After reading the comment sections of some interesting articles on an a few alternative sites, I asked myself two related questions: one, why do people believe so many stupid things, and two, why do they passionately adhere to worldviews that are not only absurd, but are totally at odds with their real interests? I imagine that most of us would affirm that we believe what we do because we have thought it through. To “think it through” means to have examined the evidence, and arrived at conclusions on the basis of a logical evaluation of that evidence.
Of course many different things impact our belief systems: The beliefs of our parents, the early indoctrination of our schools, the garbled nonsense that we pick up on the TV, the compatibility of different beliefs with our emotional and economic needs, the beliefs of various authorities, etc. While I would not deny the importance of any of these influences, I’ve come to a tentative conclusion that there is another factor that overshadows these other forces – a factor that has little to do with evidence or logic. This other factor derives from our desire for belonging and esteem within our reference groups. By reference group I simply mean the people with whom we hang out, and upon whom we depend to provide us with a reasonably good sense of who we are. We are social creatures, and above all we want to be accepted by our friends, by our families, and by society.
You might ask, what evidence do I have for my theory of stupid beliefs? It's the evidence of a lifetime, really. Belonging has always been important for me, just as it is for most people. And yet I have found it very difficult to find a group within which I can comfortably fit. The problem is that whenever I try to fit in, I discover that virtually every group in society asks you to check in at the door any beliefs that vary from theirs, as in the taverns of the old west, you had to check in your guns. Perhaps this phenomenon is most clear when we speak of a political movement or an evangelical church. In order to fit in, you must believe as they believe. Even a single unacceptable belief on a fundamental matter is enough to threaten your belonging in these groups. This has been my experience, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.
Of course what I’m saying about intellectual conformity does not apply so strongly to peripheral beliefs. We can cheer for different football teams, because who wins doesn’t really make that much difference. But let me give you two examples of how core beliefs would threaten a person's belonging. Suppose that you belong to an evangelical church, and you come to the conclusion that premarital sex and “swinging” are compatible with God’s will. You could either keep these beliefs to yourself, which would create an inner tension in your soul, or you could share your convictions, and allow the tension to transferred to the social domain – between yourself and the others. On the other hand, suppose you were part of a militant feminist group, and you came to the conclusion that abortion is wrong. The same options, and the same tensions, would exist for you as in the example of the evangelical heretic.
So what can be done if we wish to arrive at more intelligent beliefs? It's possible that the answer is, nothing. Perhaps we are simply hardwired for stupidity. But if we want to make the effort to think more intelligently, we might first focus on what kinds of beliefs are relevant. It is notable that the worst examples of our stupidity emerge with regard to political, religious, and ethical beliefs. Our thinking on technical matters tends to be more reliable. This is true both individually and collectively. This became acutely clear to me one day when I was boarding an airplane. I had to marvel at the incredible amount of intelligence that must have gone into building this huge hunk of metal that was somehow going to lift itself into the air. And yet, I mused, a primary application of this technical skill is the creation of bombers, drones, helicopters and other flying inventions that are used to kill people on a massive scale. Our brilliantly constructed machines now threaten the very survival of our species. Great technical expertise, combined with profound moral stupidity, are the hallmarks, both individually and collectively, of our society. We are moral morons.
I believe that people of ordinary intelligence have the capability to arrive at reasonable conclusions with regard to political, religious, and ethical matters. They need only discipline themselves to to actually look at, and think about, the data that is relevant to a particular question. What is needed is not more innate ability, but a firm resolve to resist those psychological and interpersonal forces that discourage us from thinking things through for ourselves on the basis of the best evidence we are able to gather. It is not impossible that our moral intelligence might some day begin to catch up with our technological brilliance.
But this does not appear to be happening fast enough.