Bryan Caplan  

The Fundamentalist Stereotype: A Vindication

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Yesterday my colleague Larry Iannaccone, the world's leading expert on the Economics of Religion, gave a provocative lecture on Christian fundamentalism. His thesis: Almost all the stereotypes about this group are false. Now I'm one of those people who believes that stereotypes are usually true statistical generalizations, so naturally I was skeptical.

To check my suspicions, I turned to the General Social Survey. It's got an excellent way to identify Christian fundamentalists. The question BIBLE asks "Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?," and offers three responses:

1. "The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word."

2. "The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word."

3. "The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men."

I think it's fair to call people fundamentalists if and only if they pick response #1.

Now let's consider a few of the stereotypes that Larry questions.

1. "Fundamentalists are anti-gay." Larry admits that fundamentalists think that homosexuality is morally wrong, and oppose "special treatment" for gays. But the data say more. The GSS asks "Suppose this admitted homosexual wanted to make a speech in your community. Should he be allowed to speak, or not?"

59% of fundamentalists say No; 73% of non-fundamentalists say Yes.

2. "Fundamentalists are ignorant." Larry claims that fundamentalists actually have the average education level. But the GSS says they've got 1.9 fewer years of education. They also score markedly lower on the GSS's short IQ test.

3. "Fundamentalists are anti-science." The GSS asks whether "We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith." 55% of fundamentalists agree or strongly agree, versus 21% of non-fundamentalists.

4. "Fundamentalists support traditional gender roles." The GSS asks "Do you approve or disapprove of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her?" Here, Larry seems to be on stronger ground: 75% of fundamentalists approve. But relatively speaking, the stereotype works, because 85% of non-fundamentalists approve.

Bottom line: Larry hastily dismisses a stereotype that is basically sound. Critics of fundamentalism may be exaggerating, but the patterns they point to are real.

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The author at Eli Dourado in a related article titled Who’s Afraid Of The Religious Right? writes:
    The thing I love most about being in graduate school is that I often have the opportunity to drop in on symposia, public lectures, and the like. Last Thursday was one such occasion; I attended a lecture by Larry Iannaccone entitled Media Monsters 101:... [Tracked on October 3, 2006 1:55 PM]
The author at Econlog in a related article titled Is Ignorant Dogmatism Possible? I'm Afraid So. writes:
    In a forthcoming issue of Critical Review, several of my critics basically say, "Make up your mind, Bryan.  Are voters ignorant, or are they dogmatic?"  My response: "Both."  It may seem strange, but it doesn't take a lot of knowledge... [Tracked on October 3, 2008 4:54 PM]
COMMENTS (26 to date)
Eric Crampton writes:

What does Larry cite as evidence against the stereotype? Does he have data?

Igor Uszczapowski writes:


You write:

"Now I'm one of those people who believes that stereotypes are usually true statistical generalizations..."

I am concerned with this statement alone, not with the context in which it is made.

Generalizations are outside statistics, just as any effort to explain (i.e. to come to corroborated or otherwise plausibly argued conclusions) is.

I would always look at the reasons given for generalizsations (that I have to pass a judgement on) - always and in every case - and, hence, never make a statement such as the one in question here.

Do you think that "true statistical generalizations" have recently (say in the last 100 years) converged toward some gravitational centre of truth? Are the stereotypes of, say, 17th century science less indicative of truth than modern stereotypes? If not, why are they different - if yes, what has happened in the meantime to make people produce "better"/true(er) stereotypes?

Why are people with red hair supposed to be dangerous characters? I suppose, this stereotype, while statistically noteworthy, rests on misled reasoning. If a person of average/nondescript hair colour does something unpleasant to you (like crashing into your car), you will not remember him or her for his hair colour - obviously that is different with a person with red hair. That probably is why lefthanders or guys with red hair or other very visible features are more likely to end up the Aunt Sally of "a true statistical generalization".

I have had practically no encounters with religious fundamentalists in the last 20 years (living in Germany), but I get across a lot of statistics - and much of it scarces the hell out of me. Very often I find: the more sophisticated the statistical approach taken, the easier practioners forget that valid conclusions lie outside of statistics - what makes matters worse (broadening the realm of abuse), a lot of people consider very simple statistics highly sophisticated.

Statistics (being a way to match and order data) like democracy (as a counting device) is a mere procedure facilitating ends extraneous to it, it is not an agent of reasoning.

It won't do the thinking for us.

Bryan, I am highly appreciative of your EconLog. Needless to say, the cheeky tone of my comment should not give a different impression.

Kind regards,


Bob Knaus writes:

Seems to me that Bryan's GSS observations would support the statement "Even ignorant bigoted fundamentalists respond rationally to economic incentives." That is, given an economy which requires a two-earner household for most families to afford the American dream, all but the most hidebound will conclude that it's OK for wives to work.

I grew up in a family somewhat to the right of even the worst stereotypes. To outsiders, we appeared Amish. I can tell you that intelligence alone is not sufficient to escape that environment. I'm one of the few bright ones who did.

There are plenty of things to distract and entertain the minds of the bright ones who choose to stay. Creation science, of course, but also interpretation of prophecy, textual analysis of the scriptures, and reconciliation of Bible's internal conflicts.

It takes enormous intellectual effort to avoid Occam's Razor. You will find sharp people within all of the fundamentalist sects who are busy with this.

So only the people who responded to the first interpretation were considered fundamentalists, what proportion of people was that? And does that match up with what Larry would agree is the bulk of people he's referring to as fundamentalists?

Chuckles writes:

[...Now Im one of those people who believes that stereotypes are usually true statistical generalizations, so naturally I was skeptical...]

Im one of those who think that people who believe that stereotypes are usually true statistical generalizations need to try some agnosticism.
This really needs rethinking:

Where are the baby eating Jews? Is this *usually true* also?
Where are the Jews who control the world? Is this *usually true* also?

Behind this is a stereotyped view of what groups actually get stereotyped: But there are millions of stereotypes out there - from place to place and culture to culture; and I suspect that many of them are undergirded by magical thinking - in the Middle East, in South Central, etc. To Magical Thinkers, anything can be true - nothing is falsifiable.

TGGP writes:

"Jews eat babies" is not a stereotype, any more than the image of extra-terrestrials as skinny big-eyed grey things is. Woody Allen's New York "left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers" is more the ticket.

Chuckles writes:

[...Jews eat babies is not a stereotype...]

Not exactly true. Its a historical stereotype - alongside with Jews drinking the blood of Xtians. That the stereotype is no longer in force doesnt mean that folks didnt believe it seriously centuries ago. So was this also a statistical generalization with underlying truth?
Stereotypes are born out of ignorance and heavily biased samples.

bobby writes:

I have a problem with the first question being used to identify fundamentalists. Taken literally, it is true of almost no one, not even Jerry Falwell. Even the most conservative of conservative Christians understand that Psalms and Proverbs, for instance, are poems that use metaphor and allegory. As well, really, many of the sayings throught the Bible, even under conservative interpretations, are really not literal interpretations. Does anyone in the world think that Jesus intended his disciples to literally be "fishers of men."
I'm sure a good many of the people that are called fundamentalists probably, like Bryan apparently, interpreted "literally" as "traditionally" or as something similar. But I think it is possible that many of the people that one would traditionally consider to be fundamentalists answered 2, as well, and that the Bryan should run the stats on 1 and 2, too.
Also, by the way, and somewhat ironically, taken literally, 3 could be true of many fundamentalists. "recorded by men" does not require that the words were not inspired by God; and "fables, legends, history" do not appear to denote things that are per se untrue.

Martin Kelly writes:

An excellent way to identify economistic fundamentalists.

The question WEALTH OF NATIONS asks "Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Wealth of Nations?," and offers three responses:

1. "The Wealth of Nations is the actual word of Adam Smith and is to be taken literally, word for word."

2. "The Wealth of Nations is the inspired word of Adam Smith but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word."

3. "The Wealth of Nations is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men."

I think it's fair to call people fundamentalists if and only if they pick response #1.

Igor Uszczapowski writes:

The problem we are dealing with is that there are terms that lend themselves to clear and unanimous specification and others that do so only to a significantly lower degree - especially regarding the question of unanimity.

For instance, engaging in statistically supported observations is a more hopeful enterprise when we endeavour to establish a certain point about Porsche cars built between 1972 and 1975.

By contrast, "Christian fundamentalism" is a term that has no similarly natural restrictions on its meaning, and rather affords a very wide scope for meaningful and legitimate definitions.

Incidentally: "actual word of God" and "to be taken literally, word for word" are not criteria that are likely to improve chances of finding a consensus of a definition of "Christian fundamentalism" - as, among other things, the enormous diversity of religious denominations seems to attest to, not to mention that nowadays it is widely accepted to leave the exact determination of "Christian faith" to personal choice rather than canonical prescription.

So, I am afraid, we do not really know what we are talking about - but, at least, the statistical findings are overwhelming.

Bob Knaus writes:

Hmmm. My guess is that the majority of commenters here do not have fundamentalists among their personal friends.

One thing that makes definition a bit tricky is that "fundamentalist" has become perjorative since the 1980s. The church which sponsored the school I attended from 3rd thru 10th grade had a sign out front which said "Independent -- Fundamental." That let everyone know the church was not affiliated with the Southern Baptists, and preached a fairly predictable line centered around Scofield's commentary on the King James Version Bible. Today of course there are hardly any churches that would put "Fundamental" on their signs -- it would drive prospective members away.

A key fundamentalist doctrine is "Biblical inerrancy." This allows for allegorical scriptures, while insisting that the scriptures themselves are the true Words of God. Any interpretations are the words of man and may be false. I've heard entire sermons, for instance, on just what Ezekiel's "wheel in the middle of the wheel" meant.

None of the GSS statements exactly define "Biblical inerrancy." But the first one comes close enough that it would get nods from most fundamentalists. I think it works fine as a filter, given Bryan's usage.

Igor Uszczapowski writes:

What I do not understand at this stage of the discussion is:

Why is subscribing to Statement I. (" be taken literally, word for word") supposed to correctly identify a "fundamentalist"?

What is it about Statements II. and III. that makes a respondent "non-fundamentalist"?

Why is it enough to just state Statement I. - or to put it differently: is it considered significant that the statement is actually true? Does it matter whether a person acts in accordance with that statement? If not, why?

After all, whether a person is actually taking the Bible literally is an issue that is likely to be very controversial, effectively softening the boundary between statements I. and II. significantly.

What happens to the findings when both Statements I. and II. are accepted as identifying "fundamentalists"?

But, once again, and most crucially: Whom does Bryan consider a fundamentalist and why is such a person best captured by his subscribing to Statement I.?

Thomas B. writes:

First off:
"Fundamentalism (n):
1. A movement in American Protestantism that... stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record."
- (based on the Random House dictionary)

Even if it lacks excessive precision, seems like statement 1 was a pretty good proxy.

(echoing the first commenter)
What was the evidence offered that you are rebutting, so we can weigh your evidence against it? Right now your evidence seems quite strong, as unopposed testimony usually does, but leaves me wondering about the other side.

Igor Uszczapowski writes:

I am confused. Probably my fault.

A certain movement in American Protestantism (as defined in a certain dictionary) is supposed to be a pretty good proxy of Christian fundamentalism in a country where Protestants as a whole (fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist) represent roughly 50% of confessing Christians.

Hmmm? Well, maybe. As I suggested before: it would be helpful if the guy who started the fire put his cards on the table.

Cyrus writes:

The trouble with calling statement BIBLE "close enough" is that the people who would care about its imprecision are heavily represented among the group it is trying to define.

RogerM writes:

As a fundamentalist for over 50 years, with an MA in econ, I feel compelled to respond to some of these points. People create stereotypes in order to denigrate a particular group, so, as Bryan writes, they’re exaggerated, but there is some truth in them. (Of course, the most dangerous lies are those with a little truth to them.)

Knowing some extremely intelligent fundamentalists, I suggest that the distributions of fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists overlap, with the mean of IQ of fundamentalists being slightly lower because they tend to be less educated; with some fundamentalists having very high IQ’s and levels of education. Uneducated people tend to gravitate toward fundamentalism because it provides reasonable answers to life’s most important questions where science and non-fundamentalist religions/philosophies fail miserably.

None of the options to the question "Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?" accurately describe the position of educated fundamentalists. When fundamentalists talk about taking the Bible “literally”, “literal” is a code word that means we don’t follow the so-called “higher criticism” of the mainline denominations who believe nothing in the Bible is true and who would choose answer #3. In fact, educated fundamentalists take the science of hermeneutics far more seriously than any other group of people I know, with the possible exception of conservative justices such as Clarence Thomas.

As for fundamentalists being anti-science, that is true only for the question of origins. Even the most poorly educated fundamentalist trusts and admires science in all other areas of life, especially medicine and engineering.

To paraphrase Orwell, some things are so stupid only an intellectual can believe them. Wisdom is not a function of IQ or education; some of the most foolish people I know have PhD’s. Arrogance makes intelligent people foolish; PhD’s and arrogance have a high degree of correlation.

RogerM writes:

PS, For those who think all fundamentalists are anti-science, check out the Institute for Creation Research at All professors at this school have PhD's in science and all believe in a literal 6-day creation of the universe. One of the most interesting books I've read was written by a former Las Alamos nuclear physicist, now at ICR, on the physics of a 6-day creation.

Bob Knaus writes:

I think additional comments may add heat rather than light... but I'll risk it!

It seems to me that RogerM's comments support my contention that it takes a fair amount of intelligence to get around Occam's Razor. I used to believe strongly in creation science, until my early 20s. I found the increasingly convoluted explanations to be less believable than the simpler ones offered by standard science. Maybe if I were smarter, I'd still believe in creation science.

I've met plenty of intelligent fundamentalists myself, starting with sitting through my dad's sermons every Sunday at church. One of the fieriest exponents of creation science who preached at my grade school said the Army tested his IQ at 135. The masses of fundamentalists may have less than average education -- and lower social class for that matter -- but the fundamentalist movement has been led by some pretty bright people.

Perhaps the distribution of fundamentalist intelligence is bimodal? Bryan, is there enough data in the GSS to test this?

Igor Uszczapowski writes:

A stereotype is an oversimplified conception. Note the “over”. While a simplified conception may be acceptable or not, an OVERsimplified conception denotes deficiency: an objectionable aberration from truth or from a representation that we are prepared to accept as fair or reasonable.

Hence, portraying “a stereotype” as “a true statistical generalization” (note my earlier dissatisfaction with the latter expression) may sound “cool” but that does not stop it from being a nonsense or, at best, a way of saying “what people believe is what people believe on whatever grounds they have”.

What Bryan is actually trying to “prove” is something that one would not call a stereotype.

There are definitions that make claims on empirically observable attributes.

“An Italian is a person holding a valid Italian passport.”
“A fundamentalist is a person who drinks five gallons of black tea on Mondays”.

If a person is making a claim whose truth depends on the presence of the attributes implied in the definition, and if the presence of the attributes can be established, then that person is not indulging in a stereotype but telling the truth or making a statement that we have grounds to accept as fair and reasonable.

If Bryan is seriously trying to establish an empirical claim about “fundamentalists”, he should define that term (and the adherent attributes) in a precise manner (and care to spell out the degree of precision deemed to have been achieved) or admit that he cannot accomplish this or only with serious reservations.

Else he is in the business of using “statistics” to unduly fortify a vague intuition or, yes, indeed: a stereotype.

RogerM writes:

What does Bryan think of the stereotype people have of economists?

zoevans writes:

Without getting too personal I come from the # 2 standpoint ("The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”) I strongly agree with Iannaccone with certain points. For one, fundamentalist are ignorant. I wouldn’t go as for as saying they are stupid, but they choose not to look at ALL the information available. Fundamentalists are less informed and tend to prefer the uneducated way. Take for instance, 55% of fundamentalists agree with the statement "We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith." The Fact of the matter is, much of our science today points toward the existence of God, showing religion and science go hand and hand.

Igor Uszczapowski writes:

To sum up, before I take my leave:

It is not clear to me what Bryan is hoping to achieve, nor even why the General Social Survey "has an excellent way to identify Christian Fundamentalism" or why "it's fair to call people fundamentalists if and only if they pick response #1."

What is he after? Insights into "Christian fundamentalism", "the formation of perceptions regarding Christian fundamentalists", "the general theory of stereotypes being usually true statistical generalizations"?

Whichever, in finding insights one should be prepared to have to pay the usual price for excellence: spending a lot of time to get to know the subject-matter. Usually, this leads one to discover how much one has not yet discovered, and that is often the same as understanding the presence of stereotypes in one's own thinking and in the thinking of others, and what is wrong with these stereotypes and how they can be improved to further approximate truth, better understand each other and so on.

I have had very few encounters with fundamentalists (fundamentalists by their own description, and only pleasant encounters, which is, however, irrelevant to our discussion) - I can't judge whether some of them may be "a dangerous lot", but I do know that a rash way with statistics is one of the most dangerous phenomena in the modern world - it is, only too often, a sign of being (cunningly) "ignorant" and "anti-Science", irrespective of one's IQ or academic credentials.

Look, there is a nice heap of data, I am conversant with statistics, so let me milk "the evidence" to give mankind a Great Truth, before I must rush on to another nice heap of data. And the hurried man puts on his hat, on which is written in invisible ink: "I've got the answers, where are the questions?"

RogerM writes:

"‘No reality, please.We’re economists!’ This phrase, taken from a recent edition of the education
supplement of The Times newspaper, encapsulates a widely held belief that modern
academic economics has become increasingly detached from the realworld."

Here's an interesting stereotype of economists. How much truth is there in it?

Bob Knaus writes:

One last comment -- I don't know diddly about statistics, but I can read graphs. Go to the GSS interactive web site at the University of Michigan. Choose the "Analyse" tab, then enter BIBLE as the row and WORDSUM as the column.

If I am interpreting the graph correctly, it is not the "fundamentalist" who has a bimodal IQ distribution. Rather, it is the "skeptic" who thinks the Bible is merely a book of fables that has a higher than expected occurence at the very low end of the scale, as well as at the upper end.


Bob Knaus writes:

Jeez, I don't know that anyone cares at this point, but the GSS has a simple and direct way to identify fundamentalists. Question RELIGID asks about religious affiliation; FUNDAMENTALIST is one of 6 possible responses. Duh!

Running WORDSUM as column and RELIGID as row shows about 10% identify as FUNDAMENTALIST. Ditribution is indeed bimodal, with concentrations at the upper and lower ends of the WORDSUM scale.

Interestly, the most graphicly visible concentration is NONE (38% of total) on the lower half of the WORDSUM scale.

This GSS web interface is a nifty time waster. I've added it to my favorites!

Lauren writes:

See also this recent EconTalk podcast with Larry Iannaccone on the Economics of Religion.

It includes a link to a website that lets you explore various data on religion.

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