Fake News, Alternative Facts, and Fundamentalist Christianity

Some ten weeks ago, and about a month after the election, I made the observation (in this post) that many, perhaps most people live in a kind of “post-fact” or “alternative fact” (that term came later) reality, by virtue of their belief in religious myths that have no basis in objective reality — even despite evidence of objective reality that contradicts those myths.

Here at Religion Dispatches (a site about religion, politics, and culture, associated with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism) is an expansion of the idea that religious faith, in particular fundamentalist Christianity, is connected to the acceptance of fake news: The Religious Origins of Fake News and “Alternative Facts”, by Christopher Douglas.

The essay recalls Stephen Colbert’s term “truthiness” that he applied to statements from the George W. Bush administration, and discusses how evidence shows that conservatives are more prone to accepting fake news than liberals, by a two to one margin. The answer involves the Republican party’s roots in the Christian Right. But it’s not simply about religious faith, it’s about a particular religious faith.

Instead, susceptibility to fake news has its particular historical origin in Christian fundamentalism’s rejection of expert elites.

To see this connection, it bears recalling what it meant to be a Christian “fundamentalist” in the early 20th century. Christian fundamentalism was characterized in particular by its rejection of two theologically disturbing bodies of knowledge that emerged from the 19th century: the theory of evolution, and the historical-critical method of Bible scholarship. While mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches have had considerable success in coming to terms with these expert knowledge consensuses, Christian fundamentalism is defined primarily by its rejection of them.

I’m immediately struck by the mention of the second item here — I did not know that Christian fundamentalists were aware of Biblical scholarship (as I’ve been commenting on in my own Bible reading, e.g. here) to the point of consciously rejecting it. I just assumed they ignored it. Here’s what the essay says:

The historical-critical method of Bible scholarship meanwhile threatened the idea of scripture as the inerrant, uniform word of God. There were multiple authors and editors of scripture, scholars began to demonstrate, sometimes with incompatible stories and contradictory theologies. The New Testament’s gospels, this scholarship showed, were not composed shortly after Jesus’ death by his eyewitness disciples like Matthew and John. Rather, they were written accounts based on oral traditions and other now-lost writings, composed decades after Jesus’s death—with all the attendant problems of memory and record-keeping that entails.

Fundamentalist Christians rejected these accounts. But more importantly, fundamentalists critiqued the methods, assumptions, and institutions of the expert elites.

Thus these Christians created a set of institutions — “Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums and campus ministries” — to provide “alternative knowledge”, especially creationism and an alternative Bible scholarship.

The consequence is that theologically fundamentalist Christians have for years explained to themselves that what seems to be worldly wisdom and conclusions are really the results of conspiracies, biases, and misplaced human pride in academic, scientific, and journalist communities. This cognitive training to reject expert knowledge and to seek alternative, more amenable explanations has helped disarm the capacity for critical thinking and analysis.

Thus rejection of climate change, abstinence-only sex education, suspicion that vaccines cause autism, and more. The author acknowledges confirmation bias, that we are all subject to it. But,

It is conservative voters who are measurably more credulous to fake news sites.

And thus the “asymmetrical polarization and extremism in America’s current political climate”.

…Christian fundamentalism has stood athwart modern knowledge and yelled NO. In cultivating alternative sources and alternative ideas, Christian fundamentalists laid the ground for the fake news to come.

(My second observation in that post 10 weeks ago was that belief in such “alternative facts” doesn’t matter, in most cases. Increasingly, though, the consequences of reality-denial, such as denial of human-caused climate change and of the efficacy of vaccines, will have real world, long-term, consequences.)

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