|Flat Earth Society model|
Spending hours isolated at home has allowed me to spend a lot of time on social media and really opened my eyes. I have one Facebook friend who believes the Earth is the center of the universe despite years of astronomical observations proving that’s not true. I have other friends who sincerely promote equally eccentric ideas, including conspiracies, without a shred of evidence or endorse political candidates who spout lies and are obviously unfit for office,
I regularly to try help them by supplying facts supported by research. They calmly reject the data and cling their beliefs. I could not imagine why until conducting some research in that area.
For starters, difficulty in changing beliefs centers around the fact that we only need a smidgen of support to remain adamant. For example, I had a neighbor who loved George Wallace. (I’m dating myself, of course). I happened to be reading a scathing account of Wallace’s two terms as Alabama governor in The Nation magazine and offered it to my neighbor. He willingly read it and came back delighted that the magazine liked Wallace.
Morsels like that help explain why incompetent leaders in many fields still retain support. Even one person, who may be lying but whose comments support a belief can be sufficient to keep a believer charging in the wrong direction.
Ego is wrapped up in that. We feel better by being in a group that accepts us. We are social animals – which is why the required isolation from the virus is causing so much unrest. We want to be part of a group. So we all create our own “families” by joining with people with similar ideas. For immigrants, the sociological term for that behavior is angloconformity – the attempt to be like the Americans. Since this country invented and perpetuates racism, immigrants often become even more racist, even when they come from countries where racism is unknown. For the same reason, people forcefully converted to a religion become more adamant and more devout than the original worshipers.
Ego also refers to how we treat people. I taught religious history for many years and saw how this worked. I had many priests, rabbis and other religious folks in my classes. In one memorable class, I had six Catholic seminarians who had doubts about their faith when they were introduced to actual history. However, like Mother Teresa, they stayed. So did a rabbi I knew was an atheist.
Why? Because they were treated better and accorded more respect because of their religious status. We all show deference to someone wearing a religious collar in the same way we honor a music group that we believe is excellent or a politician who we accept as competent. After all, the pope is well respected outside the Roman Catholic faith even though, to nonbelievers, he’s really just an old man with a funny hat.
Scientists are known to change beliefs as facts accumulate, not the general public which is largely scientifically illiterate. Who wants to be humiliated? Who is strong enough to publicly admit an error in judgment?
As a last resort, we tend to close off alternatives that would shake our beliefs. One cartoonist recently depicted people in glass balls rolling down a hill while shouting political slogans. They couldn’t hear each other or contrary facts. In many ways, we are placing ourselves in isolated groups and shutting out alternative and valid viewpoints.
Modern communication ensures that correct information is available. However, it is easy to ignore. I did a radio show on religious history. The station owner, Carl, and I were discussing crime, and he said crime in Chicago (his hometown) was bad and getting worse. Being interested in facts, I looked up the data. Sure enough, he was wrong: in 16 of the past 17 years, crime in Chicago had fallen. Even last year’s uptick still left the stats below numbers accumulated in the 1990s.
Carl’s response when shown the information compiled by the FBI: “False data.” He has a lot of company denying accurate information that contradicts beliefs.
In many ways, Carl and many others cannot accept contrary facts because of the most powerful reason: they chose their beliefs.
That goes back to the origins of humanity, 150,000 or so years ago. Humans developed in small family groups. We lack talons and fangs to cope with much bigger and more dangerous predators. So, our only option was cooperation. Nonconformists who chose to chose to buck the system were eaten. Conformity is why people in Jonestown lined up to drink poisonous Kool-Aid, in one horrendous example.
The process worked. We survived. However, we inherited a “we” vs. “they” mentality. The process created built-in biases, which were discovered by Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington. Called implicit bias, they affect an estimated 75 percent of the population, who don’t even know the biases are implanted in their minds yet which affect how they act toward another person.
When we were in family groups, “we” was easy to identify. It became more difficult as populations grew. Families grouped together to form communities. Family ties no longer were sufficient to bind people together. Besides, people are different. Our brains evolve individually. That’s why two people in the same family can have totally different views of the world. Their life experiences are different. Their genetics are different. Beliefs became the matrix.
We fight battles for beliefs, such as “freedom” and “justice, for a country, itself an artificial creation. Countries often change borders and names, and have through history. It’s the belief that sustains them.
In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth 1 faced the same problem as Catholics rallied around the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, endangering Elizabeth’s hold on the throne. Elizabeth almost had to be tricked into signing the death warrant because, she realized, killing a monarch undermined her own claim to the throne. In France, the uprisings against Louis XV1 and, in England, the beheading of Charles I, required extraordinary circumstances and, in both cases, eventually led to the restoration of the monarchy.
In this country, we don’t have royalty but eagerly promote athletes, actors, oligarchs and politicians to that role and treat them with similar deference. That’s why celebrity endorsements are used so often.
However, we choose our heroes; we choose who we want to support politically; we choose who we admire and want to emulate. In effect, we are creating our own family, our “we.” As a result, we are more adamant, more convinced we have made the right choice and even more reluctant to change.
We can change religions easily. For the most part, we don’t choose our religious faiths. We are born into families which follow a particular religion. As a result, it’s easier to change. Annually, millions change their faiths. Christianity, for example, gains about 15 million followers a year and loses about 11 million. Islam gains millions every year and loses just as many. The 10 Lost Tribes of Israel didn’t stray somewhere; they assimilated. Changing a religion is a snap. Changing a political party or philosophy is far more wrenching and less likely to happen.
As a result, too many people today aren’t listening and they won’t listen. They continue to ignore verified information that is readily available. More than 150,000 years after the first modern human evolved, despite the immense advances in communication and knowledge, we are still dividing ourselves in “we” and they” just as our ancestors did. As a result, almost without exception, only a tremendous quake – a Depression, a world war, the Civil Rights Movement or other cataclysmic event on an international, national or personal level – can convince anyone to change chosen beliefs.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture. He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of the recently published novels Revelation! (Southern Owl Press) and The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All (Bold Venture Press) as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information and Comparative Religion for Dummies. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.