What Does it Mean?

According to a recent Pew poll, 18 percent of Americans believe that the President is a Muslim, and the percentage is growing.  Apparently, according to Time, a majority of Republicans believe it too.

Why do people believe what they do?  Common sense suggests it is because of the supporting evidence, the weight of reality.  In this case there doesn’t seem to be much evidence.  The President’s statements have been pored over and analyzed, and the few people who seem to have taken the trouble to examine what he said about his past and his religious convictions don’t seem to find any significant evidence for this particular belief.

But actually most of us seldom bother to review the evidence we have about anything we believe.  That’s not the point about beliefs.  Our convictions get established in our minds for essentially two reasons:  either they fit in with other things we believe or else they are believed by others, those who surround us.  The link with reality is second.

In this case, it seems clear that the first reason is true:  according to the Pew poll, “Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing.” (See, “When Is a Muslim Not a Muslim.”)

No surprise.  That comes across in the news.  Those who call him a Muslim clearly don’t like him or trust him.

But the other reason for our beliefs suggests that this false conviction may continue to grow.  If more people believe something is true, that, in itself, becomes a source of conviction for others.  The others have to want to believe it first, of course, but then the convictions of like-minded others become “evidence,” and the process snowballs.  “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” people like to say.

Eventually, in circles where those ideas are repeated, it becomes more and more difficult not to believe.  It becomes an article of faith, a sign of membership in our communities.  To take a different position is to risk being seen as naïve or deluded, believing what “they” want you to believe.

That seems to be happening here.  And it will probably continue to happen, as the idea gets repeated and spreads.  Gossip, here, is more powerful and convincing than arguments or evidence.

This is yet another sign of how we are splitting up into opposing camps.  It seems an inexorable process of our politics and economy.  And that means that in the future there will be even less interest in evidence.