Safe Reading and the Echo Chamber
This article explores how safe reading and safe thinking creates an echo chamber that perpetuates false information, distorts reality and divides rather than unifies.
I am feeling more than a little hurt.
On reflection, I suppose I should have expected it because it was building, but it still caught me by surprise and hurt.
I was on the phone to my dad, checking in after my parents’ recent trip to see how they were going. Dad asked me how I was going and I replied that I had just been listening to a new book. The author is John Eldredge and I mentioned that he was one of the first religious authors I had read that was not Christadelphian and had in some ways started me on this journey of discovery.
My father cut across me and asked, “What do you get out of reading these guys. There’s so much good stuff to read and you read these guys!” Is this about safe reading and safe thinking?
I was startled because usually dad and I enjoy a solid spiritual discussion about the things raised in my readings and whilst I am aware that neither of my parents, nor indeed most of my extended family think I am right in my leaving their church, we have been able to engage in mutually respectful conversation.
It was a startling question and I was not quite sure what he meant right off the bat. I asked, “sorry, I am not sure what you mean?”
Dad responded, “Well, what is this book about? What are you getting from it?” The tone wasn’t one of enquiry, it was one of accusation and I was on the back foot but I tried to answer in a thoughtful way.
“The book I am reading at present is a little more secular than devotional or expository. But previously his books have given me some really good insights into the nature of Jesus and also of God.”
Assuming the other guy knows more than you
Dad’s response was, “What would he know about the nature of God or of Jesus Christ? He’s a trinitarian.” Yep – it’s all about safe reading. Whatever you do, don’t read something by someone who doesn’t share your doctrinal point of view….
The conversation deteriorated from there, I was unprepared and stuttered my way through a couple more responses with Dad being more and more nasty until I terminated the call. I wasn’t willing to discuss this and defend myself against this level of petty point scoring.
I called back, Dad answered the call and I asked to speak to Mum. There was some discussion between them, then Mum came on the phone. I asked Mum how they were and started to proceed with the originally intended conversation.
Unwisely, I asked Mum what was going on with Dad and she responded that she had heard his side of the conversation and that she thought it was perfectly reasonable to question me in the way he had. She feels that I put down the Christadelphians and that I can’t be surprised that they are upset that I have left “the Truth”.
Just a note on this. Surely no denomination has a monopoly on Truth. I am amazed how often I find that one religion or another refers to their belief structure in this way.
Once again the conversation started to deteriorate and then as I passed under an overpass, the phone cut out (it often does there).
I took a moment to consider and decided not to return to the call.
Mandatory Safe Reading
On and off for the rest of the day, I was upset and thinking about this and how to mend the rift. See this is the problem with this whole issue of mandating safe reading and the echo chamber that is created from this.
These rifts have happened with increasing frequency over recent years as I have moved further and further from the religion (not the faith) of my youth. The discussions have become trickier (as is often the case around matters of conscience) and it is more and more difficult to navigate meaningful conversation.
I find conversation about everyday life boring and a waste of time. There is only so much that can be said about the weather, let’s face it.
If I am going to have a conversation with anyone, it needs to have some meaning. That probably makes me too intense and possibly too intimidating. We all have flaws!
Dangerous Topics are Interesting
This does make it difficult to really have a safe conversation. I like dangerous topics and I can’t exist with safe reading and the echo chamber. I need to read, think and challenge.
So I was reflecting on this situation and this topic of safe conversation and, for that matter, safe reading. It led me to think about the echo chamber that this creates.
Where did this come from?
But there was an origin to this unpleasant encounter.
My parents had visited with my younger brother a week ago. We had all travelled separately to his town because his eldest daughter was getting baptised.
My brother and I have an uneasy relationship around the topic of religion. He is intensely conservative (firmly in safe reading and the echo chamber) and well, I am what I am (I am not actually sure how you would categorise me). We hadn’t been in contact for over a year, but when he contacted me to let me know about his daughter’s baptism, I was keen to try and catch up and visit whilst witnessing the baptism.
Initially, the baptism was going to be in the ocean and I thought I would be able to attend. Because Dad is not very steady on his legs these days, the venue was shifted to a hall in a nearby town. The baptism was switched to form part of the Sunday service.
Dealing with Conservatism (or not)
This presented a problem for me. My brother’s church is likewise a very conservative church with strong views on fellowship. They would view my stance on access to communion and many other doctrines as problematic. I didn’t want to cause a problem or a scene.
My C-PTSD makes it very difficult to step into churches these days, often shaking and even crying.
I planned to drop my wife and daughter at the hall and go and have a soda (can’t drink coffee these days!) while I waited for it to finish.
On the Saturday we caught up with my brother and his wife and kids for lunch and then afterwards had dinner with some of my favourite people in the world. The contrast there was amazing. With my brother, we tiptoed around inconsequential chit chat. With my friends for dinner, we discussed deep things, eternal things and things we disagreed on. No safe reading or echo chamber there!
The Sunday was a scorcher. 41degC or 106degF. We were running late because the diner where we got breakfast believes in quality not speed. Delicious breakfast but made us a few minutes late.
I dropped my family off and went to fill up with fuel for the drive home and grabbed a drink and snack.
I came back awhile later and sat in the hot car waiting for my family to finish up. Afterwards an old friend and my brother both came out for a chat at the car, then my family came out and we left.
What really went on
If I was a betting man, and knowing my family as I do, I would bet that at least at some point during the weekend and probably that afternoon, my parents and my brother and his wife would have discussed my departure from the church. Given previous discussions, it would have been about how straying away from safe reading to dangerous topics had led me away. Sagely, they would have agreed that it was very unwise for me to read books that are not Christadelphian.
I think that’s what sparked Dad’s shots at me. The subject of “safe reading” is one that my brother has spoken with me previously about. He has previously expressed that he thinks I like change for change sake. In fact, most of the family view me a fairly unstable and that I like to be different. I am no longer particularly hurt by it, but I guess it stings a little that they don’t think I am capable of critical thinking. I think I just have the courage to challenge the status quo.
Challenge Safe Reading and the Echo Chamber
Anyone who pursues an authentic relationship with God must be willing to challenge their own thinking, to examine the traditions and patterns of religion and ruthlessly discard anything that is a barrier to this authenticity.
Safe reading creates an echo chamber that does not allow you exposure to another viewpoint. This is dangerous to our authenticity with God. It renders us incapable of seeing the faults with our own understanding, of recognising error when we encounter it and it makes us lazy in our communication with the Most High. It is too easy to allow ritual to overtake worship if you are unwilling to challenge the patterns of religion.
I recently read an article about the social media echo chamber. In social media, it is very easy to edit your content to ensure that you do not hear challenging opinions or viewpoints. The article I read was this one.
So how does safe reading and the echo chamber damage our understanding?
False Information from the Echo Chamber
The echo chamber can mean that false information is perpetuated. In a religious context, probably one of the key ways that I see this applied in a church setting is in statements as to what another denomination believes. Few churches really control the doctrines of their constituent members. It is rare that there is truly a representative document that covers all of the nuances of a faith framework.
Given this, many denominations entirely misrepresent the doctrines of other denominations. As a consequence, many religious base their belief around a particular doctrine on a completely one sided set of information. If the only source of information that you use is your own denomination’s writings about this doctrine (including misrepresentations of another faith), you will never have the tools to make an informed decision about what YOU believe on a particular doctrine. This is a basic fact. You need to hear both sides of the argument before you can decide.
The Echo Chamber distorts things
The echo chamber can distort reality. In a religious context, let’s say we are talking about fellowship, an early writer establishes a framework for inter-congregational relationships. That early writer is creating a reasonable approach for functioning between congregations. Other writers over a period of say, 150 years, build on this framework, adding more and more complexity.
Today, this means that an entire congregation “disfellowships” (find that word in scripture if you can) an entire other congregation because they engage in “open fellowship”.
What was initially a practical guide for managing relationships between groups has become a cudgel used to exclude groups. Over many years, what was a simple practical guide (based in an interpretation of scripture) has become doctrine.
The Echo Chamber Divides
Perhaps the worst effect of the echo chamber is the way it divides people. In my previous church, the doctrine of the Atonement (that Jesus was sacrificed for us) has become so nuanced, that even in writing this paragraph, I am nervous about getting the terminology right. The shades of grey are so complex and the interpretations so overlain with implications that many people who find themselves falling awry of the doctrinal Nazis, have ended up “out of fellowship” with one group or another.
A doctrine that is about our oneness with God and as part of the body of Christ, has led to a divided body. One congregation I know banned certain books on the recommendation of others simply because of who wrote the preface of the book. I know this because one day, I was in the process of buying a book about the atonement when a member of that congregation told me that their congregation had banned the book.
Safe Reading and The Echo Chamber leads to radical polarisation
Radical polarisation – different groups of people living in different world, populated with completely different facts (The problem of living inside echo chambers (theconversation.com)) – happens in a society where dangerous reading and thoughts are discouraged. In a church, this becomes coercive thought control, exactly the problem that many people associate with cults. Safe reading and the echo chamber is what creates cultish behaviour.
I don’t think necessarily, there is a deliberate intent to control thinking in churches. The issue is more one of striving for unity by cutting off anything that threatens that unity. The effect is the same and as such, it is very dangerous to the spiritual welfare of the church and its people. Especially to our relationships with God and one another.
So safe reading leads to the echo chamber that leads to coercion, thought control and ultimately to a pursuit of spiritual purity that is not pure but damaging and hurtful.
I have said it before and I will say it again. It is not up to us to keep the body pure. God and Jesus have done this since long before we were born and will perfect it with or without us.