Coffee & WisdomPodcasts

Coffee & Wisdom 02.66: The Holes in Liberalism Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


Please Subscribe



Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is coffee and Wisdom. This week we’re looking at the holes in liberalism. And, yeah, I’m going to add an “s” on that, because one of the confusing things about liberalism is there are a bunch of them. So there is a plural of that kind. I have a little circle here that says the leftism, rightism, and centrism and then ultra-rightism and ultra-leftism in which it says whoever doesn’t think like me must die. Those are the wingnuts on both sides. Actually, not quite like that probably, but we do in psychological terms, call the extreme left and extreme right “moral panic”; what the folks tend to experience on the extremes of left and right. So as we look at this centrism being the vast middle about, you know, both of you extremists are wrong here. Let’s talk about that, how we can walk down this more accepting path. And that really is what we’re calling classic liberalism, a much older form than we are experiencing as contemporary liberalism in the United States today. So the political spectrum, this is actually a British diagram. So it’s a little different from American social socialism and capitalism and what they mean by nationalism and classical liberalism, etc. But we want to look at how these different ideas of liberalism cross over because classical liberalism and contemporary liberalism are not the same thing.

So as I discussed yesterday, quickly look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There is no one form of liberalism. That’s one of the problems. And the fractures in liberalism tend to occur over the definition of the word itself. What is liberty? I mentioned yesterday that classic liberalism is “freedom from” that is freedom from control by government. Contemporary liberalism, on the other hand, is tends to be “freedom to” people having access to various kinds of social help, assistance, etc. in order to be free. And then there’s a third form that we do need to keep in mind, which is theological liberalism, which is based in classic liberalism, because both of them are the same age going back into the Enlightenment period of the 16 and 1700s, but also then the switch from that kind of theological liberalism to a liberalism of the more contemporary sort. We’ve discussed this in Coffee and Wisdom. Part of that has to do with the social gospel movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. But we’ll get back to that. For example, this is a study from Pew from 2017 that says six in 10 Christians and “nones” hold at least one New Age beliefs. So Christians and “nones”, six in 10, over half have at least one New Age belief. Now, of course, how are they defining New Age belief? And with that, we’re going to they believe in some kind of spiritual energy that can be located in physical things.

They believe in psychics, they believe in reincarnation, or they believe in astrology. All right. So 42% of us, adults of all kinds, believe that there is some kind of spiritual energy located in physical things. Forty one percent believe in psychics. Thirty three percent believe in reincarnation. And twenty nine percent believe that astrology does indeed predict some something of value. All right. Now, we should look down here at this and see that Christians, for example, drop a little bit below the norm in terms of this spiritual energy being in some kind of thing, and then Pew breaks it down further. But many believe in psychics – about the norm – and a little below the norm in reincarnation, and about the norm in terms of astrology–a little less. Now, one thing we have to remember is what does reincarnation mean? There is a Hindu form of reincarnation where this idea comes from. But we looked at this in Coffee and Wisdom about New Age in California, ideas over time, and actually reincarnation has become part and parcel of a whole matrix of American ideas about an afterlife. And it isn’t exactly, Hinduism anymore. Now, I do want to point out at the bottom here, in terms of the unaffiliated, the unaffiliated tend to be more involved in New Age belief systems, although none of them quite 50 percent.

If we looked down at the bottom here, atheists are in very low digits in all of these, as we might expect, being of a more skeptical nature. But do look at agnostics who are basically on the trend lines for this idea that some kind of spiritual energy can be in physical things and about the norm in terms of reincarnation, though, a little below in terms of psychics, and and also this idea of astrology. So we have to be very careful again when we talk about how Americans are viewing this idea of being outside of Christianity. Becoming secular doesn’t exactly mean that you don’t believe in some things that are maybe a little bit outside the norms. But again, this reveals some fractures within secularism itself. And we’ll discuss that some more on another day. Here’s a study for you from 2013. Red Brain, Blue Brain Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans. There’s been a lot of research about what is there. Is there some kind of a brain difference between Republicans, Democrats, especially, again, on the outer fringes, the wingnut sides of the extremes. So results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk, and they support recent evidence that conservatives show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli. Again, this is from 2013. The figure one shows Republicans and Democrats differ in the neural mechanisms activated while performing a risk taking task.

Republicans more strongly activate their right amygdala associated with orienting attention to external cues. Democrats have higher activity in their left posterior insula associated with perceptions of internal physiological states. All right. You’re following how this works. We will get back to this after we talk a little bit more about how this study works. But there was a book that came out about that time that was based in the study: “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do” by John Bargh, a Yale psychologist. Now, one of the experiments goes like this: a group of participants were asked to imagine that they’d been granted a superpower by a magic genie and were suddenly as invincible as Superman. Bullets bounced off them, fire couldn’t scorch their skin, and a fall from a cliff wouldn’t hurt at all. The study’s control group simply said, think about being able to fly. That should be fun, right? Now, researchers then asked the participants to react to political statements, including whether they would be reluctant to make any large scale changes to the social order and whether it’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others. All right. So this kind of being a divide between what we tend to consider to be liberals and conservatives, all right, after this thought experiment, well, liberal participants attitudes on social issues in this experiment did not shift.

The conservative participants, however, adopted traditionally liberal views on social issues, but not economic ones. Participants who imagined themselves with the ability to fly had no change in their political views. Now, this study is the first experimental evidence that making people feel safe can at least temporarily change their politics toward more liberal views. So you see how this is working and a lot of media hay was made from this particular experiment and some others in this range, that, is it that conservatives experience more fear than liberals? Well, the problem with the study was that it was US-ocentric, shall we say. It was looking at only American conservatives and American liberals and then saying, wait, there’s this huge brain difference between them. Here’s another one from February of 2021. “Conservatives aren’t More Fearful than Liberals,” study finds. They’re just afraid of different kinds of threats. This information is from Live Science, so “This link between threat and conservative beliefs or conservative ideology is just not simple”, said the study leader, Mark Brandt, a psychology professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “It depends on a lot of different things. It depends on the type of threats that we study. It depends on how we measure political beliefs and what kind of political beliefs that we measure. And it depends on the precise country that we’re looking at.” So, again, this study being not US-ocentric. So what is the chicken and what is the egg in terms of political fears? So a recent political study found that 70% of Republicans thought the 2020 election was marred by fraud, compared with only 10% of Democrats. Before the election,

only 35% of Republicans thought the election would be fraudulent and 52% of Democrats did. Wait a minute. What changed the numbers? Well, the post-election shift makes it pretty clear that people’s fears of fraud were driven by party affiliation and messaging from party elites, not the other way around. So these fears were sown by the party elites for their own political advantage. And people actually, we should say, didn’t feel these fears or weren’t all that worried about it. So making matters more complicated, the relationships between ideology and threats weren’t consistent from nation to nation. For example, a fear of war or terrorism was associated with left wing beliefs in Kazakhstan just as strongly as fear of war or terrorism was associated with right wing beliefs in the United States. “Likewise,” Brandt told Live Science, “experiencing the threat of poverty leads to left wing beliefs in the US. But in Pakistan and Egypt, the threat of poverty is linked with right wing belief. So we have to be very careful when we talk about fear and what the fear drives in terms of politics, because it matters what nation you are talking about. This link between threat and conservative beliefs or conservative ideology is just not simple”, says Mark Brandt, the leader of the study.

“It depends on a lot of different things. It depends on the type of threats that we study. It depends on how we measure political beliefs and what kind of political beliefs that we measure and the country we’re looking at.” So those are the three things to think about with this chicken and egg idea. Who is afraid of what and why are these various people afraid of various things? So there goes another theory. Probably fear doesn’t drive American conservatives any more than it drives conservatives in other countries, liberals in other countries. It’s just according to your interpretation of what liberalism is and conservatism is. And that matters in different countries and it varies in different countries. But the overall idea that we do need to carry away is that fear is a chief political motivator. That’s the bottom line — that people think about their politics in terms of their fears. So what is the difference between liberals and conservatives? Is there one internationally and what is it here in the US? Because we do know that that does occur. Well, probably it has to do with ethical stances. Studies have found that religious individuals and political conservatives consistently invoke deontological ethics. Deontological ethics means the big things at the top; commands like “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. And then the more conservative, both politically and theologically, people derive from that shalt not kill down the way.

Whereas political liberals consistently invoke consequentialist ethics, judging the morality of actions based on their positive or their negative outcomes. So you see the difference between a conservative viewpoint. Big, big rules, big laws, God probably set it, and political liberals who are looking at consequentialist ethics. We’ve looked at this where consequentialism comes from. It is based in early 19th century British thought utilitarianism in its classic form that is now in American political discussion anyway, usually called consequentialism. So that’s the basic difference that we do need to look at because God said it and therefore, I am going to do it. Well, we’ll look at that tomorrow and think a little more about deontological and consequentialist ethics as the difference between left and right, both theologically and politically in the United States. Wednesday evening, seven o’clock. Join me for Bibles and beer. This week it is “Moses won’t ask Directions”. Just how was it that the Hebrew children spent 40 years in a wilderness that was easily traversed? Good question. I guess Moses just wouldn’t stop off and ask where they should be going. Our monthly theme for April is “Becoming’. That’s what we’re talking about for this month, thematically; the idea of being and becoming and just what it means to be human in our world today. Thanks for listening. And we’ll be back with some deontological and consequentialist ethics tomorrow for Coffee and Wisdom. Thank you.

Leave a Reply