Surprisingly, Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan has found in a recent study that beliefs about such things as evolution and global warming are not necessarily based on ignorance, but often on a knowledge of the scientific facts that is wilfully resisted because of a person’s political or religious identity and affiliation.
In other words, engaging in what the economist Paul Krugman characterizes as “wishful thinking.”
I first found out about the study from New York Times columnist Krugman’s application of the principle to economics in "Belief, Facts, and Money." Then I read the Times article by political scientist Brendan Nyhan that Krugman references about Kahan’s discoveries, "When Beliefs and Facts Collide."
People may be current on the science of evolution and global warming, but because of their identities as evangelical Christians or conservative Republicans, they reject the science because it doesn’t fit their faith and values. Surveys indicate the gap between facts and beliefs are wider among those believers familiar with the facts, because, apparently, they know what facts to reject.
This explains so much.
In college, when I spoke out against the Vietnam War, from churches to Rotarian groups and Kiwanis clubs, I believed that if people knew the factual history of Vietnam from French colonialism to American involvement, they too would oppose the war. I produced a page-long summary of that history for distribution, certain that would convert my listeners.
What I found was that the historical facts didn’t matter to most, even when they supposed them to be true.
“My country: Love it or Leave It,” was not just a bumper sticker to them, it was a belief system. And the myth of the Domino theory of how communism spread further undergirded support of American intervention.
In churches, when I spoke for the full welcome and inclusion of LGBT people, listeners resisted current biblical scholarship and contemporary scientific studies. John Boswell’s landmark tome Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality nor his subsequent Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, revealing that historically the church has not been of one mind on homosexual persons and relationships, did not convince those Christians most opposed to homosexuality, and did it convince those gays and lesbians most opposed to the church. Indeed, Boswell told me that he had anticipated vigorous attacks on his work from the church, but not from the LGBT community.
Long after HIV was identified as the culprit causing AIDS, and long after it was proven that HIV could not be communicated by casual contact, a well-informed evangelical Christian friend of mine insisted that she believed it could be, thus warranting caution and quarantines. Today there are still myths held dearly around HIV/AIDS by those across the political spectrum and around the world in spite of exhaustive medical evidence that contradicts them.
As Nyhan argues, we need to "try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues” such as evolution and climate change.
Progressive Christians know about this process. We identify as Christian, but we don’t feel compelled to express our faith as “old time religion.” It’s vital that we out-evangelize our evangelical brothers and sisters by spreading the good news that Christians can be Christians without taking the Bible literally, without accepting doctrine without question and reason, and without losing our minds or our hearts.
We too engage in “wishful thinking”: that all might honor human rights, hunger to know the truth, work agreeably with those with whom they differ, accept responsibility as careful stewards of the earth, and practice a vocation of compassion for all.