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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 2, Part 3: Conversion ≠ Coexistence

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves, others, and support peace and non-violence.)


There is no universally agreed upon meaning to my existence. If there is a meaning, I cannot be certain of what it is. I will take full responsibility for the consequences of choosing to assign a meaning to my own existence. I will never assign nor compel others to assign a meaning to their own existence.


With meaning being so inappropriately used and applied, the dangers of meaning may outweigh any benefit. In fact, the benefits are difficult to find. Meaning is often linked to purpose, as if finding or determining a meaning of one’s life will define a purpose for our existence and activity. This would, in turn, give us ideas about how to behave and to how to spend our time and resources. We may try to use meaning as a guide for our own behavior and for the behaviors of others, to prohibit those that are dangerous or undesirable to other individuals or society, or to promote those that might benefit individuals or groups at large – thus values. Values (or meaning) can be utilized as a claim on the behavior of individuals and then society, such that it becomes a tool in social engineering, but is therefore ripe for exploitation and manipulation.


Entities that ascribe meaning most often attempt exclusivity, as if to say, “if my meaning is correct then your meaning is wrong.” Too often, great effort is extended to correct the misconceptions of those unfortunate enough to have discovered “incorrect” meanings. This may be through evangelical zeal, which is often insecurity masquerading as altruism, or through force: extermination, punishment, coercion, with the result being that the individual or institution reinforces its own existence by defining itself as the authority with a mission. The justification for the authority and the mission is a presumed meaning.


Another part of the problem is that meaning can lead to instability, just as it might safety and status quo. Meaning and judgments are the common justifications for revolution. Of course, we do not all agree on meaning, values or proper behaviors and individuals and societies change ideas and ideals over time. Were all people, institutions and governments to universally agree on meaning and values, obviously there would be no conflict, except possibly from those people who are ill or impaired mentally. If these universally accepted meanings and values promoted peace, there would be peace; if war, then war.

Recent research has shown that there may be a biological or even genetic basis for conservative and liberal political philosophy. Douglas Oxley and Kevin Smith, political scientists of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and their colleagues published data showing individuals holding strong and fixed conservative or liberal political philosophies demonstrated differing and predictable physiological responses to threatening stimuli.[1] Those favoring defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War were described as having a “protecting the clan” mentality. They also showed measurably stronger physiological responses to disturbing images or sudden noises than those more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control. Family and twin studies have revealed strong genetic influences both for liberal-versus-conservative views and for people's sensitivity to threat. Oxley, Smith and colleagues speculate that the correlation could have something to do with the patterns of neural activity surrounding the amygdala, the seat of fear in the brain.


Further research on this topic has been variable[2], but the preponderance appears to indicate neurobiological circuitry underlying an individual’s political ideology.[3] Our minds are not, as Steven Pinker has so deftly explained, a “blank slate.”[4] If this is confirmed and further elucidated, it will be an excellent example of how conversion, be it political, religious, moral, or otherwise, is not likely on a large scale. Some individuals may be influenced, but it is unlikely this hard wiring will be erased simply by appeal or coercion, (though some disease states have evidenced ideological changes[3]). Biological determination of different beliefs or attitudes will be distributed throughout populations. Most people who have had and raised more than one child can attest to the research findings of Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess that we are each born with a different temperament that is biologically determined and stays with us into adulthood.[5] The temperaments they described appear to be stable throughout the lifespan and across cultures.


Humans are also not the rational actors believe ourselves to be. Classical economic theory, which assumed fixed rational behavior by each individual in an economy, has now been criticized roundly for several decades by a new wave of researchers who demonstrate how irrational our market economies truly are. Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute, relying on advances in cognitive science, describes how economists need to rely on computation of equilibriums that may exist of heterogeneous beliefs in order to develop their solutions[6]. He refers to an ecology of beliefs that remain open ended and fluid and only occasionally develop equilibrium.


If rational or even emotional appeals have little, if any, impact on human decision making and therefore how we behave towards each other, then centuries, even millennia of evangelical efforts to convert other populations to a society or group’s belief are doomed to failure and should offer no justification for violence or mistreatment. Many historians consider that the Thirty Years’ War, which began as a battle between Christian Protestant and Catholic states in Europe to control the religious message to be tolerated within their boundaries, devolved into even greater xenophobia and mistrust among religious peoples on the continent.[7]


Christian missionaries, revolutionary communist theorists, peace and environmental activists, Right to Life and Pro-Choice proponents obviously have never fully succeeded in their mission to win over the world to their single world view. The Jehovah’s Witnesses religion reports the most hours of proselytizing of any cult or religion. In 2007 it reported a peak of over 1.8 billion hours of active preaching from 6.8 million publishers (members that preach) and yet its growth rate has declined from 8% in the middle 1970s to 2-3% annually since 1999. In 2020, the group reported 1.6 billion hours from 8.7 million publishers, with a 0.6% decline in membership.[8]


Even the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church), which settled and developed the State of Utah, cannot maintain its majority locally, despite a rapid rate of growth world-wide. In 1880 there were around 160,000 Latter Day Saints, and sixty more years (1940) would pass until the Church surpassed the million-member mark. But only 40 years later - 1980 - that number soared to over 4.5 million and the Church by 1999 listed just over 10 million members. This increase in numbers occurred as it spread to parts of our planet that had not yet been exposed to its message.


LDS fails to convert a majority, however, even in Salt Lake City, Utah, its home base. Founded in 1847, by 1870 90% of the city’s inhabitants were Mormon, a percentage that fell to 50% by 1890 and has remained similarly low since. Church records in 2018 listed membership at 49% of the 1.1 million residents in Salt Lake County.[9]


Data from Utah Office of Planning and Budget, based on membership data provided by the Church of LDS, shows that the population of LDS members in the State of Utah recently dropped to 62% and, if the trend continues, will be a minority by 2030.21,[10] While the Utah data can be partially explained by the mobility of our society, it demonstrates that new arrivals are not willing to convert in significant numbers, despite aggressive efforts by LDS churches; LDS and mainstream religions are expressing concern about retaining new members.


Groups often show an increase in devotees while they are spreading their message to new parts of the population, as a segment of each subpopulation will accept the values or belief of each philosophy, religion, political or values system. The Communist Party USA listed 66,000 members in 1939 and peaked at 85,000 just prior to World War II, but presently has around 5000 members, after dropping to around 2000 in the last decade[11],[12].


Conversion, once seen as the answer to a good, homogenous and safe society, will fail and therefore never result in peaceful coexistence. People are and will remain different. Possibly we are hard wired to be so, but even if not, human history is proof that we will never all agree on anything. The problem is not that the message is not getting through, justifying increased efforts at promotion, but that the message will not always be accepted. Rather than trying harder to convert, by encouragement or coercion, we must learn that any population or society will always remain pluralistic and that peaceful coexistence can only be achieved by finding ways to accept and live with those who belief differently from ourselves. We can work towards managing our societies in ways that allow for, if not respect, different beliefs and values and behaviors.


Group affiliation, after all, may help with identity formation but is contentious and can work against coexistence unless it reaches a limit. Much more is required than merely recognizing and celebrating diversity, even our own. In fact, early studies have shown that poorly managed efforts to force diversity in society have either had no measurable effect or led to more fear, separatism, resentment and helplessness rather than less.[13] These (and other[14]) researchers point out that cognitive change must precede behavioral change that may then lead to organizational change.


More than seeking to only encourage diversity, we also need to push for individuals to take responsibility for any meanings they ascribe, viewing them as idiosyncratic rather than truth. We may enjoy our own beliefs without insisting they be universal. If we become aware that these beliefs may have biological roots honed by natural selection, as much as developed through rational (read “correct”) thought, it becomes easier to trust that the beliefs of others may be less threatening to us. If each can view himself in true perspective, each will be less likely to fearfully pressure another to become like him, even if there is a biological predisposition. Like the patient with PTSD, we can recognize that not all stimuli are true threats.


Brian Skyrms in Evolution of the Social Contract[15] discusses how evolutionary dynamics, rather than the dynamics of simple rational choice, leads to stable degrees of cooperation or the lack of it in societies. He further draws upon the work of other game theorists to demonstrate that in computer models of societies, signaling strategies will always develop from evolutionary dynamics and that they will repeatedly win over strategies that attempt to disrupt them, though a few of these other strategies may persist in minority. These signaling strategies are early models for the development of meaning. What seems to carry them into successful equilibrium is correlation – rather than people randomly interacting with each other, people interact mostly within groups made up of others most like themselves. Each member of a group is likely to interact with others using similar strategies. Therefore, these strategies are likely to rise to dominance in the population.


Even more telling, however, is the finding of these researchers that while it seems certain that some signaling strategy or meaning will always develop and become dominant in societies where like individuals interact mostly with like individuals, exactly which meaning or signaling strategy will prevail is determined by evolutionary dynamics: completely determined by chance, not by its inherent nature or correctness. The final equilibrium results from the breaking of symmetry, which itself is influenced by very small initial differences or influences that become magnified, as we see in Chaos Theory[16]. The content of the meaning is irrelevant to its success or failure in the society. One may win in one setting, and another in an alternate one, given unpredictable minor influences.


The concept of voting even distorts our value of meaning. Our rational society, developed in the Age of Enlightenment, is based on the concept that rational thought, analysis and discussion will lead to the correct or best answer to a problem, be it government action or the guilt of an accused. Our court systems are, therefore, often adversarial. Two competing sides argue rationally to a group of peers or judges in the belief that the correct, rational answer will be duly arrived at. Honest trial attorneys (and DNA evidence) can tell you this is a fallacy. Political campaigns and their followers often hark the mantra of “focusing on the issues” in the belief that a rational debate about political choices will inspire the populace to vote for the rationally best candidate and therefore solutions. Most citizens realize how many other more important factors result in winning an election, most of them unconscious to the individual voter.


Democratic societies, of course, do try to achieve a goal of peaceful and stable coexistence by granting some political power to minority views, which, we also see from these models, may persist in numbers not large enough to shift society at large. In the United States, the political system is often polarized into two major political parties, with only lip service given to other parties. Citizens in a democratic society believe that we must keep trying ideas until the correct one is found. This is a misconception, supported by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of a sovereign general will of the people, leading to a common good.[17]

Voters are asked to operationalize their beliefs by exerting their personal will or preference to be acted out by the mass society. We therefore develop the sense that we have the right to control the mass through our vote and seek to “stuff the ballot box” by convincing others to vote similarly. Tolerance towards those who would vote differently and interrupt the prosecution of our will, becoming perceived threats to us, then plummets in the run up to and in the aftermath of an election. Parliamentary governments seem more able to accept a variety of views that share coalition power, but even then, this is seen as a grudging compromise rather than the solution itself. It is this sharing process, not the content in debate, that is the solution.


Democracy alone does not lead to peace: just having a say is not always satisfaction enough. The right to vote so-called rationally will pacify some and fail to sooth others. We have seen, after all, that it is not these rational choices but natural selection and chance that favor the success of any meaning and the subsequent stable equilibrium or peace in a society.


Peace, therefore, does not come from compelling everyone to believe the same thing. It comes from treating each other similarly and getting along when we don’t agree. This then leads to the development of societies that do eventually share similar meanings. These shared values or meanings are the result, not the means. It is the interactions with each other that are the means.


We must seek to cooperate, rather than convert. If we can share and treat others as we want to be treated ourselves, then conversion is not even necessary and can cease to be a ready vehicle for evil. Then we can coexist peacefully and enhance our chances of survival.


There is no universally agreed upon meaning to my existence. If there is a meaning, I cannot be certain of what it is. I will take full responsibility for the consequences of choosing to assign a meaning to my own existence. I will never assign nor compel others to assign a meaning to their own existence.

[1] Douglas Oxley, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford, et al. “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits,” Science, Vol. 321, Issue 5896(Sept 19, 2008): 1667-1670. DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627 [2] Bert N. Bakker, Gijs Schumacher, Claire Gothreau, and Kevin Arceneaux, “Conservatives and liberals have similar physiological responses to threats,” Nat Hum Behav 4 (2020): 613–621. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0823-z [3] Mario F. Mendez, “A Neurology of the Conservative-Liberal Dimension of Political Ideology,” Neurobiology 29, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 86-94. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.neuropsych.16030051 [4] Steven Pinker, Blank Slate (New York: Viking, 2002/2016) [5] Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, Temperament in Clinical Practice (New York: Guilford Press, 1986) [6] Brian Arthur, “Cognition: the Black Box of Economics,” in The Complexity Vision and the Teaching of Economics, ed. David Colander (Northampton, Mass: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2000) [7] “Thirty Years’ War,” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, last updated August 21, 2018, accessed August 12, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/thirty-years-war [8] “2020 Service Year Report of Jehovah’s Witnesses Worldwide,” Jehovah’s Witnesses, accessed August 12, 2021, https://www.jw.org/en/library/books/2020-service-year-report/2020-grand-totals/ [9] “Mormons now a minority in Utah’s biggest county, new figures show,” Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2018, accessed August 10, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-utah-salt-lake-mormons-20181215-story.html [10] Matt Canham, “Mormon portion of Utah population steadily shrinking,” The Salt Lake Tribune, last updated 06/22/2006 04:04:57 PM MDT. [11] “Communist Party of the United States of America,” Britannica, accessed August 10, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Communist-Party-of-the-United-States-of-America [12] Sergio Alejandro Gómez, “Communist Party membership numbers climbing in the Trump era,” People’s World, April 19, 2017, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/communist-party-membership-numbers-climbing-in-the-trump-era/ [13] Colette Cavaleros, Li Van Vuuren, and Delene Vissero, “The Effectiveness of a Diversity Awareness Training Programme,” SA Journal of Industrial Psychology 28(3), 2002. [14] Edward H. Chang, Katherine L. Milkman, and Dena M. Gromet, et al., “The mixed effects of online diversity training,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116, no. 16 (April 2019): 7778-7783. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816076116 [15] Brian Skyrms, Evolution of the Social Contract, First Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996) [16] James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987) [17] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and The Discourses, trans. G.D.H. Cole (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)

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