The stories we tell

I posted a few tweets a while back, on a topic that has been weighing particularly heavily on my mind since 2016:

Then some dude jumped into my mentions to claim that evangelicals were all sociopaths, and also mentally ill, complete nutters who believe in a “man in the sky” — I don’t have the exact wording, because I had to block him. I think this particular dude was just some dorky would-be edgelord, but his statements are very similar to things I hear uttered by more prominent people (*koff*Bill Mahar*koff*) who have a knee-jerk, all-encompassing disdain for people of faith.

So, this is for all you edgelords out there, whether you have a talk show or not.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the notion that all evangelicals are sociopaths is absolutely ludicrous. Sociopaths are probably 4-5% of the population, tops, while even in their current decline, white evangelicals are still 17% of the population.

Second: religious belief has no predictable relationship to mental illness or personality disorders. There’s an extremely lazy thought process that goes something like “these people believe a thing that strikes me as nuts, therefore, the people who believe it must be nuts, therefore, they are mentally ill.”

That’s not how mental illness works, and it’s also not how “this thing you believe is nuts” works, either. I guarantee that you — yes, you — believe something that strikes somebody else as nuts, even if it’s just “Nickelback is kind of good” or “it’s possible to know exactly what/how paleolithic humans ate and reproduce that in the modern world.”
Third thing: don’t evangelicalsplain me, dude.

I was once an extremely angry, cynical, and disgusted evangelical teenager in the process of becoming an ex evangelical. You think “maybe they’re just nuts” never OCCURRED to me? It did. But, even had it been true, it was inadequate. It didn’t solve the mystery of how otherwise seemingly rational people could believe in obviously ridiculous things.

To solve the mystery, you have to accept one thing as fact: humans aren’t actually rational. We’re rational-ISH. Our natural thought processes are chock full of cognitive biases, including the fact that we think largely in narrative. And narrative is a huge leap forward in terms of animal cognition, allowing us to code and remember all manner of complex abstract concepts, but it’s not, you know, algebra. We’re capable of algebra, and capable of abstract logical reasoning, but for most of us it’s not our default mode, it’s something we have to choose to apply. The thing that more naturally feels like being “logical” or “rational” isn’t abstract logic, it’s “working out a narrative that makes sense.”

Or, more precisely, “working out a narrative that makes sense, right now, to us.” But we have a tendency to think that if our narrative makes sense to us, that means it makes sense in some objective way that other people are bound to recognize and respect.

Have you ever argued either side of a conspiracy theory? That’s what I’m talking about. There’s a good chance that both sides are being perfectly “rational,” even the side arguing the Earth is flat. In fact, there’s a good chance the flat-Earther seems (to himself) more well-informed, because he’s got pamphlets and books and a whole arsenal of ready arguments, while the round-Earther he’s arguing with has only a look of baffled incomprehension and an incredulous “so, are you just very stupid, or what?”

The difference between the round-Earther and the flat-Earther isn’t their level of rationality per se. It’s their propensity for fact-checking and hypothesis testing, and their standards for evidence. The evidence for a round Earth is, basically, everything that’s ever happened on this planet, which is, in fact, round. The evidence for a flat Earth is “it looks flat from where I’m standing.”

There’s this thing called the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which the people who are the most clueless about a thing are so clueless they don’t even know they’re clueless.

But let’s consider a belief that’s a little more common — homeopathy. Homeopathy doesn’t work, but thanks to the weirdness of history (“science” in the 19th century was often a little… eh.) it has a pedigree that dates back to before the germ theory of disease was widely accepted, and that fact alone gives it a certain credence in some circles. The evidence I have that homeopathy doesn’t work? Well, for one thing, the stated mechanism makes no sense at all. But also, people have repeatedly attempted to prove it does work, and failed to do so. The evidence offered by homeopathy devotees? “I tried this remedy and it made me feel better.”
There’s this thing called the placebo effect, in which giving people a remedy that, in a technical sense, does nothing, can nevertheless act on the mind, and trigger the person’s body to heal itself.

There’s this thing called “confirmation bias,” which describes a tendency we have to accumulate information that appears to confirm our beliefs, while ignoring evidence that appears to refute them.

Evangelicals have worked out a story that makes sense to themselves, and believe it makes sense in some objective way that other people are bound to recognize and respect. In fact, they have made this belief a core part of how they tell the story. They believe they MUST share it with you (or be damned) and that you MUST accept its truth (or be damned).

So, by design, every evangelical is like that one guy who won’t shut up about chemtrails.

But we run our stories in parallel, and most of the time that guy who’s running the chemtrail story is also running all the stories that allow him to go to work, interact with people, function in the world. Evangelicals do the same thing. If you’re wondering how somebody can believe both “scientists are liars who make up theories like climate change and evolution in order to deny God” and also claim that “thermodynamics proves evolution is impossible” without noticing that thermodynamics was “made up” by the same scientific process that generated the theory of evolution? Well, they’re two completely different stories, right? They have nothing to do with each other.

There’s this thing called “cognitive dissonance,” which describes the discomfort we feel when we notice that we have beliefs that conflict with each other.

There’s this thing called “hypocrisy,” which describes what the outside world sees when we loudly proclaim two narratives that obviously contradict.

There are two ways to avoid cognitive dissonance: always examine your key narratives for conflicts and do the work of reconciling them, or never do that. Evangelicals pretty much have embraced it as doctrine to never do that. Their more or less official stance is that you shouldn’t look too hard or critically at your beliefs because that’s how Satan gets to you.

I’ve written before about how evangelicals don’t like their beliefs examined, only affirmed.

There’s this thing called a “thought-terminating cliché,” observed in cults and other totalistic belief systems, which is a word or phrase designed to close off independent critical thinking about a particular topic and replace it with a truism that affirms the belief.

God has a plan
God answers every prayer but sometimes the answer is no
Those footsteps are where I carried you
Christians aren’t perfect, jost forgiven
God said it, I believe it, that settles it
Family values
Secular humanist
Fake news
Liberal bias

These thought-terminators are, themselves, little stories. What does it mean to support “family values” or be against “secular humanism”? We pick it up from the culture, from the way the people around us tell their stories. I “knew” secular humanism was a Bad Thing long before I knew what the words “secular humanism” meant.

We carry stories around in our heads for years without asking how plausible they are, where the details come from, whether we really believe them or not, what the full implications would be if the story were true. A lot of the stories we carry around don’t hold up under serious examination, and we don’t know that, because we’ve never examined them.

Evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on this phenomenon, but they are unusually devout in their hostility toward critical thought and self-examination. They don’t merely fail to do it, they actively discourage people from doing it. They treat displays of intelligence, curiosity, or independent thought as dangerous signs of Satanic/worldly influence. They’ve gone so far as to create a completely separate educational system all the way up through college, just so young evangelicals can, in theory, safely get an “education” without risking the wild chance that their critical thinking skills might be engaged.

They have to do that, because they tell so many stories that don’t add up. Just a few:

I was told we worshipped a God who was a being of infinite love, infinite compassion, infinite mercy.

I was told we lived in terror of a God who was a being of infinite vengefulness and wrath, just looking for an excuse to torture us for all eternity.

I was told that our faith had to be a personal and freely made choice in order to be meaningful, and that God was not impressed to see you praying on a streetcorner to be seen by men.

I was told it was really a shame that “the government” was doing things like “kicking God out of schools” by stopping compulsory prayer and other displays of meaningless civic piety.

I was told all genders were equal before the sight of God.

I was told some genders were more equal than others.

I was told they would know we were Christians by our love.

I was told it was our duty as Christians to oppress those who didn’t meet evangelical purity standards.

I was told that Christians follow a higher law, which will sometimes put them at odds with earthly authorities, and that they will never bow down to any “Divine” Emperor.

And then… Donald Trump.

Turns out, evangelicals were never against bowing down to Divine Emperors per se, they were just waiting for the right Emperor to come along. An Emperor of their very own, who promised them a white Christian nationalist state, exactly like what the Taliban or ISIS wants, only the homegrown version.

And, sure, I always knew there were a handful of fundamentalist extremists who wanted that sort of thing. But somehow I didn’t realize the goals of “regular” evangelicals were so close to the goals of the extreme fundamentalists. I didn’t anticipate that the same people who sometimes spoke to me admiringly of Bonhoeffer would, when fascism came to America, be cheering at its rallies and donning its MAGA hats.

I didn’t realize they were authoritarians.

Sure, I knew they advocated an authoritarian patriarchal family structure, and I knew that they had a strong bias toward reality as defined by authority rather than evidence, and that they presented God as the ultimate authoritarian, and…

Good lord, how did I not recognize that my people were authoritarians?

But I did.


I missed it.

I did not realize how easily their devotion to an authoritarian God nobody has ever seen could be translated into devotion to an authoritarian political opportunist and con man who tweets out his every ridiculous thought for the world to see.

As bad as I thought it was, it was even worse than that.

Authoritarians, of necessity, believe a lot of stupid things and tell a lot of ridiculous stories. Their faith in the authority must always be absolute, so they will tell you one thing at one moment and with the next breath tell you something totally contradictory, as the authority demands. It might look like simple hypocrisy or confusion, but it really reflects a cultish devotion to whatever power they have accepted as their authority. The Emperor is correct by definition. Reality itself is determined by his decrees. So, if he says he’s wearing a very fine robe, then he is on no account buck naked, and if you say he is, that’s “fake news.”

There are those who look at the evil nonsense perpetrated by many people of faith, and conclude that spiritual beliefs alone — “man in the sky” delusions — should therefore be considered a marker of evil nonsense. But it’s not the spiritual beliefs of evangelicals or extremist Muslims that makes them dangerous, it’s their authoritarianism. A “daddy in the sky” isn’t inherently more or less ridiculous than a horned nature god, but Wiccans aren’t scheming to remake the country into a tyrannical white nationalist Wiccan state.

But I would oppose them if they did, even if I had been raised Wiccan and still had a soft spot for many of its stories.

And so it is with my own people.