Jonathan Haidt and the Erosion of American Democracy by the Corrosive Waters of Social Media

Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth.

Courthouse Towers and Tower of Babel. Moab, Utah

Jonathan Haidt wrote this week in the Atlantic, “The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit.” He says,


“Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.”

I resonate deeply with this.

Haidt observes that we are “becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history.” Many people talk about the tribalism of our times, but Haidt suggests that tribalism isn’t the most accurate description of what is going on. Haidt finds the clearest understanding of the polarization of our times in the story of the Tower of Babel:

“Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”

Haidt focuses blame on social media. He identifies 2011 as “the year humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel” with Google Translate symbolically bridging the confusion of different languages. He says (for “techno-democratic optimists”), “[I]t seemed only the beginning of what humanity could do.”

Around the same time, Zuckerberg proclaimed “the power to share” a catalyst to transform “our core institutions and industries”. He may have been prophetic, but I doubt he envisioned such a corrosive change.

Haidt, something of a social scientist, himself, says, “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.” Social media substantially weakens all three of these fundamental building blocks of a cohesive society.

It started harmlessly with the sharing of personal information to stay connected, but it quickly morphed into a kind of personal performance and branding platform. Along the way it developed into powerful weaponry at the fingertips of anyone and everyone at once.

The “Like” and “Share” buttons became commodities of individual enterprise and personal combat. Algorithms exposed (and exploited) the emotional currency of heightened individuality and the power of anger.

“Going viral” fed the hopes of Internet junkies like the possibility of a jackpot snares gambling addicts in its steely fingers, and the stakes were just as high. Haidt says, “The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking….” The rapidity and its ability to spread was more virulent than COVID, or the plague.

Haidt lauds the framers of the Constitution for designing a republic built on “mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment….” Haidt recalls Madison’s warning of “the innate human proclivity toward ‘faction’” so “inflamed with ‘mutual animosity’” that people are “more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.’”

Haidt recalls also that Madison warned of a human tendency toward “factionalism” that can fan “the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions” into passions that ignite our most violent conflicts. Social media has ultimately proven him right.

Thus, Haidt says, “Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous,” chipping away at our trust. The loss of trust makes every decision and election “a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side”.

The sagging number of people who have faith in their elected officials hangs at an all time low. In my lifetime, the United Sates of America has gone from a high of 77% trust in the federal government (1964) to a low of 17% in 2019. (See Public Trust in Government: 1958-2021, by PEW Research May 21, 2021)

Social media has corroded trust in government, news media, institutions and people in general. Some claim that social media may be detrimental, maybe even toxic, to democracy, which requires “widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions” for survival. “When people lose trust in institutions”, says Haidt, “They lose trust in the stories told by those institutions.”

Insiders have been warning us of “the power of social media as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere”, while offering nothing in return but the chaos of utter freedom and will. Haidt references movements like Occupy Wall Street, fomented primarily online, that “demanded the destruction of existing institutions without offering an alternative vision of the future or an organization that could bring it about”.

We have become a society of “people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another”, says former CIA analyst Martin Gurri, in his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public. The people behind the social media giants may not have intended such a result, but they have “unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together”.

Haidt claims he can pinpoint the proverbial fall of the American Tower of Babel to the intersection of “the ‘great awokening’ on the left and the ascendancy of Donald Trump on the right”. Haidt doesn’t blame Trump for the fall; he merely exploited it. Trump proved that outrage is the currency of the post-Babel economy in which “stage performance crushes competence” and Twitter overwhelms newspapers and the nightly news, fracturing and fragmenting the truth before it can spread and take hold.

“After Babel”, Haidt says, “Nothing really means anything anymore––at least not in a way that is durable and on which people widely agree.” Haidt is particularly morose on the prospect of overcoming the rapid dissolution of the American democracy. Unfortunately, I share his pessimism. How did we get here? How do we move forward?

Continue reading “Jonathan Haidt and the Erosion of American Democracy by the Corrosive Waters of Social Media”

Enough Is Enough: Entering into God’s Rest

God’s work has been finished since creation, but that doesn’t mean His purposes are accomplished, yet

I am listening to the BEMA Podcast with Marty Solomon and Brent Billings as they work their way through Genesis applying a more Hebrew, eastern approach to understanding and interpreting scripture. I have talked about these things in previous articles, so I will not rehash.

One of the observations made in the story of creation is that God rested on day 7. The theme of God resting can be followed throughout scripture, especially in the law of the Sabbath rest.

The writer of Hebrews says that the nation of Israel would not enter His rest because they hardened their hearts “in the rebellion” in the wilderness when they “tested and tried” God; rather, they went astray in their hearts and did not know God’s way. (Heb. 3:7-11) From these statements, we understand that God withholds His rest to those who harden their hearts, test and try God, go their own ways and do not “know” God’s ways.

In Hebrew thinking, to know God’s ways is not just an intellectual thing. It’s an experiential thing. To know is to connect personally with and to experience. Knowing is not just intellectually grasping, but becoming personally intimate with something.

God promises us that we will enter into His rest if we do not harden our hearts, if we do not test and try Him and do not go astray, but know (experience, become intimate with) God’s ways. (Heb. 4:1-2) God desires for us to enter His rest.

One conclusion a person might draw from the story of creation is that God knew when to stop creating. He knew when to rest. He knew when enough was enough, and He invites us likewise to know when enough is enough: to rest.

God’s work has been finished since creation (Heb. 4:3), but that doesn’t mean His purposes are accomplished, yet. We know, for instance, that He subjected creation to futility (mataiotés – vanity, emptiness, unreality, purposelessness, ineffectiveness, instability, frailty….”) in hope. (Rom. 8:20)

If He subjected creation to futility in hope, He did it with the expectation and purpose that the hope would be fulfilled and accomplished. The hope is that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”. (Rom. 8:21)

This suggests that God may have been done with His works when he rested, but His purposes were not yet accomplished. Gods rest prior to the ultimate accomplishment of all that He purposed is part of the story. There is more to the story then simply the creation.

The creation was intended for a purpose that is yet to be accomplished, and our freedom and glory is needed to accomplish that purpose and to liberate creation from its bondage to decay! But what is that yet unfulfilled purpose?

Continue reading “Enough Is Enough: Entering into God’s Rest”

How Does the Tower of Babel Fit into God’s Plan for People to Love Him and Love Our Neighbors?

Our frustration, toil and separation from other people are not contrary to the purposes of God, but part of the plan.

The story of the Tower of Babel is included in Scripture for a reason, right? So, Why is it there? How does the tower of Babel fit into God’s redemptive plans and purposes?

These are questions we should think to ask. In fact, Scripture is designed, according the Hebrew thinking, to invite us to ask questions.

Western thinking might assume that we just take things on faith and don’t ask questions. Or the opposite: take it at face value and dismiss it when we find problems (“contradictions”) in the text.

God wants us to seek Him, and that includes asking questions of Scripture, wrestling with it, and finding answers to our questions. We don’t exhibit a lack of faith when we find problems in Scripture and ask questions.

We can hold to a high view of Scripture and admit there are “problems” in the text . Those problems may lead to some real gems in the answers they reveal.

God desires us to seek him and find him, as Paul says to the philosophers in Athens. (Acts17:27) Jesus, of course, promised that those who ask, seek, and knock will be answered, will find, and the door will be open to them. (Matthew 7:7) Faith enters when we use the problems we see as the springboard to seek answers.

I recently wrote an article on the Tower of Babel story exploring some of the questions it invites us to ask, and trying on answers that are suggested by a more eastern (Hebrew) mindset than most westerners might be adopt.

One question we might ask is: why is the story there to begin with?

We might assume the story is simply an explanation for how people became scattered all over the world in different language groups. How questions, though, miss the most important meaning of Scripture. If we stop there, and assume there is no more to know, we may be missing the most important part of the story.

A Hebrew (or eastern) mind always asks, “Why?”

I resonate with this basic practice incorporated into the BEMA Podcast because of a Jewish professor I had in college. He explained one day the difference between the western and eastern approaches to Scripture. He illustrated it with the following example.

If the universe consisted of a chair in a room, people with western minds and eastern minds would approach the chair differently. The westerner would measure the height, width, depth and mass of the chair. He would weigh it and measure the distance of the chair from the walls and the ceiling. The easterner (the Hebrew) would start by asking, “Why is the chair here?”

In my previous article, I discussed how the story is a chiasm (a type of poetry). A chiasm puts emphasis on the middle verse. In this story, the emphasis is on the people’s desire to “make a name for ourselves” because “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the earth”. (Gen. 11:4)

Why were they concerned about being scattered? Why does God care? What is God doing in confusing their languages and scattering them?

For starters, God does not break into the story when they are making bricks. God isn’t threatened or concerned about their development of new technology. He doesn’t break into the story until they say they are going to build a tower to make a name for themselves.

We also need to be mindful, always, of context. The context here is that people are moving away from God, away from his plans. (Moving east.) God wanted them to multiply and fill the earth, but they wanted to put down roots in the plains of Shinar (Babylon) and build a tower to exalt themselves, lest they be scattered.

This was the instruction from God to Adam and Eve. It was the instruction from God to Noah. God said, “Multiply and fill the earth.”

Building a tower to make a name for themselves, in this context, means wanting to pursue their own plans to achieve their own ends. The concern about being scattered suggests they knew they were doing their own thing contrary to God’s plans for them. They might have feared being scattered because it would disrupt their plans.

Maybe they thought God couldn’t scatter them if they built a fortified tower. Maybe they were trying to make God deal with them on their own terms, in a location they established, by a structure by which they thought could ascend to God and control where God met with them.

Of course, God did exactly what they feared, and scattered them. against their wishes. But why? Was God threatened by them? Um…., no. So why did God scatter them?

I believe the answer lies partly in the fact that they were pursuing their own plans in exultation of themselves. Their plans were not consistent with God’s plans, and they knew it (thus, there fear of being scattered for doing it). 

God had other plans, and God frustrated their plans that were not in keeping with His plans. That might all seem arbitrary unless we keep asking questions and seeking answers. Why were the peoples’ plans something God couldn’t abide?

They interfered with God’s plans, but how? What were God’s plans?

Continue reading “How Does the Tower of Babel Fit into God’s Plan for People to Love Him and Love Our Neighbors?”

East and West Meet at the Tower of Babel

I have been listening to the BEMA podcast. I highly recommend it. As summarized one the website, “‘BEMA’ (or bimah) is a Hebrew word that refers to the elevated platform in the center of first-century synagogues where the people of God read the Text.”

The early Christians knew their Scripture. They built their lives around it. They devoted themselves to it, and to prayer, and the apostles reaching, and to fellowship and shared meals. (Acts 2:42

The BEMA podcast attempts to approach Scripture the way easterners would have, the way the early Christians in the Middle East would have approached it. My Jewish professor in college told us one day that Jews were not westerners; they were easterners, and they thought differently than westerners.

Christianity quickly became westernized, but it’s origins are eastern. We would do well to gain some new perspective from a more eastern way of thinking. I encourage you to listen to the first couple of episodes of the podcast linked in the opening paragraph if you want an introduction to an eastern perspective of the Bible.

Reading the first 11 chapters of Genesis from an eastern, Hebraic perspective, opens up new insights. Not the least of which is the genre of literature these chapters represent. They are poetry. They are chiasms with intricate organization and emphasis that is found in the structure of the chiasms.

The Tower of Babel story is one of the chiastic passages in Genesis. The story actually begins in the Hebrew with the last verse of Chapter 10 (as it is organized in English Bibles), and it goes like this (ESV):

These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Hebrew has no vowels, only consonants. There are vowel signs over the consonants that denote where breaths should be taken for anyone reading Hebrew out loud. 

The consonants in this chiasm are repetitive: N, B, L, H; then H, L, B, N in reverse. There is a front half and a back half. The middle of the story is 11:4, which I have emphasized by bolding it.

The verse in the middle of the chiasm is where the emphasis lies: the peoples’ concern about being scattered over the face of the earth. They didn’t want to be scattered.

Why not? That’s the question we should be prompted to ask.

I am not sure I can do any justice to the layers of meaning and the questions that arise in these verses in a short blog post. I can only scratch the surface, but here goes….

Continue reading “East and West Meet at the Tower of Babel”

God’s Plan for Unity from Diversity

God’s end game is a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.


I have been thinking quite a bit about diversity and the Church (universal, the body of Christ) lately. NT Wright commented recently that a modern secularist might believe that the church is catching up to the issue of racism following a largely secular cry for attention, but the truth is different from what it appears.

When asked about the church’s response to issues of race, Wright commented that God has always had a plan for the diversity of His creation. The comment got me thinking in what ways it might be true.

In fact, if we “read ahead” in the story, we see John’s great vision of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” standing before God. (Rev. 7:9)

If this is the end game, where do we find evidence of the plan of God to gather that multitude from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages to Himself?

Continue reading “God’s Plan for Unity from Diversity”