Binary Thinking Will Do Us In

Further thoughts on our divisions

Jeremy Zerby
5 min readApr 22, 2023
Two young men fighting. One slamming the other against a wall by his jacket.
Photo by Keira Burton

Not too long ago, I wrote a piece about dichotomous thinking. My main focus there was to talk about the need for balance and an understanding that not everything falls into a neat little packing that is either right or wrong. Some things fall somewhere in between.

I was saying, more or less, that we need to be more open to embracing those things in the middle if we want to move forward.

Today I want to focus on how that binary thinking works.

Let us consider religion as an example.

The far left and the far right, generally speaking, often have very different understandings of religion. In between, the perspectives on religion are countless. But the further one direction a person begins to move, the more those perspectives begin to show.

The left tends to view religion with a skeptic’s eye. The further left one moves, the more acceptable it is to question religious precepts, to the point where religion is outright denied as false. It is perceived as a relic from a bygone era. It is seen as the source for most of what ails us in society. It is where the bad guys are.

The right tends to move in the opposite direction. The further to the right one moves, the less acceptable it is to question religious precepts, to the point where religion holds absolute sway over life and decisions. The bad guys are the atheists.

At an individual level, this is the thing that is keeping us divided. These vocal fringe positions. The fact of the matter is that the majority stand somewhere in the middle, sort of leaning one way or the other but still open to the possibility that “the other side” still has something valid to say. The problem with the fringes is that they view all these people in the middle as being enemies of the cause. If one does not lean quite right enough, they are immediately lumped into the fringe left. And if one does not lean left enough, they are immediately lumped into the fringe right.

And this is completely inaccurate.

I refer you back to the story I told at the end of my last piece on this topic.

I had gone to that church conference, and as the “good Christian men” shouted down the protestor, I walked away knowing full well that it was not the protestor who was in the wrong on this. In fact, I had no idea what he was even protesting.

When I got a little older, and was in the midst of my conservative Calvinist phase, one of the message boards I frequented had a thread about the Promise Keepers. The very conference I had attended. The original poster was asking if it was okay to go to the conference because one of the speakers at that year’s event was someone they had gotten a lot of edification from.

The answer was a resounding “No” from nearly every single responder.

The reasons were varied, but they boiled down to the version of the Gospel that the conference promoted had less to do with Biblical truth and more to do with motivational speaking and was intended to turn true Christians (in other words, conservative Calvinists like everyone on the board) away from the faith. The Devil was behind the Promise Keepers. Then there were links to threads where various members of the group who lived in the area were planning their protest.

I had not thought much about the conference I had attended until that moment, when I realized that the Promise Keepers were the ones wrong because true Christians believed as I did.

Or at least that was my initial reaction.

But then I got to thinking some more and was reminded of this little piece of advice that was thrown around in church circles when I was growing up that went something like “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” It has been attributed to St. Augustine, though there are others who have supposedly coined it as well.

And I asked myself, “Does it really matter if that guy goes to that conference? Is he really going to hell for that?”

Besides some of the glaring problems with the Promise Keepers movement, toxic masculinity being a big one, most of the speakers do not say anything particularly problematic. Read your Bible, follow Jesus, be a good person. I’m sure now there are other problems that would making going to it legitimately questionable, but at the time it was rather harmless.

Or I remember when Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life was released and the conservative boards I was a part of would spend thread after thread tearing the book to shreds. I even purchased a copy in order to read it and mark it up with what I agreed and disagreed with so I could have an arsenal of quotes to throw back at people when they tried to push the book on me.

But I never could go all the way. There were things that did not line up. Not to mention the little section from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion where he talked about how truth exists wherever God chooses to put it, and it is not up to me to decide whether or not they did a good job.

That is the key.

This binary thinking that has been gaining more and more steam and further dividing us as a culture for decades is going to be the end of us. There are tons of big things we can and should do, but in our everyday lives we would do well to stop buying into the lie of binary thinking about everything. There is right and wrong, but sometimes that right and wrong overlap. The left is right about some things, and the right gets some things right as well. And they are both wrong about a whole lot too.

This does not mean we have to give both sides equal time at the table or entertain everyone’s ideas or perspectives as equally valid. Some positions are invalid. But in many cases, the truth is not on the fringes. The truth just might be somewhere in the middle, leaning one way or another.



Jeremy Zerby

Hermeneutics, religion, pop psychology, self-help, and culture. They are all connected, and I am here to explain how.