If you and I were to type in the same search term or phrase on Google, we would likely get different results. Let’s say we search for “Fun things to do.” Our Google search will be personalized by our location – which is good; knowing fun things to do in New Orleans, where you live won’t be of much use to me in Michigan.
We will also get different results based on our search histories. Google utilizes 6 months of your search history in ranking search results. So, if you have searched repeatedly for art museums and galleries, you are liable to see search results related to art classes and exhibits near the top of your list. If I have searched for fishing lures and boat motors, I’ll find lakes and fishing lodges.
It gets more interesting when it comes to current affairs. If I regularly read stories from The Washington Examiner and Fox News, the results I get from searching for “Delta” may vary widely from the ones you, who read The Washington Post and watch CNBC, receive. The diversity of results will be even greater if we type in “Donald Trump, 2024.”
So, search engines feed us what some algorithm has concluded we want. I keep getting fishing, you keep getting art. I get conservative viewpoints and you get liberal ones. And almost all the evidence supplied by our searches supports the beliefs we already hold. Neither of us can understand how the other can possibly think differently when the truth is so obvious.
The term “silo mentality,” which emerged from the business world, has application to social life. We are liable to get stuck in our silos with people who have the same goals, absorb the same news, and come from the same background. Everyone we know thinks about things the same way we do. We’ve heard that there are others out there who see things differently, but they are obviously mistaken and, we can’t help but suspect, willfully deluded.
In the divisive climate we now occupy, “silo mentality” may not be as good a description as “bunker mentality.” We choose our bunker with the people who are like us. We repeat the talking points that comprise our group’s orthodoxy and convince ourselves that all the smart people – and the good people too – are on our side.
It’s not that we have thought carefully about an issue and have reached a conclusion. We’ve accepted someone else’s conclusion, moved into our bunker, and now spend our time justifying our opinions and delegitimizing those of others. We are in danger of becoming like the people St. Paul disparaged: “They want to be teachers … but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.”
All those Google searches, helpful in so in many ways, have not helped us here. They have, instead, given us tools to dig our bunkers a little deeper. To borrow again from the apostle, our search engines enable us to be “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
And it is not just Google searches that lead to bunkers of belief. A Bible concordance can lead to the same place if we are not careful. Having pastored for a long time, I’ve noticed how church people can bunker up with people who think just like they do. The Catholics have their bunker, decorated with pictures of saints. The Reformed crowd has their bunker – is that a portrait of John Calvin on the wall? The Fundamentalists’ bunker is cluttered with booklets on the essentials of the faith. The liberals have copies of Niebuhr’s, The Irony of American History and Robertson’s Honest to God strewn around the room.
I heard a professor of Christian Education once say that reading the Bible does not lead to spiritual transformation for many people because they only see in the Bible what they have seen before. Rather than transforming them, it transfixes them. This kind of thing happens when we read the Bible to prove our point rather than improve our person, which is not all that different from what happens in our Google searches.
(First published by Gannet)
You make a very good point, and your Google Search analogy hits home. If we see what you’re saying, then the crucial question is, “What do we do about it?” This is something I’ve been quite deliberate about for the past several years. I’ve been trying to read books written by people “on the other side of the aisle,” both to gain understanding and to be more sympathetic. I’ve also been trying to be more critical when reading things written by those with whom I naturally agree. It’s a dangerous project to pursue, first because it requires more thought and second because it makes us more vulnerable, especially when we share our thoughts with others. Our friends start to worry about us and the people on the other side of the aisle won’t be happy until we’re on their side. It puts us in a kind of no-man’s land.
Of course, we don’t do this just to be open-minded; we do it because we want to be of the same mind as Christ. So we’re really not in a no-man’s land after all; we’re claiming allegiance to a King who reigns over all of us, no matter what side of the aisle we happen to be on.
I especially hear and appreciate your warning about seeing only what we expect when reading the scriptures, and I will double-down on that, praying that God will open my eyes to the things I would otherwise not see. I don’t have much confidence in my own ability to overcome my prejudices, but I’m very confident about his ability. He’s been opening people’s eyes for a couple thousand years. (If they ask.)
Thanks for this very thoughtful essay!