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I was right all along

February 1, 2014

I’ve decided to see the Disney movie Frozen.  If you have seen it already, please don’t spoil it for me.   The problem I have, however, is explaining how my wife and I, two mid-60s adults, are showing up, without kids, for the movie.  I’m just glad my wife is patient enough with me that she is willing to go as I would expect that showing up alone would be even worse.

We thought briefly about borrowing one of our neighbor’s kids but we missed the boat on that.  It seems that everyone under 10, and everyone who lives with someone under 10, has already seen it several times.  To be on the safe side we may wait until it comes out on our cable service before we watch it.

So why do I want to see it?  Well, because of two blog posts by Christians that I have read.  One calls it “the most theological movie in a decade” and raves about how sound the Christian message is.  The other calls is “yet another transparent attempt by Disney to promote the gay agenda.”    It all makes me wonder about how it can be both at the same time; wonder enough to want to go and see it for myself.

I suspect that these two reviews are an example of confirmation bias; the human tendency to favor information that supports beliefs they already hold.  Research shows that this bias is endemic in the human mind and that, the more deeply-held the belief is, the stronger the emotional attachment, the more likely we are to gather and remember information that supports that belief and interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting our already-held views.

So, the person who saw Frozen as a confirmation of the gay agenda had already been sure that there was a gay agenda and Disney was in on it.  Meanwhile, the other commentator, a theology professor, saw theological themes because he is always thinking theologically.

Confirmation bias is the bane of scientific research.  Scientists are aware of it, do all sorts of things to avoid tainting their research, and still find that all too often bias seeps in.  Politics provides a daily example of this bias.  Let any politician say anything and people jump to be outraged or supportive based on whether the statement supports or denies the views they hold.  The debate over climate change is yet another example of very public confirmation bias.

Where this bias bothers me the most, other than in myself, is in the church.  All our beliefs tend to be strongly held and emotionally important to us so they are ripe for confirmation bias.  For example, a few years ago a man visiting our church made a persistent and impassioned appeal that we should only use the King James Version of the Bible.  He supplied reams of data and references supporting his assertion that the KJV was the only valid translation.  In all the data he gave not one single line that was anything other than supportive of his position.  When questioned he didn’t want to even hear any contrary input.  Eventually, failing in his mission, he left.

The problem is that everyone in the church (and outside it) believes in confirmation bias – for others.  Our positions however are right and true and immune to such bias.  We have a long history of certainly in the beliefs of our church and denomination.  We can find all the evidence we want from Christian leaders, authors or even bloggers that supports those beliefs.  We see evidence in the world around us that confirms our certainty in those beliefs, like our friend with the gay agenda theory.  Everything ends up confirming our beliefs.

Worse yet, we cherry-pick the Bible, ignoring verses that do not agree with our theories, championing verses that do, and finding still other verses that can be interpreted to support our views if we try hard enough, even if the passage we find them in has little or nothing to do with our pet subject.  The danger is that we end up with a Bible that says what we want.  Yes, the Bible speaks to us but it only says what we already believe.

There is no sure way to eliminate confirmation bias in your study of the Bible or anything else.  The first step we can take it to be aware that, yes, we too are subject to that bias.  Another step is to be willing to read or hear the thoughts of others who differ; not just to refute them but to examine them.  Do your best to consider their points of view.

Finally, let grace abound.  First, to others who differ.  Admit that you might be subject to confirmation bias.  But second, to yourself.  God’s love for you does not depend on your test score on some theology exam that you have created.  He loves you and wants your love, but will be gracious to you as you stumble into confirmation bias when you seek Him.

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From → Christianity

One Comment
  1. Spectacular blog. Thanks so much for writing this, it’s something I’ve been noticing in the church as well. Too often we go to the Bible to find what we want to find, rather than reading it with an open mind and asking God to speak to us. Looking forward to reading some more of your work.

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