Saturday, June 27, 2020

Why Can't We Change Someone's Mind?

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.

He had found a single sentence that reported Wallace promised not to raise taxes in the first term and did not.  He did in his second term.  That tidbit was enough to allow my neighbor to ignore all the harm Wallace caused otherwise.

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.

Mother Teresa
The same is true at political rallies, concerts and the like.  We look around and see people with similar beliefs, and our own belief is reinforced.

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.

Polygamous marriages
In addition, it’s very difficult to accept that a belief is wrong.  The leader of the Scandinavian wing of the Church of Latter Day Saints said he felt as though he had been “kicked in the stomach” when, after years of denial believed by the Scandinavian,  the church finally admitted that founder Joseph Smith really did marry many women, including some as young as 12.  The Scandinavian is not alone.  It’s painful to admit you were wrong, and most of us will cling to our beliefs to avoid that.

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.
Early human family groups

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.  

Elizabeth 1
Religion is just one belief.  There were many others, particularly ones fostered by those in power.  As an example, the belief in the “divine right” of kings remains with us.  That’s the belief that someone is king because of heavenly selection.  In the biblical book of Samuel, in an overt case, David revolted against his king and declined two opportunities to kill Saul because, David said, Saul was anointed. 

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.
We vs, they

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 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, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rethinking the Electoral College

Sure enough, as the fall elections grow closer, Facebook friends have resurrected the idea of abolishing the electoral college.  For some, it is associated with racism.  Others are thinking of the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton garnered more votes but lost the election.  The rest just thinks it’s outmoded and no longer necessary in the 21st century.

All of that shows little knowledge of why it exists in the first place.

The country’s founders faced a dilemma:  smaller states were afraid of being crushed by the larger states.  They worked out two solutions that satisfied the smaller states.

First, they created a bicameral Congress.  Membership in the House of Representatives is based on population.  So bigger states have more delegates.   In contrast, the other house, the Senate, contains two members for each state.  That way, a state as tiny as Rhode Island is just as important as giants like New York or California.

Electoral votes
The other decision involved the Electoral College, which is peopled based on membership in Congress but, because any candidate needs more than half of the electoral votes, gives weight to the smaller states.  At the same time, the College served as a safety net in case a candidate wins and then dies before assuming office or is determined to be unfit to assume the presidency.

The men creating our country conceived of independent electors confirming the results of a national election, an approach requiring candidates to appeal to all voters and strengthening the country’s political system..

There was no racism in their decision.  It was elitism since only males who owned property then could vote.  Black residents who fell into that category could vote, too.

Few electors have ever deviated from the choice of the voters, even as the number of voters expanded to include all adult citizens.

As of 2020,  165 electors have chosen not to vote for their party’s choice.  The largest number occurred in 1872 when Democrat Horace Greeley, who lost to incumbent Ulysses S. Grant, died shortly after the election.  The electors sworn to Greeley mostly opted to vote for Grant.  

In 1836, Virginia electors declined to vote for Kentucky’s Richard Johnson, winning Democrat Martin Van Buren’s choice for vice president.  Johnson openly lived with a mixed-race slave named Julia Chinn, which alienated the racist Virginians.  He was then elected by a party-line vote in the Senate in accordance to the 12th Constitutional amendment.

In 2016, two electors refused to vote for Trump; five for Clinton. 

Other maverick electors have cast meaningless votes for losing third-party candidates, but only when the election results were not in doubt. 

To reduce chances of that happening, 32 states at this writing have laws banning electors from changing their votes.  All are party loyalists, chosen on the state level, so the likelihood they will ignore their pledges to support their party’s candidate is small.  “Faithless” electors don’t face any legal penalties anyway, just loss of status within a political party.

The process does ignore total votes.  To date, five of the 45 men to hold the presidency got into the White House with a minority of the total votes: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Trump

However, other presidents were elected despite not garnering the majority of votes in races involving multiple candidates.  Abraham Lincoln received 1.85 million votes in the 1860 election.  He wasn’t even on the ballot in 11 Southern states.  The other three candidates won more than 2.3 million votes.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won even though his two opponents, incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and Bull Moose Theodore Roosevelt garnered 2 million more votes than the Democrat.

The difference came in the electoral college.

Eliminating the electoral college would mean that a candidate could win the four biggest states – California, New York, Texas and Florida – by enough votes and virtually sew up the election regardless of how the rest of the country votes.  As of this year, California contains 15.6 million registered voters;  Texas, 11.5 million; New York, 8.5 million; and Florida 9.4 million. Throw in Pennsylvania with 6.4 million voters and Ohio with 6 million, and there are almost as many votes as Trump received.

Why would candidates care about other states?

The repercussions would be widespread, affecting choice of candidates.  Why would a party choose a candidate from Iowa or Nevada, which have relatively few residents instead from a state that must be carried?  What about the issues affecting residents of a fishing state like Maine or Rhode Island, with meager populations, compared to Indiana or Michigan, which have totally different concerns and a lot more voters?

There would also be unforeseen consequences, which are not likely to be beneficial. Unforeseen consequences rarely are.

Eliminating the electoral college would let the popular vote decide the winner, but it would also bring about the exact situation and the tremendous problems that the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid.  Nothing has changed in more than 220 years.

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 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, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.