Pluralistic Ignorance and The Emperor’s New Clothes

In our discussion group a couple of weeks ago, somebody expressed a genuine curiosity as to why so many intelligent and learned people cling so vehemently to certain Christian doctrines in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. What makes otherwise perfectly rational human beings defend indefensible doctrinal positions? Why, for example, do so many educated women and men cling to a view of the Bible as inerrant, or to a penal substitution theory of atonement, when even a little bit of reading will reveal that these doctrines are products of the Reformation, and completely alien to the early church? Despite the mountain of logical inconsistencies inherent in these doctrines, why do so many Christian thinkers spend so much time and effort constructing defenses of them?


I think the answer to that is a complex one. A key factor has to do with the nature and function of religion in society. Among René Girard’s critical insights is that religion does not evolve to meet, in the first instance, a spiritual or metaphysical need; its primary function is sociological. Religion evolves as a framework for containing the violence that results from mimetic rivalry. The gods are, in a sense, an afterthought; they are part of the mythologising that legitimates the scapegoating mechanism that brings peace to the troubled community. It is why, as Girard notes, religion can function even in the absence of belief in any gods: our criminal justice system is, he argues, fundamentally religious in nature. We need religion to regulate us, even if we do not necessarily need the gods.


Religion, because it maintains order through scapegoating violence of all against one (sacrifice), requires unanimity in order to be most effective in its role. The sacrifice can become divisive rather than pacific in nature if there is not consensus around the legitimacy of the sacrifice. So religion creates unanimity. It demands absolute obedience to its creeds and prohibitions, and it ties faithfulness to one’s willingness to accept these. And our Enlightenment mindset, which convinces us to equate faith with belief, thus making it an intellectual activity, further strengthens the hold of religion, so that to challenge the creeds becomes a direct threat to the cohesion of the group, and because the challenge is likely to be interpreted as a sign of unfaithfulness, it will also set the one who challenges the creeds up as the likely scapegoat for restoring the order.


That is why the challenges to the atonement doctrines are the ones met with the most hostile responses. We need Jesus to be a legitimate scapegoat (not, as the gospels suggest, an innocent victim). We need the stories of Hell to be true, so that the sacrifice of Jesus – which we know, in some mysterious way, brings peace – is not simply a brutal and unjust murder. It should come as no surprise that religion will act to quell dissenting voices, and thus that nobody will want to be the voice raised against it.


It was at this point in our discussion that somebody introduced the concept of pluralistic ignorance. It was a marvelous insight. Pluralistic ignorance is the tendency of people to believe (erroneously) that their personal attitudes and beliefs are different from the majority’s attitudes and beliefs. As a result, they tend not to voice what they think and go they along with what they believe the group wants.


A story that illustrates the truth of the concept beautifully is The Emperor’s New Clothes. In Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story, a pair of con artists offers to create a unique outfit for a vain and pompous emperor: a suit of clothes completely invisible to fools. Throughout the process, it is clear to everyone that the looms are empty and that nothing is happening, but nobody wants to risk being thought of as a fool, so nobody says anything. When the work has been “completed”, the emperor is dressed in his new clothes and parades through the streets of the capital. So powerful is the group’s narrative that nobody says anything, despite their discomfort, for fear of being thought idiotic. It takes a child to point out the obvious, that the emperor has no clothes. And while the townsfolk realise they have been duped, the emperor hears in that voice a confirmation of his superiority, and struts on, more proudly than ever.


The modern church – and, indeed, I am going to be so bold as to say all religions and cultures – bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that emperor. We have dressed our willingness to scapegoat, our predilection towards all-against-one violence, in a mythology that is supposed to make the whole system look palatable and just. Deep down we all realise that so much of what we are asked to believe just doesn’t make sense. We can, so to speak, see right through the lies. But nobody wants to risk standing out, being different, so the doubts remain unspoken. We need somebody who is prepared to be like a child, to say what everyone else is already thinking, before we realise that we are not alone in our doubts.


Religion thrives on illusion and pluralistic ignorance. Corrupt church leaders can go on extorting congregants so long as everyone feels they would be alone in expressing their doubts about speaking in tongues, or tithing, or healing. Poor theology can continue to thrive so long as individuals are afraid to challenge it for fear of being branded unfaithful. Ignorance and injustice flourish because individuals assume they are in the minority as skeptics, and because the church can be brutal in dealing with dissent. Somebody has to call them out.


Had it been an adult in the story who cried out: “The emperor has no clothes!”, I think it is entirely plausible that the crowd would have lynched them, despite sharing that opinion. A child cannot be lynched quite as easily, because justifying the act is more difficult. Sometimes it takes a child – an innocent – to expose the lie; we only see the extent of the lie when we see the cost of covering it up.


But that one voice, when heard, changes everything. We can each see that we are not alone in our misgivings. And sometimes we need to know we are not alone before we can acknowledge truth. But so long as it remains only one voice speaking its truth, the delusion can continue. The emperor can still strut the stage, confident in his own superiority. The emperor can only be embarrassed into seeing the truth when he himself is too afraid to be different, when he believes that the crowd believes that he is naked.


Theologically, Jesus was that child. The gospel writers do a wonderful job of demonstrating that at Calvary there was no justice. Nothing in the way that Jesus goes to his death allows us to legitimate the scapegoating of him. The cross unveils religion and culture and empire for the ignoble things they are, and in the bloodied body of Jesus we hear God’s judgment on human justice and human institutions of justice: the emperor has no clothes. Violence cannot lead to lasting peace.


In the Passion narrative, unlike in The Emperor’s New Clothes, the mob lynched the child. But there was something different about this victim: without admitting guilt, the victim chose to lay down his life, and – crucially – forgave the murderers. And all of a sudden scapegoating violence was exposed as a lie. And once the truth has been seen, it cannot be unseen. It becomes impossible to avert one’s gaze from the emperor’s private parts. We can try to ignore the truth, yes, but even that becomes increasingly difficult to do when those who speak the truth are not in the minority. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said that those who would follow him would have to carry the cross. The death of the innocent would unveil the lie, but the fulfilment of the transformative process involves more voices joining the voice of the child, and – initially anyway – very probably suffering the same fate.


So my encouragement today is this: be a child. Don’t be afraid of your doubts – you are certainly not alone in them, even though you may well be made to feel like that when you speak up. But simply speaking is not enough. The hard truth is that the emperor and the mob may well sacrifice you brutally for challenging the status quo – if they murdered Jesus they will think nothing of murdering you too. But do not be complicit in the scapegoating: don’t let them find a reason to legitimate the indefensible. Give them no reason to find you guilty so that the injustice is plain. Still, forgive them and love them. And in so doing, your voice will be the one that gives another the courage to find theirs. They, in turn, will lend courage to yet others, until the emperor can no longer deny his nudity. How you suffer the injustice of their scapegoating of you matters. It would be all too easy for the victims to become the persecutors and the emperor to become the scapegoat. And then nothing has changed at all. As you model what it is to be the forgiving victim, you inspire a better way. A Jesus way.


I do not think that you have to believe (although I do) that the gospel stories really happened in order to see that they contain a liberating and salvific truth. They are extraordinary and life-changing narratives, whether or not you hold them to be historically verifiable, about speaking truth to power in such a way that history does not simply repeat itself.

The emperor stands naked before you, parading through the streets in all his glory. And that emperor is all religion, all culture, all of humanity’s forms of social organisation. And the emperor, without exception, always maintains social order through violent scapegoating. He has, wrapped about himself, beautifully woven garments in which to conceal those ugly truths – stories about justice, about community, about freedom and equality – but they are, in reality, no clothes at all. The emperor would have you believe that his clothes are superior to everybody else’s, that by wearing them he is somehow different and better. But the naughty bits are still dangling around in the breeze for everyone to see.


So why do otherwise perfectly rational minds defend illogical doctrines? Possibly because they are lost in the crowd, believing they are the only ones seeing the emperor naked; and perhaps they believe their vision is at fault – after all, everyone else seems to see clothes – and they do not wish to appear foolish; or perhaps they know the others see disturbing amounts of flesh too, but they do not want to be lynched by the mob for being the one to point it out. Perhaps they stand by flawed doctrine because as much as they are lost in the crowd, they are also the emperor: they have invested so much in the invisible clothes that admitting they were duped is too great a loss of dignity; or perhaps they hear only the child’s voice and reason that it is but a child speaking, who can be easily ignored. They are enslaved by forces completely beyond their comprehension or control. Point them to the cross.

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