Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Some theists (most notably James S Spiegel), in a bout of apologetic zeal, have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own. I am a theist and I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. I’ve lost count of the number of theists in general – and apologists in particular – who claim that if atheism is true then it’s bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that if atheism is true then our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality. I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. In any event, whatever we make of such claims the point is that it suggests that most theists do not want atheism to be true.

Thus I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK: we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, historical and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Seemingly our capacity for self-deception is great indeed. The heart is deceitful, as the prophet says, in an observation that was way before its time. None of us should kid ourselves that wishful thinking or what is commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” has no jurisdiction or influence in our own minds. I regularly come across apologists whose only familiarity with atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected. Alternatively it’s not uncommon to find popular atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite never having read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates, who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate ever took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one but it is only relevantly recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon took off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda. Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. We are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. When we read an argument for something we already hold we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. When it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview or coheres well with our current noetic system we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the useful and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us so much the worse for the evidence!

Another study looked at the correlation between climate change denial and political persuasion – why those who are right-leaning free-market advocates are less likely to believe in manmade climate change than leftists. John Cook, of the University of Queensland, concludes: “For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject [the idea] that climate change is happening.”

There are numerous theories as to why we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when we are presented with some piece of strong evidence which we have heretofore overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence can be disconcerting, confusing, and worrying; it may make us feel very bad.

One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, living in self-denial before making the break. Of course the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived.

One of the features of the question as to whether or not God exists is that it’s more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they would not be willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Their entire social life may revolve around church. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs understandably they won’t easily let go of them.

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage in some cases, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Whatever the science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Perhaps when our heart doesn’t want to accept X our head will try extra hard to resist X, even if that means ignoring the evidence for it almost entirely. In his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” William James said “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is not neutral when it comes to belief formation.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. Alternatively we can make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly. Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t. Or perhaps play Devil’s Advocate against yourself or those who agree with you.

Above all conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

Stephen J. Graham.

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1 Comment

Filed under Atheism, Belief, Theism

One response to “Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

  1. A lot to chew over here!

    But to comment on just one point: ‘One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring.’

    Very true. I’d have to be far, far more convinced than I am of my correctness – and of the fact that someone’s beliefs were (a) wrong, and (b) causing actual harm to themselves, or someone else – before even considering interfering with their religious beliefs. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that my capacity for persuasion was so great that I could successfully do so, which seems unlikely.)

    If they actually asked me for my perspective, and sought an exchange of views in a spirit of mutual inquiry, well, that’d be another thing …

    But assuming not: I know theists who seem (even by my irreligious standards) to be doing more good in the world than I am, and if their faith is what keeps them going, who am I to interfere with that, and potentially cause them a great deal of – probably needless – pain & upheaval?

    Thanks for the post 🙂

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