Meaning Lab
#92: People Don't Often Change Their Minds on Big Topics. Why? (feat. David McRaney)

#92: People Don't Often Change Their Minds on Big Topics. Why? (feat. David McRaney)

Insights from David's new book "How Minds Change" show how we can get people to shift on the beliefs that really matter.

I often say that the second best thing to happen to me was deciding to become a Christian. And the first best thing was deciding not to be a Christian.

I didn’t exactly grow up Christian, but I became a believer around age 12. I went to Christian school. Overall I took my religious beliefs really seriously. And to me, they felt like my own. A core part of my identity as a Christian was that I was explicit about my beliefs. I didn’t inherit them from my parents, nor did they feel like I was required to put them on for public appearances, like some sort of mandatory uniform.

Since my school was religious, Christian doctrine was taught in the classroom. These students were all more or less believers as well, even if they were the mandatory uniform kind. We even had a teacher who taught us that evolution was not “just a theory” as one sometimes hears the Creationist argument framed, but a totally ludicrous idea that makes little rational sense when subjected to true unindoctrinated scrutiny.

Then in college, I started to modify some beliefs, all of which traditionally are not held by Christians, but all of which I felt were compatible with a biblical world view.

The first was evolution. This one was easy. Even if you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, if God hasn’t created the sun in the moon yet, then who’s to say that a day is only 24 hours long? These seven days of creation in Genesis could have taken place over billions of years, guided by the hand of God. So evolution was fairly easy to add into my worldview.

The second was determinism. This one is also pretty easily squared with Christianity, maybe even a more conservative interpretation of the Bible. In theology, the debate is often presented as Calvinism versus Arminianism. Calvinists believe in predestination. God, being all-knowing, knows ahead of time, who is going to heaven and who isn’t. He’s God. He can’t not know. The Arminianists, by contrast, believe in free will. God, being all loving, can’t create some people just to send them to hell and therefore shields his otherwise all-knowingness from whether or not a person’s heart will turn toward him. Arminianism sounds nice, but… come on. Calvinism is clearly the more defensible theological position. So when I came to believe that free will is an illusion, it didn’t pose any issue to my faith.

The third and most difficult to square was physicalism. This is the philosophical position that all physical events have physical causes. In other words, there’s nothing in the physical universe that needs some outside force to explain it. In particular, there is no immaterial soul that explains the essence of human behavior.

Whenever I told Christians about this belief, they were usually taken aback. But what about resurrection? How would that work without an immaterial soul — if we were all just atoms, cells, and chemistry? To which I would usually reply that the logistics of resurrection were indeed mysterious under physicalist assumptions, but it was no less mysterious than dualistic assumptions. Just less familiar. For instance, how does an immaterial soul for which there is no evidence of interaction with the human brain and is not necessary for a complete explanation of human behavior, contain the essence of a person in any meaningful way? How for that matter would such a soul migrate from our own physical universe into some alternate universe of heaven, or hell, while still retaining some resemblance to the essence of its original host? It may have been a nonstandard belief, but I didn’t view it as one that created new problems, just reframed old ones.

And so for a while, I held onto these three additional beliefs, as well as my belief in the core tenets of biblical Christianity about Jesus being our savior. The change in beliefs themselves was not enough for me to disregard Christianity as a whole. There was another piece that was necessary.

I’d always been a part of Christian groups, and throughout high school that association was pretty strong. But in college, the Christian group I joined never quite seemed to click for me. I spent a lot of time with the people in the group. I even lived on an apartment floor where everyone was a member of this group, but I always felt like I was on the outside. In fact, on a one on one level, I felt much more connected to my friends who weren’t believers.

The main exception was my girlfriend at the time who was herself close to everyone in that inner circle. Then one day she broke up with me. The reason cited was insufficient Jesus-mindedness, which really offended me at the time, because I considered myself very Jesus-minded. But it was my first major breakup and it hit me really hard. I found it difficult to let go. On two separate occasions I asked her to take me back (and I doubt her version of the story employs the verb ‘ask’ in quite the same manner). But eventually it became clear we were not getting back together.

That was January 21st, 2013. I remember that date because it was the day I decided I would no longer be a Christian.

I officially disbelieved in the Jesus narrative that I’d held as a defining core belief for so many years. At the time I figured that even if I was going to be a Christian in the long run, I’d be a more effective one knowing what it was truly like to live life as an unbeliever. Either way, it was time to take these new philosophical perspectives I had adopted as my central beliefs, rather than the teachings of the Bible.

The thing that stands out to me about that story looking back was that it wasn’t the intellectual change that ultimately flipped my religious belief. It was the social change. Most people I grew up with who remained Christian — their friends are all Christian, their parents and siblings are Christian. There’s a huge social cost to altering that belief. But after my breakup, I found myself no longer having to face that social cost. I had removed the social barriers, and I could make the decision based on my own intellectual conclusions. From this experience, I learned that, in general, people don’t form their beliefs for intellectual reasons. They form them for social reasons.

And that is one of the central themes of the latest book from my guest today, David McRaney. It is called How Minds Change. In it, David looks at the cutting scientific edge in the field of psychology as it relates to belief change. He follows some stories of belief change much more dramatic than my own. For example, ex members of the Westboro Baptist church and formerly prominent conspiracy theorists.

The book was a ton of fun to read and I highly recommend checking it out. Even as someone who reads quite a bit of non-fiction on cognitive and social psychology, there was a lot in there that I hadn’t encountered before and a handful of reframings which really put old subjects into new light for me.


Meaning Lab
Welcome to the Meaning Lab podcast. In each episode, I talk to a scientist, author, or artist about their approach to meaning-making — from language, to productivity, to writing, to travel. It's all fair game, as long as it gets us closer to understanding how we make sense of the world and our place in it.