Owning the Confirmation Bias

A friend recently recommended the book Detroit: an American autopsy to me, saying that he thought I’d find it engaging and insightful. Of course, I’ve read the headlines about Detroit. And I seem to remember watching some news program where the person explained how Detroit is a great example of what happens when we leave capitalism unfettered. And then a different friend said to me, when I told him about the book I’m preparing to read, “Detroit is the best case for conservatism.”

I don’t know much about Detroit and why it is the way it is, but this know: we see what we want to see. And it takes an incredible amount of discipline and self-awareness to do otherwise.

Whether in politics, relationships or (perhaps especially) in religion, we tend to notice, emphasize and remember details that confirm what we already believe. Psychologists call this tendency confirmation bias. The idea behind confirmation bias, or what a 2009 Wall Street Journal article called “The Yes-Man in Your Head,” is that we are essentially lazy thinkers and it’s easier to assimilate information that confirms what we already think rather than go through the rigorous work of investigating other possibilities.

This is why most political conservatives tend to watch FOX News, liberals read Mother Jones and we tend to seek advice from our friends who think the same way we do or only frequent the bar that airs Cubs games.

My concern with confirmation bias is that it intersects my world on a daily basis. Theologians of various denominational stripes read the same passages and come to almost opposite conclusions. One person whom I respect reads a book and finds it brilliant and another person, equally respected, finds it full of half-truths and intentionally misleading.

And while I have my own confirmation biases, this is the struggle I have every week, preparing to deliver a talk to the people in my church. Of course I look at passages in a certain way. Of course I resonate with some authors over others. Where am I giving in to the “yes-man in my head?” It’s hard work, this attempt to see things as they are, and not just see what I want to see.

And so, in my life I’m trying to combat confirmation bias. I watch John Stewart, listen to NPR, and read George Will. I generally try, in the course of Bible study, to read liberals and conservatives. I try to create a gracious space around me that welcomes those who think differently than I. And I even associate with Cardinals fans.

For me, the most important part of combatting confirmation bias is forging emotional bonds with people different from I. You can have your opinions about gay marriage, but when you have a deep emotional connection to a gay couple, you’ll probably think differently. You can build straw men of reformed theologians only until you know a gracious, loving Calvinist who doesn’t fit into your straw man straitjacket.

[Here’s an unabashed plug for my church: this is the culture we’re trying to create at Imago Dei – one where we’re willing to own our confirmation biases an environment where, compelled by love, we seek to first like, then understand those who think/live differently than I. It’s what I’m most excited about pastoring the church I do.]

And, by the way, my guess, before I’ve even started the book, is that the reasons for Detroit’s demise are complicated and can’t be simply reduced to either unfettered capitalism or the welfare state. If I had to make an a priori guess, I’d probably say that Detroit represents a perfect storm of many factors that have led to it’s implosion. And the same is true of God. Almost every doctrinal belief is more nuanced, complicated and difficult to understand than one might first think from the safety of one’s own confirmation bias.

Quotable: Richard Rohr

“You cannot grow in the integrative dance of action and contemplation without a strong tolerance for ambiguity, an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and a willingness to not know—and not even need to know. This ever widens and deepens your perspective. This is how you allow and encounter Mystery and move into the contemplative zone.”     ~Richard Rohr

I think, in my own spiritual journey this sense of “a willingness to not know – and not even need to know,” has become a defining characteristic. And it’s one that is so freeing. I know some people think it scary to not have it all figured out, but having it “all figured out,” is a myth.

Does anyone else resonate with this quotation?

Why I’m (still) a Christian

I wasn’t actually born in a church, but I just as well might have been. From the time I was born, our family attended Sunday School, Sunday morning church, Sunday evening church, and Wednesday Prayer meeting in the small, white church in the small town that I grew up in. My parents were active congregants, teaching Sunday School classes, volunteering, really, we were the model “church family.” So, speaking sociologically, it was highly likely that I would identify myself as a Christian in my adult years.

But, beginning in my teen years I started having doubts about the faith of my youth. I couldn’t, for example, harmonize the loving Father of Jesus with the God who callously gambles with Job’s life. Or I couldn’t put together the witness of general revelation (aka, “science”) with a literal understanding of a 6-day creation or a worldwide flood. And I couldn’t understand where there was all these incontrovertible miracles in the 1st century, but nothing like blind people receiving sight in our own.

Of course, there were answers given, and some were satisfactory, some were only a temporary stop-gap to my doubts and some just didn’t land with me at all. But, late at night talking with friends, or in my daily “devotions” or even in the midst of a chapel service, doubts would still float to the surface.

At 40, I still have lots of doubts. Some are theological like the efficacy of prayer, the historicity of the Bible and nearly everything in the Book of Revelation. And some of my doubts are more contemporary like almost everything about the modern church and narcissistic, individualistic typically-American expressions of Christianity. And I even have deep epistemological doubts – how do we know what we know? what can we actually know about God?

But, despite all my doubts I’m still a Christian. My 20-year old self, working on a Comprehensive Bible Major at a fundamentalist Christian college, would have scoffed at the idea that one could have deep theological doubts and still remain a Christian. But, 20 years later, I like this spot I’m in.

In short, I’m a Christian because without my belief in God’s redemptive work in history; without believing that somehow, some way, God will eventually make things right, will return his creation to its intended order; without a belief that following Jesus is simply a better way to live; without believing in human beings as the image bearers of God, nothing else makes sense.

And despite my doubts, without my growing sense that I know very little of God, this is enough for me. And I think it’s enough for Jesus.

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, the author tells us that Jesus nearly stopped doing miracles and instead taught hard things about what it meant to follow this new way Jesus was teaching. And so, predictably, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” And then Jesus turns to those closest to him and asks, “You do not want to leave too, do you?,” to which Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Some of you out there may be sure of what you believe with very little doubt. But, for the rest of you – those of you like me who don’t always have such confidence, maybe this – where else would I go? – seems to be enough for Jesus.

And these days, it’s enough for me.