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.

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