Guest post: Conservatives have better Theory of Mind

Originally a Facebook post by an anonymous thoughts-haver.

Something about the way Matthew 6:5-6 (the bit about going into your closet to pray) is being shared around in the wake of the school prayer ruling has been bothering me, and I finally kind of figured out what it is. First, though, a disclaimer: I am an atheist who has read the whole bible more than once. I took some comparative religion classes in college, but I have never been a Christian and anything I say is coming from a theoretical understanding, not practical.

So, here’s a thing. The term “prayer” does not mean one simple thing. It doesn’t mean the same thing in all contexts, and it doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. When I see a football coach midfield praising Jesus for the game they just played, it’s easy for me, a nonbeliever, to say “what a hypocrite, praying in public like Matthew says not to do”. But that coach might not even think of it as praying, because to him prayer is the thing he only does in private. What he’s doing in public is witnessing, which is something his holy text calls for him to do. Mark 16:15: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Matthew 28:19: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”

There is no conflict in his mind between the admonition to pray in private and his making a spectacle of himself in public if what he’s doing in public isn’t praying. And if you call him on it, you are only reinforcing his belief that he is doing the right thing. Matthew 5:10-12: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

Does that make what he’s doing any less coercive and less of a violation of the separation of church and state? Not by any sane standard (which is to say, to anyone who isn’t in the majority on the Supreme Court right now). But it does point to a problem that I think the left has right now, which is that it thinks using tactics which would work against it are going to work against the right.

I skimmed a study recently, and I wish I could find it now. What I remember it saying, though is this: conservatives are better at modelling the thought processes of liberals than vice versa. When given a list of questions to answer twice, once as yourself and once as you imagine a person on the opposite side of the political spectrum would answer, conservatives were better at answering how they thought liberals would than the other way around. They’re better at coming up with tactics which work in the real world, because they’re better at thinking about what would work on them if they were on the other side. They can look at our arguments and say “I understand what makes you think that, but here’s why I think you’re wrong”, while we’re looking at their arguments and saying “you think that because you’re bad”.

To call someone a hypocrite, you need to understand how their actions are in conflict with their beliefs. If you don’t know what their beliefs are, how are you supposed to do that? You can only be right accidentally, and that’s no way to be.

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