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Conservative One Way, Liberal Another?

September 22, 2016

Pew Research already confirmed what most of us suspected: There seems to be a strong connection between being religiously and politically conservative.

I wrote an article on it, referencing the study, a few weeks ago.  One important question about this fact is “WHY?” A book I recently released on Amazon, here,  brings out factors that I think go quite a ways toward the answer.  Here are a few paragraphs from the book that introduce a bit of that:

The Development of Thinking

 It is obvious to most people that stages of cognitive development have a strong influence on religious beliefs.  Is there perhaps a correlation between growing beyond a literalist view of the Bible and a natural developmental process? Almost anyone who has had a child has seen poignantly illustrated that earlier levels of cognitive development can be humorously concrete.  Yet sometimes a child’s early intuitive grasp is startling.

It didn’t take my daughter long, for example, to understand the hierarchies of authority we set up.  When she was only two, and big brother was five, one day he proposed some make-believe play: “Let’s play king and queen…. I’ll be king”.  Never wanting to be one-down to her brother, without hesitation she shot back, “I’ll be God!”

Developmental Stages and Religious Beliefs

The main lesson here is that kids cannot grasp abstract concepts well.  (In this example of my oh-so-brilliant daughter, I think her comment was astute but still concrete: God is defined as a higher authority than humans.)  Children keep abstract concepts concrete and often quite specific.  If they believe “Jesus is in my heart,” they seem to picture a tiny man literally residing inside their chest.  This changes gradually as neuron growth, education and experience allows them to understand symbols in greater complexity along with things that have no close physical parallel (like God or Spirit).   For most children the final gradual, slow transition to adult thinking begins around puberty when the brain’s hard-wiring is nearly complete.  This is the “formal operations” stage which Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget documented in his studies of cognitive development.

Just because a child matures physically does not mean he or she will automatically learn to think well in abstract terms (that is, about complex or deep things).  That depends on natural mental ability, which varies greatly, and on training in various types of thinking – being confronted with mental challenges, etc.  My experience, with many others, makes clear that we also use our reasoning powers selectively.  We often do this subconsciously.  One form is being “in denial” – not perceiving or believing something because it is too painful or undesirable.

To make what is actually complex relatively simple for a moment, I’ll say this:

The last paragraph I think explains a lot: Conservative people, religiously and politically, are probably of the same general intelligence as their more liberal fellows. But they have been trained to use their reasoning in slightly different ways, and sometimes consciously reinforced that for various social or emotional benefits.  In this way, they often have restricted the number of perspectives they can or are willing to take… a process which does make reasoning more complex and demanding, and not always with better results. But I would strongly argue that in most cases the results are better – more in line with reality, which itself often seems hopelessly complex for us humans.

What have you observed or experienced along these lines?

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