"Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking." -- Mark Twain
I have recently read an essay by Mark Twain, in which he proposes that most of our public opinions have their roots in the desire for conformity. He calls them "corn-pone opinions," on the authority of a young philosopher who said to him, in his youth, "You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is." Here is some of what Mark Twain wrote, in the year 1901 -- I have broken it into paragraphs, for easier reading:
"The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. The Smiths like the new play; the Joneses go to see it, and they copy the Smith verdict. Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking.
"A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life – even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man's self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter.
"Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.
"Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity. Sometimes conformity has a sordid business interest – the bread-and-butter interest – but not in most cases, I think. I think that in the majority of cases it is unconscious and not calculated; that it is born of the human being's natural yearning to stand well with his fellows and have their inspiring approval and praise – a yearning which is commonly so strong and so insistent that it cannot be effectually resisted, and must have its way."
So: our public opinions are, according to Mark Twain, mostly "a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies."
This notion could disturb two different kinds of modern thinkers in America, the merely secular and the more religious.
The modern secular public mind in America (and I am a modern American) considers itself to be a "reasoning and examining" one. It supposes that it reflects, in matters of philosophy, a careful skepticism; in politics, "studying the issues"; in science and technology, the most careful and exacting methodology; in industry, process control and quality assurance; in business, statistics and forecasting; in marketing, research and "product placement"; in medicine, careful diagnosis and effective treatment; and so on, throughout the vocations and the professions.
And the sincere religious mind (which I share) is likewise imagined to be a "reasoning and examining" one: studying our sacred scriptures and comparing them with science and history; drawing inferences and deductions from our scriptures and "applying them to our lives"; comparing and contrasting our beliefs with the beliefs of others; and so on, throughout the denominations and the traditions.
How much of our secular thinking is more governed by merely cultural considerations of approval, advancement, and prestige, rather than considerations of quality and truth?
How many of our religious opinions are drawn merely from "presuppositions" and untested notions of people around us, rather than from an authentic experience of man, nature, and God?
Of course, Mark Twain wrote this over a century ago, and maybe "corn-pone opinions" have passed away from the now-much-more-enlightened American mind, as corn-pone itself has passed away from the now-much-more-corporate American diet, making his observations irrelevant to the twenty-first century.