In a 2009 article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “All Evidence to the Contrary,”1 Lane Wallace recounts the story of Everett Reuss, a gifted young man who, in 1934, renounced civilization. With two burros as pack animals—domesticated animals apparently one of his few remaining concessions to society—he headed into a relatively unexplored area in the desert wilderness of Utah and was never heard from again.
As the years went by, various theories arose to account for his disappearance: fallen off a cliff, carried away in a flash flood, murdered by Indians. But when no conclusive evidence of his demise came to light, Reuss became something of a folk hero in the West. For some, his disappearance even took on spiritual overtones.
Then, in 2009, David Roberts, an editor at National Geographic Adventure, after 10 years of research, found a skeleton whose DNA suggested resemblance to that of later descendants of the Reuss family, and a witness to Reuss’s reported murder by two members of the Ute tribe who had coveted his pack animals.
But interestingly, as Wallace reports in the Atlantic article, those who had become fervent believers in the myth of Reuss’s mystical oneness with the wilderness were unimpressed. In fact, they were downright angry. After the publication of his article, Roberts received a great deal of adverse mail, some including death threats.
People don’t like it when you mess with their myths.
And this negative reaction apparently is an example of the way in which new information is processed in the mind of an ardent believer. “If people start with a particular opinion or view on a subject,” writes Wallace, “any counter-evidence can create ‘cognitive dissonance’—discomfort caused by the presence of two irreconcilable ideas in the mind at once. One way of resolving the dissonance would be to change or alter the originally held opinion. But [researchers have] found that many people instead choose to change the conflicting evidence—selectively seeking out information or arguments that support their position while arguing around or ignoring any opposing evidence, even if that means using questionable or contorted logic.”2
The first of these responses—the selection of only supportive information—is increasingly prevalent. In the ideological polarization that is currently going on in American society, both sides rely more and more exclusively on sources of information that merely reinforce their respective worldviews. A recent Pew Research Center study analyzed how people access political information in three ways: the news media, social media, and discussion with friends and family. “In all three areas, the study [found] that those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right have information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views—and very distinct from each other.”3
The second response—arguing around or ignoring opposing evidence—is also apparent in this polarization of belief. And Wallace points out an even more disturbing trend, citing a sociological study conducted cooperatively by researchers from four universities.4 “Even when presented with compelling, factual data from sources they trusted, many of the subjects still found ways to dismiss it. But the most interesting (or disturbing) aspect of the . . . study was the finding that providing additional counter-evidence, facts, or arguments actually intensified this reaction. Additional countering data, it seems, increases the cognitive dissonance, and therefore the need for subjects to alleviate that discomfort by retreating into more rigidly selective hearing and entrenched positions.”5
All of which may sound like something relevant only to discussion of political science, but similar observations are sometimes asserted by opposing sides of other disagreements over beliefs, such as that going on over faith and science.
In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, a very readable book by Alex Rosenberg, the author addresses, crisply and directly, 15 “persistent questions” that have faced humankind since the very beginning—whenever that was. Such questions as: “What is the nature of reality?” “Is there a God?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Is there a soul?”
Rosenberg answers each of these questions with considerable wit and with more grace than the usual new atheist. (He prefers the term “scientism” to atheism because he says he would rather be defined by what he believes—what he calls “scientism”—than what he doesn’t believe—theism.) “Given what we know from the sciences,” he writes, “the answers are all pretty obvious. The interesting thing is to recognize how totally unavoidable they are, provided you place your confidence in science to provide the answers.”6
According to one handy thesaurus, the word confidence suggests such other words as belief, faith, loyalty, and trust. (There are, of course, others that suggest a stronger quality, such as certainty.) But even in the discourse of the most ardent new atheists appears the frequent use of language that at least implies some role of faith in their conviction. They have decided, however, to accept only evidence that is materialistically observable. “We trust science,” Rosenberg says, “as the only way to acquire knowledge.”7 (There’s that idea of “trust” again.)
For the Christian, there is, of course, no final, rational argument that in itself can prove the existence of anything in the spiritual realm. It, too, takes trust. It places its reliance in Scripture—not mere human observation—as the ultimate expression of truth. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3, NIV).8
“The Christian hope,” writes William Barclay, “is belief in the spirit against the senses. The senses say . . . , ‘Take what you can touch and taste and handle and enjoy.’ . . . The senses tell us to grasp the thing of the moment; the spirit tells us that there is something far beyond that. The Christian believes in the spirit rather than the senses.”9
When the discipline of science is open to something more than the merely materialistic, then the unseen answers to the ultimate questions truly begin to come into focus. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
NOTES AND REFERENCES
4. Northwestern University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Millsaps College.
5. Wallace, “All Evidence to the Contrary,” op. cit.
6. Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 2, 3. Italics supplied.
7. Ibid., p. 20.
8. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
9. William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), page 129. Italics in the original.