/

Christians, atheists and confirmation bias

November 21st, 2013

Horse with blinkers

“Confirmation bias …. is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way …. [or] interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.” (Wikipedia)

Atheists often accuse christians of confirmation bias, but we all do it to some degree – it is part of developing a consistent world view. But sometimes it obscures the truth.

Confirmation bias and christians

I have looked at this before (Is truth the first casualty in the atheist-christian wars?):

  • Many christians are very selective about the science they accept, often ignoring the strong evidence for evolution (see Evolution and God and Evolution and its critics).
  • Many christians say archaeology confirms the truth of the Old Testament, whereas archaeologists have found that it supports some aspects (e.g. from the period of the monarchy) but doesn’t support others (the exodus from Egypt and the invasion of Canaan).
  • Some christians claim remarkable success for Old Testament prophecy, but in reality, while some Old Testament prophecy is very remarkable, other prophecies are not so clearly fulfilled.

But there are other examples:

Climate change

Scepticism about climate change is not confined to conservative christians, but it is common among them. Despite the evidence of the current weather patterns, and the strong consensus among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is occurring, and action needs to be taken now to reduce future impacts, many christians prefer to believe the minority of sceptics, many of them not reputable scientists at all.

Bible consistency

The Bible is highly valued by christians, but what do we do with apparent inconsistencies such as between the four gospels, and in the teachings and historical accounts of the Old Testament? Some christians believe the Bible is without error, even though it doesn’t actually claim this, but this leads to some convoluted explanations. These may all be correct understandings, but it doesn’t seem that way.

I can’t help feeling it would be better to simply accept the Bible as it is, taking into account all the evidence, including the apparent inconsistencies, and base our view of the Bible on what it actually is rather than what we think it ought to be. (I think this is good advice for sceptics as well as believers.)

Confirmation bias and atheists

Again, I have looked at a few examples in Is truth the first casualty in the atheist-christian wars?:

  • The apparent appearance of the universe out of nothing, and Lawrence Krauss misrepresenting quantum physics to attempt to show how it could be done.
  • Despite almost all secular historians concluding that Jesus lived in first century Palestine and the Gospels are useful historical sources for his life, a huge number of internet ‘sceptics’ maintain that he never existed.
  • Many sceptics also believe the stories of Jesus are legends based on legends of pagan gods, despite this view being rejected by historians.
  • Many sceptics argue that the church has always opposed science and the Middle Ages were a time of intellectual stagnation, despite historians concluding otherwise.

And, again, there are more examples ….

More cosmology

As I outlined in my previous post, retired physicist and committed atheist Victor Stenger has gone against the consensus of cosmologists that universal fine-tuning is a well established scientific fact, still to be explained. Stenger appears to be under the misunderstanding that because most cosmologists don’t necessarily believe that God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning, fine-tuning hasn’t occurred.

Many atheists have followed Stenger in misunderstanding or rejecting the established science, presumably because it might be seen to offer support for the existence of God.

Religion poisons everything?

Christopher Hitchens famously said that religion poisons everything, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Stephen Weinberg said: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

It is true that religious people have done some nasty things, but:

  • some of the worst cases of war and mass killing have been perpetrated by atheists (e.g. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot); and
  • numerous studies show that religious belief is generally (though not always) associated with a whole range of positive behaviours and good mental and physical health.

So Hitchens and Weinberg, and a whole host of other atheists, base their views on what they think should be true rather than the actual evidence.

Healing miracles

Philosopher David Hume argued that no miracle could be so convincing that we should believe it – there must always be a more likely explanation. But this is only true if one considers miracles singly. If there are many, many miracles, then the probabilities change.

Craig Keener has estimated from surveys that more than 300 million christians claim to have experienced or observed a miracle, and if only a small number of these are plausible this constitutes strong evidence for God’s action in the world.

Yet it is very hard to get atheists to investigate the evidence, it seems they’d rather believe Hume instead.

Avoiding confirmation bias

It is natural that we all have some loyalty to our existing opinions, and it would be silly to change our mind every time a new idea comes along. But it doesn’t seem right to distort the evidence by confirmation bias.

To avoid it, we’ve got to want to. Both christians and atheists have to want to know the truth more than strengthen their existing view. I don’t suppose we will ever achieve it perfectly, but as a christian, I think we need to be open to new truths. Questions and doubts can be the gateway to new understandings.

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc

6 Comments

  1. People who don’t believe in God find it far easier to contemplate us being part of The Matrix (ie an artificial world manipulated by aliens or other beings) than to face-up to the cosmological argument as presented by William Lane-Craig for example. But philosophically they are very similar. The association of God with the latter brings huge amounts of unpleasant ideological baggage that make it very tough to be open to the idea. I dare say that if the majority of the planet fervently believed in manipulative aliens then the former would be just as unpalatable. So it is vital that arguments are not overextended in their implications by either the proponent or the listener.

  2. I would like to point out that even if Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were atheists, their motives didn’t occur from atheism nor they justifided their actions with it, unlike e.g. witch hunts or religious terrorism which were and still are caused by religious people. These dictators wanted to be on the top of everything, to be the absolute authority to their people and a consept of a higher power was a threat to this goal. Some of them even demanded to be worshipped like in a religious cult which suggests that their actions were more likely inspired by religion, although their main objective was simply to acquire power and wealth.

  3. Hi “Just Me”, thanks for visiting and commenting. I see two “issues” about what you say here:

    1. It would be possible to excuse church leaders of the past in a similar way, by arguing that the evil they did was not a result of their christian belief (after all, it was contrary to the teachings of Jesus). It then becomes a matter of applying different standards to the viewpoint we agree with compared to the viewpoint we disagree with – which is the point of my post.

    I think the truth is that people act out of complex motives, and simplifying down to just one is inaccurate.

    2. I have seen references to both Lenin and Hoxha (communist leader of Albania) indicating that they were indeed committing murder and mayhem because of their atheism. So I think historical evidence is against what you say.

  4. I would like to point out that even if Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were atheists, their motives didn’t occur from atheism nor they justifided their actions with it, unlike e.g. witch hunts or religious terrorism which were and still are caused by religious people.

    I was wondering why you added “even if” for people whose atheism is completely uncontroversial. While their violent ideology is indeed accidental to atheism, atheism was inherent to their violent ideology, which received its brutal anti-religious tenets from Leninist avant-garde doctrine. So saying atheism didn’t motivate them is a bit troublesome as UnkleE said, because their atheism was definitely a motivation for their anti-religious policies.

    These dictators wanted to be on the top of everything, to be the absolute authority to their people and a consept of a higher power was a threat to this goal. Some of them even demanded to be worshipped like in a religious cult which suggests that their actions were more likely inspired by religion, although their main objective was simply to acquire power and wealth.

    This is a little perverse. A pothead dictator insisting on systematic groveling and adulation falls rather short of being a full-fledged religion, “cults” included. The comparison to religion is therefore unconvincing, not to say it comes across as a backhanded tactic of several prominent atheists, as if the evils of anti-religious dictators have to be traced to religion nevertheless. But we call that blaming the victim.

  5. When an external source of information conflicts with the internal psychological balance of a human – eg. support for human evolution via fossil record VS Christian ideology, you get cognitive dissonance. It appears that the strong desire of the individual to force a realignment of internal wellbeing through support for established beliefs about existence must have some evolutionary benefit for survival as it seems the default setting for many people worldwide. It is all to do with strengthening/securing the sense of self and appears the human mind cannot cope with two opposing views being internally established at once… the only other option is to merely say, “All I truly know is that I am ignorant but I am seeking truth.”

  6. Hi Whitehawk, thanks for reading and commenting. If cognitive dissonance is an evolutionary coping strategy as you suggest, do you think tit is one that is still helpful today?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *