As you may have noticed, I have a perennial or chronic or obsessive interest in the question of what one might call cultural influence. Or one might call it memes, or fashion, or groupthink, or conformity, or any number of things. And in being interested in that, I also become interested in the self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say, I’m interested in the way people (especially influential people) say things like ‘Most Americans believe in God/family values/the market’ and the statement becomes a little bit more true for having been said. I say Americans partly because I am one so I hear more of the American version than the UK one, and partly because I think there is probably more of that kind of thing here than there is there. It may be no accident (she said darkly) that the word ‘bloody-minded’ isn’t part of the American idiom. I think it’s one of those things like the apocryphal 900 Inuit words for snow, or however many it’s supposed to be. Sapir-Whorf. That we don’t have the word and so we can’t really quite imagine the state of mind. If people keep nagging us endlessly to have ‘faith’ or to admire dimwits in high office, well, there’s a bit of water on a stone effect. Drip drip drip. We like to think we’re terrifically independent and individualistic, but…that nice herd of sheep does look awfully cozy and happy and comfortable, I think I’ll just sidle over and kind of insinuate myself among them.
So when a lot of Deep Thinkers and think tank occupants and Religious Leaders and Senators and actors and suchlike important people make what seem to be simple factual descriptive comments on what a religious people we are, they’re not just describing or stating the facts, they’re also telling us to go and do likewise. Most people do and therefore you ought to too, obviously. Most people do and so who the hell do you think you are doing something different? Most people do and therefore they must be right, because most people are never wrong. Most people do and so you have to because this is a democracy, remember?
It’s not usually explicit, that kind of thing. But then that makes it all the more insidious. Perhaps if it were explicit, even we would be bloody-minded enough to resist. But since it’s not, the drip drip has its effect. We start to feel a little uneasy. ‘Who do I think I am? Can that many people all be wrong while I’m right?’ And so the statistics inch up and up, until pretty soon the opinion polls will be telling us that a full 99% of Americans believe in God and that last 1% will just have to move to a cabin in the mountains or emigrate or something.