A dozen or so years ago, I was working on a profile of Zig Ziglar, the famous motivational speaker who died in 2012, and I went to hear him speak at his church in a suburb of Dallas. His topic, as a lay lecturer in adult Sunday school, was the threat of cults, and he began by mocking the creation myth of Scientology — the whole baroque science-fiction epic starting 4 quadrillion years ago and proceeding through the Galactic Overlord, the frozen thetans and the nuclear holocaust on a planet called Teegeeack.
“Now, I ask you,” he said, wrapping up his recitation, “how could any of this fool an intelligent, thinking man or woman who has read the first four chapters of Genesis?”
Well, yes, precisely. Scientology is incompatible with Christianity, or Judaism or Islam; you cannot by any stretch of reason believe in both. What went without saying, to Ziglar and to his audience that morning, was the logical superiority of a six-day Creation and a talking snake, and by extension the flood and the ark, the litany of biblical miracles and the Resurrection.
But from an agnostic standpoint, there’s no inherent reason to believe one account over the other. They are stories written in books that function as their own authority. People believe in the Bible as a matter of faith, because they accept its message of redemption, not because of empirical evidence or the inherent plausibility of the individual stories within it. This has been true as far back as Augustine, who held that faith and reason go together, but faith leads the way: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
Does that remind you of something transpiring in American society at this moment? Many Americans subscribe to conspiracy theories as preposterous as anything L. Ron Hubbard could have dreamt up, and — because they relate to current events and real living people — far more dangerous. Just in the past few days, a man shot up a Washington pizzeria, acting under the delusion that it was the headquarters of a child-sex ring involving Hillary Clinton, and a woman who believed that the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was a government hoax was arrested for making threats against the parents of a child who died there.
Conspiracy theories exist across the political spectrum, but some of the most influential purveyors populate the far right, including the radio commentator Alex Jones, who has claimed that not just Sandy Hook but also the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing were “false flag” operations staged by the federal government as pretexts to expand its tyranny. And Jones has had as a guest on his show Donald Trump, whose campaign abandoned even the pretense of grounding statements in empirical fact. The unemployment rate was whatever he said it was — “probably 28, 29, as high as 35” — and Barack Obama was born in Africa right up until the moment it became expedient to say something else.
Many of these absurd beliefs originate in “fake news,” clickbait posts whose authors may not even care if they are believed, as long as there are enough suckers out there to click on them. This has led to calls by media figures and other interested parties, Hillary Clinton among them, for a crackdown on the way social media sites abet the spread of nonsense. But the bigger question is, how could someone possibly believe that one of the most visible and recognizable figures in the world, surrounded at all times by aides and security, was sneaking into the basement of a pizza parlor to have sex with children? Who are those people?
By a wide margin, Trump was supported by (white) evangelical Christian voters. And in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the few areas where he did well was the Orthodox and Hasidic enclave of Borough Park. Obviously, people supported Trump for all sorts of reasons, including some grounded in religious conviction, such as opposition to abortion, but also some that had nothing to do with faith. And, of course, many religious people voted the other way. But, to state the obvious, a precondition for believing, along with Jones, that Hillary Clinton is a literal demon from hell is a belief that demons and hell exist in the first place. It is much easier to ignore evidence about global warming if you believe, with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., that Earth’s climate is controlled directly by God. More generally, is there something in the mindset of a religious believer — someone who accepts the reality of an unseen deity, based on ancient accounts of events with no parallel in everyday experience — that encourages the acceptance of unprovable claims in the realms of politics or science?
It’s not an easy question. Christians put Scripture in a separate epistemological category: It is the word of God, not subject to the same empirical testing as a weather forecast or an unemployment report. Some highly trained minds — Isaac Newton, for one, and Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian — have managed to maintain a strong Biblical faith while also rigorously pursuing objective truths about the natural world, but most of us don’t have the philosophical chops to pull it off. Conservative churches offer their believers certainty rather than ambiguity, and they attract congregants who are comfortable obeying, and exercising, authority.
Brain-imaging studies show that doubt requires more mental effort than belief. Credulousness is the default setting for most people, most of the time. That is as true of crystal-gazing New Agers passing along posts about a conspiracy by Monsanto to control the world through genetically modified corn as it is of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, an elder of the Erath County Cowboy Church, who passed along an unfounded rumor that Clinton had been endorsed by the Communist Party. Miller, who is reported to be under consideration for nomination as secretary of agriculture, told reporters he doesn’t care whether it’s true or not.
So someone like Miller is essentially treating political discourse as a matter of faith. If your goal is to be saved, you don’t go around looking for logical holes in the Gospels; you leave that to the atheists. If your goal is to elect Republicans, you pass along anything that puts your opponent in a bad light and leave the fact-checking to the mainstream media.
But is that any way to run a country? Maybe it’s a time to reawaken our capacity for doubt, now when misinformation is more readily available and arguably more dangerous than ever before in history. Faith has a place in the lives of many people. But, per Augustine, it can no more stand alone than pure reason; a Christian must call on both to be strong in the world. That’s still good advice.