The radical religious roots of the U.S.: 2-18-19
How to destroy a church's moral authority: 2-20-19

How 'extreme partisans' think, if at all: 2-19-19

Several times since the 2016 presidential election I have written about the mystery of why people who identify as white Christian evangelicals would have abandoned their moral principles (as some 81 percent of them did) and vote for Donald Trump, a man whose life flies in the face of most of what those evangelicals believe.

Ex-partisanThere have been lots of proposed answers to that question, including the idolatrous focus on the abortion issue, but so far no fully satisfying answer.

And I'm not offering such an answer today, but I did run across something that helps me understand not only the Trump-evangelical mystery but also the mystery of why some people become extreme partisans, whether far left or far right, including people whose religious beliefs are so rigid and uncompromising that they are willing to commit violence to defend them and people who fall for bizarre conspiracy theories for which there is simply zero evidence.

At the request of a friend, I've been reading Jonathan Haidt's 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Read it. I'm not done with it yet, but read it.

Haidt describes a study designed to see how partisan brains work. It turns out that when they find some even tiny bit of information that seems to back up what they already think, they get a small hit of pleasure-producing dopamine. As Haidt notes, "Rats who can press a button to deliver electrical stimulation to their reward centers will continue pressing until they collapse from starvation."

Reason, in other words, has checked out, gone on vacation or at least to lunch.

Something similar happens when deeply committed partisan people get even a small smack of dopamine. That, Haidt writes, "would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid. Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive."

As I say, this explanation would apply to all extremes, whether political, religious or economic. And it means that it's mostly a waste of breath to try to bring reason and evidence to the debate. It is impossible to argue with irrationality, after all. That doesn't release us from the responsibility of thinking rationally, of being reasonable, of listening carefully to arguments with which we may not at first agree.

But it may help explain why quite a few people actually believe that God has chosen Donald Trump as a divine instrument to change America. Argue against that all you want, you're likely not going to change any of those stuck minds.

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A new study suggests that kids brought up in religious households gain certain social benefits but may be hindered some academically. Apparently all those prayers over math quizzes don't help much.


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