The title of this blog is a reversal of Ernest Becker’s famous statement that psychology deposits us on the doorstep of religion. He was speaking to the impossibility of psychology fully answering the existential dilemma that is at the heart of the human condition. While I believe Becker was correct on this, I think it is also true that psychology can help us frame our questions in a clearer way and so point us to more productive outcomes. A case in point is the recent talk given by social critic Naomi Klein on the question of climate change denial. Klein’s talk can be found here:
Her main point is that climate change deniers, both the scientists and those who readily accept their findings, are ideologically driven to defend a certain worldview. Of what does this worldview consist? Briefly, it is composed of a strain of Christian faith, laissez-faire economics, and frontier rugged individualism. These elements stand over and against not only any attempt to regulate polluting companies, but any attempt to rein in the consumer appetite for more, more, more. To quote Klein, “When they say climate change is a threat to the American way of life … infinite growth, infinite expansion is embedded into people’s definition of themselves and of their country. It is their mythology that is under threat.” Klein goes on to argue that scientific facts by themselves cannot address the anxiety experienced by the climate deniers whose worldview is threatened. She counsels addressing the underlying ethics and values of the competing worldviews. She says that we should realize that there is an ideological war going on and should be willing to fight it on that level. It is at this point in her argument that we can benefit from the insights of Becker because if irrationality can appear in the scientific arena, it most certainly can appear in an ideological war. Moving from scientific fact to ideological debate does not address the anxiety that undergirds the conflict. This is where religion is deposited on the doorstep of psychology.
A recent study by Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart, and Jason Martens points to the psychological foundation of climate denial. The study is entitled “Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings Of Belief In Intelligent Design And Discomfort With Evolution.” It can be found here:
While climate change and evolutionary theory are distinct topics, I suggest the psychological dynamics are very similar. The study is highly detailed with nuanced findings and it is impossible to do it justice in this short space. For our purposes, a very brief summary must suffice. In short, the researchers tested how the meaningful worldview held by subjects correlated with acceptance or rejection of both evolutionary theory (ET) and Intelligent Design Theory (IDT). By exposing subjects to mortality salience questions—questions that make them aware of their inevitable death—the researchers found that subjects moved toward the theory that best supported their worldview. Those lacking strong natural science backgrounds were more likely to be drawn to an IDT that tacitly supported traditional western cosmogony. Conversely, those with a strong natural science background were more likely to accept ET. In both cases, subjects gravitated to the view that supported existential meaning. One major takeaway of this study is its confirmation of the idea that society functions to give people a meaningful worldview and a significant role to play within that worldview. To quote the study, “The present research suggests that the attitudes toward scientific (or seemingly scientific) views and ideologies can be partly shaped by unconscious psychological motives to maintain security and ward off existential angst through the cultivation of meaning and purpose.”
The upshot of all this is that meaning trumps reason. That might be fine were the stakes not so high. When ecological devastation lies in the balance, our need for comfort cannot be allowed to trump reason. Here, the insights of Becker are so important in allowing us to understand the underlying motives and name them clearly. As Confucius said, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Becker’s work gives us the language to name “the truth of things.” One positive finding of the “Death And Science” study is that subjects could be moved toward that more accurate naming and find existential meaning in the ET worldview through education.
One final thought: There have been studies suggesting that imagining oneself flying or in flight can act to assuage our mortality anxiety. If we could somehow get the climate deniers and IDT proponents up in airplanes and then reintroduce them to Darwin’s naturalism …