certain behaviors (genocide, for example) could undoubtedly be labeled “evil” no matter the culture, the real world confronts us daily with situations in multiple shades of gray. It might be comforting to believe in an accessible bright line that divides always good from always evil, but in the messy reality of the world we occupy, that line is often very fuzzy–and what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.”

There’s certainly wise versus unwise, wrong versus right… and then there’s good versus evil….

I still recall my first conversation with an Episcopal clergyman who later became a good friend, in which we discussed the positive and negative role of religion in helping people cope with the growing complexities of modern life, helping them navigate an increasingly complicated social and technological environment in which affixing unambiguous labels like “good” and “bad” was increasingly fraught. He saw his job as helping his congregants deal with the inevitable ambiguities of modern life–helping them ask the right questions, rather than insisting that they accept simple, pre-ordained, one-size-fits-all “right answers.”

My youngest son insists that this is the test of good versus bad religion–the good ones help you wrestle with such questions; the harmful ones insist they have the only acceptable answers….I think it’s fair to say that the growing number of “unchurched” and secular Americans is attributable in no small measure to the large number of religious denominations that  insist on acceptance of a particular, doctrinal, always-right “answer.” 

The Pew analysis does provide illumination of a fundamental (pun intended) reason for Americans’ current polarization. Whether based on religion or a semi-religious political ideology, the emotional need to categorize other humans–the need to divide an increasingly complex world into simple categories of “good” and “evil” that corresponds with “us” versus “them”–is a significant contributor to our current inability to communicate, let alone live together with at least a measure of civility and mutual respect. 

After all, if progressive policies are evil, rather than simply “unwise” or “mistaken,” then the “good” people–the Godly warriors who have affixed that label– are justified in ignoring democratic processes and the rule of law in order to counter that evil.

And as horrifying as it may seem, that’s where we are–reliving a throwback to pre-modern times, and to the religious wars the nation’s Founders they thought they were avoiding by erecting that wall of separation between church and state.

I’ve always realized that there were some folks who needed that bright line, the high degree of moral certainty that characterized simpler times–but Pew’s study found 48% of Americans endorsing that pre-modern mindset.

That explains a lot..and it doesn’t bode well for e pluribus unum.


  1. My understanding is man’s law picks up where God’s law didn’t tread.

    If humans don’t even understand morality, whether secular or not, how much respect can they have for man’s laws?

    It’s somewhat ironic that you bring up the subject of the rule of law. I am testing it this week with a lawsuit against the Communications Director for the City of Muncie. It rests with the rule of impartiality as a public servant. In doing research, I see the infringement by our local, state, and federal government on the premise of impartiality.

    It’s probable why the oligarchs are stacking the courts in their favor.

    Jeffrey Sachs refers to Washington as “sociopath central.” The former POTUS is sociopathic. If our public servants have no issue with violating moral codes and even breaking man’s laws, what do you call them?

    Is it a complicated shade of gray? 😉

  2. Great, esoteric blog today. Delving into the social mindset is like walking across loose, round stones.

    I can only offer two observations from a lifetime of seeing things from a scientist’s point of view. One, churches have done more to corrupt intellect than any other single thing. My first wife was a liberated nun who told me much of the inner “workings” and intent of the church. The church’s hierarchy was arrogant and condescending to the “flocks” but knew they needed to have the coins clinking into the collection plates. The non-Catholic Christians are also arrogant in their own ways. All churches that I’m aware of base their work on indoctrinating the children. It’s a “get ’em before they’re old enough to ask why” philosophy.

    And two, humans are still operating on an ancient brain – 200,000 years old or more. We live in constant fear. We follow the loudest voices. We chase the shiniest objects. We despise the other tribes that are not like ours. We fight other tribes who we think are trying to steal our resources. And yet, here we are, 8 billion strong still trying to figure out why we can’t govern ourselves. Never mind those 35 shooting wars over religion, dogma and resources. It’s too difficult to actually let our evolved intellect into the discussion.

    So, I think that this topic is not all that complicated IF we accept ourselves for what we truly are. We are living in enormously complex societies and times with brains that still fear the unknown, or what happens after we die. Once we accept that dichotomy of our existence, MAYBE we could make progress toward some sort of cooperative utopia where nuclear weapons and civil wars are replaced with the care of our planet and the citizens we need to fix all our past mistakes.

    Not bad for a Monday morning, eh?

  3. I see absolutism on both sides of the political and religious spectrum. We can’t be well and truly ‘woke” if we insist on applying context to history. Meanwhile, religious schools are firing people for the sin of being born gay. I’m not sure we’re safe from either side.

  4. Although I think “stage theories” of cognitive and moral development are somewhat oversimplified, I do think that the pattern they illustrate–of early stages characterized by the need for certainty, hard distinctions, and external authority versus the latter stages of increased perception of nuance and ambiguity and trust for inner judgment–is informative. I remember a doctoral dissertation that used stage theory and found that students from evangelical backgrounds did not progress through the stages during the college years as opposed to the movement their non-evangelical peers experienced. They remained in the early stages of right/wrong, good/bad, my religion is the only correct one, etc. I rely on education as the mainstay of our democracy, so this is hard news. Disruptive experiences may be called for, but so many of today’s powerful are doing their best to foil educational experiences that might challenge the status quo. I hope they don’t succeed.

  5. I’m with Vernon. Whew! On a Monday?

    Philosophy and religion is mostly all over my pay grade but I’ll just add one observation. The absolutist morality of fundamentalist Christians seems to be awfully selective – I believe that’s called moral relativism – a hallmark of secular humanism (I won’t be offended if I’m told I’m wrong).

    Ask one of these folks why the horror of slavery shouldn’t be at the foundation of teaching children about US history and they’ll say: “but it was legal then”, “they were better off as slaves than they would have been free” or “everybody owned slaves”. Similar responses to the question about indefinitely separating infants from their parents at the border: “we HAVE to send a message to these people to discourage them from coming!”.

    I don’t need to be reminded that pure evil exists – I see it on the local news all too often when a small child dies at the hands of an abusive adult. It’s like the judge who ruled on the definition of obscenity – I know it when I see it.

    Need an uplifting story in the face of evil? Watch the new movie Belfast. My wife thought it depressing. As an Irish-American I thought it was wonderful. And the musical soundtrack is all Van Morrison.

  6. Vernon, they have also done more to corrupt morals and forced their way into government using the Bible as their standard. One, churches have done more to corrupt intellect than any other single thing.”

    Lyrics from “One Tin Soldier”, theme song from the movie “Billy Jack””

    “Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
    Go ahead and cheat a friend,
    Do it in the name of heaven,
    You’ll be justified in the end.”

    Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life’s hit from “Porgy and Bess”:

    “It ain’t necessarily so,
    It ain’t necessarily so;
    The things that you’re liable
    To read in the Bible;
    It ain’t necessarily so.”

    “Civilization will not attain to its perfection till the last stone from the last church has fallen on the last priest.” Emile Zola

  7. In his wise and beautiful book, One River, Many Wells, Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, Former priest Matthew Fox opens with a quote from Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov:

    Love all Creation
    The whole and every grain of sand in it with an all embracing love.
    Love every leaf
    and every ray of light
    If you love everything , you will perceive the Divine Mystery And you will come at last, to love the whole world
    Love the plants
    Love the animals. Love everything
    If you love everything
    You will perceive the Divine Mystery
    in all things

  8. JoAnn,

    Thanks for supplementing my comments. We are kindred spirits, I’m sure. In Rebecca Costa’s compelling book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”, she points out all that we speak of here this morning.

    We can’t suffer the ignorant forever. We have to let them be, or we will endure their pain – the pain of observing utter stupidity.

    Happy New Year!

  9. e pluribus unum was in part inspired by an offshore common enemy: the evil British Empire, that united 13 colonies as one nation. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire and the demise of The Cold War, demonization of the other offshore seemed irrelevant as we claimed a self-proclaimed if not arrogant shallow victory. How can we demonize China when we wear them everyday? Did you ever wear underwear with a label made in the Soviet Union? Now we have politicians who were not even born during The Cold War. All they have ever known is the current political ideology that requires we demonize our fellow countrymen. Hmmm? Do we need another frosty Cold War to unite the colonies once again?

  10. Heather Cox Richardson writes today of the resignation of Gorbachev 30 years ago, the effect of the breakup of the USSR on the polarization of American politics.

  11. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s what our Constitution is based on and that’s enough moral clarity for me.

    To me the problem is that so many moral issues are not moral at all but merely people who believe that they have a right to impose what’s best for them on others.

    Let’s try to live in a more clear way and just not do things that way any more. We don’t have to and we don’t have a right to and honestly we don’t have much power to tell others how to live their story rather than accepting that our story is not theirs.

  12. I appreciate and echo Barbara Carlson’s entry. And I would add that there are many church members and groups diligently seeking to care for ALL people and care for the earth: seeking to follow the examples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
    Please be cautious about labels.

  13. A writer in the NY Times about a mask mandate struggle in an Oklahoma town says a lot:

    “the conflicts in America…are, in many ways, all connected as part of a deeper rupture – one that is now about the most fundamental question a society can ask itself: What does it mean to be an American? Who is in charge? And whose version of the country will prevail?

    …Social scientists who study conflict say the only way to understand it – and to begin to get out of it – is to look at the powerful currents of human emotions that are the real drivers. They include the fear of not belonging, the sting of humiliation, a sense of threat – real or perceived – and the strong pull of group behavior.”

  14. Religion, per se, is not the source of all violence nor wars. That thinking is reductionistic and dare I say, black and white. Stalin was an atheist who thought the Jews were evil. I think it is our inability to rein in the fear generated by our lizard brain that creates a lot of conflict and violence. Often that fear is couched in religous terms. And many of the so call religous wars were created by a lack of separation between religion and governments. In the past, many governments were Christian or Muslim theocracies. i.e. The king or queen was appointed by God. Just like Caesar was the gods’ chosen one.

    There are obviously many people in our country who want to simplify everything with a black and white outlook. They cannot tolerate the struggle inherent with moral ambiguity. It is a difficult struggle. I am sure that if we compared people with college educations vs those who do not have that level of education, we would find that those less educated, less exposed to complexity are more prone to an intolerance for moral ambiguity.

    Vernon and others, if you listen to the priests’ sermons at All Saints church in Pasadena, California, you will be amazed at how they speak truth to power and their willingness to speak of the struggle that people have when they face moral ambiguity. They even call God both he and she and are a very inclusive church. They also have Spanish services. They often address the social injustices of our country. They do NOT shy away from moral ambiguity.

    And then we have the shining examples of Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu. I love the way both of them addressed racial injustice . Desmond Tutu led reconciliation groups. Somehow the South Africans ended apartheid without a civil war.

    But, of course, we also have the example of the Dalai Lama who calls the Chinese his brothers even though they ran over his theocracy of Tibet.

    There are women as well i.e. Susan B Anthony, Clara Barton, Dorthea Dix, etc.

    I try to focus more on those who help me struggle with moral ambiguity and not on those whose religous rhetoric moves people to violence and/or to a paranoid Weltanschung that divides the world into good and evil.

  15. Hi, Robin. As a long-time Pasadena resident, I’ve been impressed many times by the attitudes and efforts of All Saints Episcopal…especially in their support of LGBTQ rights and of Planned Parenthood. This lifetime atheist thinks ASE is the best example of religion as it should be, rather than as it so often is!

  16. As a colleague of mine wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today: “You can be good without a God.”

  17. Today’s discussion underlines my own persistent ambiguity. Though I am not religious, I very much try to live by and with an unambiguous reality: “The wise ‘person’ stands in awe of the ineffable.”

    (An inaccurate memory of a biblical observation. Thanks in advance to one of you for supplying the accurate reference.) (Further, this version comes from the enthusiastic research of a Unitarian minister who wanted to understand the possible original intent of the original Greek.)

    Here is another quote which seems germaine to me:

    Quote from J.B. By A. MacLeish

    I heard upon his dry dung heap
    That man cry out who cannot sleep
    “If god is god he is not good
    If god is good he is not god
    Take the even, take the odd
    I would not sleep here if I could
    Except for the little green leaves in the wood
    And the wind on the water.”

    – Nickles, in J.B., A Play in Verse. By Archibald MacLeish. [The Pulitzer Prize Play, 1959] (New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1958), p. 18.

  18. Romans 2:14, 15 reads; “For when people of the nations, do not have the law, they do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them, and by their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.”

    Then we read at Hosea 4:1-3, “Hear the word of God oh people of Israel, for God has a legal case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth nor loyal love nor knowledge of God in the land. False oaths and lying and murder and stealing and adultery are widespread, and one act of bloodshed follows another act of bloodshed. This is why the land will mourn, And every inhabitant will waste away; The wild animals of the field and the birds of the heavens even the fish of the sea, will perish.”

    When the Apostle Paul, the former Saul of Tarsus, Wrote in Romans 13:5; and 1st Timothy 4:2; That man’s conduct is controlled by fear of exposure and punishment rather than a good conscience. And also, He referred to a bad conscience as one that is marked by a branding iron where the nerves are deadened and loses all sense of feeling. persons with That sort of conscience Cannot sense right or wrong.

    We were all given the right to be free moral agents, free to make our own decisions without coercion. That allows every individual to choose right or wrong, good or bad, righteousness or evil . Interestingly, the church, After Augustine, concocted predestination as a way around having to be responsible for one’s actions as a free moral agent or a person of free will. The early church And it’s leadership from Justin, Origen, and Irenaeus, refuted gnostic beliefs. They believed free will was a gift from God and Gave men the responsibility for their actions. A gift to show that man appreciates his gifts from God or as a way to show his disdain for God. Of course predestination could Excuse without the bother of conscience, those who killed and slaughtered in the name of Christianity. They could then claim that it was God’s will!

    So, one could blame organized religion and Mostly all religions on this planet, for using false representations, out of context Scriptures that mean something entirely different, AND non-scriptural dogmatic teachings, That could utterly absolve themselves of any wrongdoing. The big three religions in this country, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, All misrepresent scripture. Their understandings are warped to allow political and secular power plays. You don’t have to like religion, because religion for the most part is phony. But that doesn’t have anything to do with scripture which is the word of God. If you really are a student of the Bible, you will see, that almost every religion you come in contact with that has anything to do with the Bible, do not\will not, follow biblical dogma. Years ago I studied Islam, and Realized that some of the Islamic holy books Besides a Quran, were actually sections of the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. The Tavrat, (the Torah/Pentateuch)the Zebur, (Psalm) and the Insul, (the 5 Christian Gospel books).

    When it’s all said and done, mankind or humankind as free moral agents have manipulated scripture and manipulated lay persons and manipulated politicians and manipulated big business to go along with completely false and non-scriptural dogma. This allows them to flim flam and con Everyone. These religions have become nothing but a house of prostitution. And this house of prostitution gives those who are deceivers and conmen, murderers, liars, and criminals of every sort, a place to lay their head, a place where they feel safe. These houses have a lot of blood on their hands, and will acquire a lot more. But they will Have their day of reckoning, and it will be AW inspiring. Because those they are sleeping with are the ones that are going to destroy them.

  19. It is like our country is in its adolescence and having difficulty with becoming a grown-up, similar to the particularly religious, who need to adhere to a
    “black/white” perspective even throughout college. As Pete comments, HCR’s latest piece sheds some important light on this issue, wherein the con-
    servatives just had to find a new “enemy” after the USSR collapsed. It’s no mystery that so many of the Evangelicals have needed to see Trump as
    sent by their god, able to ignore his lifetime of grifting, and worse.
    A fellow, at the gym, yesterday, was proudly wearing a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with “TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT,” that had Trump’s picture
    enclosed in a sort of halo.

  20. I’m am continuously amazed at the compartmentalization skills required to make a statement like this, and in the midst of a discussion of the relativity of morality!

    ” You don’t have to like religion, because religion for the most part is phony. But that doesn’t have anything to do with scripture which is the word of God.”

    Tough nut to crack. Maybe torrents of very warm water?

  21. NVL … thanks for the memory to recall Archibald MacLeisch’s “J.B.”. My senior class at Abilene High chose the stage play version and I tried out for the leading role. I lost the part to my best friend who performed brilliantly to a deserved standing ovation. When I look back, it is really quite remarkable that in 1963 very conservative Abilene with an overactive censor board allowed us to perform before a full auditorium. It is an intense story and how prophetic for us so naive before we entered reality shortly after graduation. It was a gift by a courageous drama teacher ahead of his time. Great teachers rise under the most challenging authoritarian education systems knowing they are breaking new ground and dare to teach.

  22. Wow! Me thinks Sheila hit another of her frequent “home runs” in her blog post today “Modernity, Ambiguity … And Polarization”. I’ve attempted over a lifetime to be a voice within ‘faith-religious communities’ to be voice for “modernity & ambiguity” (her terms) or three “M” dynamics I’ve advocated as part of my personal grounding of religious life in “mystery, myth and metaphor”. Her description of what “her youngest son” insists is a test of good versus bad religion resonates with my life long largely anecdotal accumulated evidence. I’ve no doubt that one contributing dynamic to *polarization* in our national cultural is the percentage of U.S. residents who continue to cling to religion/communities that insist they alone have the religious “doctrinal, always-right answers”. It is a very slippery slope moving from religious to political absolutism, with little tolerance for diversity, little tolerance of “e pluribus unum.”

    Two quotes I find instructional in helping explain the current sad existential “sitz im leben” (life situation) of extreme cultural/political divide in our nation, both from William Sloane Coffin’s “Credo” (Westminster John Know Press, 2004), both on page 81.

    “The other day I read I read words of Alexander Hamilton more pertinent perhaps to our time than to his: ‘To be more safe the nations at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.’ Today our danger may lie in becoming more concerned with defense than with having things worth defending.”

    “When there’s doubt, there’s more considered faith. Likewise, when citizens doubt, patriotism becomes more informed. For Christians (I would expand ‘to participants in any enduring world religious tradition’) to render everything to Caesar–their minds, their consciences– is to become evangelical nationalists. That’s not a distortion of the gospel (another Reeves insert ‘of any enduring world religion’); that’s desertion.”

    A last observation. The American public desperately needs a much higher per cent of people who have the maturity to cope with ambiguity. Who like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey have the courage to not be seduced by The Sirens of Greek mythology to crash into either the crags of Scylla (absolute certitude) or sucked down by the whirlpool of Charybdis (absolute relativism).

    Thanks Sheila for your enduring outstanding blog – A jaundiced look at the world we live in. Your post today, Mon 27 Dec 2021: “Modernity, Ambiguity .. And Polarization” is a another ‘home run’!

  23. Ormond,
    I really don’t know what your area of expertise is, but if you would ever like to debate the issue feel free and I can give you my information.

    I don’t know if you feel you are Intellectually Superior or if you are more of a smart aleck, but the fact remains you are definitely not the All-Seeing oracle. I will say, The more I’ve been on here for the past 3 years or so, I’ve seen more people discussing my way of thinking than actually being smart alecky about it.

    And, what are morals Ormond? Where do morals come from? Where does a conscience come from? I believe we are the only life forms on this planet that have that sort of quality/ability. Where does conscious deceit come from Ormond? Not camouflage and not the ability to mimic, but to be deceitful as in injuring an individual psychologically or financially, to cause ruin, not animalistic deception used to eat someone! Deceit and deception are two different things. And in my opinion, deceit is a human quality and it’s much more nefarious.

    I thought my earlier comment was self-explanatory, but then again, maybe I’m just little more of a deep thinker. So I understand my own comments, lol!

    Or maybe I know that history shows you cannot have much faith in men because men will always eventually do the wrong thing. I acquire my faith from another source. Something that most people in this world nowadays refuse to do. I find it’s easy for folks to criticize, but even easier for them to absorb information from other like-minded individuals who cluster together in misery.

    Do you think any of the politicians or educational leaders or anyone else is going to solve what’s happening today? I can guarantee you positively they will not. There really is no guess work involved here, history doesn’t lie.

  24. Exhausting commentary. Going nowhere. It would benefit this nation more if we all went out and banged pans for five minutes each night at 7 p.m. Coordinated activity combined with physical effort disturbing the public peace could be the Exlax this nation needs.

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