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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I laughed out loud when I saw the title of this post. God is the ultimate ‘single reason’, a catch-all that covers “What is my purpose in life?”, “Where do these notions of good and evil come from?”, “Where does the world come from?” and more, plus an added feature that can be used to explain any gap in our scientific understanding that you care to name.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    …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

    Right on. Even more fallacious is the notion that “science” (crudely defined) is done by lone geniuses to whom all credit for a “discovery” belongs (call it the “Dr. Frankenstein Fallacy”). The inherently group-effort–and, increasingly, international– nature of science is totally disregarded. My wife is a polymer chemist. “Her” lab employs 23 people, only 5 or 6 of whom are actual doctoral-degree holders. The rest are graduate and undergraduate students, technicians, etc. And it doesn’t even end there: her group works with another group on clinical trials, another group on biochemical aspects of their work. Then there’s the international connections: They regularly talk to another group in Russia and a third group in South Korea who are all doing similar work.

  • Jim Baerg

    I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t already mentioned this book in digital (pdf) form, on this blog. But I’ll mention it now because the ‘authoritarian follower’ personality Bob Altenmeyer discusses is just what you are talking about.

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  • Polly

    These groups typically attract precisely those people who are uncomfortable with complexity and ambiguity

    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.

    Your diagnosis is spot on. It’s sheer intellectual lethargy that drives the hope that a map of the universe-and-everything exists and has been presented to us.
    It’s hard work to deal with your opponents and to see the same problem from many different angles. And sometimes you just want the bottom line answer so you can get on with your life. But, there is no bottom line, often times, just an ongoing debate ad infinitum – no answer key in the back of the book and no judgment day when a sky daddy will tell you you were right and everyone else was wrong. This is the biggest reason it’s hard for someone to question his/her worldview; it’s like starting all over again with no hope of finishing.

  • http://www.anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Dead on target.

    And it always cracks me up that these Fundies “know” that the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s Flood, thereby discounting the work of experts in geology, as if the latter’s research and studies were all just a waste of time.

  • Alex Weaver

    It occurs to me that this may be simply a more extreme form of a maladaptive tendency to seek simply-phrased, intuitively satisfying explanations that exists in the general population–witness the rush to blame school shootings on the influence of video games or incidents of rape on viewing pornography, for example, or, a bit closer to home for me, the rush to blame vaccinations for the occurrence of autism. The basic problem is that people want a concrete, intuitive answer–they “want an enemy they can see,” so to speak–and if they can find one that fits their preconceptions, that’s just perfect. Unfortunately, scientists and skeptics seem to be the only corner of society making any effort to teach people that this is not a viable way to relate to the world.

  • Alex Weaver

    PS: I’m pretty sure the name “Dr. Frankenstein Fallacy” is reserved for the tendency to view scientists as megalomaniacs, drunk on power through “playing god”, and with no concern for the consequences. I’m not sure what label to use for this one, though…

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    The Einstein Myth?

  • Paleoguy

    I think what always gets me is how someone on the extreme right will take the attributes attributed to them in this article and shoot them right back at me. For some reason that always catches me off gaurd and I’m like wha the fu……….

    I find it impossible to discuss anything pertaining to religion, politics, or science with someone who holds a one-reason view of the universe.

  • OMGF

    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.

    Ha ha, like those things never existed by Darwin came around. I’m sure the Amalekites would disagree with Kennedy on this score, just for one Biblical example.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    Evolution is, after all, more than a scientific theory. It is a worldview—a way of understanding all of life that entirely excludes God.

    This is my favourite quote from the Kennedy article. Except I think this is a good thing!

  • uhclem

    I would just like to point out that this one-reason business, specifically the lack thereof, reminds me of an earlier post of mine. Consider the following statement made back in June on this blog:

    “What is worthy of respect is not self-congratulatory pox-on-both-your-houses rhetoric, but steadfast adherence to the principle that there is such a thing as truth, that we can find out what it is, and that the effort to do so is a worthwhile one.”

    http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/2007/06/be-hot-or-cold#comment-24507

    This statement falls pretty close to the concept objected to here, namely a belief that “a single grand, overarching cause explains and underlies literally everything.”

    My point at the time was that doubt is a virtue, especially in the sciences. I suppose that “the truth” isn’t exactly a cause, although the quest for “the truth” is cause enough for a lot of scientists. Just playing devil’s advocate here, and imagining some fundamentalist claiming it’s the pot calling the kettle black.

    GD


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