Most believers lack the attention span—15 minutes—to walk a mile in others’ shoes. There’s a surprising reason why. A one-minute mile with a religious “none” will have to suffice.
Scott Alexander is a pseudonym for a doctor who blogs on Slate Star Codex. He’s a religious none. “And I don’t go to synagogue.” In a 2014 blog, Alexander described religious people as “black matter”–those who barely interact with the regular world at all. He wasn’t being mean. He was making an observation. People of faith don’t exist in his social circle. Walk with him for one minute:
There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us… This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.
I don’t mean the sort of light-matter conservatives who go around complaining about Big Government. I see those guys all the time. What I mean is – well, take creationists. According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. That’s half the country.
I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.
I live in a Republican congressional district in a state with a Republican governor. The conservatives are definitely out there. They drive on the same roads as I do, live in the same neighborhoods. But they might as well be made of dark matter. I never meet them.
To be fair, I spend a lot of my time browsing sites like Reddit. Recently, there was a thread on Reddit asking – Redditors Against Gay Marriage, What is Your Best Argument? In a thread with 10,401 comments, a thread specifically asking for people against gay marriage, I was eventually able to find two people who came out and opposed it, way near the bottom. Their posts started with “I know I’m going to be downvoted to hell for this…”
Alexander graduated from an elite university. He’s a cultural elite, likely living in what Charles Murray calls a “SuperZip.” These are 882 select zip codes in the United States where 80 percent of America’s elites reside. “Most do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.” Why not? Evangelicals tend to blame others. But if what the problem is mostly with us, the faith community? What if Christians don’t walk a mile in others’ shoes? And what if they fail to do this because they’re not generous?
Numerous surveys indicate that the average Christian tithes only 2.5 percent of their income annually. God requires at least 10 percent. Giving less than that is robbery (Mal.3) but we think we can get away with it since tithing is a private affair in the US. No one knows. Or do they? Researchers have discovered a link between generosity and understanding other people’s feelings, walking a mile in their shoes. Generous people have more gray matter at the temporoparietal junction—a sweet spot for investing in others’ lives. They are more likely to empathize with others—to listen or read what others say. Tithing lengthens your attention span. You walk a mile in others’ shoes.
I didn’t tithe before marrying Kathy. We became generous, tithing. At the same time, my reading interests widened. I began reading The New York Times, The Atlantic, Utne Reader, The New Yorker. I began experiencing things from others’ point of view. I get why Christians are black matter.
The Apostle Paul wrote: “I kept my bearings in Christ but entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view” (I Cor. 9, The Message). He walked a mile in others’ shoes. So did Jesus. He started out as black matter for tax collectors and sinners. Then he walked a mile in their shoes. He became known as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” How about you? Do any religious nones consider you a close friend? Be honest. If the answer is none, do you tithe? If the answer is no, become generous. You’ll gain the gray matter required to walk a mile in other’s shoes.
 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 107.
 As quoted by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife (New York: Riverhead, 2016), p. 284.
Are all people who tithe, considered generous? Aren’t there people who tithe out of duty alone? Doesn’t tithing need to happen at the heart level first? Does my gray matter have a connection to my spirit/heart? If not, which one is God most concerned with?
Just thinking out loud.
Sobering thoughts! Thank you.
I’m amused that according to “Scott Alexander” that there’s a higher likelihood (of the unlikelihood) that we’ll all die of nuclear winter than that he’s in a Christian’s orbit. Granted, I meet a lot of faculty that have never been in a decent conversation with a conservative Christian, but it’s very likely that the Christians that are in their orbit just haven’t piped up.
All your points are right on, Mike, and SA is a worthy example of even a mythical abstract none, but SA specifically and Gallop generally engage in speculation and hyperbole and SA knows way more than 150 people – otherwise he’s just a weird duck and very weird at that.
I’m actively involved in a university campus outdoor recreation program, so I’m constantly interacting with “nones,” though most have not put much thought into their beliefs yet. Most are typical products of current public education systems, fully convinced that creation is a religious myth and God is a fabrication of established religions (which they don’t really need). Though most recognize the issues with political correctness, they conform to it far more than they realize. As a result, they are not particularly open to discussion on different points of view. They participate in social events and listen to media outlets that support their same viewpoints, rarely even considering different points of view as worthy of their interest.
The general assumption is that we all have the right to form our own views and beliefs, so if I’m happy with mine, why consider anything else? If there are no absolutes, then my perspective is as valid as anyone else’s. Only when one is willing to accept the possibility of a real God with absolutes of right and wrong, does one see the value of learning to improve one’s perspectives and beliefs.
Relating back to your article, Mike, I believe many people that I run into are like Scott Alexander. They see us as “black matter” because they never hear or see us, yet they are not really interested in hearing what we have to say anyway. They hang out with others like them, often in places where “black matter” is not welcome or interested in being. It is upon us to establish and pursue relationships with those people, and be whimsically engaging with our “less than welcome” perspectives.
I had not considered your connection between tithing and interaction with nones before, though I am a data point that supports your point.