Why we’re coming apart, and how we might come together again.
New fractures are forming within the American evangelical movement, fractures that do not run along the usual regional, denominational, ethnic, or political lines. Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.
Recently, a group of my college friends, all raised and nurtured in healthy evangelical families and congregations, reconnected online in search of understanding. One person mourned that she could no longer understand her parents or how their views of the world had so suddenly and painfully shifted. Another described friends who were demographically identical, who had once stood beside him on practically every issue, but who now promoted ideas he found shocking. Still another said her church was breaking up, driven apart by mutual suspicion and misunderstanding.
“These were my people,” one said, “but now I don’t know who they are, or maybe I don’t know who I am.”
What do you do when you feel you’re losing the people you love to a false reality? What do you do with the humbling truth that they have precisely the same fear about you?
The quandary is not unique to evangelicals. But fellow believers who once stood shoulder to shoulder now find that tectonic shifts have thrust them apart, their continents are separating, and they cannot find a bridge back to common ground. How could our views of reality diverge so dramatically—and is there anything we can do to draw together again?
The plausibility curve and the information curve
Among the most persistent interests of my academic career was the question of how people form beliefs. Not how they should form beliefs, in some idealized vision of perfected rationality, but how they actually form beliefs as embodied creatures embedded in communities and cultures. I want to introduce a simple conceptual tool, influenced in part by the work of Peter Berger, that may help us understand what is happening.
Imagine a horizontal plane that curves downward into a bowl, rises back again, and returns to a horizontal plane. The curve, from one end of the bowl to the other, represents the range of claims an individual finds believable. Let’s call it a plausibility curve. Claims that fall in the center of the curve will be perceived as most plausible; they require little evidence or argumentation before an individual will consent to believe. Claims falling near the edges are increasingly implausible as they deviate from the center, requiring progressively more persuasion. Claims falling entirely outside the plausibility curve are beyond the range of what a person might believe at a given point in time, and no amount of evidence or logic will be sufficient.
What determines the plausibility of a given claim is how well it conforms to what an individual experiences, already believes, and wants to believe. The full range of a person’s beliefs is rather like a photomosaic (see an example here): Thousands of experiences and perceptions of reality are joined together, and out of those thousands emerge larger patterns and impressions, higher-order beliefs about the nature of reality, the grand narratives of history, the nature of right and wrong, good and evil, and so forth. Attempts to change a single belief can feel fruitless when it is embedded in countless others. Where does one begin to address a thousand interlocking disagreements at once? Evidence to the contrary is almost irrelevant when a claim “fits” with an entire network of reinforcing beliefs. This is part of what gives a plausibility curve its enduring strength and resistance to change.
Desire plays a particularly complicated role in the plausibility curve. We may desire not to believe a claim because it would separate us from those we love, confront us with painful truths, require a change in our behavior, impose a social cost, or so on. We may desire to believe a certain claim because it would be fashionable, confirm our prejudices, set us apart from those around us, anger our parents, or for countless other reasons. We will require more persuasion for claims we do not want to believe, and less for those we do.
Like the Overton window in political theory, a plausibility curve can expand, contract, and shift. Friends or family members whose plausibility curves were once identical may find that they diverge over the course of time. Claims one person finds immediately plausible are almost inconceivable to the other. But how does this happen? That’s where the information curve comes in.
Imagine a mirror-image bowl above the plausibility curve. This is the information curve, and it reflects the individual’s external sources of information about the world—such as communities, authorities, and media. Those sources in the center of the information curve are deemed most trustworthy; claims that come from these sources are accepted almost without question. Sources of information on the outer ends of the bowl are considered less trustworthy, so their claims will be held up to greater scrutiny. Sources outside the curve entirely are, at least for this individual, so lacking in credibility that their claims are dismissed out of hand.
The center of the information curve will generally align with the center of the plausibility curve. The relationship is mutually reinforcing. Sources are considered more trustworthy when they deliver claims we find plausible, and claims are considered more plausible when they come from sources we trust. A source of information that consistently delivers claims in the center of the plausibility curve will come to be believed implicitly.
Change can begin on the level of the plausibility curve. Perhaps an individual joins a religious community and finds it is more loving and reasonable than she had expected. She will no longer find it plausible when a source claims that all religious communities are irrational and prejudiced, and this will gradually shift her information curve in favor of more reliable sources. Or another person experiences the loss of a child, and no longer desires to believe that death is the end of consciousness. He is more open to other claims, expands his sources of information, and slowly his beliefs shift.
Change can also begin on the level of the information curve. An individual raised in a certain community with well-established authorities, such as her parents and pastors, goes to college and is introduced to new communities and authorities. If she judges them to be trustworthy sources of information, this new information curve will likely shift her plausibility curve. As her set of beliefs changes, she may even reach a point where the sources that once supplied most of her beliefs are no longer considered trustworthy at all. Or imagine a person who has lived his entire life consuming far-left media sources. He begins to listen to conservative media sources and finds their claims resonate with his experience—only slightly at first, but in increasing measure. Gradually he consumes more and more conservative media, expanding or shifting his information curve, and this in turn expands or shifts his plausibility curve. He may reach a point where his broader perceptions of the world—the deeper forces at work in history, the optimal ways of organizing societies and economies, the forces for good and evil in the world—have been wholly overturned.
Consider the 9/11 Truth movement and the QAnon movement. Most Americans will find the notion that the Bush administration orchestrated a massive terrorist attack in order to invade the Middle East and enrich their friends in the oil industry, or that global liberal elites would construct an international child trafficking operation for the purpose of pedophilia and cannibalism, beyond the bounds of their plausibility curve. Others, however, will find that one conspiracy or the other resonates with their plausibility curve, or their information curve may shift over time in such a way that brings their plausibility curve with it. Claims that once seemed impossible to contemplate came to appear conceivable, then plausible, then reasonable, and finally self-evident. Of course conservatives would sacrifice thousands of innocent lives to justify a “war for oil” because conservatives are greedy and that’s what conservatives do. Of course liberals would sacrifice thousands of children in order to advance their own health and power because liberals are perverse and that’s what liberals do.
As a final definitional note, let’s call the whole structure, the plausibility curve and the information curve, an informational world. An informational world encompasses how an individual or a community of individuals receives and processes information. Differing informational worlds will have differing facts and sources. Our challenge today is that we occupy multiple informational worlds with little in common and much hostility between them.
What does all of this have to do with the evangelical movement? A great deal.
The evangelical crises
The American evangelical movement has never been comprised of a single community. Depending on the criteria, estimates generally put the number of American evangelicals at 80-100 million. Even if we split the difference at 90 million, this would make the American evangelical population larger than every European nation save Russia. It is also diverse, reaching across all regions, races, and socioeconomic levels. What held the movement together historically was not only a shared set of moral and theological commitments, but a broadly similar view of the world and common sources of information. Their plausibility curves and information curves largely overlapped. There were some matters on which they differed, but the ground they shared in the middle served as a basis of mutual understanding and fellowship.
This sense of commonality grew increasingly strained as groups not formerly identified as evangelical came to be lumped together, defining the category “evangelical” less in theological terms and more in social, cultural, and political terms. This broader evangelical movement today is dividing into separate communities that still hold some moral and theological commitments in common but differ dramatically on their sources of information and their broader view of the world. Their informational worlds have little overlap. They can only discuss a narrow range of topics if they do not want to fall into painful and exasperated disagreement.
One group within American evangelicalism believes our religious liberties have never been more firmly established; another that they have never been at greater risk. One group believes racism is still systemic in American society; another that the “systemic racism” push is a progressive program to redistribute wealth and power to angry radicals. One is more concerned with the insurrection at the Capitol; another with the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. One believes the Trump presidency was generationally damaging to Christian witness; another that it was enormously beneficial. One believes the former president attempted a coup; another that the Democrats stole the election. One believes masks and vaccines are marks of Christian love; another that the rejection of the same is a mark of Christian courage.
There are countless groups in between, of course, but these examples illustrate the tension: We occupy the same reality but starkly different worlds. There is a real question whether these worlds can (or should) draw back together again. This is a critical moment for our movement.
What, then, can be done? The model itself suggests where to start. If we move the information curves toward a common center, the plausibility curve will follow. Information comes through three sources: media, authorities, and community. One reason for our disunity is that these three sources are in crisis in American evangelicalism. I will only briefly outline these points.
First, the crisis of media is acute. Even as media today has grown more powerful and pervasive, it has also grown more fragmented and polarizing. The dynamics of modern media reward content that is immediate, angry, and hyperbolic, rendering the media into a marketplace for scorn sellers and hate merchants. Evangelicals find themselves torn between social media platforms and legacy media sources that openly advocate progressive causes and cancel conservative voices and far-right sources that traffic in paranoia and misinformation. In short, the digital media landscape has evolved to profit from our vices more than our virtues, and it has become incredibly effective at dividing audiences into hermetic media spheres that deliver only the information and commentary that confirms the audiences’ anxieties and antipathies.
This presents an extraordinary challenge for Christian discipleship. Media consumption has been climbing for years, and it soared amid the pandemic. Members of our congregations may spend a few hours a week in the Word of God (which should always be the Christian’s most important source of information and authority) but 40 hours or more mainlining the animosities of the day. Once the information curve begins a leftward or rightward drift, the algorithms of digital media and the manipulations of politicians and profiteers accelerate the momentum. Soon Christian communities that once shared a broader view of the world find they only agree on the bare essentials of faith. It will be difficult to address other parts of the information curve until we have brought some semblance of sanity into our media consumption. The longer we live in separate media worlds, the deeper and broader our divisions will become. The longer we give ourselves to media gluttony, skimping on the deeper nourishment that cultivates Christ within us, the less we will have in common.
The media crisis reaches across the whole of society, but the evangelical movement also faces an authority crisis of its own making. A generation of evangelical leaders who commanded immense respect, at least across the broad middle of American evangelicalism, have passed away. The current generation of evangelical institutional leaders, though markedly more diverse than their forebears, struggle to rise above the rampant ideological othering of our time. Moreover, the movement has seen countless leaders fall from grace in spectacularly destructive ways. At the same time, we have seen the rise of the celebrity pastor. It was once the case that a long obedience in the same direction, a life of humble study and service, earned a person a modicum of spiritual authority and a modest living. Today, a dashing profile and a talent for self-promotion can earn wealth and stardom in the Christian celebrity marketplace.
The consequence is disillusionment and division. While younger generations head for the exits, those who remain in our churches become further entrenched in their own ideological camps. If it is ever to be true again that broadly respected authorities form an important part of our shared information curve, it will be because we turn from a culture of celebrity to a culture of sanctification, where leadership is less about building a platform and more about carrying the cross of Christ. It will be because we remember the words of Jesus that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26). It will also be because we relearn how to listen to men and women of wisdom, leaders as well as neighbors, without crucifying them over political differences.
The third way to shift the information curve is to address our crisis of community. Community is essential to Christian life. It deepens our knowledge of the Word, forges our shared identity in Christ, cultivates Christian character, and disciples our young. Yet the pressures, temptations, and glowing distractions of contemporary life have strained the ties that bind us, replacing the warmth and depth of incarnate community with a cold digital imitation. The pandemic has only deepened our isolation, causing many to look outside their churches to political tribes or conspiracist communities for a sense of purpose and belonging. Further, the hyper-politicization of the American evangelical movement has led to a political sorting. Congregants who do not like their pastors’ stances depart for other churches whose politics are the same as theirs. But congregations comprised of individuals whose informational worlds are nearly identical will tend toward rigidity and increasing radicalism—what Cass Sunstein calls the Law of Group Polarization.
Rather than withdrawing into communities of common loathing, the church should be offering a community of common love, a sanctuary from the fragmentation and polarization, from the loneliness and isolation of the present moment. The church should model what it means to care for one another in spite of our differences on social and political matters and affirm the incomparably deeper rootedness of our identity in Christ.
Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and scholar of American religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently said he has studied religious congregations for 30 years but has “never seen” such an extraordinary level of conflict. “What is different now?” he asked. “The conflict is over entire worldviews—politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.” What I have offered above is a model for understanding how we have come to such a pass, and a mere suggestion of how we might begin the generational project before us.
We are not without hope. Lies ring hollow at the end of the day. Hatred is a poor imitation of purpose, celebrity a poor replacement for wisdom, and political tribes a poor comparison to authentic Christian community. We are a people defined by the resurrection of the Son of God. We are called to be redeemers and reconcilers.
So perhaps we can begin to build bridges across our informational worlds. Perhaps we can nurture a healthy media ecosystem that offers a balanced view of the world and a generous conversation about it. Perhaps we can restore a culture of leadership defined by humility over celebrity and integrity over influence. Perhaps we can invite those who have found counterfeit community in their political tribes to rediscover a richer and more robust community in Christ. All of these things will be essential to rebuilding a shared understanding of the world God created and what it means to follow Christ within it.
More info at http://www.ae911truth.org/ Should you like to buy your own copy of ‘Anatomy of a Great Deception’ you can do so here: http://www.agdmovie.com/movies/the-an… David Hooper’s youtube page : https://www.youtube.com/user/TruthFig… The Anatomy of a Great Deception is a quasi-political, spiritual docu-thriller following businessman-turned-filmmaker, David Hooper as he deals with the emotions of his own investigation into the events of 9/11. The fast pace and the filmmakers commentary on coping with the emotions involved in finding truth, sets the film apart. “Even though, I didn’t know it at the time, work on this film started in February 2011. Back then I was a regular guy trying to live the American dream, with three kids and a wife, who was pregnant with number four!” “It started with an innocent question about 9/11. And that lead to more innocent questions. And after a while, I completely changed my opinion of the official story of that day.” “That was a very hard time in my life. It felt like my world was turned upside down. I couldn’t stop researching. I was unemployed. And I was running out of savings. I tried talking about it, but felt like no one was listening. At the time, my wife didn’t even believe me . . . nor did my friends and family. No matter what I tried, nothing worked.” “So, to preserve my sanity and save my marriage, I began putting this film together. I had no idea any of this would ever happen because I simply made it for my wife, my sister and a couple of dear friends. I made it to speak to them directly, to get them to open their eyes. And it worked, because just all my friends and family that have seen it have changed their opinion about 9/11, maybe all by the time you read this!” “As time went on, I realized there are millions of people, like me, who’ve had a hard time talking about the truth of 9/11 with people in our lives. As I further understood that and continued getting requests to see the film, it began to evolve into a bridge for all us, no matter where we stand on 9/11.” “Mostly, the film is meant to be an effective introduction to the controversies of 9/11 for those of us who still have no idea there are any controversies. If this issue is going to ever get into the spotlight, it’ll need a catalyst and I hope this film can do it.”
The 47-storey third tower, known as Tower Seven, collapsed seven hours after the twin towers.
Investigators are expected to say ordinary fires on several different floors caused the collapse.
.. That would make it the first and only steel skyscraper in the world to collapse because of fire.
.. Building Seven is the smoking gun of 9/11. A sixth grader can look at this building falling at virtually freefall speed, symmetrically and smoothly, and see that it is not a natural process.
“Buildings that fall in natural processes fall to the path of least resistance”, says Gage, “they don’t go straight down through themselves.”
.. There are a number of facts that have encouraged conspiracy theories about Tower Seven.
- Although its collapse potentially made architectural history, all of the thousands of tonnes of steel from the skyscraper were taken away to be melted down.
- The third tower was occupied by the Secret Service, the CIA, the Department of Defense and the Office of Emergency Management, which would co-ordinate any response to a disaster or a terrorist attack.
- The destruction of the third tower was never mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report. The first official inquiry into Tower Seven by the Federal Emergency Management Agency was unable to be definitive about what caused its collapse.
- In May 2002 FEMA concluded that the building collapsed because intense fires had burned for hours, fed by thousands of gallons of diesel stored in the building. But it said this had “only a low probability of occurrence” and more work was needed.
.. With no steel from Tower 7 to study, investigators have instead made four extremely complex computer models worked out to the finest detail.
.. It says Tower Seven had an unusual design, built over an electricity substation and a subway; there were many fires that burnt for hours; and crucially, fire fighters could not fight the fires in Tower 7, because they didn’t have enough water and focused on saving lives.
.. They think fires burnt long enough to weaken and break many of the connections that held the steel structure together.
Most susceptible were the thinner floor beams which required less fireproofing, and the connections between the beams and the columns. As they heated up the connections failed and the beams sagged and failed, investigators say.
.. The collapse of the first of the Twin Towers does not seem to have caused any serious damage to Tower Seven, but the second collapse of the 1,368ft (417m) North Tower threw debris at Tower Seven, just 350ft (106m) away.
“Conspiracy theories often emerge as a result of this need for an explanation that’s proportional to the event itself.”
.. In 2006, a California architect called Richard Gage founded Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (AE911 Truth) – a group of engineering and architecture professionals who questioned the official version of events.
.. Two planes plus three towers has equalled plenty of questions
.. a 2008 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which found that WTC7 collapsed after fires on multiple floors “caused a critical support column to fail, initiating a fire-induced progressive collapse that brought the building down”.
.. Matt Campbell’s also still looking for answers. In 2016, he flew to Guantanamo to attend a pre-trial hearing of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man described by the 9/11 Commission Report as the “principal architect of the 9/11 terror attacks”.
How a conspiracy theory that Trump and Robert Mueller are secretly working together got from Reddit to Trump rallies.
Conspiracy theories create order out of chaos, attempting to make sense of events that don’t make sense. And researchers have found that fact-based arguments against them only serve to reinforce them in the minds of believers. That’s what makes QAnon or Sandy Hook trutherism or any other conspiracy theory so difficult to combat: Because conspiracy theories aren’t based on facts, conspiracy theorists aren’t receptive to them either.
.. Everything is fine. As a popular saying among Q adherents proclaims, believers must only “trust the plan.”
.. Obviously, none of this happened. There were no public riots or mass arrests or the use of emergency broadcasts. (In fact, the Emergency Broadcast System went out of service in 1997, replaced by the Emergency Alert System.)
The overwhelming majority of Q’s assertions are hilariously untrue: that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was placed in power by the CIA, that Seth Rich was murdered by MS13 under orders from former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, that many prominent Democrats are currently wearing ankle monitors because they are secretly under arrest... The fact is that QAnon’s base assertion — that Trump really is in control of everything — is an inherently strange one to make when the Trump administration does, actually, control the entire federal government... Conspiracy theorists and members of the alt-right and far right were among the first to jump on the QAnon bandwagon (though some have decided Q has been “compromised”)... the QAnon hashtag has been used so many times on Twitter it’s now virtually untrackable... Curt Schilling shared a video on Twitter in June that alleges that QAnon isn’t just about Trump. It claims every US president before Trump was engaged in a criminal conspiracy with pedophile rings and the “deep state” and pharmaceutical companies, all to enslave the American people.
.. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote in July, accusations of pedophilia are the easiest and most effective way to tarnish someone’s reputation with no proof necessary, as pedophilia is universally considered a horrific and horrendous affront... QAnon isn’t about protecting Trump, in their view. It’s about saving children from rape and murder — and who could oppose that?.. But the open source nature of QAnon, where Q posts something for thousands of other people to interpret as they see fit, means other conspiracy theories fit neatly within QAnon — like ones about false flag shootings, Jewish bankers controlling the world, or the Illuminati. As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer wrote in July:
While the Storm is at the center of the QAnon narrative, it’s also flexible enough to fold in just anything that makes the news. Q is fond of hinting that each mass shooting is a false-flag attack organized by the cabal, and he used a blurry webcam picture of a flash of light near the Puget Sound to claim that the deep state had tried to shoot down Trump’s plane.
Conspiracy theories are hard to fight because they’re about what we want to believe
.. Trying to disprove a conspiracy theory thus usually only serves to reinforce it.
.. Conspiracy theories aren’t created by evidence, but by belief, or by the desire to believe, that there must be something more to the events that shape our lives, culture, and politics than accident or happenstance.
.. Where there is confusion, or even pain and tragedy, QAnon, or shootings termed “false flags,” or 9/11 trutherism brings some semblance of order and security. The 9/11 attacks were so horrific that they can’t possibly have happened without President George W. Bush being behind it somehow, orchestrating things behind the scenes. A mass shooting at an elementary school that killed so many small children is so terrible that it can’t possibly have really happened.
.. Conspiracy theories often serve an ironic function of providing a sense of order in chaos. People would rather believe that there are evil masterminds out there that pull strings on cataclysmic events than accept the occurrence of random events.
Conspiracy theories also serve to elevate events to be less banal: For example, it is easier to conceive of Princess Diana having been killed by some elaborate evil conspiracy than being the victim of a rather banal drunk-driving accident.
Baron Cohen’s targets in his Showtime series, “Who Is America?,” are the élites, in the broadest sense of the word: nice upper-middle-class Southern conservatives, a contemporary-art curator, Senator Bernie Sanders. He has filmed N.R.A. hacks voicing support for giving guns to kindergarteners, Republican politicians reading utter gibberish off a teleprompter and making asses of themselves in ways imaginable and not, and the art curator earnestly discussing fake art made of apparently real excrement by a fake ex-convict.
Every segment of every episode is designed to leave the viewer feeling not so much appalled—something a sentient being in today’s America experiences many times a day—as finally enlightened: the ultimate explanation for what’s happened to us is that everyone is a moron.
.. Most recently, a hypothesis has emerged, laid out by Ryan Broderick at BuzzFeed, that Q is, in fact, an elaborate lefty prank intent on duping conservatives into following cockamamie theories. If this is true, Q is a cousin, rather than a mirror, of Baron Cohen.
.. September 11th gave rise to truthers, the election of Barack Obama brought forth the birthers, and school shootings enabled Alex Jones.
.. The QAnon message to its followers is that someone is in charge, that reality is knowable even if it is convoluted—and that someone, reassuringly, knows much more than you do. The Q theories acknowledge that the state of the country is awful, but they promise that the insanity is temporary because the great leader is conjuring order from chaos.
.. Baron Cohen’s message is equally clarifying. He demystifies power to an unprecedented extent. He shows that idiocy and incompetence are all there is. Here, the person who knows everything is Baron Cohen himself—and because we viewers are in on the secret, it makes us feel competent. The state of the country is, as in Q’s theories, horrifying, but also temporary, because these buffoons can’t possibly stay in power. We, the more intelligent people, will somehow prevail.
.. “Who Is America?” may appear as if it exposes evil, when really Baron Cohen is exposing the extreme flexibility of social norms. What the art curator, the nice Republican couple, and most of Baron Cohen’s politician targets have in common is their willingness to humor a visitor.
Vice President Pence’s obsequiousness at a recent Cabinet meeting — “Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that is truly restoring this country. . .” and on, and on — might be appropriate at a Communist Party Central Committee meeting or at a despot’s birthday party.
.. The divestment of self-respect is a qualification for employment in the Trump administration. Praising the Dear Leader in a Pence-like fashion seems to be what the Dear Leader requires — not in the way we might need dessert after dinner, but in the way an addict needs drugs.
.. President Trump divides the world into two categories: flunkies and enemies. Pence is the cringing, fawning high priest of flunkiness
.. Any Republican president from the 2016 primary field would have appointed conservative judges, continued the offensive against the Islamic State, and cut taxes and regulations. (He or she would also, in all likelihood, have succeeded at an Obamacare replacement.)
.. Trump spent the political capital of his first year — the highest it will ever be — on a few, generic GOP goals.
- .. Trump has tried to undermine the credibility of important institutions — the courts, the FBI, intelligence agencies, the media — that check his power and expose his duplicity.
- He has used his office (and Twitter account) to target individual Americans for harm without due process.
- He attacks the very idea of truth in a daily torrent of despicable lies.
- The moral authority of the presidency is in tatters.
- He has made our common life more vulgar and brutal, and complicated the moral education of children.
- Racists are emboldened and included in the GOP coalition.
- He has caused a large portion of Republicans to live in an alternate reality of resentment and hatred,
- which complicates the possibility of governing and is likely to discredit the party among the young, minorities, women and college-educated voters for decades to come.
.. Almost all of Trump’s accomplishments are the work of traditional Republican policy staffers and congressional leaders. Almost all of Trump’s failures are functions of his character. And that isn’t going to change.