We live in a country where 80% of both Democrats and Republicans believe that the other political party “poses a threat that if not stopped will destroy America as we know it.” Lovely.
A 2020 study found that only 3.5% of voters would avoid voting for their preferred candidate if that candidate engaged in undemocratic behavior. In 2022, 72% of surveyed Republicans said that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans, and 83% of Democrats said that Republicans are more close-minded than other Americans. Political polarization is apparently increasing faster in the U.S. than in other democracies, but Americans aren’t just divided along political lines. Other aspects of identity, like religious beliefs, can spawn discord as well. In the U.S., 70% of atheists think religious organizations “do more harm than good,” but 44% of Americans still think that you must believe in God “in order to be moral and have good values.”
Most Americans agree that polarization is a problem. But what can be done about it? The Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine recently hosted a conversation between two people who have spent much of their careers engaging with many different beliefs and perspectives. A recording of the talk can be found here.
Molly Worthen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at UNC and a freelance journalist, grew up in a “secular, totally nonreligious home,” but courses she took in college made her realize that “for a huge swath of humanity, over the course of our history,” religion has helped people find meaning and community. She has explored religion extensively through her work as a historian, author, and journalist. Worthen says she has “way too risk-averse a temperament to be a full-time journalist,” but one advantage of journalism is that it provides “an excuse to ask people questions.”
Emma Green, a journalist at The New Yorker, has also covered religion in her writing and spent time engaging with people and communities who hold a wide variety of beliefs. Green believes that “the most interesting stories are often about the debates communities are having within themselves.” These debates aren’t just about religion. In communities of all kinds, people with different and often opposing beliefs navigate disagreements with their best friends, neighbors, and family members as they engage with polarizing issues and try to find ways to coexist.
The process of interviewing people with differing worldviews and beliefs can bring challenges, but both Worthen and Green have found that those challenges are not insurmountable. “If you do your homework and you really make a good-faith effort to learn where a person is coming from,” Worthen says, “they will tell you their story. They will not shut down.”
Worthen has spent time with a community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers in Alberta. It was an opportunity to make a “concerted effort to really get inside the worldview of someone very different from myself.”
Green has also spent time talking to and learning from religious communities. She published an article about Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania, which had been welcoming gay members for over a decade and had originally been “disciplined” by the Allegheny Mennonite Conference for its open acceptance of homosexuality. A decade later, the Conference gathered to determine whether the Hyattsville church should be allowed to rejoin the Conference or be removed from it altogether. (A third option, according to Green’s article, was to dissolve the Conference.) Green was struck by how the Mennonite community approached the dispute. They followed the formal “Robert’s Rules of Order,” but they also sang together in four-part harmony. The central dispute, Green says, was “about whether they could stay in community with one another.” Ultimately, the gay members were allowed to stay, though Green says that some people left the congregation in protest.
Polarization is a word we hear a lot, but why is it that we seem to have such a hard time finding common ground when it comes to important—or even seemingly unimportant—issues? Worthen points out that there seems to be a new survey every few years showing that “humans are generally impervious to evidence” that goes against our existing beliefs.
“Barraging a human with evidence doesn’t really work,” Worthen says. According to her, theologians and philosophers have long said that “we are depraved, irrational creatures, and the social science has finally caught up with that.”
This hesitancy to even consider evidence that conflicts with our existing beliefs has implications on public trust in science. Too often, “believing in science” takes on political implications.
According to Pew Research Center, only 13% of Republicans have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists, compared to 43% of Democrats. “Many people on the left think of the universities as belonging to them,” says Worthen, leading to a greater sense of trust in science. “There is a desire on the left to want science to line up” with their political views, Green agrees, but good science isn’t inherently aligned with a particular political party. Science involves uncertainty and “iterative self-correction,” Worthen says, but even acknowledging uncertainty can spawn controversy. And when science doesn’t perfectly align with someone’s political or ideological beliefs, it can make people uncomfortable. For instance, Worthen believes that “the retreating date of viability” for fetuses and better fetal imaging technology is “provoking… discomfort on the left” in conversations about abortion.
Similarly, evidence from evolutionary biology can be hard to reconcile with deeply held religious beliefs. Worthen describes an interview she did with Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard in cell and developmental biology, but he is also a Young Earth creationist who believes the earth was created by God in six days. There are “plenty of conservative Christians who understand those days as metaphors,” Worthen says, but Jeanson takes the six-day timeframe described in the Bible literally. In Worthen’s article, she says that Jeanson “dutifully studied evolutionary biology during the day and read creationist literature at night.” One thing Worthen admired in Jeanson was his willingness to be “honest about who we are”: not very open to new evidence.
“I think very few humans are anti-science,” Worthen says. “It’s more that humans are selectively pro-science.”
It isn’t just politics that can cause people to distrust science. Green points out that people who have had frustrating experiences with traditional healthcare may look for “other pathways to achieving a sense of control.” When patients know that something is wrong, and mainstream medicine fails them in some way, they may turn to alternative treatments. “That feeling of not being understood by the people who are supposed to know better than you is actually pretty common,” Green says, and it can fuel “selective distrust.”
It can be helpful, Worthen says, for a clinician to present themselves as someone trustworthy within a larger system that some patients view as “suspect.”
Distrust in public health authorities has been a recurring theme during the Covid pandemic. Green recalls interviewing an orthodox Jewish man in New York about his community’s experiences during the pandemic. Many Orthodox Jewish communities were hit hard by Covid, and Green believes it’s important to recognize that there were many factors involved. Even well-meaning health officials often lacked the language skills to speak dialects of Yiddish and other languages, and the absence of strong, pre-existing relationships with Orthodox communities made it harder to build trust in the middle of a crisis.
Worthen spoke about vaccine hesitancy. “For most of the population who has gotten the [Covid] vaccine,” she says, “it’s not because they understand the science but because they’re willing to ‘outsource’” their health decisions to public health authorities. It is “important not to lose sight of… how much this is about trust rather than understanding empirical facts.”
Finally, both speakers discussed the impacts of social media on polarization. According to Green, “information ecosystems can develop in social media and become self-contained.” While “there are a lot of people out there who are quacks who purport to be experts,” social media has also created public health “stars” who offer advice and knowledge to a social media audience. Even that, however, can have downsides. “There isn’t a lot of space for uncertainty, which is a huge part of science,” Green says.
Worthen, meanwhile, believes that “social media is one of the main assets destroying our civilization…. I would encourage everyone to delete your accounts.”
Polarization is pervasive, dangerous, and difficult to change. “As a journalist, I basically never have answers,” Green says, but maybe learning from journalists and their efforts to understand many different perspectives can at least help us begin to ask the right questions. Learning to actually listen to each other could be a good place to start.
Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025