Deeply ingrained fears of “the other” reveal themselves… Our innate fears of people who are different enable us to assign collective responsibility – and engage in indiscriminate measures of reprisal – to groups that are different, several studies have found.

I recently read a blog post that was written towards the end of 2015. The post comes from the Association of Religion Data Archives, a free online source of surveys, studies, and other academic data about religion. You can read the full blog here. Using survey data from 2014 and 2015, the post offers some thoughts about how afraid of other people we are as a society, and who the groups are that garner the most fear. Some answers are predictable (like the IRS), and some are saddening like immigrants, homosexuals, and Muslims.

The fears and distrust often target the most vulnerable among us.

Why do we view some groups of people with such fear? One answer I have heard a lot lately is that the world is becoming more dangerous. This logic would tell me that fear is warranted based on an increased danger of violence. Like most answers that we try to find in statistics, there are a variety of different studies that tell a variety of different stories. This post’s story is quite clear:

Compared to 20 years ago, what do you think has been the rate of crimes such as child abductions, mass shootings, gang violence, school shootings and pedophilia and other sexually predatory acts against children?
If you are like most Americans, according to the Chapman study, you believe there has been a marked increase in such terrifying offenses.
In truth, from available statistics, there are fewer such crimes in each category; in some cases there have been dramatic declines, Bader noted.
What the Chapman studies help us understand is how our fears can override reason when they touch on deeper parts of the human psyche.

At first, the thought that the problem might be psychological makes this seem more difficult for me to address. After all, I can’t control the way many people think. Trying to encourage specific actions seems far easier on a large scale. A recent article by the same author gives one simple suggestion for how two groups that often view each other with negative stereotypes might be able to change their perception of each other:

Make more people aware of the key moral values members of minority groups share with others, research indicates.

In separate studies of samples of U.S. Christians, participants who perceived atheists as kind and caring were more favorable and trusting toward atheists, more likely to perceive atheists as moral and less likely to “perceive atheists as categorically distinct from believers,” Simpson and Rios found.

           David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

This leads me to a place where change seems like it should be easier: inside my own mind. What do I think about when I think about groups of people who are not like me in some way? If I am an caucasian, Christian, middle-class male, what do I think about when I consider groups of women, those in different socio-economic categories, people from different parts of the world or different religions? Do I think first about the way(s) in which they are different than I am, or do I consider the values we may share and the common hopes we may have?

Better yet, how do I consider what my own beliefs might tell me about what is valued most in that ‘other’ group or person? After a few weeks with these questions in my mind, and so many events of violence and fear in our recent collective experience, I think I finally understand the words of my Pastor a few weeks ago. Rev. Michael Williams is my Pastor and friend at my home church. Here are some excerpts from his children’s sermon on June 26th that have stayed with me through these past few weeks. (The adult’s sermon was good too, but this is easier to listen to as a short clip.)

You might try to do this in any number of ways. I try to think about the world as only “us,” in small ways first. When I find myself reading a post on Facebook, or a news article, or listening to a radio show and thinking of a person or group in the story as “them,” I consider what I might have in common with that person or group. For what reason are they thinking or behaving the way they are? What need or desire might they be trying to fill? Admittedly, I come up with a meaningful answer to that question only about half of the times I ask it. It is my small start to seeing all people the way that God sees us… “us.”

Start a conversation today to find an “us” where there might previously have been a “them.” Talk with a friend about an issue in the world that feels like them. See if the two of you together can see the people in that issue as part of us. Or maybe you can have a conversation directly with one of “them” that you know, to learn about their experience and their hopes and their values. It might be that you have more in common than you know. I’m learning to remember one thing that we all have in common: we are beloved by our creator… all of us.

How can we build social trust and become a safer society?

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