Monday, 25 July 2011

Confirmation Bias

Looking back, I realize one of the reasons I felt so energized, during this period, was because of, what teachers affectionately call, "the joy of learning". Here I was, in my 30's, thinking in new ways about some of the deeper questions of life; questions I had always been keenly interested in. Intellectually speaking, this was both satisfying and scary, and in nearly equal measures. Besides, as a Christian, weren't these things I had already figured out? Why did it no longer feel that way?

Growing up, my father had always taught me to be careful about what I read, lest the devil gain a "foothold", inside my mind, and lead me astray. It wasn't just something he said, it was something I saw him live out. I often remember my Dad (a Christian minister) with a book in hand, but never once can I recall him reading from someone who held a perspective much different from his own. I actually pointed this out to him, not long ago, and, rather than admitting to the bias, he mentioned some tiny difference he had (with the author he was currently reading) on an incredibly minor point of Christian theology. Suffice it to say, this only served to confirm my previous suspicions about him in this respect.

So, was my Dad right? Is it truly dangerous to expose yourself to new ideas? Might you be "led astray" by doing so? Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. But is this a bad thing? I no longer believe it is. In fact, to the contrary, I now think that we should (all of us) make an active effort to read from people on the "other side" of a given issue. We need to do this because of something called confirmation bias, a concept I was only starting to become familiar with at this stage of my de-conversion journey.

Wikipedia describes confirmation bias as, "a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall from memeory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way." (Bolding mine) In other words, we pay more attention to information we already agree with, even going so far as to seek it out, and we additionally find ways to ignore (or rationalize) the stuff that doesn't jive well with our current opinions. A double whammy. The important thing to understand here, is that we ALL do it, and we do it a lot. Every day, day in and day out, year after year after year. This is a great way to avoid information overload, which is a legitimate concern, especially in today's society, but it is a terrible method for getting at the truth.

So, what does all of this have to do with my personal journey to atheism? Well, it explains why I felt so guitly, especially at the beginning, about reading (even learning!) from "secular" sources. It also marked a significant shift in my thinking...away from fear (the devil might lead me astray) and toward a broader understanding of issues that were closely tied to Christianity's truth claims (for example, the findings of scholars who study the Bible using the historical-critical method).

Also, from a spiritual standpoint, I found myself (privately) asking questions like, "Well, if Chrisitianity really is true, than shouldn't it be able to withstand being challenged? Doesn't the truth win out, in the end, when you seek it with an honest heart? Could God possibly not want me to learn new things? What sort of God would this even be? An anti-intellectual God? Or was He just trying to protect me from things that us humans aren't capable of understanding? Was He in fact more powerful than Satan, or not? Than why was I so afraid of new information?" After all, I had, at this point, been a Christian for more than 25 years, so it's not like I was naiive or a "baby" in the faith.

These are the sorts of things I was thinking (and praying fervently) about and, although I was unaware of it, the stage was being set for an even greater challenge to my faith. I'll write about that in my next post...


  1. Hello, Respectful Atheist. I'm from the other site (Examiningmyfaith). First I'll introduce myself. My name is Grace, I'm a Christian, and I'm currently in the "Joys of Learning" stage. After having taken a class on Philosophy and Theology, I too have a thirst for knowlege, and I am reexamining my beliefs (as well as political beliefs) to see if my beliefs are my own or if it was just handed down to me. Having gotten this far, I have seen areas where they may change. The philosophy class (which I took at a Christian college) started me on my journey, but it wasn't until my husband Dave and I ran into a friend who had deconverted that really made me dig deeper. Like you, I was excited yet scared of what I might find. But I made up my mind that I needed to see if my beliefs were false, and I have already found the answer to the most important question to me-Is it plausible that God exists?

    I believe that some churches do discourage their members from seeking on their own for fear that they would find that many of what they taught was misinterpreted or plain unscriptural. I came from an independent fundamental baptist denomination, and growing up it seemed like all you had to do was breathe and you sinned. But not all churches are like that. Our church actually offers a class in apologetics, and there are many Christians that should take one because like me a couple of years ago, they wouldn't know how to defend their faith. No, I do not believe God is anti-intellectual; there is a verse that says to be ready to give an answer. I do see it as fallible man's attempt (preachers, church leaders) to control the things and people around them. Believe me, I graduated from Pensacola Christian College, and at the time (they may have changed), they wanted to control every aspect of your their student body's lives.

  2. Regarding "confirmation bias"-yes, I believe everyone has it (unless you were exposed to many cultures and many faiths) because that is the only thing they know alot about. Although there is confirmation bias, people still have the ability to convert to other worldviews which we see all the time. I had a college atheist tell me that I believe what I believe because that was what I was indoctrinated with (as if that was a negative thing), and then he proceeds to tell me of atheist books he's read and podcasts he's listened to. I guess he didn't know he was being I doctrinated by the atheist worldview.

  3. Respectful Atheist16 August 2011 at 22:48

    Hey Grace (do you prefer Grace or Graceus?),

    Welcome to my blog! I appreciate your candor, and I hear where you're coming from (thanks for being so transparent). Avoiding confirmation bias is ongoing, so we need to make a fresh decision every day to try and understand how the "opposite side" is thinking on issues and why they disagree with us.

    The really tough part is remaining open to the fact that we could be entirely wrong, in even the things we feel most certain about (this is challenging, no doubt, but it's the only way to go if you ask me...the feeling of certainty is just an emotion, and nothing more).

    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

    (PS--I also posted a long winded repsonse to your comments over at Examining my Faith :))