Are Religious People More Inclined to Believe Nonsense?

Are Religious People More Inclined to Believe Nonsense? November 18, 2017

Believe nonsense

There’s been a lot of discussions lately about who’s more susceptible to “fake news.” In a Slate article from November 2017,  John Ehrenreich pointed at the gullibility on the right and asked “Why Are Conservatives More Susceptible to Believing Lies?” And a February 2017 article in The Atlantic, “Why Fake News Targeted Trump Supporters,” wrestled with the reasons why conservative voters are more likely to fall for bogus news stories like Pizzagate or Obama’s secret Muslim identity.

Both articles bring up good points, but I think they miss a critical piece of the puzzle. Conservative politics is full of evangelical Christians, and frankly, we’re conditioned to believe rubbish.

Before you get upset, hear me out.

The world is full of secrets

I don’t believe that religious people are stupid. But it’s important to realize that being smart doesn’t protect you from believing bullshit. Think about it. There’s a lot of really smart people that end up in cults. Intelligence doesn’t prevent people from becoming Branch Davidians, Scientologists, or Essential Oil salespeople. In fact, I think that intelligence might predispose certain people to cult-like belief and conspiracy theories.

It’s easy for smart people to look at the world and think “there’s more going on than the rest of these dummies realize.” This can lead them to believe absurdities because they trust themselves to sniff out the secret logic and machinations that “ordinary” people miss.

This mindset is really similar to the thinking of the religious. We’re raised to believe that beyond human perception is a world inhabited by gods, devils, and angelic beings. All of existence is built on a dichotomous world of things seen and unseen—and we believe that what we can’t see is more important than what is obvious to us.

So religious people don’t have a problem with secret information. The faithfully devout are comfortable with the idea that “there’s more here than we can see,” and it can lead to accepting concealed information without the proper amount of scrutiny.

It’s all about good vs. evil

To compound the issue of unseen reality, religion trains folks to look at the world through a “good vs. evil” filter. The belief that there’s a malevolent force (Satan) in the world that’s out to kill, steal, and destroy everything good can incline people to latch onto malevolent conspiracy theories—especially when they confirm their understanding of who’s good and who’s bad.

This worldview colors the way people process information. How could it not? Influencing every event is a host of demonic baddies. On top of that, every human being suffers from total depravity and is entirely incapable of making of making good decisions on their own.

Just think for a second how that would influence the way you think about world and national news stories. Not only are you inclined to believe that there’s truth that everyone else isn’t privy to, but you’re also more likely to believe stories that paint events and people in the worst possible light.

Reinforced confirmation bias

When you’re raised in the church, you become used to having your understanding filtered through authority figures. This pastor or priest tells you how to interpret Scripture, and often how to understand what’s happening in the world. It profoundly influences the way you perceive authority.

Think about it. Pastors spend 52 Sundays a year explaining to us how God thinks, how the world works, and how to make sense of current events. Some even go so far as telling us that education negatively influences people to embrace liberalism and abandon God. This leads some to believe that education can actually hurt us, and getting more information can be detrimental

So when someone in authority tells us that all news sources (except the ones with a specific point of view) are fake or biased, we’re conditioned to believe them. It feeds into our worldview:

  • There is truth that the average person doesn’t know or understand
  • People are wicked (unless they agree with us)
  • There’s a conspiracy of evil behind every event
  • God provides authority figures who tell us how to think and what to avoid

When you put these things together, it makes it even easier to succumb to “news” that simply confirms what we already believe.

What can religious people do?

So are all my atheist friends correct? Are people with religious faith just mindless sheep who can’t think for themselves? It’s a genuine danger. But I don’t believe that religious community requires a hive mind. Expecting everyone to think the same things and share the same prejudices doesn’t protect truth. Quite the opposite—it guarantees that once falsehood is introduced, it sticks.

We need to pay attention to the example of Christ and the prophets. Sometimes the best thing you can do is go against the flow. Because occasionally the religious community is wrong. Occasionally accepted theology is incorrect. Occasionally leaders are mistaken. But if our communities of faith never allow people to see things differently or disagree, we’ll never know when we’re wandering off track until it’s too late.

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  • Brandon Roberts

    tbh i think anyone who’s dedicated to the “my opinions are the only one that can be right” mentality is susceptible to buying nonsense

  • An excellent post pinpointing a lot of the biased rhetoric that is putting American right-wing Christian evangelism into a bubble world. U.S. Christians vehemently behind the antics of Trump and throwing out all the justifications and excuses for it simply because it molds to their opinions rather than in their Christian beliefs…is certainly taking them astray from the very religion they profess to be.

    When excuses spill out of the moral that God works with very sinful men, or when an Alabama preacher justifies his vote for Roger Moore simply by saying, “Some 14-yr-olds look like they could be 20,” then tribal opinions have ‘trumped’ belief in Jesus; for there is no way Christ would be condoning these actions…

  • Roger Morris

    Right on.

  • rtgmath

    Too right, mate. Too right. One note, however. “But I don’t believe that religious community requires a hive mind.” That one you need to rethink a bit, Religious community has ALWAYS required a hive mind. You always have to submit to a leader or a master. You being “in obedience to God’s will” means you are obedient and subservient to humans who think of themselves as your masters.

    So what would make this day any different from past centuries and millennia? Nothing, except that it is easier to find dissenting opinions. But then, it is still as easy to get kicked out of community, too. It doesn’t matter whether you are conservative, fundamentalist, or progressive. You have a different opinion? Shut up or get out.

    I read with amusement a series of articles by Richard Rohr. One of them deals with the second of his five spiritual truths, “You are not that important.” The article proceeds to tell us why we are not that important, and then references “spiritual masters.” Ahhh! Finally we understand. We are not that important because *they* are! Well, after all, they are called “spiritual masters.” “It takes a wise master to teach you that you are not that important” the article intones. Heh. Sounds like a teacher needs to learn (or relearn) the lesson himself!

    I can say that in American Evangelicalism, ignorance is celebrated as the highest form of knowledge. Now we even have a President with that fatal mindset! While anyone without knowledge can be led to believe nonsense, religious people are much more likely to swallow it whole.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    I really thought you were going somewhere deep when you noted that ‘it’s easy for smart people to look at the world and think “there’s more going on than the rest of these dummies realize.” This can lead them to believe absurdities because they trust themselves to sniff out the secret logic and machinations that “ordinary” people miss.’
    Then you failed to connect “smart people” with the way progressives and liberals think they are, just as the conservatively religious think they are the “spiritually ‘smart’ people.”
    Well, it shouldn’t surprise any one that confirmation bias is at least as prevalent among progressives as the concept of “total depravity” suggests it would be. No I don’t actually believe the typical theology of total depravity (I just used it as a rhetorical tool).
    So, instead of a self-critical dialogue you seem to be engaging in a critique that looks at least somewhat like a typically nonsensical pot calling the kettle nonsensical.

  • Well it really has very little to do with intelligence or lack thereof and everything to do with “fact checking.” Statistically speaking, those on the left are twice as likely to research sources whereas those on the right (like my mother in law!) are twice as likely to swallow the bait hook line and sinker without Snoping it. Of course there is confirmation bias on both sides, but the news sources those on the left rely on tend to be based on more confirmed sources than those on the right. The discrepancy between multiple confirmed sources vs poorly supported sources has widened in the last decade (perhaps related to the backlash over the election of a Black man for president?) in other words, the right has become more desperate and willing to grasp at straws.

    “Prominent media on the left are well distributed across the center, center-left, and left. On the right, prominent media are highly partisan. From all of these perspectives, conservative media is more partisan and more insular than the left….Breitbart emerges as the nexus of conservative media….Seven sources, all from the partisan right or partisan left, receive substantially more attention on social media than links from other media outlets….In this group, Gateway Pundit is in a class of its own, known for “publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” (1)

    The Pew Research group finds, overall, “that consistent conservatives:

    Are tightly clustered around a single news source, far more than any other group in the survey, with 47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.

    Express greater distrust than trust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured in the survey. At the same time, fully 88% of consistent conservatives trust Fox News.

    Are, when on Facebook, more likely than those in other ideological groups to hear political opinions that are in line with their own views.

    Are more likely to have friends who share their own political views. Two-thirds (66%) say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics.” (2)


  • jekylldoc

    Interesting stuff, rtgmath. But there is a problem with it. First, note that progressive religious leaders really don’t take a “shut up or get out” approach to disagreement. They are consistently willing to engage with, though not necessarily to turn their public stage over to, differing opinions. Richard Rohr is an example, and his approach leads to a second observation: their goal is not to direct people, but to invite them. That is, they consider the goal to be that others find the same fulfilling path they have found, but if for some reason the other does not find it, they are not threatened by that. Which leads to the third observation, that evangelical conception of “obedience to God’s will,” is usually impoverished. By emphasizing obedience to rules, they neglect the matters of the heart which are the heart of religion.

    In my days as an evangelical, I remember asking, “how do we know God’s will?” To the credit of the people I asked, they emphasized prayer and Bible reading, so that one’s own discernment was given some role in the process. But since that was vague, I kept listening between the lines and found that usually “God’s will” meant “follow the traditional rules as laid down for us.” In my view that has its place, as many people are looking for structure for their lives and the traditional rules are way better than no rules at all. But it is much more likely to lead to gullible acceptance and even anti-intellectual self-assertion than the “expert” approach that dominates progressive church, in which one is expected to pay attention to experts but to think for oneself.

    Unless you define “everyone should think for him or herself” as a species of hive mind, it is hard to find such a mind in progressive churches. I do agree with you that there is still urging to “follow the leader” and I also note that we all take cues from the group we identify with, but fear-based enforcement of conformity is notably absent from progressive religion. I urge you to consider the point originally made by the blogger, which is that “hidden knowledge” is a property of both conservative and progressive religion (as well as of science, social science and even, these days, literature studies) and one that encourages easy acceptance of claims to manipulation behind the scenes by the powerful. I think it holds up better than “all religion requires a hive mind.”

  • james warren

    “The Father makes his sun to shine on both the evil AND the good and sends his rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.”
    –Matthew 5:45

  • Theresa Smith

    I think a lot of the issues creep in when religious leaders..left, right, or center begin to disapprove of (and they usually do) being questioned. If what I can see with my own eyes is not a reason to question what I’ve been told (usually because FAITH).. then I’ve just been TOLD to believe whatever utter wing-nuttery that person comes up with. Conservatives generally seem to go with “Um..ok?” Whereas liberals tend to go with (F— Off) when given that same directive.

  • Cynthia Astle

    “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” — Willy Wonka.

  • “Sometimes the best thing you can do is go against the flow.”

    Sometimes. And the way to figure out when is by using rationality. Something religious people insist on NOT using for the most important decisions they make – e.g. about the nature of reality.

  • hisxmark

    Of course, it is not just religious people who believe nonsense. Patriots also blind themselves to truth and accept ridiculous dogma. Our brains are so constituted that any lacunae in our understanding produce anxiety. This is a good thing, a characteristic valuable to survival. There are many gaps in the knowledge of a child, and these gaps are usually filled imagination or the authoritative pronouncements of parents and society, and rarely by reason and investigation. Most children learn not to question these edicts, lest they incur righteous wrath and punishment.
    Pan troglodytes, the chimpanzees, cease to learn new things at puberty. Homo sapiens, neotonous apes, sometimes continue to learn new things into adulthood. But sometimes they also stop learning at puberty.
    “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of eighteen.” — Albert Einstein
    If you are one of those who stop learning, if you can not even doubt the fantasies inculcated by your parents, you will be pious and patriotic, and never question the contradictions and inconsistencies of your beliefs.
    “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. — Françoise-Marie Arouet
    You have shaped your life around absurdities and thus you willingly commit the atrocities demanded by religious and secular rulers.

  • james warren

    I remember a bumpersticker in the mid-70s:

    “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It.”

    In my view, one major mistake is that Christians frequently take the sacred language of the Bible literally. By doing so, they forfeit the Bible’s great epic claim and hope.

    “..half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

    …How, in the contemporary period, can we evoke the imagery that communicates the most profound and most richly developed sense of experiencing life? These images must point past themselves to that ultimate truth which must be told: that life does not have any one absolutely fixed meaning…

    If we give that mystery an exact meaning we diminish the experience of its real depth. But when a poet carries the mind into a context of meanings and then pitches it past those, one knows that marvelous rapture that comes from going past all categories of definition. Here we sense the function of metaphor that allows us to make a journey we could not otherwise make, past all categories of definition.”
    –joseph campbell

  • Judgeforyourself37

    Most of the right wing evangelical Christians do something that is called, “Proof Texting.” They pick and choose what parts of the bible that they think are factual, and leave the rest.
    Cases in point:
    1. Few Christians eschew pork or shell fish. Most Christians enjoy those foods.
    2. No Christians, today, think that seizures are caused by demons.
    3. No Christians, today, think that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
    4. No Christians take their disobedient children to the ‘gates of the city for stoning.’
    5. Few Christians, or at least those with education, believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
    6. Few Christians, except the very, very right wing Christians, think or believe that Noah really had two of every animal in that ark.
    However, some do still like or love to discriminate. First it was our African American sisters and brothers, and now it is anyone who is LBGTQ+.
    Thankfully most UCC members attend churches that are Open and Affirming, and some UMC members are in conferences that are in Non Conformity with the church’s Book of Discipline and attend churches that are Reconciling.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    Willy Wonka did not exist.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    Then there are others who use, what I call, the Brain Rack. That is right above where you hang your coat when you go to church. You take off your coat, hang it up, and park your brain on that shelf above where you hung up your coat. You listen to the gibberish the minister spouts, and after church, you don your coat, and pick up your brain, so that you can go to work, either later that day, or on Monday.

  • james warren

    1. That’s right. Even though the Bible calls eating shellfish “an abomination.” Other examples of things called “abominations” are wearing clothes of the opposite sex, wearing mixed fabrics, and many others that we now consider normal. And I am proud to announce that having a “prideful heart” is an abomination.
    2. Christianity is a diverse faith. Many Christians blame demons for many things–including seizures.
    3. Some Christians do. Even today, most of us say the sun is going down instead of saying the earth is revolving away from the sun.
    4, Many Christians believe children should be hit. In Deuteronomy, parents killed their own children for being “drunks and gluttons.”
    5, Christians with education do not believe the earth is that young or that sacred, metaphorical language should be taken literally.
    6. Those who do believe “Bible study” is actually “Studying the Bible” know that, according to Genesis, Noah put 7 of each animal in the Ark.

    Everyone has a different opinion as to what church is “reconciling” and what churches are not. As for this “Book of Discipline” I have not yet found it.

    Psalm 137:9:

    “Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

  • David Cromie

    The short answer is ‘Yes’!

  • Fang

    You still fcking Cub Scouts, granny?

  • Myles

    Being brow-beaten from birth on “biblical truths” and threats of “hellfire” leaves you wide open to believe all the rest of the oncoming garbage.

  • Still opting for insults rather than argument, I see. Maybe that’s one of the many reasons your religion is dying.

  • summers-lad

    In my evangelical church experience, finding God’s will is more a matter of finding God’s purpose for each of us individually (job, place to live, marriage partner etc) than of following traditional rules. More emphasis on discerning what gifts God has given us would have been good though, and probably more to the point.
    John White (in, if I remember correctly, “The Fight”) wrote something which I found a corrective to this kind of thinking. He wrote (along the lines of) “God is often more concerned with the morality of our decisions that the geography”. In other words, where we go (to live/work) matters less than our motives for doing it.
    Having said that, there are a few times in my life when God has prompted me either to go (somewhere else) or to stay (where I was) and this has been for the good. What would have happened if I had made the other choice, of course, I have no idea.

  • jekylldoc


    I see your point about finding God’s purpose for individual decisions being the evangelical meaning of “finding God’s will.” Note the complete absence of such issues in the New Testament, unless you count “be ye not unequally yoked” and “better to marry than to burn.”

    My questions tended to be about things like whether serving in the military was godly and what to do about the poor (which are addressed in the NT), as well as how husbands and wives should work out their differences and how parents should raise children. On these the (usually unspoken) guidance seemed to be “do things the way they traditionally have been done.”

    I like “God cares more about the morality than the geography.” I think that is consistent with the theology I have come to believe in, but I also think the church has been too reticent about helping people sort out practical issues. I am looking for some of the emerging discussion over vocation to make some real difference.

  • summers-lad

    Thank you for your reply. I very much agree that the questions you asked are right ones to be asking. I think tradition in the matters you refer to was less of a factor in my church experience than yours, although there are some areas (not drinking alcohol would be one) where deviation would certainly have been seen as going against God’s will.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    So why bother with any religion-you’re just running twice as fast to get to the same place?

  • Ivan T. Errible

    But then neither did Jesus…..