How academic groupthink always impedes progress

Gary Habermas has just published the first 1100 page volume of his magnum opus on the Resurrection of Jesus, with four more volumes to come. That may seem overkill, but in the scheme of things it is not, because without the bodily Resurrection, Christianity is just another successful world religion – but with it, Christianity is the historical foundation on which the universe is built.

Yet the necessity for the book, as well as the justification for overkill, is seen in this interview, which explains Habermas’s devotion to the subject for over fifty years. This focus began with his PhD thesis, which arose from his own doubts which, at the time (and for a good while afterwards) he attributed to the disputability of the evidence he had presented. Later, he came to recognise the existence of psychological doubt and of voluntary doubt along with intellectual doubt. It’s with these I want to deal today.

Habermas has apparently written on psychological doubt, including his own, elsewhere, but the principle is that we often doubt things not because of poor evidence, though we justify our doubt that way, but for psychological reasons. C. S. Lewis said that he only doubted his faith when alone in hotel rooms, but for some (including the younger Habermas, I guess) doubt is more pervasive, sometimes from a lack of self-confidence originating in childhood trauma. The net result is that encountering any views opposed to one’s own leads to crippling self-doubt.

If even one mythicist says Jesus didn’t exist, one reasons, he’s probably right because I’m always likely to be wrong. And if that doubt is debunked, there’s always another just round the corner. I gather that the realisation of some such mechanism by Habermas finally dealt with his own doubts on the resurrection, but by that time he’d built a career on the question, for which we may thank God.

I’ll return to psychological doubt after briefly considering voluntary doubt. This is the situation where the price of accepting a proposition is considered so high that the bar of evidence to reject it is set artificially low. Consider how many atheists, when being honest, have said that they don’t want there to be a God, especially the Christian God, because it would mean they are known by him, and would have to submit their lives to him. Philosopher Thomas Nagel is one who comes to mind, because he has intellectually admitted purpose in the universe, yet refuses to countenance God’s existence. But the scientific field is full of them. If you cannot believe because you will not believe, then just one suffering creature, or the most weakly evidenced scientific theory, is sufficient to create voluntary doubt and then disbelief in God.

Mentioning C. S. Lewis’s experience was intended to show that psychological doubt is not always “pathological.” When I went up to Cambridge University, as a young Christian, I was fully aware that my faith was likely to be challenged by some of the brightest minds in the world. At that time the New Left’s Marxism was the big intellectual thing, with Eastern Religions following close behind. But I told myself that I had at least as good reasons for my beliefs as they had for theirs, and that attitude stood me in good stead for addressing evidence, rather than my own weaknesses, when challenges came.

Yet even now, discovering some challenge to my beliefs, even those absurd Jesus mythicists, leads to a momentary “Could they be right?” I consider that kind of low-level doubt healthy, because it leads me to look at the evidence they present, and (in that case) laugh at its inadequacy. In theory, Enlightenment thinking values doubt as the path to truth, but as we’ll see that is seldom the case in practice.

Consider how fragile confidence in truth is. You may remember the infamous Asch Conformity Experiments , in which participants believed they were being tested on perception (of the length of lines), but were actually placed among a group of actors who, from time to time, would all deliberately pick the same wrong answer. 35.7% of subjects consistently conformed to the false “consensus,” and overall 74% gave at least one wrong answer.

These results may no longer surprise us, given the general willing conformity to nonsensical diktats during the COVID events, but the experiments dealt with trivial tasks in which the sole pressure was that the majority in the peer-group gave false answers. How much greater the internal conflict when the issues are of great import, the “consensus” group are the wielders of power and authority, and the opposition is active and consequential.

Such conditions apply within any “guild” of academic study, from evolutionary biology, through climate science, to biblical studies. Consider a young Christian, perhaps already troubled by psychological doubt but a little less obsessive and more naive than Habermas, who goes to university to learn what the big boys in the field of religion know. But for whatever reason (voluntary doubt, perhaps?) the academic field has been dominated by sceptical thinkers since the nineteenth century. Anti-supernaturalism is so prevalent that the recording of a miracle is enough to label a Gospel mythical, and a fulfilled prophecy sufficient grounds for firm dating after the fulfillment. In biblical history studies, there is a modernist prior commitment to methodological naturalism – applied equally to the study of the irreducibly supernatural Resurrection!

Three years of being told daily by your revered teachers that short lines are long is a pretty effective indoctrination. Even studying medicine I found a constant undercurrent of denigration for Christianity from the academics, from the consultant psychiatrist claiming that the word “sex” derives from biblical condemnation of intercourse as sin in the sixth commandment – though forbidding adultery is actually the seventh, and “sex” comes from Latin “seco,” “I divide” (into two sexes) – to the criminologist who labelled my mentioning of religion in essays “contentious.”

When Habermas came to do his PhD on evidence for the Resurrection, he was told by his judges that they were Liberals, but “good” ones, and that as long as he didn’t use the gospels as evidence, and could defend his thesis well, he would get his degree. The implication was that he would have been less lucky in many other universities, and in any case must watch his step.

Now, that particular sceptical environment has greatly affected Habermas’s work over the years. For example, it is significant that he left out some lines of evidence from his PhD thesis, on the grounds that pushing too far on a (naturalistically speaking) weaker approach might cost him the whole project. By this we can intuit that someone working in a paradigm they have come to doubt wholesale will self-censor their work in order to push forward on just one front.

We may perhaps see this operating in Steven Gould’s Punctuated Equilibria theory in evolution. Its early presentation clearly favoured “hopeful monster” macro-mutations based on the fossil evidence, but as pushback developed from the establishment, Gould was at pains to say that he still acknowledged the central role of ordinary mutation and natural selection, even though this compresses evolution into impossibly short time-spans. There was simply no way he could stay in the club were he to say, “Natural selection isn’t the powerful mechanism it’s made out to be.”

A hyper-sceptical faculty has also led to Habermas’s “minimal facts” approach. This involves using as evidence only that which is already accepted by the consensus in the guild. This is a strength if it means that the guild becomes convinced by the evidence (if that is not rendered impossible by voluntary doubt). But it means that he is tailoring his case for the most world-changing event in history to a particular stubborn minority. The benefit will, of course, overflow to a public that has absorbed some of the liberal sceptical Koolaid trickling down through TV documentaries. But (as philosopher Lydia McGrew pointed out some years ago) it also suggests to the public that these minimal facts are the evidence – whereas to many people who are not so cynical, a wealth of other approaches might lead to faith and salvation. And so one’s efforts are bent to satisfying an academic club, rather than benefiting humanity as a whole.

Add to that the other biases of the establishments doing “normal research” in the Kuhnian sense – pressure from donors and sponsors, research done to please governments and journals, commercial pressures, exclusion of outliers, personal ambition, corruption, etc – and it is not surprising that groupthink prevails, and it is not surprising that genuine progress stagnates.

The only thing, it seems to me, that can break this mould is the presence of outsiders in academia. Habermas is, in fact, a living example of this, for he came into a secularised religious studies field from a church background where he had already gained his belief in the Resurrection. And, as we have seen, even he had to back-pedal on his beliefs and tailor them to what was acceptable. I’ve seen the same phenomenon with many good theological writers. Even when breaking new ground, they feel constrained, for the sake of academia, to pay lip service to “standard” though questionable beliefs like the Documentary Hypothesis or late dating of the Gospels. But in some cases, of course, decades of life within that belief system mean that they are not just paying lip service, but are working without sufficient thought within the accepted paradigm. And the same is true in many other fields, including pure science, where founding premises are seldom examined, let alone questioned.

The Internet has shaken this situation up in a healthy way. To the extent that one can read research online, especially if in the case of the sciences one can get hold of raw data, then intelligent people can bring the independence of the outsider to bear on the closed shop. They may lack prior experience in the subject, but as I have shown, that is a mixed blessing anyway. Whole fields can get into bad habits of methodology, statistics or blindness to ideological bias, which outside experts in other fields can expose. Perhaps such inter-disciplinary meddling is the only real answer to our modern tendency towards groupthink, now that the healthy mediaeval model of knowledge across many fields has been replaced by a multitude of specialised cliques.

I can’t close this essay without raising a problem that has troubled me from the start. Can it not be said that the churches in which belief in the Resurrection is already accepted are just the kind of closed shop that I have critiqued in academia? Is “organised religion” simply another, equally suspect, hotbed of groupthink?

In some cases the answer must be “Yes”: anyone brought up in a community where certain beliefs are taken for granted, and who has never questioned those beliefs, is likely to be just as incapable of seeing errors in them as the adolescent who has had her eyes “opened” by wall-to-wall Critical Race Theory at university.Yet there are a few differences, particularly pertaining to our own society.

For a start, no churchgoer is free from the pervasive secularism (and other fashionable worldviews) encountered in daily life. This means the doctrine they are taught in church is constantly challenged every time they talk to a neighbour or turn on the TV. In particular, children who are not home-schooled must rebel against their education to believe in Jesus.

Secondly, the demands of the gospel are so radical that we speak of our “conversion” even if we were brought up in a church environment. This conscious “opting in” is very different from, say, the absorption of Darwinian theory at High School level, or the disillusion occasioned by professors teaching us Jesus’s supposed resemblance to Osiris, or the discovery that our democracy is corrupt.

Thirdly, good churches (though not, admittedly, the stiffly traditional or the charismatically cultic ones) are well aware of the tensions between Christian teaching and the world’s, and at least at some level will encompass apologetics in their programmes. Habermas, for example, has ordinary believers in mind for his popular books, if not for his 1100 page tomes.

Lastly (and here’s a contentious one!) I’ve noticed recently how, from the very start of the Church, fellowships had to struggle with heresies and aberrations. Most of Paul’s letters seem to be intended to combat these, even in churches he himself had founded not long before. You’d have to go a long way to find such disruptive dissensions in the academic departments of our universities. At one level, these errors seem to represent not simply syncretism with extraneous ideas Christianity met as it went beyond Judaea, but the focused attention of Satan in undermining the work of Christ.

But at another level, I just wonder whether the perennial risk of heterodoxy is God’s way of forcing churches to keep re-addressing the basis of their beliefs, whether that be searching the Scriptures or examining the basis of trust in Scripture itself (for which also read “custom,” “tradition,” papal infallibility,” “reason,” “lived experience” and so on).

All these reasons (and there are undoubtedly more) provide nuance to what I have said before. For whatever the drawbacks of communal beliefs, they are necessary for any kind of coherent understanding of the world. Serious students of the life of Christ need to pool their insights, and that surely necessitates an academic guild. Christians in a hostile world need to be in communities where assumptions and doctrines are held in common, both to survive as Christians and to be effective as a body. But one way or the other, such communities can only remain faithful to truth by being challenged, uncomfortable though that is.

We all need to be very aware that more evils, and less progress, are caused by unquestioning compliance to groupthink than are ever caused by independent thought.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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