Beware This Kind of Article

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I want my progressive friends to understand how harmful this kind of headline is. I encourage you to read the article, then come back for my commentary.

If we truly believe in “neuroplasticity,” we recognize that people’s brains can and do change. While our brains are certainly more plastic as children, they continue to be malleable until we die. What, then, does it mean to say someone is “hard-wired” to be gullible? What are we being asked to believe about these conservative Christians referenced in this article?

I am more suspicious of this argument because, as a progressive Christian, I am inclined to agree with it. It gives us a science-y reason to denigrate those awful conservatives who are “hard-wired” to reject reason and believe stupid things, to fret over the way they home-school their children and teach bad science.

While I am not a neuroscientist, I am a rhetorician, and I think this is a misuse of the term “neuroplasticity” in support of an old, old argument that says religious people are taught to be gullible. “Neuroplasticity” generally refers to the way neural pathways become strengthened and the brain physically changes over time through experience. But I question why we’d be using this word instead of just “learning” or “conditioning” in this instance. Do we draw a different picture in our heads if we talk about learning instead of shaping neural pathways? Does one carry more weight or have more authority than the other? 

Now, it may be TRUE that fundamentalists are taught to be gullible, but the claim is simply not supported by the evidence in the article. That it takes effort to disbelieve something is interesting, but that is the *only* research referenced—the extrapolation to how children are taught to be gullible is not directly supported by the research cited. The word “neuroplasticity” also has nothing directly to do with the research; it is thrown in here as window-dressing.

I do think fundamentalist theology tends to encourage people to suppress their own experience and intuition, to quiet doubts and accept authority. These are points made in the article. But you can make those arguments without an MRI, and the scientific observations of brain activity in this article do not directly support the claim that conservative Christians do not develop “the neural pathways that promote healthy skepticism.” That would require a different study with different data.

I believe this is an example of people giving more credibility to lab coats because science.

If we would be less like gullible conservative fundamentalist Christians, as the author of the article suggests, we should take these assertions with a grain of salt, question the use of the phrase “hard-wired,” and be alert for confirmation bias. We already know our brains have a tendency to cherry-pick data that support our beliefs.

This is the kind of article that bots will repost to increase our dislike of our neighbors. It gives us scientific reasons to gin up our contempt and anger.

So let’s be less gullible.

A Sermon for the New Year

If you love your neighbor
as you love yourself
stop looking at your phone while you are in the car.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
because I want to live.
The cyclists and pedestrians and stray dogs
and your fellow drivers
all want to live.
We are on our way to visit grandkids
or parents
or to adopt kittens
or to give a birthday present
or to get groceries
or to interview for a job.
We are on our way to work
to earn money
to pay for a vacation
or a child’s tuition
or to pay bills
because we believe in the future
and we have hopes and dreams,
or we are on our way home
to people we love.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
because we are all worthy of love
and we all want to live.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
because God wants you to be amused
by the puffy bird on the wire
and the bobble-head on your neighbor’s dashboard,
by the misspelled sign
or by the dog with her head out of the window.
God wants you to live like that,
with your head in the wind
paying attention
enjoying the breath in your lungs
loving life in the moment.

I know you steal a look
because you are stressed
and you crave that little shot of dopamine
but it’s poison
and it’s killing us.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
yes, even while you are stopped at a traffic light
waiting for a few minutes
because if you look while you are at a traffic light,
you are practicing looking at your phone in the car—
you are building a habit
that makes it more likely
that you will look at your phone in the car.
Don’t think it’s safe
because you are stopped on the road
with people waiting behind you
when the light turns green
because someone is flying down the road
not expecting you to be stopped at a green light
because they are looking at their phone while they are in the car.

Instead, pull into a parking lot
or a curb
or a gas station,
and if you must text
or if that reply is so compelling
give it your full attention
so you can fully appreciate it
and then get back to driving
and trying not to kill people
with your one-ton hunk of metal and glass and plastic
hurtling through space.

Yes, I’ve done it.
Yes, I’ve been a distracted driver.
I am no better than anyone else.
I have failed to love my neighbor.
And I realized I was failing to love my neighbor
because I didn’t love myself enough
to stop looking at my phone in the car
and notice the world,
because I was too afraid of being bored
and alone with my thoughts
and I craved distraction
and it was a habit
and this one conversation was so important
and I just needed to check this one thing.

And it hit me: that if I want to change the world
and stop war
and oppression
and climate change
and prejudice
and greed—
that if I wanted to change the world
what I was really expecting
was for people to change their habits.
How could I expect people to change their self-destructive,
neighbor-ignoring habits,
how could I change the world
if I couldn’t even
change myself
and stop looking at my damned phone in the car.

You may think it’s presumptuous
or arrogant
or sanctimonious
to tell you what your New Year’s resolution should be,
but because it could be me on the bicycle
or walking on foot
or in the car that you don’t see
while you are looking at your screen,
because I want to live,
and because I know many of us are trying our best
to love our neighbor as ourselves
which is one of the hardest things to do:

Just stop looking at your phone while you are in the car.

I love you
and I want us to live
and I have this crazy notion
that if all of us
who are able to own mobile phones
and cars
could all agree to stop looking at our phones while we are in the car
if we could manage this basic level
of loving each other the way we love ourselves
we could probably change the world.