I have taught critical thinking and moral reasoning to tens of thousands of people--prison inmates, traditional college students, adult learners, talented and gifted children, and leadership teams of fortune 500 companies. With unshakeable certainty, I can universally say that people, no matter what their educational level, socio-economic status, or cultural background, do not choose their beliefs on the basis of evidence. Moreover, people continue to hold a belief even when they know that the evidence contradicts that belief. This I believe.
Like most things in life, however, my belief is slightly more complicated and more nuanced than this. People may change their beliefs after examining reliable evidence that contradicts what they believe, only if they don’t care about, or if they are not vested in, the conclusion of their inquiry. If, for example, one doesn’t really care about which restaurant they’ll go to, or which presidential candidate will best serve their country, but they have a vague intuition about such matters, then one’s beliefs may go where the evidence leads them. If, however, an issue really matters to them, regardless of what the issue is, then no evidence is ever sufficient to sway their beliefs. Any evidence that contradicts what one believes will be written off as anomalous, biased, inconclusive, absurd, or even offensive.
A recent classroom discussion about Karma can help to explain this. I was asking a student who believed in Karma what that meant, and she told me that Karma is an invisible force of the universe such that “if you do good deeds then good things will happen to you, if you do bad deeds then bad things will happen to you.” I asked her how she explains the case of a person who was murdered but never themselves murdered anyone. She said she couldn’t. People in the class provided similar examples, at which point she concluded that there was simply no evidence for her continuing belief in Karma. I asked her if she was sure that the examples given proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no reason to continue believing, and she said that she was convinced. Then, knowing what she now knows, I asked if she was going to change her belief and stop believing in Karma. She said no.
But believing in something with little or no evidence doesn’t just apply to mystical, religious or theological beliefs, but to virtually all of our beliefs, even those empirical beliefs that we think are well founded. Evolutionary biology and global warming, for example, are contemporary examples of ideas in which many people have a great force of conviction. However, when asked about even the basic tenets of evolution, the vast majority of people are clueless. Have you really looked over and dispassionately examined the data for global warming? Are you familiar with the main terms and the causal relationship of carbon to other elements? Or, does “a thousand repetitions equal one truth,” and do you defer to the experts who constantly fill the airwaves? I don’t mean to imply that global warming and evolution are false, but rather that we are very quick to lend our beliefs to something—and then wed ourselves to those beliefs--without having really looked into and examined what we believe.
The case of global climate change is particularly interesting, because it illustrates the relationship between people’s beliefs and ideology. With few exceptions, republicans have fallen on one side of the debate and democrats on the other. Even smart, educated, thoughtful people who have a particular ideological bent but who have not bothered to really examine the issue, buy into their particular ideology’s take. That one doesn’t choose one’s belief and that one then weds oneself to a belief that is less based on evidence and more based on other factors, is just more pronounced and more obvious with global climate change due to the scientific complexity and the polarizing nature of the issue. In fact, regardless of the subject, people’s beliefs do not follow the evidence. This is even more conspicuous in the realm of faith.
This leads me to another of my core beliefs regarding people’s beliefs that fall into faith’s domain: The more tenaciously one holds a religious belief, the less evidence one will have for that belief. If one had evidence for one’s religious beliefs, then one wouldn’t need to hold that belief tenaciously, one could just matter-of-factly defer to the evidence. In my experience this is never the case; people don’t just ask others to look at the evidence and to decide for themselves.
That’s why what happened to me a few years ago was astonishing. I was teaching a philosophy of religion class, and I asked people why they have faith. To my amazement, one person in class told me that they have faith on the basis of evidence. That is, that there is overwhelming evidence that their faith (in this case it was in the divinity of Christ) is true. I asked him if he’d enter into a thought experiment with me, and he agreed. I asked the following: Suppose, for example, a long-lost wealthy cousin bequeathed you an enormous sum of money. With the money, you conducted the largest and most in-depth examination in human history, whose purpose it was to find out if there is enough evidence to warrant your religious belief. Ultimately, you would decide if there was enough evidence or not. You called in experts, archeologists, anthropologists; you studied the historical records; you watched documentaries; learned relevant foreign languages; had scholars in multiple disciples come from all over the world to testify before you. At the end of your ten year inquiry you came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to justify your religious belief. Would you still hold that belief?
The answer, of course, was yes. He would still hold the belief, even if there was not enough evidence to support it. I then asked what the purpose of the inquiry was, if he wasn’t going to change his belief regardless of the outcome. He shrugged.
As a society, I don’t think that we value critically examined belief as highly as we should. And as Americans, I think we confuse the right to believe with the truth or falsity of belief. Anyone is free to hold any belief that they desire, but holding a belief does not make it true.