Recently a friend in interfaith work posted a link to a T-Mobile ad that ran on television during Super Bowl LII. As you can see when you click the video, the ad presents a very optimistic view of how the children depicted will act in favor of various forms of equality in the future. I posted comments in disagreement and took exception to the perspective of the piece as at odds with what we know from neuroscience and social psychology on childhood development and the recognition of difference. In my understanding, this is a biocultural issue, the combination of the software of the brain, coupled with our social and cultural experience, leads human beings to identification with various "teams" or groups, and this then becomes the ingroup vs. the outgroup. (A good overview of the issues can be found here.) This ad presented assumptions connected to liberal moral foundations that ignored conservative ones, and other considerations from social psychology and neuroscience, and therefore is not helpful as a way to conceive of our differences, and how to navigate them now or in the future. I received two critical responses, and I'll respond to each as it relates to multi-faith engagement.
The first comment of disagreement was that my understanding of the neuroscience was wrong, and that recognition of difference, such as race, does not appear until adolescence. My response to this is that I've heard and read neuroscientists like David Eagleman that human beings are indeed hard wired for us vs. them and xenophobia. The question is, at what age do human beings start recognizing the differences that become racism? I Googled the question and found the following from Psychology Today on racism and children:
"What’s more, decades of research suggests that even if parents are not talking about race, children are noticing it, so avoidance will not make it go away. By 3 or 4 years of age, White children in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe show preferences for other White children. For example, while parents of children in the storybook study above predicted that their children would show no race bias, the children did on average tend to favorite Whites to Blacks. Results like these demonstrate that those very same White children whose parents insist their children do not see race, walk into research labs across the world and, when presented with a line-up of possible friends, are quick to select the White ones rather than the Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Indigenous ones."
Let's set the young age children recognize differences aside and assume that this does not "set in" until adolescence. Is it realistic to think these children will all be in social situations where what "team" they are on will not be emphasized and work in concert with their neural wiring related to tribalism? I think that's scientifically inaccurate and naive.
The second objection offered was that the perspective I was presenting was at odds with Scripture (of whatever faith tradition). My response to this is that Scriptural interpretive assumptions on human nature have to account for and work through the realities of science. Just as hermeneutical assumptions had to be revisited on the origins issue in light of evolutionary theory, and human nature on the soul in light of neuroscience, so too our assumptions on a theology of what makes us human in relation to intergroup conflict in light of social psychology and neuroscience.
I don't know why so many in interfaith work are not addressing these pressing realities. I don’t think they are treating the science or scriptural hermeneutics sufficiently, or in ways that will make a positive impact in changing religious or racial intergroup conflict.