Responding to Confirmation Bias

Sometimes when I am discussing Christianity with internet atheists, the time will come when they kind of throw their hands up in frustration at me. “Oh – you are just blinded by your confirmation bias. I’ve done my best with you.” So – what is “confirmation bias”? Well – it involves cherry picking the best bits for ourselves. It’s about wanting something to be true, and so being unable to see any alternative viewpoint that could call your belief into question. Psychology Today defines it like this:

Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking.[1]

Now – whenever someone accuses me of confirmation bias, I want to scratch my chin in a skeptical way and say, “Hmmm!” Why do I want to do that?

It’s not because I think I am immune from confirmation bias. I know very well that I am not. The reason I become dubious at this point is because the other person has suddenly started talking like THEY are personally immune from the very thing they are accusing me of – confirmation bias!

Here is the thing – EVERYONE is vulnerable to confirmation bias. Whatever view we take, whether we believe God exists or are convinced he does not. The challenge for people when approaching problems and seeking solutions to them is – to minimize the effect of confirmation bias. And – I have worked hard to do this in my own life. I have not done this perfectly, but I want to do this, and I will continue to work at it.

Here are three good ways to reduce the risk of confirmation bias in life:

First – study multiple sides of an issue. This takes time and effort, but it is invaluable. I have spent the last five years studying for two Masters Degrees and – let me tell you – you don’t get far unless you are willing to listen to other people and be willing to respond to their claims. This builds an important skill, and crucially it helps us to reduce the risk that we will fall into confirmation bias again.

Second – think in terms of arguments. I don’t mean stand up rows with people. Rather, by an argument I mean form your position based on logical premises and conclusions that follow from the premises. I’m not saying you can deduce the truth of Christianity this way. But you can form many many cogent inductive arguments that support Christianity’s claims by appealing to every facet of life. From nature, history, science, etc. You can also form many arguments that call Christianity into question, and when you do that, you can form responses to them. This is what I try to do in my writing. Dr. Heshmat from Psychology Today thinks this is a very healthy way to live, because it develops, “the ability to look at the world without looking for instances that please your ego.”[2]

Third – be willing to have your mind changed on an issue. So, someone might say I simply want the Bible to be true, and so I look for things that confirm that desire in an intellectually plausible way. Well – I do think that so far in my life, my work in exploring the evidence for and against the truth of Christianity – makes my decision to BE a Christian the sensible one. I find excellent evidence across the disciplines to support it, and the arguments against the truth of Christianity tend to be much weaker to my mind, relying on a commitment to naturalistic thinking that is not itself justifiable.

So – yes, I stake my life on the truth of Christianity. BUT – I could change my mind on that if there were excellent reasons to do so. If better evidence came to light, for example, against the historical grounding of Christianity. I could overturn my thinking then. That would be the most honest thing to do. But – it would take VERY strong evidence to get me there, better than the evidence from antiquity we currently have. I am not someone who says, “You could never convince me otherwise.” Hey – I’m just little old me. I don’t know everything. I could be mistaken.

To the atheist, I ask the same. The average atheist I encounter is committed to the non-truth of Christianity and will look for anything to bolster their position, however weak the argument is revealed to be on further scrutiny. I would ask of the atheist the same thing I ask of myself. That some circumstance would exist where they could change their mind on the God issue.

Conclusion

In my blog and my podcast I work hard to present arguments rather than just asserting statements. For example, I am not interested in something like, “God exists. Change my mind.” Ok – it’s a popular meme. But its entirely unhelpful. Why? Because it’s about one person with confirmation bias – asking another person to unconvinced them!! This is not a helpful approach to discussing anything. We need to deal in the currency of arguments. And the stronger the argument, the healthier the opinion and the better the discussion. Good, cogent arguments are healthy, and when we think in this way, we resist the temptation of confirmation bias.

Back to internet atheists. The irony is that everyone of these people I have ever spoken to wants to convince me that Christian belief is wrong and God does not exist, or at least there’s not enough evidence to claim that he does. And so anyone who says he does (me) is automatically suspect. Well – my response to this is – enough with assertions. I have read enough internet atheist assertions (like – ‘there is not enough evidence that gods exist,’ or, ‘there’s no evidence the events in the gospels occurred.’) These are bare assertions. Let’s see your argument and let’s be willing together to examine the assumptions of your argument, weigh those assumptions, and have your claims challenged in a rational and respectful way. And when we do – lets recognize together that what we are doing is very good and healthy. Because it challenges the tendency toward confirmation bias in us both.


[1] Shahram Heshmat, What is Confirmation Bias?, Psychology Today, April 23, 2015, accessed 23rd October 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias.

[2] Ibid.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

2 thoughts on “Responding to Confirmation Bias”

  1. It is not confirmation bias if you falsifiability, which Christianity has in principle. Thanks for the excellent post.

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