Limitations of Binary Thinking

Most of us are familiar with Either/Or thinking, also known as Black-and-White or Binary thinking. It is the type of thinking that drove Inspector Javert’s obsessive quest to bring Jean Valjean to justice for stealing a loaf of bread in the book/movie Les Miserables.  When we use either/or thinking it helps us make sense of the world and brings us certainty (link coming).  Black-and-White thinking tends to simplify life, people, and events, and it leads us to literal interpretations of things, like scripture.  It also leads to absolutes and divides people into us vs. them. However, there are limitations to binary thinking. And it  makes it incredibly difficult to hold space in your life for paradox (link coming).

Examples of Binary Thinking:

  • If I am right, then you are wrong
  • You are either conservative or liberal
  • If you are a Christian, you must also be a Republican
  • You either believe in science or God
  • If you obey God’s commandments you are good, if you disobey them you are bad
  • The Bible is the literal word of God
  • Women are emotional and men are rational
  • Being rational is better than being emotional (of vice versa)
  • You are either for me or against me
  • If I don’t win, I lose

Binary thinking leads to absolutes

Binary thinking tends to lead to absolutes, which tends to lead to fundamentalism, authoritarianism, and judgement.  But binary thinking is not all bad (see what I did there?  You might have thought I was leading you into a binary thinking trap, “binary thinking is bad, non-binary thinking is good,” but I’m not).

There are times and situations in which binary thinking is useful and helpful.  Either/Or thinking is a useful place to start with children.  We teach our children to always stop and look both ways before crossing the street, or to always hold an adult’s hand to cross the street.  Binaries of “good and bad” help establish societal rules and allow for law and order to exist.  In certain situations, like fight or flight situations, binary thinking helps us make quick decisions.  However, as we grow up and gain more experience, we may learn to step out of that black-and-white thinking.

Binary thinking in Religion*  

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments

Most religions make use of either/or thinking.  The Ten Commandments are straightforward, all-or-nothing decrees.  In fact, the Old Testament tends to be very black-and-white in its directives.

And then Jesus comes into the world and turns binaries on their head!  There is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and multiple interactions with the Pharisees:

Danish painter Carl Bloch’s depiction of The Sermon on the Mount from 1890 and his Life of Jesus series

  • Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth (Matt 5:5)
  • Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matt 5: 43-44).
  • He teaches us paradoxical things like you must lose your life to find it (Matt 16:25) and the kingdom of God is within (Luke 17:21)
  • The Pharisees try to trick Him into self-condemnation when Jesus heals on the sabbath, but Jesus questions the law and suggests there are some things more important than the words of the law (Matt 12:10-14)
  • Jesus, the incarnation of God, spent time with the undesirables: the poor, the sinners, those who were ignored and despised by the Pharisees.
  • Jesus blurred the lines between Jew and Gentile and suggested a new paradigm of who is godly and worthy of god’s love. He breaks down the us vs. them paradigm.
  • Jesus taught that the law should be written on our hearts, when originally it was written in stone. (examples–Jerimiah 31:33; Corinthians 3:2-3)

Binary Thinking and Crisis

Often people move into a faith crisis when binary thinking no longer works for them, when they can’t make sense of their world using black-and-white thinking.  I know of so many wonderful parents who couldn’t hold such dichotomies in their heart and soul when they found out their child was LGBTQ. Many churches teach that homosexuality is a sin, that God will not accept their children as LGBTQ.  This left the parents in great pain.  I know of so many parents who prayed and got a clear message from God that their child was perfectly acceptable, gifted, and had much to offer the world.  That left them at odds with church leaders/teachings, causing cognitive dissonance.  What do you do when your personal, inner moral compass is at odds with what your church leaders tell you?  This is the crux of a faith crisis.

Stages of Faith

Binary thinking is where we begin learning about moral development.  However, growing out of black-and-white thinking is actually a part of moving into a different stage of faith. It is a natural part of personal growth.

Fowler’s stages of faith

According to James Fowler there are six stages of faith development (link coming).   It’s important to note that these stages are not fixed and discreet; we tend to move between them and express characteristics of more than one stage at a time.  Binary thinking is common in stages 2 and 3. In Stage 4 individuals struggle with childhood teachings.  By Stage 5, individuals accept paradox and uncertainty.  So, your faith crisis is not a bad thing!  You are in a natural progression of faith development.

Emotional Cost of Binary Thinking

Binary thinking is often used as a weapon against individuals who question their religious teachings. One who doubts is perceived as lost at best, evil at worst.  This judgment is something we put on ourselves as well as something others place on us.  The judgment comes from either/or thinking, which creates a place of fear, due to a lack of understanding.  But the binary thinking and judgment can take a real toll on one’s emotional health.

The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss

Binary thinking was something that kept me in my depression (see my bio).  I learned that if you’re righteous you’ll be happy.  Following binary logic, since I was depressed, I was not be good enough (or in other words, I was unrighteous). Therefore, I needed to pray more or study my scriptures more or be more selfless…you get the idea. This is a bit simplified, but I spent a lot of time using binary thinking to prove to myself I was worthless.  It kept me from accepting my imperfections and accepting failure as a part of learning and life.

Slowly, I identified when I was trapped in either/or thinking.  I am adopting a “yes/and” or “both/and” perspective. Now I recognize that: yes, I am unrighteous, and I am righteous; I am both happy and sad;  yes, I am wise and foolish; I am both a good mother and bad mother.”  As I’ve grown into non-binary thinking, I even find myself moving away from calling things good or bad.  So instead of thinking about being a good or bad mother, I recognize that there are some things I do well and other times when I make major mistakes.  I have learned that I am enough of a mother for my children.

Embracing Both/and

Embracing yes/and (or both/and) thinking has taken me into the space of uncertainty.  I feel like I “know” less than I ever have, but I’m happy being in that space.  I’ve started unpacking god from the box I was taught to put him/her in, which illuminates a greater, more expansive god than I could imagine.  This helped me to take back my own spiritual authority.  I don’t need a church leader to tell me how to think or interpret the scriptures.  I can learn from those leaders, but they do not get the final say in how I think and act.

There are times I still get stuck in either/or thinking, often without even noticing!  I always get a good laugh when my therapist says to me “Kim, you’re looking at this through a binary lens.  Are there other possibilities?”  Moving to yes/and thinking takes practice and it is like peeling back layers of an onion. As you shed the either/or thinking in one area, you’ll find it crop up in another.  I think it is human nature to want things to be either/or, to be simple. But it also limits our personal growth and development.

So, I challenge you to identify times when you are limiting yourself by either/or thinking.  Please share your thoughts in the comments section and we can learn from each other.

* I do not mean to exclude other religious and spiritual ideas.  In my practice I do not limit faith crises to Christian experiences.  I am using Jesus and Christian scriptures as an example because it is my faith tradition, it is what I’m familiar with.  However, I believe similar ideas show up in other faith traditions as well.  If you are from a different faith, I would love to hear from you and your experiences. There is much in this life that I have to learn, and I welcome my readers to take the opportunity to teach me.

Comment (1)

  • Sharalyn Perkes| January 27, 2019

    I appreciate your thoughts on this, Kim.

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