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Are Evangelicals to blame for “fake news” and our post-truth society?

by Greg Krehbiel on 15 April 2017

A friend sent me this interesting article from the NYT: The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society.

It’s a hard thing to do at times, but it’s very important to forget the headline before you read an article. The headline is often written after the fact by somebody else (not the author of the article), and it’s usually designed to interest or provoke you. (And, in these days of search engines, to have the right keywords.)

So … please forget the headline, read the article, then read my thoughts below and contribute yours if you wish.

On a superficial level it’s true that Evangelicals distrust a number of institutions in our society, including the media and certain types of science. But in my opinion it’s missing the point to put it that way. It’s not that Evangelicals distrust “science” — or history, or psychology, or philosophy — any more than other groups do.

Feminists have long denied the science that shows sex differences, as well as any history that doesn’t fit their narrative. Social libertines have long denied the science that shows the benefits of stable, two-parent families. In short, it’s relatively easy to pick some marginal or extreme group and find things they deny — or counter-factual things they assert. Evangelicals aren’t unique in that. Everybody suffers from the intellectual blinders of us vs. them.

Also, when Evangelicals distrust some particular conclusion of some branch of science, it’s not “science” they’re distrusting, it’s the scientists. This is a very important distinction.

When Evangelicals (or feminists, or communists, or vegans …) doubt some alleged conclusion of “science,” they’re not usually disputing the scientific method, the existence of objective truth, the value of reason or any rules of logic. They’re usually claiming that the scientists aren’t following those things — that their bias has kept them from being good scientists.

Moving on from science for a moment, there are a few levels to what we mean when we talk about bias.

At the simplest level, it’s just a matter of ignorance. You believe that everybody before Columbus thought the Earth was flat because that’s what your elementary school teacher taught you. That form of bias is easily overcome with new facts.

The next level is bias based on prejudice, or even hatred. You don’t believe in socialism because it’s all those filthy Europeans who are promoting it, or you accept patriarchy because you don’t like or trust women, or because you’re scared of them.

Evangelicals take bias to another level. They believe their opponents are blinded by an external force.

This passage is in the context of the man of lawlessness at the end of the world, but the principle applies more generally.

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. 2 Thes. 2: 7-12

The attitude is clear. Those who refuse to bow the knee to Christ are not only misinformed or biased or even hateful or angry. They’re spiritually deceived. God has hardened their hearts, and the devil has deceived them.

When you add belief in that sort of deception to the existence of an objective, inspired, inerrant source of truth in the Bible, you get a pretty hardcore perspective. That runs deep in parts of our society, and it’s definitely a cultural force to be considered.

But I don’t think it’s accurate to say you can find the roots of our “post-truth” society or the phenomenon of “fake news” in that.

If you’re looking for people who believe their opponents are deceived, Evangelicals are an obvious target. (And so are some others.) But if you’re looking for people who deny the existence of objective reality, you usually find that on the left.

Still … in my opinion, that’s not even the root of post-truth society, because I don’t think “post-truth” really means what it seems to mean. It doesn’t mean there is no truth, but that things are so confused and complicated, twisted, spun, lied about, intentionally hidden behind a wall of obfuscation, that it’s well-nigh impossible to be sure you know the truth.

Part of the problem is that partisans twist things to push their side, so you can’t trust “facts.” Along with that is the incredible pressure some of these groups can exert to get people to conform, so even when you hear that X percent of “experts” believe something, it’s quite reasonable to wonder (1) if they really believe that, and (2) whether they heard both sides.

A recent example is the “17 intelligence agencies” meme re: Russian hacking. It’s presented as if 17 independent investigations by intelligence agencies came to the same conclusion. If that were the case, it would certainly be a remarkable thing to deny. But that’s not what happened. (I’m taking no position on the Russians and hacking, I’m simply pointing out how this particular story has become a victim of post-truth and fake news.)

We live in an environment where our intelligence chiefs lie to us under oath with no consequences. News anchors twist the truth every night. Our president says outlandish nonsense, and the previous president regularly quoted false statistics to promote his agenda. “Fact checking” sites are thinly veiled partisan outlets.

Did all this stem from the Evangelical belief that non-believers are deceived by Satan and you can only trust the Bible? I think that’s a stretch, and I think there’s a far simpler explanation.

First, knowledge has exploded. It’s incredibly challenging to be even decently informed on most issues. That requires us to take shortcuts and to accept conclusions from people we trust.

Second, the people who care about an issue often distort things to get attention. If you want funding for Alzheimer’s, you inflate the statistics on people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. That’s just part of the deal now, and we all know it.

Third, social media is incredibly effective at whipping up frenzy and anger. This is nothing new. It’s just the villagers with pitchforks and torches, only now you can get millions of them in a half hour.

The consequence is that it’s ridiculously easy to caricature the other side, because you can always find some yahoo who says some idiotic thing. He becomes a YouTube sensation, and that becomes the headline and the public perception of that view.

Fourth, and finally, Google has fundamentally changed the monetization of news and how we get information. It’s not curated by a professional, objective, intelligent fellow who tells us in 30 minutes what we need to know today (if it ever was). It’s a crazy, chaotic process that favors the outrageous and the salacious.

Those things, and perhaps a few others, have created post truth and fake news, and none of them can be traced to Evangelicals.

But I have departed substantially from the article.

My overall analysis is that it’s basically fair and accurate in the minor details, but it doesn’t come close to proving the burden of the headline, which is that all this fake news mess springs from the root of Evangelical culture. That sounds like typical NYT headline writer’s bias.

2017-04-15  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 2

  1. Ken Crawford
    15 April 2017 @ 9:11 am

    I couldn’t get through that article… not because I disagreed with it entirely, but because it was playing very loosely with Christian terms that are used by Evangelicals and other Christians, often in different ways. By way of example, biblical inerrancy means something very different to a Catholic than to a Fundamentalist Evangelical. It felt like the author was ignorant of these different Christian perspectives and thus I had a very hard time pinning down what the author’s assertions really were as well as generally distrustful of their perceptiveness of the root of Evangelical weaknesses.

    More generally, I agree with you Greg that there’s an ignorance of the different sorts of “fake news” that all the different sides are susceptible to. Everyone loves to point out the failures of their opponents while ignoring the just as blatant failures of their own side.

    However, I do believe there is something unique going on in Evangelical circles that do make the particularly susceptible to self-delusion and unwillingness to take a step back from their own perspectives to consider other ideas. I’ve never seen a group more willing to explicitly say, “we don’t care about facts, this is a matter of faith!” I’ve seen other groups that act that way, but none that are willing to admit it, to say it out loud.

    However, pinning down *why* they got there, that is a more difficult task, one that I’m not willing to make too much of a stab at.

  2. Greg Krehbiel GregK
    15 April 2017 @ 9:39 am

    Ken, it’s true that Evangelicals can glory in their rejection of contrary evidence.

    It’s not exactly the same, but there’s an analogy to the campus protesters. They reject facts because they think they’re hateful.