Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief: Part 2

A May 2011 episode of the Center for Inquiry podcast Point of Inquiry featured Center for Inquiry President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay interviewing science journalist Chris Mooney, the POI cohost. In the first part of the program, adapted for publication in the August/September issue of Free Inquiry, they discussed Mooney’s stance of accommodationism regarding science and religion. In the second half, Lindsay queries Mooney on his recent work on the psychology of belief and how our commitments and values shape our reasoning and processing of information.

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times best-selling The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, coauthored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They write The Intersection blog for Discover blogs.

Ronald A. Lindsay is a bioethicist and lawyer. He practiced law for many years in Washington, D.C., and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses. —Eds.


Ronald A. Lindsay: You’ve been doing a lot of work recently on the psychology of belief. Your article in Mother Jones called “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science” [May/June 2011] is about what some research is telling us about why we form our beliefs. Is it safe to say that the Cartesian notion of a thoroughly rational person coming to a decision without being influenced by emotion is pretty much a myth?

Chris Mooney: Neuroscientists have mostly discarded that one at this point. Perhaps the most influential person who made us realize that emotions and reason are closely tied together is Antonio Damasio. At this point I think it is widely accepted that we don’t reason free of emotion. Moreover, emotion comes first, and it seems to be more powerful. It comes first temporally and subconsciously, automatically. So it can set us down paths before we even know it, and reasoning then turns out to be rationalizing the trajectory of “thought” that emotions set off. That’s called “motivated reasoning,” and it’s basically the updated, modern neuroscience version of cognitive dissonance theory. It is compatible with what we know about how the mind works. And it is not just about how we form beliefs but more how we defend them and how we refuse to change.

Lindsay: Describe some of the research that’s been done in this area and especially how it reflects on how we defend our beliefs when we’re challenged.

Mooney: One of the classic studies of what leads to motivated reasoning was in 1979—and I’m going to jump over all the research that’s been done over cognitive dissonance. This affects reasoning about science in particular but also any kind of reasoning. A study was set up in which they gave people fake scientific studies or fake summaries of scientific studies that found, for example, either that the death penalty deters murderous crime or that it doesn’t. Both studies had roughly the same methodological weaknesses. Depending on whether the people reading the studies supported the death penalty or not, they found the study congenial to their beliefs to be strong and convincing, and they found the other one to be weak. That kind of experiment has been carried out again and again and on a variety of different topics. We find that people are more likely to believe things that jell with what they already believe. Motivated reasoning is just sort of laying down how we think it works in the brain.

Lindsay: How do you get someone to change his or her views, especially if he or she has a deep-seated commitment to a belief?

Mooney: It’s going to be extraordinarily hard. George Lakoff points out that beliefs are actually physical. They are part of the brain. They’re in the pathways and become stronger with use. So the more you defend this belief, the more you’re liable to do it more in the future. When you think about beliefs in that way, why would just poking them make the connections in the brain go away? No—it’s going to activate them.

So what do you do if you want to change someone? Well, that’s really interesting. You have to make the belief evolve, shift, grow. It’s going to be very hard to do. You begin in a context that’s compatible with the person’s belief. So you say, we might differ in a lot of things but clearly we both believe in x, y, and z. So you start on shared ground. You start to make inroads that way.

Some of the research on motivated reasoning shows that a frontal attack on a belief leads to people affirming it even more strongly. There are studies where if you show someone something that he or she believes in and then you show that it is false via a factual correction, the belief will be reinforced. That’s called the “backfire effect.” So we know that frontal attacks on certain deeply held beliefs are not going to work. There’s going to be people for whom it may work, but most of the time it won’t if the belief is strongly held.

Lindsay: Aren’t there examples of people who change course, sometimes quickly?

Mooney: There’s no doubt that we do change our minds. The question is, what triggers it? If it’s a really, really firmly held belief, and it’s been built up over a lifetime and reinforced over a lifetime, then it’s probably going to take a lot. But if you have some kind of life crisis—death in the family, divorce—those are very destabilizing and you often see people change in those contexts.

So changing someone’s belief can be extraordinarily difficult—and we know why, there’s a science of why. When beliefs are that much a part of our identity, we defend them from assault. And we’re defending them before we even know it because we’re having a defensive emotional reaction that guides our thought process.

Lindsay: So does that mean that there’s actually very little room for rational argument? Is CFI going to have to fold up shop?

Mooney: It means that rational argument may not be the best way. CFI is a great organization that is very interested in science and reason, and if science and reason tells CFI that science and reason may not change people’s minds, then CFI will start to study what the science says about changing people’s minds, which will be wonderful and may lead to progress. There’s a lot to learn.

But there are also many reasons to state the arguments of science and reason. You want to put them on the record. You want to have good books that document why we believe in evolution or what the critiques of God are. Those arguments are persuasive to a lot of us; we want a record of them, and we want them to be articulated very persuasively.

It’s nevertheless important to recognize what kind of creature we’re actually dealing with in human beings. I don’t think this result is really that surprising to most of us. When we think of all the times we’ve tried to argue with someone and give it our best shot, then hit a wall and been incredibly frustrated, this says why. And it says that’s how you would expect it to be. Once you hear it stated this way I think a lot of people will say, “Oh, that’s what was happening, on all those occasions.” When I give a talk or appear on a radio talk show and someone get’s angry with me—often on the topic of climate change—you hear an emotional tremor in their voice, and I know what’s happening. This is an emotional, not a reasoned, moment. They’re very upset with me and they’re going to engage in the whole reasoning process.

It’s completely changed the way I now respond to those kinds of situations. I do not want to get into that kind of argument, because it’s just going to be heated. I respond by attempting as much as possible to de-emotionalize. I think that what a lot of this says is that it’s going to be very important to de-emotionalize issues.

Lindsay: Could one argue the other way—that if you “emotionalize,” if you will, if you appeal to someone’s emotions in the right way or to the right type of emotions, that actually may cause them to change their beliefs?

Mooney: Sure, but what you don’t want is the negative, defensive, “you’re attacking me” emotions. You want to inspire. You want to motivate.

Lindsay: Let’s discuss one emotion, and this will take us back to the whole issue of accommodationism and the criticism about the “new atheists” that we discussed in the first part of our interview. A book I recently read called The Honor Code talked about how some of our great moral revolutions came about due to people feeling ashamed of what they’ve been doing. It talked about dueling, about foot-binding in China, about slavery and how the abolitionists’ movement was helped a lot by people beginning to feel ashamed about slavery. Could a new atheist argue that this new research actually supports attacking religion very harshly? When one points out how absurd are beliefs in miracles, the Trinity, the resurrection of the dead, it will have an effect on people. They may be motivated to give up their religious beliefs. As opposed to telling them that they can draw their own conclusions about whether there’s a god or not, that’s something for them to judge and science doesn’t really have anything to say about this.

Mooney: I don’t think it’s likely to work out that way. Beliefs make us feel that we are smart, intelligent, good people. That’s something all of us need to feel about ourselves.

Lindsay: You’re right. A persuasive argument would show that it is not very intelligent to believe in fantasies like resurrected people and virgin births.

Mooney: So basically someone who thinks that he or she is intelligent and reasonable and smart is going to be convinced that he or she is not. Quickly. By you.

Lindsay: Not necessarily quickly, but perhaps over time a seed is planted. Nowadays, if you said that you believe in the Olympic gods you’d feel laughed at; you’d feel ashamed if you actually believed in that.

Mooney: I’d agree with you on that, but believers are not going to jump to share your perspective. It doesn’t sound to me like this approach is going to be very fruitful. There may be outlier cases in which it would.

Religion is one of the most central things about who we are, for people who are religious. Even for people who are not religious, it’s one of the most central things about who we are, if not the most central. This identity is built up over a long time, and it clearly is something that we’ve come to feel confident in. It ends up being part of the brain, physical. You’re talking about creating very, very strong—to go back to one of the theories—dissonance. And what do we know about how people resolve dissonance? They resolve it in favor of their prior beliefs, by rationalizing whatever it is that they have to rationalize.

In the Mother Jones article I talked about the Seekers, a UFO group who believed the world was going to end on a particular day. When the world didn’t end, what did they do? They didn’t throw out their beliefs. They changed the facts, and they said “But we saved the world by believing that the world was going to end.” I think that’s much more likely than Seekers saying, “Oh, we’re a bunch of idiots. We sold our houses. That was stupid. We hung out and spent all this time huddling around the living room, trying to transcribe what the aliens were saying. That was dumb. What the hell were we thinking?” They’re way too invested for that.

Lindsay: Right. That obviously is a reaction that people have to failed prophecies. I’m sure we’re going to see the same thing on May 22 when the Rapture doesn’t happen. [Editor’s note: this interview was conducted before May 22, 2011, the day evangelist Harold Camping predicted the world would end.] They’ll be all sorts of ways to dismiss the big nonevent.

Mooney: It happened to the Birthers when they got President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. But now we can predict this. We know this will happen. If someone gives them the evidence, they won’t accept it; they’ll move the goalposts. They won’t change their beliefs.

Lindsay: But again, is that because perhaps we haven’t found the right emotional hook for them? I’m suggesting that part of the reason Western culture has generally become more secular is that people have found that it’s uncool, if you will, it’s unacceptable, to believe in these myths and fantasies. It’s believing in fairy tales. And if we get people into the mindset of accepting that this is something that we really shouldn’t be proud of—it’s believing in something for which there is no evidence; it’s using faith as a vehicle for knowledge, and faith is not a good vehicle for knowledge—then that is really perhaps a central motivating factor for people to abandon their religious beliefs.

Mooney: That’s all true. But it’s not how you’re going to persuade the people who aren’t abandoning their beliefs. If that kind of sensibility spreads throughout the culture—your friend thinks it, you want to think it, your parents taught it to you—that’s going to change people. They’re not going to grow up with the beliefs; they’re not going to be as strong; they’re not going to have the mental pathways there. But for the people who have them, I don’t think that it’s going to be the same story at all.

Lindsay: And is that possibly because one reason that they don’t want to abandon those beliefs is not only because they’re very committed to them but all their friends and colleagues are committed to them, and perhaps they don’t really have anyone that they know who is outside the cult?

Mooney: Yes, absolutely.

Lindsay: One of the strategies that the new atheists have recommended is that people who are atheists come out more—that they let it be known that in fact, we’re your friends, we’re your colleagues, your coworkers. We’re atheists and we’re leading happy, normal, fulfilling lives. It’s OK to admit that you’re having doubts and accept that perhaps in fact there is no God. So if we have a two-pronged approach—more atheists need to come out of the closet and let it be known that they’re atheists, and we need to keep up our criticism of religion—might that combination lead to a decline in religious belief?

Mooney: I recently changed my view of new atheism based on the study that found that exposure to atheists decreased prejudice toward atheists. So “out” atheism sounds good, but I don’t think it necessarily means that “out confrontational” atheism works.

Just to get back to your other point, I do think that we are more open to hearing different points of view if they are articulated in person by someone with whom we develop or are starting to develop a rapport so that you say, “This is a conservative Christian. I never knew that they could be good to hang out with.” Or vice versa. Then you say: I’m a human being, you’re a human being, we have a lot in common, let’s be friendly to one another. That’s how cosmopolitan perspectives grow. If people are sealed off, they’re not meeting other kinds of people, and it’s easy to see them as the out group or the strange group.


A May 2011 episode of the Center for Inquiry podcast Point of Inquiry featured Center for Inquiry President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay interviewing science journalist Chris Mooney, the POI cohost. In the first part of the program, adapted for publication in the August/September issue of Free Inquiry, they discussed Mooney’s stance of accommodationism regarding …

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