Why Do Conservative Christians Refuse to Accept the Overwhelming Evidence Against the Eyewitness Authorship of the Gospels

Image result for image of cognitive dissonance

The overwhelming majority of scholars doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels (see here).  Most conservative Christians refuse to accept this scholarly consensus…yet…in the very next breath, they will appeal to the majority opinion of these very same scholars to support their belief in the historicity of Jesus and the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb!  What’s up?  The article below explains why.

Copied from  Scientific American:

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Antivaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud. The 9/11 truthers focus on minutiae like the melting point of steel in the World Trade Center buildings that caused their collapse because they think the government lies and conducts “false flag” operations to create a New World Order. Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the ppm of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations. Obama birthers desperately dissected the president’s long-form birth certificate in search of fraud because they believe that the nation’s first African-American president is a socialist bent on destroying the country.

In these examples, proponents’ deepest held worldviews were perceived to be threatened by skeptics, making facts the enemy to be slayed. This power of belief over evidence is the result of two factors: cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect. In the classic 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger and his co-authors described what happened to a UFO cult when the mother ship failed to arrive at the appointed time. Instead of admitting error, “members of the group sought frantically to convince the world of their beliefs,” and they made “a series of desperate attempts to erase their rankling dissonance by making prediction after prediction in the hope that one would come true.” Festinger called this cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously.

In their 2007 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (a former student of Festinger), document thousands of experiments demonstrating how people spin-doctor facts to fit preconceived beliefs to reduce dissonance. Their metaphor of the “pyramid of choice” places two individuals side by side at the apex of the pyramid and shows how quickly they diverge and end up at the bottom opposite corners of the base as they each stake out a position to defend.

In a series of experiments by Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan and University of Exeter professor Jason Reifler, the researchers identify a related factor they call the backfire effect “in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.” Why? “Because it threatens their worldview or self-concept.” For example, subjects were given fake newspaper articles that confirmed widespread misconceptions, such as that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When subjects were then given a corrective article that WMD were never found, liberals who opposed the war accepted the new article and rejected the old, whereas conservatives who supported the war did the opposite … and more: they reported being even more convinced there were WMD after the correction, arguing that this only proved that Saddam Hussein hid or destroyed them. In fact, Nyhan and Reifler note, among many conservatives “the belief that Iraq possessed WMD immediately before the U.S. invasion persisted long after the Bush administration itself concluded otherwise.”

If corrective facts only make matters worse, what can we do to convince people of the error of their beliefs? From my experience, 1 keep emotions out of the exchange, 2 discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum), 3 listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately, 4 show respect, 5 acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and 6 try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews. These strategies may not always work to change people’s minds, but now that the nation has just been put through a political fact-check wringer, they may help reduce unnecessary divisiveness.


This article was originally published with the title “When Facts Backfire” in Scientific American 316, 1, 69 (January 2017)

2 thoughts on “Why Do Conservative Christians Refuse to Accept the Overwhelming Evidence Against the Eyewitness Authorship of the Gospels

  1. Part of what you’re talking about is the backfire effect, where people actually dig their heels in and are more likely to believe the opposite of what the studies show to be true. AnticitizenX goes into some other studies that were done, and how we can overcome the inherent biases we have against accepting identity changing facts, in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRd-kFiVuGs&index=12&list=PL9D9336926EF60BB0&t=0s

    For those who don’t have 10 minutes to watch the entire video, the essence is that if we remind people of other aspects of their identity, that aren’t tied to the thing we’re arguing against, they are much more likely to accept these facts that are tied to their identity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gary and Lehman,

      Happy New Year to you! I read Gary’s post and Lehman’s comment with great interest and satisfaction.

      Please be informed that the backfire effect still requires much more research to verify its validity and veracity.

      According to Wikipedia:

      The backfire effect is a name for the finding that given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.[43][44] The phrase was first coined by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2010.[45] However, subsequent research has since failed to replicate findings supporting the backfire effect.[46] One study conducted out of the Ohio State University and George Washington University studied 10,100 participants with 52 different issues expected to trigger a backfire effect. While the findings did conclude that individuals are reluctant to embrace facts that contradict their already held ideology, no cases of backfire were detected.[47] The backfire effect has since been noted to be a rare phenomenon rather than a common occurrence[48] (compare the boomerang effect).

      I would like to add that the issues mentioned in your post indeed have a lot to deal with emotional reasoning, confirmation bias and other cognitive biases, as well as, even more importantly, how human beings process statements and quotations, as discussed in my very detailed post at http://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/the-quotation-fallacy/


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