Reading Time: 4 minutes

[Second installment in a series on confirmation bias. Back to Part 1.]

An audience member at my Austin talk asked a good and common question. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris apparently made the case that those who do not hold religious beliefs must be willing to challenge the irrational beliefs of their friends and neighbors. (I say “apparently” because I started but didn’t finish EOF. I am the choir, he had me at hello, and I had other fish to fry.)

Dogged by doubts? Try rose-colored glasses

“So,” asked Audience Guy, “do you agree that we should more actively challenge the irrational beliefs of friends and neighbors?”

I said no.

I know this will strike a lot of y’all as heresy, and it depends on the relationship in question — but I don’t think we should make a general practice of confronting people we know and challenging their beliefs uninvited. I am opposed to aggressive evangelism of ALL kinds. And not because it isn’t “nice.” The reason is that uninvited personal critiques of belief, especially of irrational ones, are almost never effective. Of the scores of people I know who have given up religious beliefs, approximately zero did so as the result of an uninvited challenge by another person.

There are all sorts of things we can and should do to make it more likely that they challenge themselves, but you can’t force another person to think. You can help another person become curious enough to invite the discussion, in part by being a visibly contented nonbeliever yourself. Once you have an invitation from the other side, a lot is possible. Otherwise, forget it.

“But but but…I have such a great argument!” You crack me up. Sit down and listen. The very idea of argumentation is based on the premise that you’re after the truth. It works brilliantly when a person is convinced of the virtues of the scientific method, convinced that there is nothing so beautiful as reality and nothing so ugly as self-deception.

But traditional religious belief isn’t arrived at by a critical determination to avoid error. It is arrived at by the focused determination to confirm one’s biases. Now, quite suddenly, you are asking a person to switch pole stars — to reorient his or her entire way of thinking from confirmation bias to a love of reality wherever it lies.

You’re funny. No no, in a good way.

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift, supposedly. If you have ever tried to argue a religious point with a fervent believer, only to see the goalposts move and terms redefine themselves in midair, you know what he was talking about. But you may not have known why: the other person is working from an entirely incompatible operating system. Stop being surprised that he can’t open your attachments.

A lifetime of cherry-picking evidence on the basis of its confirmation value rather than assessing its value as evidence can lead people into unintentional hilarity. The more they surround themselves with nodding people who are busily confirming the same biases, the more hilarious it gets. The nonreligious are by no means excluded from this disease — more on that in part 3. But traditional religion, founded as it was on the principle of confirmation bias, is an especially fun source of rib-tickling.

Search ye in vain for a more perfect title

During some down time in my room before my May presentation at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst NY, I indulged in one of my favorite masochistic pastimes: watching EWTN, the Global Catholic Network. A panel discussion was under way, and a priest was going off on the evils of condoms, of homosexuality, of abortion — anything, really, other than unprotected-face-to-face-one-man-on-top-of-one-woman-he-is-married-to-resulting-in-baby-sex. (You know…like the kind priests have.) There was never a risk that the rest of the panel would do anything but nod, so of course his statements got ever-stranger and ever-less-supportable.

Finally he hit bottom. “And why do you think there is a priest shortage?” he asked. “That’s right: abortion! Nothing could be more obvious.”

Nod, nod, nod.

The next topic was end-of-life care. “Too many doctors are woefully ignorant of Catholic bioethics,” said an expert on, presumably, Catholic bioethics. “They will, for example, pull the plug on a patient merely because all brain activity has ceased.”

Nod, nod.

“What they fail to realize is that the suffering of the body in those final hours may be necessary to get that person into Heaven.”

Nod, nod.

“By denying the person that suffering, the doctors, in their ignorance, may be contravening God’s will by denying a chance at redemption.”

Nod, nod.

“And by moving so quickly, they may be denying God the chance to intervene miraculously to bring that person back.”

Nod, nod.

These are very close to verbatim. I was writing as fast as my little paw could push the pen.

An outsider looks at such a fatuously silly misuse of the neocortex with astonishment — and out spill the arguments. Wasn’t the plug contravening God’s will, and the removal of the plug restoring God’s intended situation? Does God, who exists outside of time and space, actually need “time” to perform a miracle? How much, exactly? Yes, yes, yes. Fine.

But those around her are having their own biases confirmed — so nod go the many heads, and she digs deeper and deeper for nonsense.

WE ALL DO THIS, myself included, as noted in the last installment. The key is to make yourself vulnerable to disconfirmation, to be in the room with people who will call you on it when you make a bias error, and to be properly embarrassed when it happens.

Need more? Enjoy this, remembering all the while that the arguments apply only to bananas — especially at 0:19, 0:41, and 0:51:

“Seriously, Kirk,” he says — which is how you know he’s serious.

Yes, fine, these are fairly extreme examples. But I think the essence of religious thought as confirmation bias is nicely captured, as is the essence of the difference between religion and science. Next time I’ll finish up by showing what it is that makes science work differently. And psst…it isn’t the superior moral or even intellectual fiber of scientists.

[On to Part 3.]

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.