Why do People Believe What They Believe? Because of the Authorities


I have been arguing, at the Orthosphere and elsewhere, that traditionalist conservatives need to organize for “conservative activism,” by which I mean articulating our position on the proper ordering of society, and taking action to bring this order into existence. I have tried to make it clear that the “action” I have in mind is not political in the ordinary sense of voting and lobbying, because the political process is controlled by the authorities and premises of the liberalism that is ruining society. Ordinary political action will only win a few local victories here and there, and occasionally slow the rate of destruction. Instead, the action we need is more basic, having to do with the creation of small, local social orders (starting with the family) and, most importantly, with attracting converts to our traditionalist thinking. Since our way (that is, the social order we favor and the thought that supports it) consists mostly of what was regarded as self-evident throughout the vast majority of human history, this enterprise is not hopeless. Indeed, taking the long view, something like our way is guaranteed to succeed long term, as the current liberal order is hopelessly wrongheaded and therefore unsustainable.

In response, several readers have questioned whether such a deliberate traditionalist conservative “counterattack” is even possible. In their view, our cause is lost, the masses cannot be persuaded, and the best we can do is to begin cultivating a “faithful remnant.” In their view, the basically-liberal beliefs of the masses are impervious to any argumentation, so there is no point in even trying to persuade them of traditionalist conservatism or trying to get them to implement and follow a proper social order. For these doubters, social order arises spontaneously through an organic process that cannot be controlled, so the best we can do is to act in the small and, presumably, hope for the best.

But every social order, even the current liberal one, requires constant work just to sustain. The leaders of the current liberal order must constantly generate propaganda designed to reinforce liberalism in the masses. And even if, God forbid, America were to collapse, the survivors would have to engage in just the sort of social-order-creating deliberate activity of which I have been speaking. Social order is always deliberately created or sustained, and anyone who does not try to understand how this order is maintained is, in effect, ceding to someone else the right to determine the order of society.

It is therefore irrelevant whether our cause is lost. Even if we had the ability to foresee the future, we would still need an understanding of how social order is created and maintained. For if social order is not created by traditionalist conservatives then, by definition, it will be created by people with different beliefs and values, and this we must oppose. We are not guaranteed success, but we are guaranteed greater honor if we make the effort. And to make the effort, we must, to begin with, have some understanding of how people come to hold the beliefs that they hold, because a social order is sustained by the voluntary assent of most people to its basic religious and philosophical principles. For example, the vast majority of Americans voluntarily go along with the liberal premises of “diversity is our strength,” “discrimination is wicked,” and “God is unknowable, therefore He has no authority over us.”

On this topic, here is a (slightly edited) portion of an unpublished essay of mine from several years ago. A preliminary version of it was published at VFR.  Its basic point is that when it comes to the most important questions of life, and therefore the basic social order, most people believe what the authorities tell them. This is because most people don’t have the time or the talent to study the fundamental questions of life for themselves, and because most people want to believe that the authorities have the correct answers.

There is a second school of thought on this question, which holds that the basic beliefs of the people are fundamental, and therefore their leaders must respect those beliefs. This school is responsible for the saying “The people get the leaders they deserve.” The essay below acknowledges that there is some truth in this position, but that the more basic truth is that most people go along with the leaders.

Why do People Believe What They Believe?

What is the fundamental cause of people’s beliefs?  This is a crucial question to answer if we aim not just to persuade a few individuals here and there, but to initiate change in society itself.

It seems clear to me that the vast majority of people, including the majority of the intellectual and the highly-educated, believe what they believe on fundamental issues not because they have carefully studied them, but because the authorities whom they choose to trust have told them what to believe. The authorities tell their constituents what to believe not by saying “You must believe X,” but rather by saying or implying, “X is true,” which obviously implies, “You ought to believe X.”

“Fundamental issues” means the deep and basic religious and philosophical questions, e.g., Is there a God, and, if so, what is He like? or What is the meaning of life? or What is morality? or Did we evolve accidentally or were we created deliberately? And so on.

It appears, for example, that most people believe whatever it is they believe about evolution/creation either because they trust the scientists/professors when they say Darwinism is true, or because they believe the pastors/priests/theologians when they say that God created life. This is not to say that people cannot give reasons for their beliefs, often good ones. Nor does it mean that both sides are equally right. Nor that people simply hear and obey, without internalizing the ideas and subjecting them to scrutiny.

Instead, it means that both sides of a well-defined issue always have reasons that seem good, and most people have neither the time, the talent, the training nor the inclination to do the hard work of study. Furthermore, there seems to be little incentive to study the basics. Most people just want to make a choice and then get on with life. Based on the overall worldview they already possess, and the authorities they have trusted, they fit what the authorities say into their pre-existing system of thought.

This is not to suggest that trusting authorities is illegitimate. On the contrary, man does not have the ability to learn entirely on his own the most important truths, such as truths about God, morality, and the meaning of life. Man must look to God, the ultimate authority, if he is to have answers to his most important questions. And even the non-religious recognize, on some level, that they need to look to authorities outside themselves. This is because all of us need to rely on authorities for most of what we know. Life is too short for us to prove for ourselves any but a tiny fraction of the vast sum of humanly provable specific facts that we need to know in order to do the business of living.

So who are these ruling authorities? In Western society, the highest and widest authority to say what is true belongs to the teachers, especially the professors, and the media, especially the journalists. To call their authority the “highest” means they claim (usually implicitly) the ultimate authority, i.e., the right, to tell people what is really true, and to call it the “widest” means that these people, when they are acting in their professional roles, are believed by more people than any other authority. Other authorities such as parents, clergy, and government officials only have authority over their constituents, and then only in certain fields: parents have authority in matters of “parenting,” clergy in religious matters, and government officials in issues of governance.

A secondary, but still potent, authority is the entertainment media. They translate the ideas of the ruling authorities into concretely tangible form, giving the impression that the ruling ideas are beautiful, and their opposites ugly. It is this emotional perception that provides much of the impetus to believe and to act in accordance with these ideas. In an increasingly non-intellectual and indeed even anti-intellectual society, manipulation of emotions is crucial to ensure compliance.

Understanding just who the authorities are explains why politics has been unable to hold back the tide of liberalism; politics at best has done no more than occasionally slow the advance. That’s because elected officials don’t control the country; the teachers and the media do, indirectly. Leftists know this, which is one reason why they do not try to seize full formal control of the government as some of the 60’s radicals attempted. If they control the institutions that have the most widely recognized authority to tell us what is true, they can control society informally, without provoking open rebellion.

Once we have grasped the point that people are led by authorities, we can consider another, apparently contradictory fact: people will not accept an idea that too strongly contradicts what they already believe, even if it emanates from the highest authority they trust. The authorities do not fully control the masses, even in the most effective totalitarian state.

We also have to understand that most people, most of the time, do not consciously think about their authorities, or even acknowledge that they have authorities. Most people rarely if ever explicitly say to themselves “This is one of my authorities, and I trust it.” Liberals in particular like to think of themselves as autonomous, authority-questioning people.

These two truths (people believe authorities, but not automatically) must be properly understood in relation to one another, because an emphasis on either one at the expense of the other will mislead us about the nature of persuasion. For example, revolutionaries cannot just take over the authoritative institutions and then dictate their new doctrines to the docile masses. They must, at minimum, discredit the old authorities, try to make the new doctrines look true, good and beautiful, and threaten violence against anyone who does not go along with the new regime. But the more fundamental fact is the first one mentioned: man relies on authority for guidance on the deepest issues.

I first became aware of the role of authorities when I considered “values clarification” as a technique for teaching ethics to young people. Liberals often claim that if people create their own values they will be more committed to them, and therefore more moral, than if they had been forced to adopt values provided by someone else. But various critiques of “values clarification” made it clear that people do not create their own values. Instead, people choose to follow moral principles articulated by others. And usually people do not fully reason through on their own what these principles really mean, and why they might be right or wrong. Their primary effort (if they make one) is directed toward the process of choosing which authority they will believe.

Another insight came as I considered the raising of children. Back when most of my friends and I were single liberals, when we would discuss raising children, many of us would express apprehension about what to do when our children became teenagers: According to liberalism, teenagers are supposed to rebel against their parents, to “question authority,” and so on. But I began to realize that these ideas of what teenagers are supposed to do are recent developments. Historically, teenagers have always wanted to become adults, not to rebel against their parents.

Indeed, the very idea “teenager” is a twentieth-century invention: By definition, a teenager is a quasi-autonomous individual who combines some of the irresponsibility and immaturity of a child with some of the power and privileges of an adult. Teenagers “rebel against their parents” mainly because they are told they are supposed to rebel: Because rebellion is said to be part of the process of becoming autonomous, because parents are said to hold old-fashioned beliefs that have been superseded by societal evolution, and because liberalism holds it to be the sacred right of every individual to be different. Although teenagers do have a natural impulse to separate from their parents, this impulse can manifest itself in many ways, most of which don’t involve open rebellion. The teenagers of our day rebel mainly because they are told that they are supposed to.

This discussion is mainly about persuasion as a collective, not an individual, phenomenon. When we attempt to persuade an individual, he has a history that we are contending with, he is part of a group to which he is loyal, and he respects certain authorities. Ultimately, then, to persuade a large number of individuals, we have to change the intellectual environment that forms people’s beliefs.

But there is also a lesson to be learned here about individual persuasion. There are vast numbers of young people who go along with liberalism because they have not yet heard a persuasive critique of it, but who suspect that the emperor has no clothes. And contemporary postmodern liberalism, with its radical relativism and nominalism, is definitely naked. These young people are looking for a trustworthy authority to tell them how the world really operates, and if we conservatives can make a good case, many will begin to trust our ideas.

For persuading individuals, the key is to identify, make explicit, and criticize their fundamental presuppositions. Persuasion about fundamental issues is difficult because so much is at stake for the person you are trying to persuade. But it is possible for people to change their minds, especially if they have a respect for truth, and if they begin to recognize the bad results that necessarily follow from their current thinking. For persuading groups, though, the key is the authorities.

This point is often missed by intellectuals, because the kind of people who enjoy scrutinizing fundamental issues are generally well-educated and reflective, so it is natural that they would assume others are like them. We intellectuals tend to think that the battle must be won one person at a time. Individual persuasion is the tactic, but the strategy should be to win over the authoritative institutions.

People only follow the authorities on life’s most basic issues: the existence of God, the meaning of life, the possibility of knowing, the nature of morality, etc. When it comes to issues of a less fundamental and more tangible nature, people generally can give an account, often quite detailed. But the more basic an idea is, the more difficult it is to articulate and understand intellectually, and the less equipped John Q. Public feels himself to be to analyze it carefully. This is yet another reason why we need to equip people to think about the fundamental issues of the culture war, by teaching them to think conceptually and fundamentally about the realities of the world.

Now what about the equally important fact that people’s beliefs cannot be fully controlled by the authorities? Fundamentally, this is because learning is cumulative: once you believe X is true, a whole range of other statements becomes plausible, and another range of statements becomes implausible. Think of an atheist: Creationism and intelligent design are implausible to him because of his presupposition of atheism, and any authority who tried to persuade him to reject Darwinism would no longer be an authority that he trusted. Because of his atheism, he trusts only authorities that are also atheistic, although he will ask for additional confirmation, beyond their atheism, before he places his trust in an authority. But if the authority he trusts maintains atheism, he will trust the other statements emanating from that authority: “Darwinism explains morality;” “man is just a highly-evolved animal;” “abortion is ok because the fetus is not a person;” “religion causes wars because religious disputes cannot be resolved rationally;” and so on.

Did the atheist choose atheism in the first place because an authority he trusted told him atheism is true? In a sense, yes. Children have thoughts about the ultimate issues, but they know they need guidance from adults. Atheists, like everyone else, have their impressions either contradicted or confirmed (and clarified and expanded) by authorities they choose to trust. Almost all atheists have heard from authorities who tell them there is a God, but they are atheists because they chose to mistrust these authorities, and trust others.

[End of original essay]


Given that our long-term goal is properly-ordered American and Western societies, what lessons can we draw from the above? One obvious conclusion is that the society we seek to foster must actively present and defend the basic truths about God, man and society; it must not take a laissez-faire attitude toward basic truths.

Another lesson is that we must appear authoritative in our argumentation. When defending the most important truths against liberal opponents, we must not appear just to be stating our own tentative opinions. We must defend truths as truths.

If social order is established or changed only through a mysterious organic process, then there is nothing concrete we can do right now to help move us toward our goal of a properly-ordered society. We can only “act locally” and pray for the best. But if it is true that man believes the authorities, then there is something we can do: work to create, or promote, or defend, proper authority, both in ourselves and in others of like mind. Of course, contemporary society is so corrupt that one who attempts to exercise proper authority will usually be denied a position of authority or, if he already posses it, will usually be the target of an organized campaign to remove him from his office. So the traditionalist conservative must operate with discretion, and will probably not be allowed completely to exercise proper authority. But thinking long-term, we must promote authority.

And how can we “promote authority?” Primarily by articulating and defending the truths that proper authority articulates and defends, and by training ourselves and, if possible, others, to exercise the authority that is proper to our respective spheres. We must foster a group of people who understand how society ought to be ordered, with traditional sexual morality and sex roles, respect for Christianity, punishing rather than excusing wrongdoers, protecting borders and traditions, minimal government, and so on. And we must prepare these people or their descendants one day to rule society.

One day, the liberal system that actively suppresses proper authority and social order will no longer exist. At that time, there will need to be a group of people still in existence who understand the proper way to exercise authority.

11 thoughts on “Why do People Believe What They Believe? Because of the Authorities

  1. social order arises spontaneously through an organic process that cannot be controlled

    Isn’t this basically what traditionalist conservatism (at least the kind that follows Edmund Burke) says?

    BTW we do agree that liberalism is unsustainable, so the long term prospects for traditionalism do seem fairly good. Our disagreement is mostly about the likelihood of attracting any large number of converts.

    • Isn’t this basically what traditionalist conservatism (at least the kind that follows Edmund Burke) says?

      Yes, that is the “traditional” position of traditionalist conservatism. At a time when the social order was characterized by what we would call conservative principles (which would be every era before roughly World War Two), that social order arises spontaneously through an organic process that cannot be controlled was a conservative principle, because it was the liberals who wanted to change society.

      Nowadays, though, it is the Left who wants to preserve and expand the existing order, and it is the true “conservatives” who want to change the social order. Therefore we traditionalist conservatives are the ones who must understand how social order is generated.

      It is true that the social order cannot fully be controlled by any individual or party. But, as my essay says, neither it is true that we can do nothing. In between complete control and complete helplessness lies a realm in which we understand social order and do small things that can have large consequences later.

      • Therefore we traditionalist conservatives are the ones who must understand how social order is generated.

        This is the danger here is in becoming what we behold, thinking we know more than we do. Ironically, this is what happened to the continental school of conservatism, which ended up incorporating a lot of the Enlightenment rationalism that it supposedly rejected (and therefore incidentally giving birth to the social sciences, for good and for bad).

        Ironically, it was Jim Kalb who taught me the wisdom of letting things go, which I didn’t recognize at the time. Do things locally that you know will do some concrete good, don’t preach obvious evil, but know that things are gonna go how they are going to go. It seems pretty clear that liberal society isn’t going to last in the long term, but what to do about that right now is not entirely clear.


      • There is danger in acting when one ought not, and danger in failing to act when one ought. There is danger in thinking one knows more than one does, and danger in refusing to know what one can.

        That being said, we agree that “what to do about that right now is not entirely clear.” It will probably never be clear. So we must understand and articulate what we can about how things work and how things ought to be.

        “Letting things go” is only wisdom if one’s actions are making things worse. Which has often been the case with recent conservatism. But it will not always be so.

  2. Stumbled upon the “conlang” community today- people who make their own languages- for whatever reason. Got me thinking about how language can be constructed and can evolve. Which would be the preferred (by readers here) method of stewarding language: more natural selection, or more artificial selection? Why?

  3. Alan: A few questions about ‘social order’. I guess you have a theory about it.

    How does a ‘social order’ emerge? Does it evolve ‘spontaneously’ like a market economy? (Hayek thinks it does). Or it it deliberately imposed – perhaps over a number of generations – by a combination of arbitrary violence, natural law, positive law, and religious sentiment? If this is the case, who imposes it?

    A social order which ends up being endorsed by common assent, was probably imposed by autocratic fiat in the first place. Which leads me to suppose that a restoration of social order will require an autocrat who assumes the untrammelled authority to enforce it. In other words, we won’t regenerate a ‘traditionalist’ society by democratic means.

    • I don’t have a theory of how social order is created, just some observations. In one sense, order is always imposed, because order arises from individuals following rules, and somebody has to conceptualize the rules and impress them on at least a few others. In another sense, a society of thousands or millions of people is always too complex for anyone fully to control, and so many of the details of the order evolve spontaneously.

      [They “evolve” in the sense that nobody coordinates them all. But they are “intelligently designed” in the sense that an active agent always produces them.]

      The Old Testament contains a detailed description of the creation of a social order originating in detailed commands and instructions from God. Obviously we cannot follow this approach, for many reasons. But at least it provides a model for the top-down imposition of order.

      One frequently reads in historical accounts about how so-and-so “united the warring factions.” This is another example of the creation of order; in this case, the creation of a higher order out of lesser orders.

      Force is usually involved in the creation of order, for people always have reasons for resisting the new order, even if there are also good reasons to go along with it. But “force” is not the same as “violence.” The key, I think, is eventually to have the masses assent to the ideas that give rise to the order, for then they will go along voluntarily, at least most of the time. On the other hand, ideas sometimes win by sheer force, as those who hold contrary ideas are physically exterminated or at least intimidated into silence. This was how Islam eventually became the majority system of belief in the lands where it now dominates. Of course, we don’t want to try to emulate this example.

  4. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Early August Edition « Patriactionary

  5. Pingback: Who do you trust? « The Orthosphere

  6. Pingback: The Revolution: the original sin of civilizations | semel traditae sanctis


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