August 15, 2008

America's Deepening Cultural Divide: Implications for Atheists

The 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore thrust a new phrase into the consciousness of the American public: culture war. The media ran with this story, using maps filled with red and blue to promote the idea that our country was increasingly divided along cultural lines. Some argued that the differences were mostly urban vs. rural, and others cited differences such as education or income. But everybody seemed to agree that religion was at least relevant in the divide, and the issue was largely framed as one of values. We are now close to eight years later, and the divide seems to have deepened considerably. Americans are becoming increasingly sequestered behind walls of our own making, inhabiting very different worldviews.

To begin to understand the scope of our current divide, imagine two individuals. Tom reads The National Review and watches Fox "News." He votes Republican and attends church at least once a week. His favorite websites are Michelle Malkin's blog and WorldNetDaily. Kate reads The Nation and loves Countdown With Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. She votes Democratic and considers herself agnostic when it comes to religion. Her favorite websites are Daily Kos and Common Dreams.

Tom and Kate could live next door to each other, but their worldviews have little overlap. They each have their own circle of friends, get their news from entirely different sources, read the sort of books the other would mock, and may even perceive each other as the enemy.

It is difficult to see how this state of affairs is healthy for modern America. Psychologically, we know that humans have the tendency to seek out information which confirms their preexisting opinions. But the preference for media which confirms our biases is not the same as total immersion. What happens when we tune out all dissenting views and, in essence, live in a bubble? Can our lack of exposure cause us to miss things we should be picking up on?

It is too easy to focus on those glued to Fox "News," Rush Limbaugh, and the like, for we know that they broadcast mostly propaganda and have seen how the hate they spew can affect some of their audience. Instead, we should take up the challenge of looking at ourselves.

I do fairly well when it comes to news because I made a conscious decision to resist this tendency in setting up my RSS reader with feeds. I separate opinion sources from those that deal in facts, and I make sure to include opinion sources from both ends of the political spectrum. You see, what upsets me about Fox "News" is not that it is conservatively biased but that it pretends to be unbiased. These safeguards help to make sure I am exposed to the diverse perspectives but cannot really guarantee that I will divide my time equally among them. I do not.

With the rest of the Internet though, I don't do particularly well at making sure that I am exposed to diverse worldviews. I don't belong to Facebook; I do belong to Atheist Nexus. I do spend time reading Christian blogs and websites, but I spend less than 5% of the time doing so as I spend on those written by atheists. It is rare that I visit sites addressing religion that are neither Christian nor atheist/humanist.

My reading habits are considerably better. Despite my love of books on atheism, I would estimate that at least 60% of the books I read are authored by Christians. And then, of course, there are the people with whom I associate. Every friend and co-worker is either Christian or Jew.

How about you? Do you think that we may pay a price for submitting to our cultural divide? If so, what do we do about it?