Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Religion and Confirmation Bias

When people speak of their religion or "faith" what is it of which they really speak? I don't mean to offer this question as a rhetorical one, but rather to beg inquiry as to the nature of the ethical beliefs one holds. Is it a belief in a god that motivates our sense of ethics, or is it our sense of ethics that motivates our belief in a particular god? I've come to think that most religious people would feign the former and practice the latter.

It's always amazed me when people try to personify god's views (whichever god it may be) through their own subjective lens. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've heard a proclamation that started as "My god would never..." Some of this type of talk can be expected between people of separate sects of a religion. Surely Protestants and Catholics (Roman) disagree with each other quite a bit on the nature of Christianity and even who and what god is to some degree. But we even see this behavior between people of the same sect, with supposedly very similar beliefs about the nature of their own religion.

For instance, take any two Catholics who are ostensibly doctrinaire in their beliefs on the catechism. It's completely likely that one may be against homosexual marriage and the other may be for it. Both may believe themselves to be right, morally, even when viewed from the prism of bible itself. These two people share in common one single bible and one single Catholic doctrine (which does address the issue to a large degree). How is it that these two can both be consumed with the righteousness of their conflicting views on this particular subject?

It seems to me that a realistic answer would be that people are not as religious as they appear to be. Or that, in other words, religion may play a more cultural or traditional role which is less informative in and of itself on one's sense of ethics than we may be inclined to believe at first glance. I believe that confirmation bias may be the bridge between one's own (learned) sense of what's ethically and morally acceptable and what is found to be ethically and morally acceptable under the religious doctrine they may expound upon.

One of these people may have grown up in a household where it wasn't acceptable to honor homosexuality whereas the other may have grown up being taught that it's wrong to discriminate based on sexuality. There is a tendency in each of us to parse information with a bias towards beliefs that we were already previously inclined to. In this way, we can see that two people may read from the same bible passages and draw very different conclusions regarding what stance on any given subject is the correct one. The man who believes homosexuality is wrong may look back through some passages in the bible and find an unforgiving and intolerant god whereas the other may look through other passages and find a loving and hospitable god.

This creates quite a few problems from a practical point of view. Certainly a large portion of what is obtained from the bible, ethically, is somewhat nuanced. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that a god would hold two mutually exclusive viewpoints on a given matter either. So here we should be able to surmise that surely one person is right and the other is least in the eyes of the god they share. Is it really the case that people are that uninformed regarding what the bible says or means, or does the phenomenon of confirmation bias play a role?

I believe it not only plays a significant role but is actually the prime motivator behind disagreement. I've come away, in my life-experience, with the contention that people use the bible much like a Ouija board. It simply says and means whatever that person wants it to say or mean most of the time (as is witnessed by the flood of single-passage/quote justifications on religious issues). Confirmation bias, in any other arena, does not surprise me. But in the realm of religion, I have to admit it seems rather counter-intuitive. If your god is presumed to be almighty, and your eternal soul rests with your ability to do as he has asked you to do, then it seems rather silly for people to fold their own predispositions into the matter.

Take the idea of abstinence within the Catholic Church. I can't tell you how many "progressive" Catholics I've heard say something to the effect of, "It's about time that the Church catches up with the rest of the world and accepts contraception!" Now if you have liberal (or in my case classically-liberal) views on sex, it's completely silly for anyone to be against contraception. However, if it is clearly written in the bible that the act of sex is for pro-creation alone, then what sense does it make for progressive Catholics to demand that god's word be changed or ignored? In the most real (or maybe surreal) sense what value does disobeying your perceived god have?

I'm not saying this in an overly-contrived or pedantic way...I'm being very direct and serious. If your cultural and ethical values are found to conflict of the word of your god is it acceptable to simply bend his word and pretend that what he really intended is whatever you happen to believe in? Looking around me, that seems to be the case. One of two pretty deplorable things is happening here. Either people are seeing the word of god and choosing to often ignore it and twist it to meet their own views and predispositions, risking the eternal damnation of their souls in the process, or these people really don't believe in god in any real sense and simply use religion as a tool to gain favor and support for their own system of ethics. Either one is completely believable, and yet either one is also completely frightening.

Religion is always a touchy subject, but it's often offered a good contrast between words and reality with people. For instance, I am close to several "progressive" Christians which have political views I find plainly abhorrent. But worse than that, I find that those beliefs, as well as their lifestyle, are often out of touch with their own proclaimed religious beliefs. I've argued with many a liberal Christian who believes it's perfectly ethical to steal from the rich and give to the poor but few who would believe that Jesus would advocate us walking around making such "ethical" transactions at the point of a gun. If you think Jesus might disapprove of your use of violence and coercion to meet what you might consider to be virtuous ends, then one has to wonder what value that person holds their own Christian religion at. Is it that they think Jesus might be wrong? Maybe they think that if they had the chance to really talk to an omniscient being that they could convince him how wrong-headed his pacifist views were. And even better, I completely understand the call the Christian god makes of us to voluntarily sacrifice for the benefit of others. Yet the same people who demand that I, an agnostic, meet their ethical standards at gunpoint also live much more comfortable lives than not only me but a good portion of people who are starving around the planet. Ensconced in a furnished, air-conditioned house, plush with new electronics, and with plenty of food packed in the fridge, these self-proclaimed Christians demand I make sacrifices to their altruistic ends...all the while seeing none of the irony.

It's a complicated issue to sort out for anyone in entirety, but I think there's quite a bit of confusion that comes out of confirmation bias when it pertains to religion. And while I don't think such biases are at all a damnation of religion itself, I feel it's a very handy device for revealing the damnedability of the ethics of any particular person who is willing to wave their religion about like a banner. It's my supposition that most of these "self-defeating" idealists are either simply misguided or deceptive regarding their true beliefs. IF they are deceptively using religion to mask the acceptance of their own agenda regarding established ethics than I could almost regard them as cunning, but I admit it would be VERY hard for me to reconcile the idea that a good portion of these people believe in a one true god and choose to defy his word at almost every turn.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

To Be or Not to Be...That is the Question

Earlier today I was listening to an old podcast of Penn Jillette's now defunct radio program. A discussion about abortion ensued therein and just listening to some of the callers got me thinking about the issue. Why is it that almost no theory on what is appropriate regarding abortion or the end of life meets my standards?

I've always held the view that life begins at conception. This isn't because of some steadfast adherence to a particular religious creed, the words of wise sages, or some other pedantic nonsense, but rather a default position. Why? To be honest, it's because I've never heard a particular opinion that really swayed me to move my anchor further out at sea. And I've always felt, being unsure about it, that it would be best to uphold the overly cliched mantra of "It's better to err on the side of life." And so far, not one has given me sufficient reason to leave that position. And, without being too holier than thou, I don't really consider it a fault on my part but rather a fault with people who defend abortion with really bad reasoning.

The first defense we always hear is the hypothetical "rape" and/or "incest" story. Now firstly, these account for a minute portion of all guess would be less than 0.1%. I think most adults realize that abortions are, more often than not, simply used as some retroactive form of contraception. And while most people who are even against abortion in general, including myself, are willing to consider that hypothetical as a validation for a procedure in those cases, I'm not even really sure it's all that logically consistent. Granted, the idea is that in these cases, it wasn't the mother's choice and therefore not really her responsibility. I'm sympathetic to that.

However, I think the crux of the moral issue isn't really the responsibility of the mother, but rather the quashing of innocent life. For instance, even in the case of rape or incest, if we all (hypothetically) agreed that all post-conception forms of the child were indeed human, then wouldn't it still be wrong to murder an innocent human being? Maybe or maybe not. But regardless, the hypothetical of rape or incest certainly doesn't make it an open and shut case.

Listening to the show, I heard a caller give another too-common-for-comfort opinion that abortion should be fine up until the child is born. And he even specifically made the case by saying that the idea that a child is a human being before it is born is really just a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo and that you'd have to be some right-wing religious zealot to parrot such craziness. As an openly agnostic individualist anarchist, most (sane) people would be hard pressed to call me a right-wing religious zealot, yet I couldn't disagree more with what this caller was saying.

He was sitting here blasting anyone who thinks an unborn child is a human being by labeling them primitive and unscientific, but listen to what he was saying. He's actually saying that right before a woman goes into labor that the child in her womb is not a human being at all. But that maybe within twenty minutes of labor (keep wishing ladies) that this same being is somehow something completely different than what he was twenty minutes prior. Does that really sound like a non-religious scientific argument to you? That when a child is on one side of the vaginal canal he isn't human but as he magically passes through the other side he's somehow more some kind of post-utero baptism? Call me crazy, but I think location, be it inside the womb or two feet outside of it, is bad way to determine the substance of any being from a scientific basis.

A caller later in the show took a stab at an argument that was at least somewhat sophisticated. She claimed that up until the 2nd trimester that the child has brain waves that are only on par with someone like Terri Schiavo. Although I think this is a much more respectable defense, I still think it falls short. The implication here seems to be that as long as someone is "brain dead" (even if they're still alive) that they aren't really human. And I've always had a problem with this line of reasoning, particularly regarding end of life issues. Don't get me wrong, if someone wants to end their OWN LIFE, regardless of what ailments they may or may not have, I'm fine with it. I might favor trying to get them help, but I'm not ultimately going to tell someone else what they can and can't do to themselves.

However, in most of these cases, be it abortion or instances like the Terri Schiavo ordeal, we're not discussing people deciding to terminate their own life. We're talking about other sentient beings making the decision to end the lives of other innocent individuals without their permission. And I can't ethically bring myself to support things done in that vein, even if I'm sympathetic to the pragmatic aims. If the humanity of an individual is determined by their mental capacity, then there are a lot of psychotic people that should be able to have their way with many people in hospitals and mental institutions across the world but I doubt too many people would really be OK with that. I just don't think that brain wave activity is a sophisticated enough factor to be a barometer of humanity.

And, of course, I happened to hear the all-too-prevalent notion that a child is just a parasite and that, since they can't live for themselves while they are in the womb, they aren't really human yet. Well, dependency just happens to also be a pretty shoddy measurement of humanity. As far as children are concerned, they don't lose a very real physical dependency on others (adults) for a very very long time. And what about seniors who are arguably even more dependent than children in their last years. Even if we were to be more specific in delimiting it to an issue about being able to breathe on your own, would people on respirators lose their rights as human beings, even if the outlook for them was good? Even more sophisticated arguments like this seem to miss the point entirely.

My beliefs on abortion stem from two things that pass in the night on this issue. The first is my unwavering commitment to the personal sovereignty of human beings and the other is my inability to scientifically pinpoint where life begins. I can't really, ethically, accept the idea that it's OK to kill an innocent human being, and particularly just for the purpose of being able to deny responsibility for your actions. But at the same time, pin-pointing when a being actually becomes human is somewhat troublesome. It would seem that simply assigning a particular passage of time as a guideline would be pretty irrational. If nothing else, for the exact same reason that saying something is human only after birth is ridiculous. To look at a creature at 11:59 and claim it's not any more human than a virus and then at the stroke of midnight to declare that it's a human with inalienable rights seems terribly inadequate. At the same time, simply guaging a being's humanity on physical capacity and personal dependency doesn't seem adequate enough either.

That being said, it's possible that saying that something is human from conception may be inadequate as well. And so here I sit on the scientific and ethical sidelines on this one. I'm willing to be moved but no one seems to be willing to come up with a good enough notion to move me. I'm practically begging you to change my mind here.

Where does life begin?