How do religious people really think?

published Jul 29, 2007, last modified Jun 26, 2013

It's surprisingly simple. They don't engage in thought. I'm reading a fairly interesting book that puts them under a microscope.

Here's an excerpt:

Mark Noll, an evangelical history professor at evangelical Wheaton College, begins his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with a pithy thought: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll observes that “American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.” He points out that evangelicals support dozens of theological seminaries, scores of colleges, and hundreds of radio stations, but not a single research university. “In the United States he writes, it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual.” “Modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life.”

I have found nothing in my research that disagrees with this assessment. Indeed almost all of the findings in the last chapter about the authoritarian follower’s penchants for illogical thinking, compartmentalized minds, double standards, hypocrisy and dogmatism apply to religious fundamentalists as well. For example, David Winter at the University of Michigan recently found that fundamentalist students, when evaluating the war in Iraq, rejected a series of statements that were based on the Sermon on the Mount--which is arguably the core of Jesus’ teachings. Fundamentalists may believe they follow Jesus more than anyone else does, but it turns out to depend a lot on where Jesus said we should go. And we can augment such findings by considering the thinking behind three of the fundamentalist’s favorite issues: school prayer, opposition to evolution, and the infallibility of the Bible.

A. School Prayer: Majority Rights, Unless... Suppose a law were passed requiring the strenuous teaching of religion in public schools. Beginning in kindergarten, all children would be taught to believe in God, pray together in school several times each day, memorize the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Bible, learn the principles of Christian morality, and eventually be encouraged to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. How would you react to such a law?

The great majority of people in my samples who answered this question, including most of the Christians, said this would be a bad law. But most fundamentalists liked the idea, for this is exactly the kind of education they would like to see public schools give to everyone’s children. When I asked fundamentalists about the morality of imposing this learning on the children of Hindus, Jews, atheists, etcetera, they responded along the lines of, “This is a Christian country, and the majority rules. If others don’t like it, they can pay for private education or leave.” (As I said, most people do not favor this proposal, but since the days of the “Moral Majority” fundamentalists have tended to overestimate their numbers in society.)

What do you think happened when I asked people to respond to this parallel scenario?

Suppose you were living in a modern Arab democracy, whose constitution stated there could be NO state religion--even though the vast majority of the people were Muslims. Then a fundamentalist Islamic movement was elected to power, and passed a law requiring the strenuous teaching of religion in public schools. Beginning in kindergarten, all children would be taught to believe in Allah, pray together facing Mecca several times each day, memorize important parts of the Koran, learn the principles of Islamic morality, and eventually be encouraged to declare their allegiance to Muhammad and become a Muslim. How would you react to such a law?

Again, a great majority of my samples thought this would be quite wrong, but this time so did a solid majority of Christian fundamentalists. When you asked them why, they said that obviously this would be unfair to people who help pay for public schools but who want their children raised in some other religion. If you ask them if the majority in an Arab country has a right to have its religion taught in public schools, they say no, that the minority has rights too that must be respected. Nobody’s kids should have another religion forced upon them in the classroom, they say.

So do fundamentalists believe in majority rights or minority rights? The answer is, apparently, neither. They’ll pull whichever argument suits them out of its file when necessary, but basically they are unprincipled on the issue of school prayer. They have a big double standard that basically says, “Whatever I want is right.” The rest is rationalization, and as flexible and multi-directional as a reed blowing in the wind.

It's a fairly good book, and I recommend it. It's called The Authoritarians.