C. Daniel Batson, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Rational Processing or Rationalization?: The Effect of Discontinuing Information on a Stated Religious Belief, 1975, 32:1, 176-184), conducted a study on religious belief and cognitive dissonance that reveals what many of us suspected about religious dogmatism.
Researchers used a questionnaire and a measurement scale to assign a value to the strength of religious belief for a group of test subjects. Then the subjects were asked to publicly declare (in front of the rest of the group) whether or not they answered “yes” to the question: Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God? Next, they were all given an article to read and discuss. The article, they were told, was written anonymously and “denied publication in The New York Times at the request of the World Council of Churches because of the obvious crushing effect it would have on the entire Christian world":
Here is the text of the fake article:
-Geneva, Switzerland. It was learned today here in Geneva from a top source in the World Council of Churches offices that scholars in Jordan have conclusively proved that the major writings in what is today called the New Testament are fraudulent.
According to the information gained from the unnamed source within the headquarters of the World Council of Churches, Professor R. R. Lowry (author of The Zarondike Fragments and the Dead Sea Scrolls) assisted by other scholars, has been carefully analyzing a collection of papyrus scrolls discovered in a cave in the Jordanian desert near where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Contained within this collection of scrolls, Lowry and his associates have found letters, apparently written between the composers of various New Testament books, bluntly stating: "Since our great teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was killed by the Romans, I am sure we were justified in stealing away his body and claiming that he rose from the dead. For, although his death clearly proves he was not the Son of God as we had hoped, if we did not claim that he was, both his great teaching and our lives as his disciples would be wasted!"
Though Lowry initially suspected the authenticity of these scrolls, he was later quoted as saying, "Through radiocarbon dating and careful study of the Aramaic dialect used in writing these letters, I have found it impossible to deny that the manuscripts are authentic. You can't imagine what a struggle this has been; I find no alternative but to renounce my former belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I can no longer be a Christian."
When Dr. Ernest Carson Baker, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, was confronted with Lowry's statement by this reporter, he at first denied that it was true. After a few minutes of questioning, however, he broke down and admitted, "This thing has got us so upset we're just not sure what to do. We just can't let this story get out!" Apparently the only avenue open to the Church in the twentieth century is the same avenue which it took in the first century— conceal the facts and proclaim Jesus as the divine Son of God, even though it knows such a claim is a lie.
After reading the article, 24% of the subjects indicated that they accepted the article as true. The rest of them were unsure or clearly rejected it.
Then researchers re-measured the strength of the subjects’ religious beliefs. The results are remarkable and familiar. The subjects who had identified themselves as non-believers at the outset had their level of religious belief drop after reading the article. The believers in the group who indicated that they doubted the belief-disconfirming story had their level of religious belief diminish. And the believers who also said that they accepted the story as true had their religious belief strengthened.
Batson says, “Those who had not committed themselves to a belief stance, even though generally skeptical about the veracity of the article, showed a significant drop in intensity of belief on the post test. Those who had publicly identified themselves as believers but doubted the veracity of the article showed no significant change in intensity of belief. Those who had publicly identified themselves as believers and accepted the article as true showed a significant increase in the expressed intensity of belief.”
That is, even when faced with outright disconfirming evidence that they accept as true, rather than come to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, the believers indicated having an even stronger belief. Batson puts the result clearly: “Publicly committed to an apparently untenable belief, subjects seemed more concerned with defending and justifying themselves than with dispassionately reading off the logical implications of their statements.”
Then Batson comments, “It has been said, "You will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free [John 8:32]." The present research seems to question this assertion. The more one publicly proclaims one's conviction about personally significant truths, the more one seems bound to these truths. One is less free to modify one's position, to take account of new, discrepant information. But perhaps this is not what is meant by freedom in the above statement. If it means that one will be free from the rational process of taking account of all relevant information in the formulation of one's beliefs, than the present research seems clearly supportive.”
It is hard to conceive of a more clear, objective demonstration of outright irrationality.
Let me offer some further speculations. When we engage with the non-believer in a discussion about the evidence, arguments for the existence of God, intelligent design in the cosmos, the origins of the human moral capacity, and all of the other contentious topics surrounding religious belief, the non-believer typically assumes that there is a point. That is, when we argue about religious matters, the (clearly idealistic) goal is to achieve some rational progress on what conclusions are epistemically responsible to believe. We are all concerned (or at least we should be) with having sensible beliefs that fit with the facts, as best as we can ascertain them. If not, then there’s really no point to the exchange of views other than vain pronouncements of dogmatism.
What the evidence in Batson’s study shows is something that we have all seen at work in the words and behaviors of many believers. There are a great many religious adherents who are simply and obviously unconcerned with the facts. They are resolved to maintain their views in the face of blatantly contradictory evidence, even more so in cases where they profess to accept the contradictory evidence as true.
It should be obvious how frightening this tendency among religious believers is to the rest of us who have not been seduced by the religious urge. It should be obvious how dangerous this tendency among religious believers is to all of us. It is also obvious, although Batson’s study doesn’t document it, how widespread this sort of dogmatic irrationalism is.
So the believer who wants to discuss the reasons for disbelief with us owes us an accounting. We have substantial grounds for suspecting that their commitment to their dogma will lead them to be unresponsive to reasoning or evidence. Even worse, we have evidence for thinking that as the counter evidence increases, so will their stubborn refusal to think clearly about it. And we have substantial grounds for suspecting that their attachment to their dogma has nothing to do with reasons or evidence, despite their assertions otherwise.