Success Holding On to Their Own
When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service! – John Mackay
While watching a vigorous online debate between a theoretical physicist and a Christian apologist, a friend of mine railed about what he perceived as arrogance on the part of the physicist. At the same time, he raved about the apologist’s glowing performance where he supposedly proved the existence of god using only the Kalam Cosmological Argument and scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe.
Instead of jumping into a philosophical or scientific debate, I simply asked my friend “If the apologist and science are right, then you do realize your belief in a 6,000 year old earth and the six literal days of creation is wrong?” He didn’t seem to understand he shouldn’t use this apologist’s argument in defense of his faith when the apologist’s premise is based on science that contradicts his beliefs.
After my friend pondered the question a moment, the Christian apologist – the supreme defender of the faith during the debate – was conveniently dismissed as a hell-bound, deceived, evolution-believing heathen! I was quickly reminded how easy it was as a former believer to have my faith propped up by philosophical apologetic arguments.
Repugnant as it may be to us heathens, giving modern Christian apologists at least a passing grade is just being intellectually honest. They are pretty successful at keeping their own adherents in the fold. Don't worry, I will also show where the discipline completely fails. More importantly though, how do they achieve their success using only philosophical arguments without even a shred of empirical evidence to support their claims? Why doesn't anyone change sides as a result of these debates?
Full disclosure: the truth is, either side in a debate has a pretty easy task of holding their own. Thanks to “myside bias,”1 where we tend to favor evidence supporting our side of a controversial issue and we disregard evidence supporting the other side, the bar for success is set really … really ... low. We don’t need convincing evidence, or in some cases any evidence at all, to confirm we are right. How does myside bias have such a stranglehold on our beliefs? Why is it so difficult for all of us to resist its mysterious power?
Why We Believe We Are Right
To find the answers we have to go back to where it all started. Today, myside bias within the broader context of confirmation bias is primarily studied as an evolutionary adaptation unique to our high level brain functions. I think we need to go further back though. I propose the essentials of myside and confirmation bias (biased data search, interpretation, and memory recall) are a more primal survival instinct that evolved in an early predator/prey environment.
Let's examine a hypothetical scenario in nature. A gazelle picks up a faint, far away sound or smell and based on prior experience knows this very well may be a predator looking for lunch. Why not run at this first hint? The cost of being so easily spooked at every hint of a predator is much too high. She would use up valuable energy resources constantly running away instead of eating, mating, and caring for her young. Instead she goes on high alert, her senses searching for confirmation, filtering out all the pleasant sights, sounds and smells around her that may not conform to her new “predator nearby” hypothesis. If she then picks up another piece of confirming evidence, no matter how ambiguous, it is time to run.
Let's break this scenario down further. The initial sensory data that formed the “predator nearby” belief for the gazelle is a perfect example of what we call the primacy effect. We rely heavily on information encountered early and tend to discount conflicting information encountered later. Childhood indoctrination, which in my opinion should include indoctrination up to near the age of 25, is bolstered by the primacy effect.
After the initial belief is set, filtering out data that does not conform to our existing belief and interpreting ambiguous data as supporting our belief then leads directly to stubborn belief perseverance, where our beliefs persist even in the face of damning evidence. We don’t give up our beliefs without a fight: the predator is after all trying to deceive us. In our not so distant past, giving up our beliefs too quickly or easily would have been deadly.
In modern times, myside bias has become more of a hindrance and we must consciously work to overcome its primal influence. As award-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted, “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.” 2
For both sides of the culture wars, the effect of myside bias, and the simple allure of preaching to the choir, has lead to never-ending witty barbs thrown back and forth that serve more as entertainment than convincing arguments. Want more likes on your Facebook post or more favorites on your Tweet? Come up with a witty, condescending slam of your opposition on any hot topic and sit back and enjoy your moment in the sun. Good luck though actually convincing anyone to change their beliefs.
If we have nothing personally at stake in a dispute between people who are strangers to us, we are remarkably intelligent about weighing the evidence and in reaching a rational conclusion. We can be convinced in favor of either of the fighting parties on the basis of good evidence. But let the fight be our own, or let our own friends, relatives, fraternity brothers, be parties to the fight, and we lose our ability to see any other side of the issue than our own… The more urgent the impulse, or the closer it comes to the maintenance of our own selves, the more difficult it becomes to be rational and intelligent. – Louis Leon Thurstone
If we detach ourselves for a moment from our personal opinions and dispassionately read through the comments section below any random hot topic, we can see Homo sapiens behaving as good, well adapted Homo sapiens should behave. All of us viciously defending our own beliefs, no one giving up ground, all of us pompously thinking our views are unique, profound, and most of all right. A visitor from another planet would most likely find our behaviour humorous and extremely predictable in much the same way we view most mammalian behaviour at our local zoo. Christian apologetics owes natural selection a big thank you for its success.
Complete Failure Convincing the Skeptic
So much for the success, let’s take a quick look at where modern Christian apologetics totally fail. By their own admission, the goal of the Christian apologist is not to convince us to believe their proposition, but simply to show that it is reasonable to believe their proposition. Christian apologist William Lane Craig said it best, “Christian apologetics may be defined as that branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide rational warrant for Christianity’s truth claims … faith in Christ can be immediately grounded by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, so that argument and evidence become unnecessary.”3
From the sophisticated high brow philosophical arguments of Craig and Ravi Zacharias to the simpleton presuppositional apologetics of YouTube sensation Sye Ten Bruggencate, they rely on philosophy to portray their position as a possibility, and belief in their position is at the least intellectually reasonable. Their job in life is simply to console believers who have cognitive dissonance angrily knocking on their mental door telling them they might be delusional. The apologist sweetly consoles “you are not crazy; what you believe is rational and reasonable; just keep believing.” Yet when it comes to actually convincing the skeptic and the unbeliever, they completely and utterly fail.
Contrast this with the apologetics that supposedly took place in the Bible, where unbelievers of all ages were instantaneously convinced and became believers. For sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment the Bible is the inerrant word of a god. The standard in the Bible is much higher than modern apologists would ever care to be measured against.
When Israel was undecided on who was god, BAAL or YWHW, the prophet setup a test to prove that YWHW was god. How scientific of him! And the result of this experiment? “And when all the people saw [the fire fall on the soaking wet sacrifice], they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God” (1 Kings 18:38-40). They saw a visible demonstration and the skeptics were immediately converted without debate. Apparently myside bias took the day off in ancient times.
Even after the supposed resurrection of Jesus, it was not philosophical arguments or even the empty tomb that was offered up as evidence to convince the unbelievers. Regarding the Apostles preaching, it was said their word was “confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost” (Hebrews 2:3-4). They simply preached Jesus and him crucified, and “signs and wonders” reportedly served as evidence for what they preached. (Acts 1:8; 2:22,43; 4:29-31; 5:12-14; 8:5-13; 10:38; 14:3; 20:6-12; Rom 15:18-19; 1 Cor 14:23-25; 2 Cor 12:12)
Again for sake of argument, ignoring the late interpolation of Mark 16, “signs and wonders” followed the believers. Believers do some crazy sh… er … stuff that gives visible evidence that they truly are believers with God’s power (Mark 16:16-18). Psalms says that we can “taste and see” (again with the science stuff) that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8). Paul was an unbelieving skeptic who was immediately converted by a bright light and disembodied voice. Empirical evidence partially corroborated by witnesses reportedly convinced Paul. (Acts 9)
Even for holding on to their own, the Biblical bar was set much higher. When John the Baptist was imprisoned and began to doubt Jesus was the Messiah, he sent messengers to ask him. What a novel idea, go investigate. Jesus told them “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Luke 7:16-23).
Sadly for apologists (and us) all this came to an end when the Bible was completed. Widely accepted mainstream doctrine teaches the closed canon of the Bible has superseded miracles. How convenient! Here I would be remiss if I didn’t give those of my former Pentecostal faith kudos for rejecting this claim and at least trying to give the Biblical god a chance to demonstrate the miraculous, even if it has amounted to nothing more than psychosomatic induced illusions.
Can you imagine if William Lane Craig had been in prison with John? “Well John, it is at least reasonable to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. You see, we know that everything that begins to exist had a cause, and the universe began to exist, and therefore the universe had a cause. See, therefore, believing Jesus is the Messiah is a reasonable belief!” In true Monty Python fashion, I imagine John at this point would probably have tried to behead himself.
Bring On Da Evidence
What would it take for Christian apologetics to win us over? In one word, evidence. Some of us would be delighted if real miracles suddenly made an appearance in modernity and a bright light struck us down on our journey and a disembodied voice convinced us of the truth. Though I am sure a good many of us would just suspect we had been drugged or developed a brain tumor. If anyone thinks philosophical arguments are winning us over, they haven’t been paying attention. Even the few William Lane Craig reportedly converted by his great apologetic skills are either late in life reconversions or, according to their own statements, they were looking for something to rationalize their desire to believe. By his own admission, they are only a “minority of a minority.”3
Contrary to popular misinformed opinion, atheists are not angry at god and most are not close minded to the existence of a god. As we are fond of repeating, we can’t be angry at something we don’t believe exists. In my opinion, most of us would be more than happy to believe in a god if there was sufficient evidence to warrant that belief. Some of us might even wish such evidence would be forthcoming rather than wish such evidence would remain unavailable.
Also contrary to popular opinion, faith was not a bad experience for all of us who deconverted. Faced with an impotent god, we were just unsuccessful in shutting off our logical brain. Cognitive dissonance, some might say rudely, awakened us to reality. For a time ignorance was indeed bliss. Many deconversion stories end with the same sad song, one final pleading prayer to whatever god we deeply loved to please say something. While philosophy could no longer hold back the rising rational tide in our minds, a simple whisper from above would have breathed life into our dying faith. It never came.
Please stop with the philosophical snoozefest and bring back the miracles. Show us documented proof where the amputee has their limb instantaneously restored and we will at least have a decent conversation starter. Please understand we are not opposed to religious ideologies simply because they lack philosophical plausibility. History has taught us ideologies built on faith without empirical evidence to rationally ground them inevitably lead to painful delusion and great harm to humanity.
"We don’t fight against cancer patients, but against cancer. Our fight is not with religious believers, but with the harmful ideologies that infect humanity." - Armin Navabi, Founder of Atheist Republic
- Baron, J. (1995). Myside bias in thinking about abortion. Thinking and reasoning, 7, 221-235.
- Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 81). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
- http://www.reasonablefaith.org/christian-apologetics-who-needs-it#ixzz2y... (accessed 2014-04-16)
Photo Credits: Pearson Scott Foresman, derivative work