The One-Reason Worldview

“Most well-meaning creationists would agree in principle that things that are not carefully documented and researched should not be used. But in practice, many of them are very quick to accept the sorts of evidences mentioned here, without asking too many questions. Why this seeming urge to find a startling, exciting ‘magic bullet’?”

—Ken Ham for Answers in Genesis, “Searching for the magic bullet

There’s a tendency that I’ve noticed is very common in fundamentalist religious groups, as well as in certain (mostly authoritarian) political movements. That tendency is what I call the “one-reason worldview”: the belief that a single grand, overarching cause explains and underlies literally everything.

Glenn Greenwald‘s recent book, A Tragic Legacy, describes this Manichean dynamic in the presidency of George W. Bush (as well as in a handful of his critics, ironically). In this manifestation, it appears as a belief that everyone in the world can be neatly divided into absolute Good and absolute Evil, and that the only appropriate response to the latter group is constant, unrelenting war and destruction. No act – including preemptive war, indefinite, extrajudicial detention at the president’s say-so, warrantless eavesdropping in violation of the law, or torture of prisoners – can be too extreme if sought by those who are on the side of Good, because the fact that the Good are the ones doing it makes it right by definition. Similarly, all those who are labeled Evil can be treated as one homogeneous mass, with no interests or desires except an obsessive, irrational desire for the destruction of America and all others who are Good. This polarizing, black-and-white mentality, which owes nothing to the traditional political spectrum of liberal vs. conservative, has reshaped the face of American politics. Though it is far less popular than it once was, it has won the allegiance of a disturbingly large minority of voters who apparently crave an omnipotent, authoritarian leader.

In religious fundamentalism, as well, the one-reason worldview is common. In this column, right-wing Christian spokesman D. James Kennedy blames the theory of evolution for abortion, homosexuality, racism, genocide, and teen suicide. For Kennedy, the idea of an honest disagreement is unthinkable; instead, everyone who does not believe exactly as he does must be a malign plotter who loves Satan and is seeking to undermine faith in God. This all-consuming paranoia that sees sinister forces at work behind everything, as well as the refusal to give credit to any nonbeliever for acting in good faith, typify the way this worldview forces believers to view the world in binary terms and themselves and their allies as the only ones who can be trusted.

There’s another outgrowth of the one-reason worldview, one mentioned in the opening quote from Answers in Genesis: the idea that complex, difficult issues can be cleanly and unambiguously settled by the discovery of a single piece of evidence. In the quoted essay, Ken Ham deplores the creationists who eagerly clutch at every new “proof” that evolution is false, only to be embarrassed when that claim is disproved. Ironically, Ham never even considers that the lack of scientific rigor he instills in his own followers is almost certainly the cause of this behavior. Creationists who have been taught to take it on faith that God himself rejects evolutionary theory will doubtless expect that all the evidence will support this. Accordingly, when evidence pops up that seems to confirm what they already believe, they’ll be far more likely to accept it uncritically without asking too many questions. This naive and misplaced faith, inevitably tripped up by its own complacent self-assurance, recurs again and again in religiously driven rejections of science in favor of pseudoscience. People who believe they already know the whole truth about the way the world works will fall victim to shoddy, self-serving “proofs” time and again.

Hollywood and other mass media contribute to this distorted impression, by promoting the notion of science by magic bullet: one dramatic conversion, one startling discovery that completely overturns everything we thought we knew. For purposes of dramatic license, this is understandable; the slow, patient accumulation of evidence over months or years would not make for very compelling TV. But too many people believe because of these shows that this is the way science actually works. In reality, virtually every major scientific theory won over its critics through the cumulative weight of the facts, not through any one single result. Any one test result can be mistaken, after all, but the accumulated force of many different tests is far harder to deny.

It’s no coincidence that the one-reason worldview appears in fundamentalist religious and political groups. These groups typically attract precisely those people who are uncomfortable with complexity and ambiguity. Instead, they offer the reassurance of a world divided by bright lines, where the moral worth of everyone and everything can be neatly and simply summed up by just one or a few facts, with little need to think, analyze, or investigate. We atheists should not overlook the comforting simplicity of this offer, illusory though it may be. Until we as a society learn to value critical thinking, there will always be those who will gladly accept easy answers whenever they are offered.

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