Over the course of the past few years, the book club to which I belong has read some interesting works. We have all been interested in understanding more how religion and religious culture affect the broader world, and following 9/11, we wanted to have a larger perspective than the U.S. version. The first book we read in 2003 was Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. At a later time, we read her earlier work, A History of God. At the moment, we are reading one of two memoirs she has written, The Spiral Staircase.
This memoir was a depiction of the several years in Armstrong’s life after she left a Roman Catholic convent. For seven years she was in training to live a religious life in one of the orders in England. While she knew that she had been subjected to mental training that we would today call brainwashing, it took her years after she left the convent to begin to recognize that even the religious history that she had been taught was not accurate. It had been written by priests to shape the beliefs of those who read it. To accomplish that goal, it omitted and distorted many facts.
Karen Armstrong is a scholar. She does exhaustive research before she writes and footnotes the sources of the information she uses to draw the conclusions to which she comes. One of the most important things I have learned from Armstrong’s work is the importance of who those sources are, the beliefs they hold about the material they are writing, and their integrity in the use of those resources.
One of my frustrations with researching any topic on the internet is the difficulty in determining how much weight I should attribute to the opinion presented. There is no shortage of strong opinion, but when I cannot see the reference list of the author and compare/contrast it with the lists of those who hold different positions, I tend to get frustrated. After all, I know it is possible to select information to support any position. I learned how to do that early on.
For four years in high school, I was on my school’s debate team. In the first year, our coach assigned us to take one side or the other of the issue at hand and charged us with gathering necessary information to support our positions. From the Affirmative position, we were required to observe problems with the status quo and charged to develop a plan that would solve those problems. From the Negative side, we were required to resist change and to defend the status quo. We were never at a loss for experts on all sides of the issues. I spent my first year arguing the Affirmative. That may have influenced my worldview that readily sees problems with the status quo and changes that might be an improvement. Coming from a politically conservative household and a very traditional religious background, this was a new way of seeing the world.
I later went on to learn that much of what we have been taught is not fact, but someone’s representation or interpretation of events. Even two people seeing the same identical set of occurrences may report them with such profound differences as to make a person wonder if they actually observed the same event at all. This phenomenon is examined by the body of research on eyewitness testimony and eyewitness unreliability.
Furthermore, in less enlightened times, the victor of a war or the holder of power was the person who got to tell the story. We all know now that African-Americans and their accomplishments were just omitted from many of the histories of America that we studied in school. Except for a few female monarchs, women had largely been considered irrelevant to human history. It was not until I was in college that I started to realize that this was because it was ‘his’story. Until those of us who had been omitted from events started to tell our own version, we received one-sided presentations of most information.
This omission of the powerless from the official stories may have had something to do with my development as a feminist. I sought out the alternative views and perspectives of those who had been denied a voice. In fact, I sought those alternatives with such determination that I came to totally distrust the ‘official’ versions. Merely the fact that a position was advanced by those in power (in whatever the situation) was enough to cause me to reject the conclusion. The baby certainly got thrown out with the bathwater.
My own tendency to hold onto my own strong opinions and to avoid exposure to contrary information is shared by many in our society. The avoidance of cognitive dissonance is well documented. No need to enlighten me with the facts…just tell me who presented the information and I will know whether I consider it of any value. I just don’t believe the things told me by people I do not trust.
Oh my, that is the same perspective as those who hold other strong opinions…just on the other side of the same issues!
Research suggests I am in the majority in this style of being-in-the-world. If that is so, and we all resist information that may contradict strongly-held beliefs, how can we ever hope to effect change? If we are unlikely to entertain information that contradicts our positions, how can we grow? Are we doomed to alternate back and forth between the extremes of positions based on who has the power at the moment?
What do you think about your beliefs and how they affect your willingness to entertain conflicting information? Are you open to new ideas? Or are you only willing to listen to those who agree with you? Please share your comments below.