True Believer Syndrome

To me, one of the most frustrating aspects of contemporary public debate is something I call the “true believer” syndrome. The true believer can be on the political right or left; the distinguishing characteristic is a smug certainty that he or she is in possession of Truth (note capital T), and only the most unenlightened, hypocritical or downright evil person could possibly disagree.

On the right, true believers tend to be either biblical literalists or free-market fundamentalists. On the left, a disproportionate number are self-proclaimed (self-satisfied) environmentalists. What makes the environmentalists particularly annoying—at least to me—is that I generally agree with their basic message. It’s the aura of superior virtue that is off-putting.

 I thought about this the other day, during a meeting of IUPUI’s “Common Theme” committee. The campus Common Theme program began a couple of years ago; much like the “One Book, One Community” project adopted by many cities, the Common Theme takes one book annually as its centerpiece. A year-long discussion of the themes raised by that book will include speakers, panel discussions, student projects and other programs. It’s an effort to encourage a more thoughtful and informed discussion of an important issue—and it is well worth doing.

This year, the Common Theme book is Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. McKibben is evidently a rock star of sorts in the environmental movement, and he will be on campus November 9th to kick off the year’s programming. I read the book, and found much of its argument—although certainly not all of it—persuasive.  

I also found it annoying, thanks to the book’s moralistic tone.

A cover blurb from the Boston Globe might best convey what I mean: “A hopeful manifesto…an inspiring book that shows us not only the way we need to live, but also the way we should want to.”  And indeed, throughout the book, there is the implicit message that if you are somehow so benighted as to disagree with one or more of McKibben’s prescriptions for a virtuous life, should you somehow, inexplicably fail to agree that this is the way you should want to live, you are to be scorned or at least pitied.

This is particularly irksome because—while there is much of value in the book—some of those prescriptions are just plain dumb. Others aren’t going to happen. (Small towns in America are not going to begin issuing their own currency. If you want to know what that has to do with sustainability, or saving the environment, you’ll have to read the book.)

 Ideally, those of us participating in the Common Theme discussions will use these opportunities to separate the wheat from the chaff, to focus on the very real environmental challenges we face, to understand connections we hadn’t recognized, and to figure out how to make the changes that will inevitably be required. And ideally, we can participate in those discussions without being treated to the sort of elitism and moral snobbery that too often characterize these discussions.

 Ideally, True Believers would stop being their own worst enemies.


  1. I’m familiar with McKibben, but not that particular book. I think Alice Waters of the Chez Panisse restaurant can be quite the food snob, although she probably doesn’t see herself that way.

    Although I live in a very conservative area, there is a signigicant minority of progressives who are well-meaning but sometimes come off as morally superior. I think that what happens with “true believer” progressives is that they have a hard time realizing that what flies in a university town setting isn’t necessarily going to be popular in other places. Local currency may work in Ithaca, NY, but is that something that citizens in a similarly sized city that isn’t dominated by a universtiy or college would want to do? Probably not.

  2. Junk science! First of all: a disorder is something is obtained against the victim’s will. You aren’t born a christian, you don’t get into a car wreck and wind up a believer; you CHOOSE to be a believer! People fail to recognize that you start off an athiest then accept it. And you can stop believing at any time. I’m living proof. This garbage isn’t science, it’s a bunch of skeptics trying to insult us christians.

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