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The Power of Belief

The only way to break through people's settled beliefs is to expose them to the Gospel.

I have frequently argued in this space that there are limits to what reason can accomplish. Even in the face of what might seem to be indisputable facts, many people will remain unconvinced about this, that, or something else.

Why is this?

Is it because, at bottom, people are simply unreasonable? Or just plain stupid?

Not at all. At bottom, it's because people are religious. Well, not in the sense that you or I might mean. But religious in the sense that they - and all of us - see life through the lenses of faith. Central to what we are as human beings is belief, and belief is a central tenet of all religions, whether spiritual or secular.

The way faith works in the human mind is to set up a kind of grid or lockbox leading to assent, so that, any time new information is presented, it has to pass through this faith grid and insert the right passkey in order to obtain entrance. Anything that irritates the grid or fails to trip the tumblers of agreement is simply rejected, regardless of the weight of evidence it may bring with it.

Chris Mooney explains this phenomenon quite well in an article entitled, "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science" (Mother Jones, April 18, 2011). He explains that beliefs, tied up as they are with emotions, tend to react more quickly and with greater strength than reason, so that they actually demand that reasons and proofs conform to deeply-felt convictions, or else they will be rejected. He cites a number of important studies showing why people reject scientific information, for example, about climate change. He concludes about these studies that "people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views", that is, their beliefs.

So if you want to persuade people of your own views, it will do no good to assault them with facts. Instead, you have to find a way to bring your perspective into line with theirs in a way that doesn't trigger the alarms of their faith-grid, or, at least, enables them to look past their own beliefs to consider other perspectives.

While he applies his observations to everyone, in the most general sense, Mr. Mooney's bias is to present conservatives as particularly trapped by their beliefs. However, he is certainly correct when he concludes, "The upshot: All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature itself?"

What, indeed?

Certainly not more reason, or more facts, or more passionate appeals. The only way to break through people's settled beliefs is to drag them out into the open for examination, to see whether or not they make sense, and, at the same time, to expose them to the beliefs-changing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit of God alone is capable of overhauling, in an instant (ask Saul of Tarsus), the entire system of beliefs, values, faith-grids, and passkeys that guard the way to intellectual, affective, and valuative assent - which are themselves the keys to changed lives.

So let us be mindful of what we've known for a long time, and which even unbelieving thinkers are finally beginning to admit: There are limits to what reason can accomplish; beliefs can be stronger than facts; but the Gospel and the Spirit of God are the power of God for salvation.

Now, and forever.

Additional related texts: Romans 1.16-32; 2 Corinthians 10.3-5; 2 Timothy 2.24-26

A conversation starter: "You know, I'm beginning to be very interested in people's beliefs. What about you? What would you say are the core beliefs that guide your daily life?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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