An individual authority such as a scientist or preacher or a priest or a politician is like a link in a big chain link fence, and that "chain link fence" is the social structure that he is part of. There is no very good understanding of why certain authorities say the things they say without some insight into the sociology of belief systems. Let me make a rather crude sketch of the sociology of belief systems, a topic of great complexity.
To describe a particular system of belief that gained some ascendancy, we may use the term "ideological regime." An ideological regime is some structure of belief and related social structures and habits that have become popular in a particular place. In a particular country there may exist more than one ideological regime. For example, in the United States there are currently multiple ideological regimes, such as these:
(1) the belief tradition and social structure of Catholicism;
(2) the belief tradition and social structures of Protestantism, taking several different forms;
(3) the belief tradition and social structures of Darwinist materialism;
(4) the belief tradition and social structures of what we may call money-centered consumerist capitalism.
In some countries, there may be fewer ideological regimes: three, two, or rarely a single one. Looking at medieval or ancient history, we can probably find some cases in which religious beliefs were throughly entangled with political and economic beliefs, and in such countries there may have existed as few as only one ideological regime.
An ideological regime consists of both a system of belief and a social structure that supports such a system, making sure that it preserves its ascendancy, along with rules, traditions, customs or laws that help propagate the ideological regime.
An ideological regime almost invariably has authorities that profess its belief doctrines. In some ideological regimes, such authorities may exist in a hierarchical order. In the Catholic Church there is a pope ruling over cardinals ruling over bishops ruling over priests. In the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism, there is not a very formal hierarchical structure of authorities. But informally there is such a hierarchy, consisting of four levels:
(1) Nobel Prize laureates at the top of the hierarchy;
(2) professors from the most prestigious universities on the second level;
(3) professors from less prestigious colleges or universities at the third level;
(4) mere PhD holders who are not yet professors at the lowest level of authority.
There are also related authorities such as deceased scientists who have been aggrandized as great teachers or men of profound insight.
In the ideological regime of money-centered consumerist capitalism, there is a less clear-cut structure of authority, but the authorities may include people such as politicians, influential very rich celebrities and high-prestige business leaders such as prominent CEO's. The ideological regime of Protestantism has human authorities such as ministers as its authorities, and under such a regime the Bible is emphasized as an authority to be followed. Under the ideological regime of Marxist-Leninism, there existed various authorities such as politburo members and the party officials known as commissars.
The dogmas of an ideological regime are the debatable beliefs that the regime perpetuates. Under some ideological regimes, particularly openly religious ones, there may be a frank admission that articles of faith are being taught by the regime, and that an act of faith is required to accept such doctrines. Under other ideological regimes, there may be claims or pretentions that the dogmas of the regime are facts that any reasonable and well-educated person should accept. For example, under the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism, various unproven claims about human origins or human brains may be sold as "facts of science." Under the ideological regime of Marxist-Leninism, various unproven dogmas about communism and class struggle were not described as dogmas or tenets, but were instead described as "facts of history" or "facts of economic science" that required belief from any reasonable scholar. Under the ideological regime of money-centered consumerist capitalism, various assumptions may simply be taken for granted as rather obvious truths, such as the assumption that working 50 or 60 hour weeks at a job you don't like is well worth it if this allows you to buy some larger-than-you-need house that will cause your friends to be envious. But under conflicting ideological regimes, such assumptions may seem very far from obvious truths.
Regime Enforcers and Regime Enablers
The maintenance and preservation of an ideological regime requires the participation of many agents acting to perpetuate the regime. The existence of esteemed regime authorities is not sufficient to achieve such an end. There usually must be various less prestigious individuals who act to promulgate the teachings of the ideological regime, and possibly help punish and diminish any who dare to oppose its teachings. In the Catholic Church an example of such regime enforcers are nuns, deacons and Sunday school teachers, who lack the authority of priests, but do a great deal of the low-level indoctrination that helps to enforce the ideological regime.
In the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism, skeptics act as regime enforcers. The skeptics act to defame and disparage any of the very many people who report observations contrary to the reigning dogmas of Darwinist materialism, such as those who report inexplicable psychic experiences or apparition sightings. In this regime other low-level regime enforcers or regime enablers are people such as high school biology teachers, who make sure that children are indoctrinated in the belief tenets of the ideological regime, and science journalists. In the modern landscape of Darwinist materialism, science journalists tend to uncritically parrot whatever claims or speculations come down from professors in support of their belief dogmas, even when they are far-fetched claims such as monkeys rafting across the Atlantic ocean millions of years ago. Such journalists are also careful to write articles that restate the belief doctrines of the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism, and are careful to write little or nothing about observations in conflict with the teachings of such an ideological regime.
In the ideological regime of Marxist-Leninism, there were innumerable low-level enforcers, such as censors, local informers who snitched on dissident thinkers, and the gulag guards who helped to keep dissidents locked up in prison camps. In the ideological regime of money-centered consumerist capitalism, regime enablers include a host of pitchmen and social media sources that try to make you feel unworthy or second-class if you are are not consuming and purchasing as expensively as more high-spending people of a similar age.
Regime Outcasts and the Expunging or Deprecation of Outcasts
A culturally successful ideological regime may achieve almost total dominance in a particular geographical area. But usually there will exist some people who oppose the ideological program the regime is advancing. To maintain its position of dominance, the ideological regime will usually attempt to expunge or deprecate its opponents, who will be branded as outcasts. Historically there have been cases of expunging through violence or imprisonment. The medieval Catholic Church expunged opponents by using tools of violence such as the Inquisition, or by declaring crusades against heretics, leading to their violent destruction in events such as the Albigensian Crusade. During the long and very bloody Thirty Years War, both Protestant groups and Catholics would try to expunge their opponents through open military conflict. Equally harsh events occurred when the ideological regime of Marxism-Leninism violently eliminated vast numbers of suspected opponents though events such as mass trials and purges. During the Cold War, minor regimes defying the ideology of consumerist capitalism might face various attempts to destroy them or their leaders.
An ideological regime may engage in more moderate efforts against its opponents. A common strategy is to simply use some deprecatory description designed to label the opponents as people not to be taken seriously. Different ideological regimes have different terms designed to brand opponents as outcasts whose thoughts are undeserving of serious consideration. In the Catholic Church, the term "heretic" was once a very powerful epithet that could be used to effectively demonize anyone teaching contrarian doctrines. In other Christian groups, it is enough to use the word "unchristian" or "anti-Christian" or "anti-scriptural" to brand someone as an outcast not to be taken seriously. Under Marxist-Leninism, a potential opponent could be branded as an outcast by simply calling him a "counter-revolutionary" or a "capitalist-roader."
In the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism, there are various techniques for branding opponents as outcasts whose thought is unworthy of attention. Someone may loosely be called a "mystic" or a "spiritualist" or a "creationist" as a way of branding them as outcasts to be ignored. Those terms are typically thrown around inaccurately by careless mudslingers. Being rooted in the fundamentalist idea of biblical creationism, the word "creationist" should only be used for those objecting to Darwinism on biblical grounds. Most of the people called "creationists" by Darwinists are no such thing, and make objections because of biological reasons, such as the inadequacy of Darwinism to explain very high levels of hierarchical organization and functional complexity.
But this type of careless use of deprecatory labels is extremely common when regime outcasts are branded. Just as people called "mystics" or "creationists" by materialists are usually not such a thing, most of the people labeled as "capitalist-roaders" or "counter-revolutionary" by Marxists were not such a thing, and very many of the people called "unchristian" by Christian zealots were actually Christians.
Under the ideological regime of money-centered consumerist capitalism, those not following the recommended high-spending or capitalist way of life might be deprecated through various terms of abuse such as "beatniks," "hippies," "low achievers," "low-class," "losers," "socialists," or "commies."
A very important tool for the propagation of an ideological regime is the promotion of some individual to a state of almost-superhuman status. We may call this regime canonization. Very obvious examples are found in Catholicism, where very many holy men and women were officially canonized as saints, and referred thereafter with names such as Saint Peter or Saint Theresa. Almost equally obvious examples occurred under Marxism-Leninism, which made all-but-saints out of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Other examples can be found in the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism, which has effectively canonized Charles Darwin as a kind of saint of science. Under Chinese communism, Chairman Mao was consecrated as a kind of secular saint.
Legends usually grow around those canonized as saints. A thousand legends have grown around the saints of Catholicism, such as abundant medieval legends that their bones had almost magical healing powers. In the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism, the principle legend is the legend that Charles Darwin explained the origin of species or the origin of biological innovations. Since Darwin's time innumerable stunning examples of biological organization and fine-tuning have been discovered that Darwin knew nothing about, such as the enormously intricate functional complexity of cells and protein molecules. But even though claiming Darwin explained the origin of species is rather like claiming that the ancient philosopher Plato explained smartphones or digital computers, the legend that Darwin explained the origin of species continues to be told endlessly by the proponents of Darwinist materialism. Similarly, under Marxist-Leninism people were endlessly told the legend that Vladimir Lenin had established a worker's paradise, which many people believed contrary to the evidence of their eyes.
Some ideological regimes may kind of canonize individuals rather loosely and carelessly. For example, under the ideological regime of money-centered consumerist capitalism, certain very wealthy and high-consuming figures may undergo a kind of canonization, and may be painted as some kind of supermen; but no great virtue may be expected from them. But such figures are still constantly upheld as role models which we should aspire to be like, if fate and fortune permit.
Regime Information Control
For an ideological regime to persist in a dominant manner, it is very important that information be carefully controlled. There are various techniques used to insure control. One technique is the publication of impressive-looking volumes or sets of volumes teaching no viewpoint other than the ideology and belief traditions of the ideological regime. For example, the ideological regime of Catholicism published the 15-volume Catholic Encyclopedia which was followed many years later by the 15-volume New Catholic Encyclopedia; and the ideological regime of Marxist-Leninsim published an equally impressive-looking 65-volume set called the Great Soviet Encylcopedia. For decades the ideological regime of Darwinist materialism was promoted by the many volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and the World Book encyclopedia, which would describe many unproven claims as if they were facts. Nowadays wikipedia.org has largely replaced such encyclopedias, and serves as the chief party organ of Darwinist materialism. Similar to such encyclopedias are subject textbooks and journals in which you are indoctrinated in strict accordance to some ideological regime.
In such encyclopedias and textbooks and journals there is almost always a rigorous filtration and control of information, so that the reader gets no information that might disturb his faith in the ideological regime served by the encyclopedia or textbook or journal. So, for example, you will read nothing in the Catholic Encyclopedia that might shake your faith in Catholicism, and there was nothing in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that would shake your faith in Marxism-Leninism. And on wikipedia.org, you will almost never read anything that shakes your faith in the belief doctrines of Darwinist materialism. When such information sources discuss phenomena or viewpoints that conflict with the ideological regime they serve, any discussion will be carefully controlled so that mainly negative information will be served up about the opposing viewpoint or the inconvenient phenomena.
Historically, the most rigid ideological regimes have controlled information by out-and-out censorship, in which the publication of opposing viewpoints was legally forbidden. Under medieval Catholicism, opposing viewpoints might have been forbidden by laws prohibiting heresy or blasphemy, or edicts banning specific works. Under less rigid ideological regimes, there is no censorship in the form of absolute prevention of any form of publication. But under such ideological regimes, various forms of near-censorship can occur. For example, during the 1950's you would have found it all but impossible to get published in an American newspaper an editorial challenging the basic premises of money-centered consumerist capitalism.
One such technique is to constantly claim that nothing can have observational validity unless it is published in a peer-reviewed journal, and then to have a system wherein secret votes of anonymous peer reviewers can prevent publication in such journals. This can make sure that the journals act as biased information silos that only present findings in accordance with the belief traditions of the ideological regime.
It often happens that phenomena will appear that seemingly cannot be well-explained within the context of an ideological regime's ideology. Below are some examples:
(1) People may report seeing apparitions of the dead, or having dramatic near-death experiences in which they float out of their bodies, contrary to the ideology of Darwinist materialism.
(2) Dissidents may arise in a Marxist-Leninist regime, complaining about their lack of rights and the poor quality of their living conditions.
(3) Mediums may report contact with deceased people, contrary to the beliefs of some religious group that the dead are silent and unconscious, waiting for some moment of physical resurrection following apocalyptic events.
(4) Many people may report being very happy even though living in small living quarters and consuming little, contrary to the constant encouragements of those upholding the regime of money-centered consumerist capitalism.
In such cases, there may occur a process by which an ideological regime may try to explain the troubling phenomenon by using explanations consistent within its own ideology. We may call this "explanatory ingestion." For example:
(1) One of the authorities of Darwinist materialism may try to explain apparition sightings and near-death experiences as mere neural hallucinations, conveniently ignoring the fact that near-death experiences often occur during cardiac arrest in which there is no neural activity, the fact that apparition sightings often occur suddenly to those with no history of hallucinations, and the fact that there are many cases of multiple witnesses reporting a sighting of the same apparition.
(2) A Marxist-Leninist regime may try to explain the speech of dissidents as "sluggish schizophrenia," or perhaps some speech provoked by those taking money from foreign agents in capitalist countries.
(3) A religious group believing that the dead are silent and unconscious may try to explain messages reported by psychic mediums as being caused not by the deceased on some Other Side but by demons trying to deceive humans.
(4) People living very happily with low incomes and small living quarters may be explained away by consumerist capitalists as being drug users or lost-in-their-own-heads "losers" or low achievers with "bad taste" or people with a lack of "culture" or "high style" claimed to be found in more high-spending people that are applauded for their financial success, no matter what mental or personal or moral price they paid to obtain their gaudy glamorous lifestyle.
An ideological regime will be more successful if it has some visual images it can use to remind people of its belief system. Catholicism has a rich tradition of such iconic visuals, many of them centered around images of the Virgin Mary. Protestantism favors many visual depictions of Jesus. In Darwinist materialism there is a constant use of a visual showing a line of progression from monkeys to men. In Marxism-Leninism there were frequent visuals of workers gazing upward, the left hand holding a tool, and the right hand raised in a clenched fist to symbolize revolutionary fervor. In the ideological regime of money-centered consumerist capitalism, a favored visual is some multi-millionaire relaxing in front of the huge pool in his mansion, or maybe leaning against his fancy car parked in front of his mansion.
Ideological Regimes Tend to Be Long-Lasting
In general, ideological regimes tend to persist for long times, often for centuries. The iron chains of conformist peer pressure are very hard for humans to shake. But in my lifetime I have seen one major ideological regime collapse, that of Marxism-Leninism. In the 1970's I would have predicted that such a regime would persist throughout my life. What is amazing is the speed with which Marxism-Leninism fell in Russia, despite having so many seemingly zealous supporters. The lesson from this is that something hailed as a universal consensus in a large part of the globe may rather quickly end up being discarded by most of its supporters. Apparently the hypnotic spell of groupthink can rather quickly be broken, once people on the bandwagon begin to notice that lots of other people are jumping off of the bandwagon.
Postscript: A very interesting book making observations similar to that of this post is the 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. You can read the book online here. While I found many of the book's observations to be perceptive, I thought its terminology was a bit confusing. The book uses the term "universe" in the same way that I used the term "ideological regime." I much prefer the latter term, since people are too likely to think of the physical universe when hearing the term "universe." Below is a quote from the book, describing a clash of two ideological regimes (called "universes"), in which one threatens the dominance of another:
"The alternative universe presented by the other society must be met with the best possible reasons for the superiority of one’s own. This necessity requires a conceptual machinery of considerable sophistication. The appearance of an alternative symbolic universe poses a threat because its very existence demonstrates empirically that one’s own universe is less than inevitable.... Individuals or groups within one’s own society might be tempted to ‘emigrate’ from the traditional universe or, even more serious a danger, to change the old order in the image of the new....It is important to stress that the conceptual machineries of universe-maintenance are themselves products of social activity, as are all forms of legitimation, and can only rarely be understood apart from the other activities of the collectivity in question. Specifically, the success of particular conceptual machineries is related to the power possessed by those who operate them. The confrontation of alternative symbolic universes implies a problem of power - which of the conflicting definitions of reality will be ‘made to stick’ in the society. Two societies confronting each other with conflicting universes will both develop conceptual machineries designed to maintain their respective universes. From the point of view of intrinsic plausibility the two forms of conceptualization may seem to the outside observer to offer little choice. Which of the two will win, however, will depend more on the power than on the theoretical ingenuity of the respective legitimators."