Group-Think, The Precarious Power of Protest, and Owning Your Own Skepticism – Pt. 1

In an earlier post, I mentioned that throughout my working career, a number of co-workers have extended me the dignity of talking about things that really matter. “Lee” was one of these co-workers. Although he was a resolutely committed atheist, he regularly took the time to converse about issues of concern that were deeply important to him. Most of the time, the issues he raised were genuinely important, deeply stretched us both, and became important to me as well.

Another reason that I valued Lee’s willingness to interact, was that Lee was willing to engage me at great length even though he explicitly stated that he saw no immediate prospect of converting me to atheism. While we both knew that neither of us would be converting any time soon, we still had deeply satisfying conversations in which we came to more clearly understand one another as persons.

On one occasion, he approached me and made a keen objection about the way in which leaders and their followers often get trapped in a cycle of reactive (and occasionally retaliatory) fear. To Lee, this concern mattered, because he was deeply suspicious about the way in which leaders (and their followers) will use their power to suppress dissent. According to Lee, this reflexive anger can be seen when a leader and his followers react to someone who is publically calling shenanigans on one of their basic commitments.

The question that he used to crystalize his frustration went something like this: “Why is it that when somebody publically challenges the leader’s basic position, the leader and his posse of sympathetic followers immediately turn on the one who’s expressing dissent?” From Lee’s point of view, it’s like there’s some kind of vicious group-think that causes the group (or its leader) to react with anger after being challenged.

At a certain level, Lee’s observation was pretty sharp and is worth giving serious consideration. Alastair Roberts eloquently put his finger on this same issue, when he said:

“If one’s opinion has never been subjected to and tried by rigorous cross-examination, it probably isn’t worth much. If one lacks the capacity to keep a level head when one’s views are challenged, one’s voice will be of limited use in most real world situations, where dialogue and dispute is the norm and where we have to think in conversation with people who disagree with us.”[1]

One of the ways that Lee’s critique personally enriched me, was in the way that it compelled me to reflect on the way that I respond to being publicly critiqued by others. I am, and still long to be, a better man because of Lee’s critique.[2]

However, as I continued to reflect on Lee’s critique, I found that the leader who is called out isn’t the only one who’s tempted with misusing power. Because public, passionate, and unexpected criticism is itself an exercise of power, the one who’s publicly exposing another can misuse their power as well. As far as I can tell, there are at least two major aspects of meaningful protest that atheists and skeptics frequently ignore while seeking to express the power of protest: dislodging core beliefs, and narrating an alternative past, present, and future.

Dislodging Core Beliefs In A Way That Serves Those You Are Engaging 

When anyone seeks to dislodge a core belief out of a community, they should ask themselves at least three important questions:

First, why did this particular person or community find a degree of satisfaction and rest in this particular belief?

Second, if this belief is ultimately destructive or false, how can I dislodge it in a way that dignifies as persons those who presently hold it?

Third, if my aim is to dislodge a destructive or false belief, with what do I plan on replacing this dislodged belief?

In my own experience, these are three questions that atheistic or skeptical polemicists repeatedly fail to address.

In the next post on the precarious power of protest, I’d like to cover the aspect of protest that touches on narrating an alternative past, present, and future that is meaningful.

If you are reading this as a Christ-follower or religiously committed person, please don’t suspect that the atheistic or skeptical protester is the only one who wrestles with the challenge of protesting well. Ravi Zacharias once said:

“…the Word calls us to reason together with God so that the evil within us may stir us more than the evil around us. It is only in that sequence that the soul of an individual and the soul of a nation can be recovered.”[3]


[1] This entire post is really worth reading, and rewards careful reading if read with humility, personal circumspection, and genuine concern for others.

[2] Interestingly, one of the refreshing features of Alastair’s post (mentioned above), was the way in which he and his commenter’s began crafting helpful solutions to the dilemmas that his post had raised.

[3] Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil: Restoring the Soul in a Disintegrating Culture (Dallas, TX: Word, 1996), 154.

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About pastoralpensees

I have been happily married to my wife since 2000 and have two young sons. In 2012, I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary with an MDiv,, and I would like to engage in pastoral ministry in a local church.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Christ & Culture, One Step Closer to the Gospel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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