Francis, Higgs, and American Politics

March 14, 2013

Yesterday there were two announcements from Europe concerning our relationship with God. One was the election of the new Pope, Francis I, and the other was a statement from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) confirming their discovery of the "God particle," the Higgs boson. They represent two not-quite-conflicting theories of the universe, and a deep divide in our society and politics.

People who see organized religion as the best path to understanding the world, and the ultimate guide for making choices in life, do not quite understand those who don't see things that way. And the converse is even more true. There is a fundamental difference between the two groups over what mystery lies at the heart of all things: Is it something small and knowable, like a filament of energy, or very large and enigmatic, like God?  If you’re tempted to say both can be true, you’re right, but that doesn’t diminish the perceived differences between the two camps.

This division, in a less specific way, lies at the center of the ideological disputes in American politics. Secularists, who are mostly liberal, can't fathom the world view of religious conservatives.  What is vital, sacred and cherished to those believers seems trivial and false to those who don't have a traditional view of God. And to religious conservatives, the non-believing liberal seems willing to discard everything of true value (God, life, faith) for passing and empty material objectives.

Those two points of view are irreconcilable, if taken to their extremes.  But that's a choice all of us make, on both sides of the spiritual debate.  We can dismiss the legitimacy of those who disagree with us, or we can accept that we differ without struggling to force a resolution. We can fight over questions that can't be answered, or we can look for ways to agree where it is possible.

It seems self-evident that sectarian conflict only leads to destruction and misery. That's obvious after a religious riot in India or a war in the Middle East, but it's a lesson often missed by those pushing the less violent philosophical arguments in American politics.  Refusing to compromise with someone because their world view is different rarely leads to a positive end.  Liberal Californians and conservative South Carolinians are not going to change each other's fundamental views, but they can make progress for everyone if they stop trying and instead focus on more earthly concerns.

So let's embrace the new Pope and the new particle --they can get along fine.

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