Knowing the Other

I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Sunday New York Times reporting about the need for dialogue across lines of religion and politics, and I learned a new word in the process.  T.M. Luhrmann, in How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect, shares an uncomfortable experience of her’s when her non-theism led to being pigeon-holed, and no productive conversation could follow.  “Anthropologists have a term for this racketing-up of opposition: schismogenesis…where every move by each side makes the other respond more negatively”

Hardly an unusual experience, Luhrmann continues by saying that “[t]hese days we Americans live not only with political schismogenesis, but also religious schismogenesis.”  This deep distrust of the Other, due to their not holding one of your core beliefs, is understandable and devastating at the same time.  We all feel more comfortable with those who we feel are like us.  It is important to remember, though, that whenever we meet new people, even those people who go on to be our spouses and closest friends, there is a sense of trepidation.  What we do with that feeling, and how different we think we are, at our core, from those who political and religious views differ from our own, is completely up to us.  Living in a society where the law mandates a separation of church and state, it should be possible — if not held as an ideal by all — to exist peaceably and respectfully with each other, understanding that a common humanity unites us on a deeper level than any opinions and beliefs we might have.

Like widespread opposition to gay marriage until recently, this Other-ing flows largely from not forming community with those we disagree with.  This cannot be solved through diversifying our places of worship — a sincere effort to create interfaith communities that also welcome those who do not profess any belief in religion or god is necessary.

However, for those with an active sense of empathy, a much more limited exposure to their personal Other might suffice.  We erect so many barriers between Us and Them as a matter of course that, to break down any single one may serve the function of opening our eyes to how artificial all of the barriers are.  Simply forming a close relationship with a kid from another religion, or seeking out a book club that is interfaith by design could undermine the prejudices we hold on to.  Such encounters, especially sustained over time, also tend to deepen one’s own sense of self, whether that is religiously, politically, or otherwise.

We are all witness to countless examples of schismogenesis in our lives, and a little reflection can lower the tensions in such situations.  If that does not work, introducing the new word should be a good way to divert the conversation to more peaceful ground.

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