We live at a moment in history when making decisions about who to believe is harder than ever. We have more access to information than at any time in history, but our care in consuming information has not caught up with our ability to create it. Public officials rationalize using “alternative facts” to make decision. Modern science falls prey to the whims of popular opinion or motivated reasoning, but conspiracy theories attract millions of Americans, including how they think about COVID-19. Studies show that students have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction on the internet and the rhetoric since the election has shown this study to be prescient. We are suffering what some call “truth decay.” Lines demarcating differing realms of knowledge are so blurred that everyone is free to “believe what you will.”
We need to encourage critical thinking (rhetorically and in the classroom), but we need more. In navigating the information deluge, we need to think about what beliefs merit our faith and what ideas merit our trust. Attention to the ethics of belief is crucial to not merely surviving these tumultuous times but thriving.
The democratization of knowledge has granted near universal access to books, libraries, science, and ultimately knowledge. Technology has allowed us to create a vast storehouse of information readily available to nearly everyone with the will to search the internet. The result is an electronic encyclopedia of humanity that houses the wisdom of the philosophers and religious thinkers from around the world and throughout history and millennia of the greatest works of art, music, and literature.
But there is also a dark side to the information revolution. On the internet today we can find deep fake videos of Nick Offerman starring in every role in Full House as well as Alex Jones (described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America”), and everything in between. But content is only part of the problem. We are awash in information and critical thinking has taken a back seat to expediency, confirmation bias, and outright manipulation. (For more on the threat of deep fakes, see this short PBS/Nova documentary).
On the side of the desk are traced the words, ‘The dream of reason produces monsters,’ It is a caption that admits of more than one interpretation. When reason sleeps, the absurd and loathsome creatures of superstition wake and are active, goading their victim to an ignoble frenzy. But this is not all. Reason may also dream without sleeping, may intoxicate itself, as it did during the French Revolution, with the daydreams of inevitable progress, of liberty, equality, and fraternity imposed by violence, of human self-sufficiency and the ending of sorrow…by political rearrangements and a better technology.
– Aldous Huxley, “Variations on Goya,” On Art and Artists, Morris Philipson, ed., (London: Chatto and Windus, 1960), 218-19.
Google, the expedient alternative to research, decides what is relevant. Algorithms that analyze search patterns, a proxy for popular opinion, determine what is worth seeing. This leaves a student researching, say, Buddhism, to tell the difference between scholarly sources, like Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, popular sources, like history.com, primary sources, like thebuddhistcentre.com, and hybrids like Wikipedia.com. Search engines also give you results you like, reinforcing “confirmation bias on steroids.” Our tendency to stick to our own groups and news sources that agree with us makes this worse. Finally, some people are intentionally blurring the lines, manipulating our perception of the different types of knowledge. For example, evolution is at the center of a widespread effort to erase the distinction between science and religion and present Intelligent Design as science. We face false equivalencies on multiple levels.
One source of the confusion between information and knowledge and the conflation of different sorts of knowledge is particularly American. Will Herberg describes “The American Way of Life” as democratic, idealistic, and affirming the highest value to the individual (Protestant-Catholic-Jew, 79). Americanism, he says, evokes “the appropriate religious emotions” and is defined by a “faith in faith” (90). The classic expression of Americanism is “I believe” with no need for an object (265). This civic religious attitude, I suggest, coupled with the conflation of all sorts of information into one class of “knowledge” leads us to the state of affairs in which belief—as an act of faith “in things unseen” or “against evidence”—now applies to almost any statement.
Someone can say “I don’t believe in evolution” and few hear any cognitive dissonance in a statement of faith in a scientific theory. The president can say “I won the election,” against all evidence to the contrary, and people believe him. In fact, 70% of Republicans believe the election was unfair despite evidence from government agencies it was the most secure election in our history. For many people, an intuition on their part is more meaningful or truthful than a scientific consensus. We are living in The Age of Truthiness.
Belief is not merely an exercise in critical (or uncritical) thinking; it is a moral issue. William Clifford, in his essay “The Ethics of Belief,” writes that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (5). We have a responsibility, he says, to investigate propositions put before us before assenting to believe. Believing something without good reason is dangerous, not merely because it may be wrong, but because accepting certain propositions without evidence can endanger people. Decisions about whether to take military action in Iraq or to take up arms to liberate children from a pedophilia ring run in a pizza parlor are but two examples.
Clifford also asserts that beliefs are not merely a private matter, because they motive our actions, makes our minds ready to accept other beliefs, and our words and thoughts are common property to be inherited by our descendants (3). “No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others” (3). One unjustified belief, to put it differently, is a gateway belief, enabling other similar, perhaps more dangerous beliefs.
The dangers of believing without good reason has been a dramatic part of our national story for the last few years. If they don’t believe masks are necessary, they may be putting my (and their) life at risk. If the president continues to assert the election was stolen, knowing there are thousands of people who have been stockpiling weapons for just such an occasion, he puts millions of lives at risk.
We are responsible for what we believe because our beliefs have consequences. In the face of so much information, we must periodically ask ourselves some tough questions. How do I know this fact? Why do I believe this idea? Mark Twain answers cynically,
In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.The Autobiography of Mark Twain
It’s time for us to talk about belief.
The corollary of belief is trust. As Twain says, we tend to accept our beliefs in trust of those who teach us. Christians trust God, despite individual challenges in their life, enabling them to believe what others might find unbelievable. Scientists trust the consensus of the scientific community, allowing them to accept, at least provisionally, scientific theories. The erosion of trust in authority is one cause of the rise in conspiracy theories. At the core of much of the divisiveness in politics and the media, is a deep divide between those we trust and “the other.”
We must be responsible in our beliefs. And we must hold others responsible for holding unjustified beliefs. We must hold not only our political opponents responsible, but those with whom we agree. However, we must understand in order to trust. When we seek to develop an authentic sense of self in a context that is increasingly characterized by diversity and confusion of categories, we need to think about what voices we hear (and don’t) and to which we should listen (or not).
For further reading: See Matt’s other blog posts, “To ‘Know Thyself’ You Must ‘Know Thy History'” and “Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference.”
Matthew Sayers is Professor of Religion teaching in the Social Justice and Civic Engagement Program at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India (Oxford, 2013). Matt’s essay, “The Story of Me: A Myth-understanding of Vocation” appeared in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019).