Does Being Religious Make You Narrow-minded?


I remember having a conversation with a missionary of a different faith when I was living in the Pangasinan province of the Philippines.  We got to a juncture where it was clear that we disagreed on something.  Her helpful comment?  “I am right and your are wrong.”  Classy.

Holy Simpletons

I have always hated this about some religious people.  They often tend to be the most annoyingly narrow people I come across.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have always seen myself as religious.  (Yes, for those that prefer the term “spiritual”, I see myself as a spiritual person.) But what is it about religion that draws the intolerant and the simpleminded?  The types that have to be right?  It’s nauseating.

Give and Take

I believe in a higher power.  I believe that life has meaning in and of itself and that I do not “create” its beauty and texture, I discover it.  I could go into a long list of the things that I believe in but I have never seen CultureMutt as a place to score any sectarian points.

I am, however, very interested in promoting understanding and patience between people of different cultures and beliefs.  I really enjoy some give and take, some mutual learning.  I am always interested in ways that people from diverse faith and cultural backgrounds can actually dialogue.

Is the Answer to be Agnostic?

I certainly sympathize with agnostics who simply do not believe that truth is knowable.  To a certain extent, I agree.  Truth, in its perfect, ultimate form is not something I believe we will ever grasp.  But I certainly want to be open to discovering more and more of it as I go through life.  Is my faith getting in the way of this?  Is the fact that I am actually a member of a Christian denomination (Seventh-day Adventist, to be exact), a hindrance to my discovery of truth?

People have different reactions when I ask this kind of question.  There are some who, being believers themselves, immediately get on the defensive.  “How could you say such a thing?  You have the truth don’t take that so lightly!”  I’ve met other churchgoers who are more sympathetic.  They say that it is a good thing to be open to a fuller understanding of life, reality and truth.  I’ll let you guess which type I associate with when I go to church.

The Flip Side

But enough scrutiny of the churchgoers.  I have found equally narrow-minded people that profess no faith whatsoever.  They are religiously convinced that religion and any articulation / organized understanding of reality has to be wrong. They write it off before even considering it.  It kind of reminds me of political diehards (myself included from time to time) that are so busy calling out the other side for their partisan narrowness that they forget to remove the plank in their own failed policy eye.

The antidote to narrow-mindedness then, can’t be the mere act of embracing or rejecting religion.  In a way, your status as far as faith is concerned is not the point.  Your willingness to experiment and to be generous enough to give others 50% chance of being right is where it has to start.  Is this messier than the blessed assurance of those that think they have it all or those that are dead set on disallowing any chance of truth’s discovery?  Of course.  But what good is assurance if it is built on blinkered, sinking sand?



Bjorn Karlman

29 thoughts on “Does Being Religious Make You Narrow-minded?”

  1. I think the last part of your post nailed it on the head. Narrow-mindedness is a part of human nature. It is our default unless we combat it. Religion is just one of many ways to be narrow-minded. What’s the cure? Probably an inquisitive mind that wants to learn more. After you have changed your mind on a million questions that you once were absolutely convinced of, you become more open to the possibility that you probably are still wrong about a few things. But this can also lead to complete agnosticism, which takes away all incentive to seek for truth.

    People generally don’t understand that our reasoning ability is not absolute and is very much paradigm-driven. We filter through information subconsciously, retaining only what fits within our paradigm. What I find sad is that people so flippantly will give up an inspired paradigm (the Bible) for a fallible paradigm (their own personal creation) because they have trouble understanding something. I say: be quick to give up your own opinions, but slow to give up what is clearly revealed in God’s word. If a person has this settled, they won’t be affraid to dialogue with people who see things totally differently. They won’t feel threatened because their anchor is sure.

    So this conclusion might go against conventional wisdom: but I say that a high view of the Bible and a low view of one’s own opinions makes one less narrow-minded. This doesn’t mean that I answer everyone with a “thus saith the Lord”, it just means that I’m not afraid of new information, since I am convinced that ultimately, God’s word will be found true and will be able to incorporate all sound data – so I don’t have to be afraid of that data.

    I have found that narrow-minded religious people generally don’t seek to understand the Bible seriously. They may read it day and night, but they don’t try to apply it to reality in a serious and careful way. They just insulate themselves from reality with broad-stroke generalisations. This shows lack of faith in the Bible.

    1. “be quick to give up your own opinions, but slow to give up what is clearly revealed in God’s word.”

      What qualifies something as being “clearly revealed in God’s word”? What do you do with all of the theological debate? Shouldn’t there be a certain humility about interpretations of religious texts…?

      1. In law, there is no question that some texts are clear and some are ambiguous. It`s called the plain-meaning principle and although it doesn`t have the clout it use to, it is still a very important principle of interpretation. The whole civilist tradition is based on the notion that a text can be plainly understood. Not everything is an interpretation, sometimes it’s just what the text says. This is basic literary interpretation. Otherwise, communication by writing would be impossible.

        On top of that(when interpretation is needed)¸ you have volumes of stories in the Bible that shed light on the imperatives it contains. This would be analogous to the role of jurisprudence in law. You also have the foundational principle of selfless love as demonstrated by Jesus, which must be used in interpretation. Law also uses foundational principles in order to interpret texts. Were people go wrong is where they insert their own selfish version of love rather than honestly seeking Jesus` version of love.

        I am truly convinced that unless one has personally chosen to put God first in their life and sacrifice self for the salvation of others, they cannot really understand the Bible because they have no understanding of it’s foundational principle. This is where I start when I have a disagreement with someone.

        So yes, the Bible can be understood if we let it interpret itself. I don`t think that can be reasonably contested. The internal consistency of the book is phenomenal and the underlying narrative is compelling.

        1. I have to add: having a high view of the Bible and of what it plainly says does not mean having a completely close-minded view of the Bible. I am willing to follow truth wherever it leads, even if it lead away from the Bible. But because of the amazing evidence in favor of the Bible, I applie a beyond a reasonable doubt burden of proof to whatever contradicts it. I`m not just going to give it up on a whim.

        2. I hear what you are saying Jonathan. And rather than going back and forth about clear vs ambiguous passages I guess my burden is that we realize that so often things are not nearly as clear as a particular community wishes them to be. I feel like communities, religious or not, suffer from groupthink far too much and this can obviously be a huge turnoff.

          1. you’re right. but its important to define the problem well before we try to come to a solution. A reactive, poorly thought out solution will probably make things worse. I think we need to focus on application. I would say that most of the Bible is clear in the principles it teaches. It’s application that is tricky and this is where group think needs to be avoided and great humility is warranted. But a person trying to suggest that we just put the Bible on par with our limited and narrow personal experience clearly has lost all basis for thought. The Bible needs to be maintained in the position of authority it deserves. But we must also acknowledge our great fallibility in applying its principles and have bigger ears than mouths in this area.

            1. Jonathan, I hear you. And I feel like your logic makes sense as long as the authority of the Bible is recognized.

              On the other hand, a careful intellectual who does not believe in any supernatural inspiration will want to view the text without what they will see as a Christian bias.

              Do you feel this qualifies said intellectual as “a person trying to suggest that we just put the Bible on par with our limited and narrow personal experience”?

              Because they will definitely not conclude that denying the idea of divine inspiration has “clearly has lost all basis for thought”…

  2. “The antidote to narrow-mindedness then, can’t be the mere act of embracing or rejecting religion” – Well put.

      1. Awww thanks Bjorn! You are a BRILLIANT brother and did a FANTASTIC job of being Master of Ceremonies. Love you too!

  3. I have to agree with Jonathan and Karin. I think that there are too many narrow minded people. Religious or not. Can we ignore them? Can we make them see things as we do? Can we change them? No, probably not. But doesn’t that make us narrow minded too, if we don’t listen to their opinions? Yes it does. Everyone, to one extent or another, IS narrow minded! Myself included in that statement. I know what I believe, in religion and in life, and I won’t listen to a lot of things that don’t go with what I have learned from the bible, my parents, my teachers and life experiences. So, in fact, I am one of the most narrow minded people that I know. I am also bull headed. My major problem with a lot of “religious”people is how hypocritical they are and can be. One kind of a person in church, completely different person outside the walls of the church, as if God doesn’t see them when they aren’t in church. But that will have to be on another culture mutt comment. I can, and do, go on once I get started. Right Bjorn?

    1. “I can, and do, go on once I get started.” – That’s why we love you, Marianne!

      And I hear you on the hypocrisy… I have definitely slipped into it a lot myself:)

  4. One of the great issues I see connected to all of this is where the focus is. Why is our focus have to be on truth?

    In the case of Christianity some are spending hours, days, weeks, even a lifetime building a case for his or her version of “truth” and that then becomes some sort of standard that other people, if not the world, are measured by.

    Why not focus on God, His love, His revelation, His actions and let truth grow as our exposure and understanding of Him grows. The problem is that many Christians are building their theological “compound” on truth instead of on God.

    Truth will rise and fall on your ability to defend it, and trust me, there is always going to be some smarter person out there who has read more books, watched more videos, written more blogs on the subject than you and when that person comes around and tears at your warm and cuddly “truth” and exposes the flaws in it then what do you have?

    I choose to build my life on God. That way I can consider any other aspects of truth, belief systems, or theories and I have nothing to worry about. All these new elements that I have learned over the years have given me insight into what I believe to be true and I have made some adjustments to what I believe but the core still remains: God loves me.

    1. Interesting… so are you basically saying that you prioritize the experiential to the doctrinal when it comes to your approach to faith?

      1. If we separate the experience from the doctrinal aren’t we then saying that God is only cerebral? I wouldn’t say that one is greater than the other. They both must exist together. Instead of thinking one should dominate I like to see it as a dance where both things interact and something beautiful comes of it. Now the results of the dance is almost never “truth”. Mostly it brings more curiosity and questions and a greater realization that God is bigger than any definitions, explanations or feeble attempts at truth we ever make.

        1. “see it as a dance where both things interact and something beautiful comes of it” I like it… you should develop your theology of dance… the Sevvies would definitely benefit from it:)

  5. If you look at Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (, you can see how religion facilitates narrow-mindedness. This type of thinking applies to other areas of thinking as well. Biblical obsession actually prevents one from thinking, because there is a serious fear that by using thoughts that aren’t bible quotes, one is treading a dangerous path that may lead to other non-bible quote thoughts and ideas, which may lead to hell. It’s the slippery slope theory. This type of thinking actually discredits religion to open-minded people, because it conveys the idea that God would not want his followers to think (just drink the kool-aid!) and that he hasn’t given them enough of a brain or enough basic guidance to reasonably think through something that isn’t explicitly spelled out.

    1. Thanks for commenting Sarah! I appreciate your perspective. I have often been concerned about the fact that churches often appeal to reason and thinking for yourself up to a certain point (conversion) but then tend to get very insular and incestuous once someone is in the fold. I do think there are ways around this and that this does not sum up faith but there is definite danger of being blinded by tradition, social pressure, etc within faith communities…

  6. I agree with those who say that religion doesn’t cause people to be narrow-minded; I would say it is people who cause religion to be narrow in focus.

    I also am with those who say the antidote is to love and seek knowledge, and understanding. Keeping an open mind when talking to others and willing to allow your views to be disproven or shown to be false in some way is integral to achieving a greater understanding of the universe as well as each other.

    I appreciate what Jonathan said, though, about placing the Bible on a higher level. True, much of what is in the Bible is open to interpretation, but there is also a great deal of it that is clearly stated and overwhelming supported by the text and context. Even the parts that need some interpreting should be interpreted using the principles found in the clearer portions. Everything isn’t always open for interpretation or for us to impute our own meaning into it. Is there not then a danger that we may inadvertently do this? Certainly, and that is another reason for us to pay attention to those with other opinions and be willing to change our views if proven wrong. But how are we to be proven wrong? If another person’s interpretations of the Bible can be shown to be truer to the original intent of the text than our own.

    I don’t think this principle is unique to religion either. Scientific, philosophical, and sociological, etc. work the same way. You have to begin by accepting something as true (usually empirical data, or the principles of logic), and compare opposing views to see which more closely matches that standard in order to conclude which one is closer to the truth.

    I should also add I don’t think all discussions, religious, or otherwise have to be about proving one persons’ views to be more true than others. As often as not the truth might turn out to be a combination of both views, or something else entirely. And of course it is possible for the focus of a discussion to not be on “finding the truth” at all, but more about just understanding the other person’s views. However, though it is possible to understand where someone is coming from but still disagree with them, I would say in any exchange of ideas it is best for bost sides to be willing to modify their views if those of the other person more clearly adhere to established truths, whether that be empirical data, the Bible, or whatever else both sides might agree to be an established truth.

    Of course, really being open minded would mean will to change our views on whether or not something is an established truth. But as Jonathan pointed out, there would be a heavy burden of proof laid on anyone trying to call into question well-established truths.

    1. Interesting thoughts Micah. That willingness to change your mind if necessary is critical… And most of us find that far too uncomfortable

  7. Narrow-mindedness is definitely a part of human nature as the first commenter said. As someone who used to be Christian and is now atheist/agnostic/non-believing practicing Christian, I definitely don’t see non-believers as any more open-minded than believers. People are open to their own beliefs and to those they sympathize with. They are closed to things they don’t believe or go against what they like or agree with. Because of this, I actually find people who complain about people being close minded more annoying than people who are just close minded. A truly open minded person would be open to those who are close minded because they were able to ascertain genuine understanding.

    1. “Because of this, I actually find people who complain about people being close minded more annoying than people who are just close minded.” No wonder you aren’t a liberal:)

  8. Does narrow-mindedness mean not accepting other ways of thinking/beliefs/practices? Or does it mean not being open to listening? I am certainly open to listening to other ways of understanding and practice and am open to learning, but I am not often open to a change of one of my strongly held ideals. However, I am open to them being challenged. And if the challenge is strong, maybe a change is called for. But being convicted doesn’t have to mean close-minded. Maybe blind commitment is closed, but I at least believe that I see – though maybe only dimly.

    1. Interesting: “if the challenge is strong, maybe a change is called for.”

      What has qualified as a strong challenge to your belief system in the past?

      1. Lets see… overtime I have gone from seeing thing black and white to it becoming quite grey. My views have changed towards homosexuality, the age of the earth, the usefulness of Australia, music, to name a few things.

  9. I think that if you examine beliefs and degrees of open-mindedness, for a long period of time and in a variety of situations, you’ll find that people believe what they want to believe. The desire comes before the belief, and the belief must fit the desire to be adopted. Social skills determine whether a person can have a reasonable discussion about opposing beliefs. I have met very few people who are really concerned with truth alone.

    1. I am really interested in the few people that you HAVE met who are concerned with truth alone. Have they been religious?

      1. One is my husband, and he is suspended in agnosticism. I know others who profess to be solely interested in truth, but they’re much too angry for that to be believable. Come to it, my husband may be the only one who I have known to search for truth without any influence, and he has basically stopped trying because it is a monumental task, which perhaps says something in itself.

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