Tag Archives: tribalism

A Higher Game – Colored Pencil Drawing

About two years ago, I was a guest on what was then called the Atheist Pastor Podcast. The host had invited me to share my story about how I lost my faith after serving as an evangelical missionary to China; but in addition to that, we talked about another issue that is now much closer to my heart: tribalism.

It had become increasingly clear to me that the greatest threat to America’s future (and humanity’s) was our own tribalism. In the face of enormous problems that threaten all of us, we have been unable to make progress because we’re too caught up in petty intertribal conflicts. All we can think about is “owning” the other side.

In the interview, I presented the following metaphor: Humanity is in a chess game against the devil, and as the devil gradually strengthens his position and prepares to checkmate us, we’re gathered around nine squares in the back of the board, playing a stupid, petty game of tic-tac-toe. What we need to do is play a higher game.

For several months, I fantasized about drawing or painting the metaphor. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, but eventually I decided to give it a shot — and I went all-out. After five months, I had a drawing that I’m tremendously proud of. Below are some photos documenting the process.

I began by taking dozens of pictures of myself sitting at a chessboard in different positions in order to build the composition of the piece. Using those photos as reference, I produced the following underdrawing:

I decided to start coloring the characters in the foreground first, using blue on the left and red on the right to match the traditional political spectrum. I was nervous about coloring their flesh, so I began with their clothes. Here’s the blue guy:

I was especially pleased with the buttons on his jacket and the wrinkles and creases in his pants. Then I colored the red guy’s clothes:

I wasn’t very happy with the red guy’s pants, but I really liked his tie and the buttons on his jacket. After that, it was time to color some flesh. I started with the blue guy’s hand, figuring that if I messed it up, it wouldn’t be too big a deal. But I ended up being really pleased with it:

I then finished the hands and faces of both guys in the foreground. Their faces ended up looking a little more wooden than I would have liked, but they weren’t bad. I wasn’t pleased with the blue guy’s hair, so I decided to wait a bit before doing the other guy’s hair:

I decided to tackle the chess pieces next. Getting the chrome look was a worrisome challenge, but using various shades of gray, I achieved a very nice effect. And I really liked taking pictures of the pawns with my hand in front of them as if I were holding them between my fingers!

The rest of the pieces turned out well — especially the black knight, I thought. And then it was time for the board itself. The board I was using as a model had beautiful wood grain, and I wanted to capture it as closely as possible. I started with the light squares:

When I finished the board, I was feeling great. I was especially proud of the perspective, the highlights, and the reflections. It really felt to me like it was coming out of the page:

Now for the devil. I’d been putting him off because up to this point, I’d been able to rely on my photos for models. But although I had a photo of myself (and a colleague) posing as the devil, I didn’t want the devil to look just like a regular person. I thought for a long time and settled on a look inspired by the character Te Kā in the movie Moana, with charred, cracked flesh haloed by flames:

I still wasn’t sure how I should color the devil’s face, so I punted again and began working on the background. I wanted this chess game to have a cosmic feel to it, so I used space scenes. On the left, I drew the famous “pillars of creation” (a nebula about 7,000 light-years away from Earth), and on the right, a spiral galaxy:

Finally, I colored the devil’s face. It didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked, but it didn’t ruin the drawing:

That was five months of work. The title is A Higher Game — because that’s what it’s saying we need to play. I really wish it could be in an exhibit somewhere, because I believe the concept is truly important, and (if I do say so myself) it’s some damn good colored pencil work.

If you want to buy a high-resolution poster of it, you can do so here at my store on Spreadshirt.

The Atheist Pastor Podcast

I just had a great interview experience on the Atheist Pastor Podcast. I talked about my experience as an evangelical missionary in China, my eventual loss of faith, my book Confessions of a Rogue Missionary, and the destructiveness of tribalism in American politics. Check it out:

Follow Chris Atlee (Atheist Pastor) on Twitter at @atheist_pastor.

Jonathan Haidt’s Greatest Fear

I just listened to an interview with the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in which he was asked what his greatest fear was. It’s the same as my own. His reply was quite powerful, I thought. Here it is:

“What worries me most is that while almost all of our problems are solvable, I fear that we are not going to solve a lot of them because of our rising political polarization and rising distrust, all of which preceded social media but is now greatly amplified on social media.”

“So I do actually fear that the United States may end as a nation. That is, some time in the next 30 or 40 years, it’s at least conceivable that states will secede or that there will be a necessity of the military to come out and put down some unrest.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do think that democracy is difficult. Democracy, as the founding fathers knew, tends to commit suicide, and I think that unless we pay a lot more attention to what we are doing, I fear that our democracy could commit suicide.

“So I think that understanding what’s happening to us, understanding rising political polarization, improving our political institutions to make them more trustworthy, less corrupt, is an urgent national mission.

It is an urgent mission—perhaps the most urgent, because if we can’t overcome our own differences and work together, we won’t be able to solve any of the daunting problems we face.


Read more about Jonathan Haidt’s anti-tribalism projects here:


Get anti-tribalism merchandise here:


The New York Times Missed the Chance of a Lifetime

When Trump turned the Republican Party inside out and won the 2016 election, millions of conservative and centrist Americans were left feeling disgusted and politically homeless. This was the chance of a lifetime for every liberal media outlet in the country. All they had to do was open their doors to centrists and moderate conservatives, broadening the range of views represented in their pages, and they could have doubled or tripled their readership—and their influence.

If The New York Times had done this, it might have become a powerful unifying force in a time when we need healing more than anything else. It could have made great strides in bridging political divides and reducing the rampant tribalism that is now destroying us. Instead, it seems determined to become the Breitbart of the Left. And now, with Bari Weiss’s departure, The Times has lost one of its few remaining moderate voices. Her resignation letter is well worth reading. Here is a particularly incisive quote from it:

“The lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”

It’s not too late for The Times to turn things around and seize the opportunity to expand its reach and become a force for healing. But under its present leadership and with its current toxic culture, it seems unlikely that this will happen. Hopefully, another media outlet will step in and do so. Otherwise, we will remain trapped in this downward spiral of polarization and tribalism.

I am a liberal, and I have been disgusted by Donald Trump from the very beginning. His incompetence, narcissism, divisive rhetoric, and utter disregard for truth continue to tear our country apart. When The New York Times published pieces that criticized him—which is part of the media’s job—he lashed out, dubbing them “the failing New York Times.” They had a chance to prove him wrong—to be bigger and better than him, to be unifying rather than divisive—but they blew it.

The greatest irony of all is that the tactics of The Times seem perfectly designed to help Trump get re-elected. The far Left’s hyperfocus on political correctness and their dismissive attitudes toward moderates and conservatives played a big role in stirring up support for Trump in the first place. And now they’re doubling down on this approach.

As Trump would say: SAD.

Our own tribalism is the greatest threat to our country right now. Trump is a symptom of that tribalism, not the cause of it. Voting him out of office is imperative, but it’s not enough. If we get rid of him without also dialing down our polarization, then we’ll only be paving the way for someone else just like him—or worse—to come along.

We need healing. We need unification. We need grace and civility. Join me in creating an anti-tribalism initiative. Use the hashtag #EndTribalism, and in all of your interactions, do what you can to reduce tribalism and polarization. You can buy anti-tribalism T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise here.