I was raised in a Roman Catholic community where most people went to church. Early in my teens it struck me that although most people seemed to be strong believers, outside of church they would talk about non-Catholics with no sense of dissimilarity or inequality. Being Jewish, Baptist, or nothing in particular was no different than being Irish or being an accountant. Our system of beliefs in the most important things in life was just one among others outside of church.
I liked this live-and-let-live attitude. But on another level, I didn’t understand how belief worked (as I did not share my family’s religious sentiments, I had little insight into this). Did this mean that my community didn’t really believe the unique and weighty things they attested to in church? Or was there a superseding belief in tolerance and pluralism? Neither seemed likely.
Looking back, I don’t think this arrangement I observed was anyone’s conscious decision. It was their normal way of living. I do, however, think there was a tacitly accepted, combination of factors at work. On the one hand, my fellow congregants held strong beliefs that on the surface seemed inflexible, but deep down were clearly more adaptable. On the other hand, most people carried an implicit commitment to a well ordered, congenial community. These paired senses of religious and secular beliefs made for easy connections in potentially conflictual situations. I was not privy to adult political conversations, but I suppose the same went for politics as the community had a variety of yard signs in election season. In our current era whatever held together this anomalous brew of personal commitments has fallen apart.
These days personal belief of the more abstract type, such as religion, politics, or ethics, put you in immediate conflict with anyone holding opposing views. People used to avoid these topics to get along (the adage “don’t discuss politics, religion or the weather” was taken seriously). Now, thanks to the internet and social media, we can wear our beliefs like a uniform, find crowds of fellow believers, and express all the disdain we’d care to towards any opposition. All while remaining safely anonymous.
But then a funny thing happened: the internet spilled onto the streets. Even the election season yard signs of my youth were no…