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Why 1 In 5 Americans Believes President Obama Is a Muslim

I wish it were as surprising as it is disturbing that nearly 20% of Americans now believe President Obama is a Muslim, but it’s not. Nor is it simply possible to explain the situation by asserting that that many Americans are kooks or idiots for believing it to be true, even though it is certainly not. So what is going on?

In a culture increasingly unable to distinguish between available data and reliable information, more and more Americans will think themselves justified in holding beliefs which have no basis in fact. And it is the glut of available data, available in far greater quantity and with far greater speed than most of us can handle intelligently, which contributes to the spread of absurd notions such as the one reported by this recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

One might attribute the rise in those who think the president is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009, to Mr. Obama’s recent comments affirming the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks, but the poll was conducted before the president made those remarks. And the idea that these numbers are related to Mr. Obama backing away from his beliefs as a Christian has no support either, having given numerous speeches in the past 18 months in which he has spoken about his personal religious beliefs.

It has been said that the only difference between perception and reality is that it’s harder to change perception, and never has that been truer than it is right now. All of us have access to any information we seek with a few simple clicks of a mouse. But the fact that something is available to us doesn’t make it true and certainly doesn’t make it good for us. In fact, the more choices that we have as consumers of any product, and especially so when it comes to information, the more discriminating we must become as consumers.

In the case of the growing numbers of people who believe that President Obama is a Muslim, that means asking ourselves questions about how we came to hold whatever belief we have on the matter, upon what sources do we base the contention, do they include sources of information which differ from our own political views, and does our opinion about the president’s religious persuasion simply confirm all of our other opinions about him?

Answering those kinds of questions is how we move from being brain-dead propagandists who simply seek the “facts” which confirm that which we already believe, to intelligent consumers in a world suffering from too much available information and too little wisdom to know how to assess it. 

Happily, we can all cultivate the needed wisdom by simply slowing down, gathering views from multiple perspectives and remembering that it’s not possible for any of us to be right all of the time. In fact, if you are never wrong, you are never learning, and unless you think you are God, there is always more to learn.

People need not approve of President Obama or anything he does, but when our beliefs about who he is are detached from reality, even the legitimate critiques we may have, can be written off as the ravings of fools. In a culture which thrives on intelligent critique, as all democracies do, that would be tragic.

The Internet demands new skills from us. Once upon a time, we fought hard to obtain bits of information in a world where news traveled slowly and even then reached only a select elite. That too was bad for democracy. Happily, that era has passed.

Now we must shift from being miners chiseling out precious nuggets of news, to sharp-eyed sifters who can distinguish between precious facts and the fool’s gold of cheap propaganda. When that shift happens, the country will be stronger, whoever happens to be president and whatever faith they happen to follow.

Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.