One of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is his first chapter on Faith, which has gotten me through many of my doubting periods. One of my favorite parts of the passage is Lewis’ deference to reason:
Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence, that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid. Well, I think I still take that view… I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it. That is not the point at which faith comes in.
Many Christians, however, do not appreciate Lewis’ distinction here. Faith, being defined as being “certain of what we do not see,” (cf. Hebrews 11:1) has become synonymous “without evidence” or even “despite the evidence.” The latter – belief despite evidence to the contrary, in other words, irrational faith – is one of the many features that has made Christianity particularly nauseating to the modern academic world.
I experienced an academic challenge to my faith last semester, when I decided to take the class “History of Ancient Christianity.” My professor asserted that several of the Pauline letters were not actually written by Paul, and he provided arguments for these claims. Having been a Christian for less than 9 months, I am not well-versed enough to justify why his arguments were wrong or why Paul really did write every letter. I realized that this was an area in which I would need faith.
Yet my faith was not in spite of the evidence – my faith was that I would find the answers eventually and that a later dating for the letters did not shake my belief in God or in Christ. I also knew that there must be some arguments for what I believed, even if I didn’t know what those arguments were, for there are many Christians smarter and wiser than me whom have grappled with these same criticism. I decided to have patience by deferring an in-depth analysis until the semester ended and I would have time to thoroughly review the evidence from both sides.
Basically, I needed to give myself a little more time to overcome what is known in psychology as disconfirmation bias. Research has shown that one applies a stricter standard to evidence which undermines one’s pre-existing beliefs or may even reject it outright. Now this is a useful thing to do, considering that we generally have good reasons for our pre-existing beliefs. For example, I know from experience that our editor-in-chief is a pretty stand-up gentleman. If someone else told me that they saw him engaging in a brawl in the back-alleys of Cambridge, I would assume that they mistook him for someone else rather than doubt his good nature. However, disconfirmation bias can become a problem when we start excluding too much information. If more people came to me and I had numerous reports which tarnished his character, it would be reasonable for me to question whether or not he truly is upstanding citizen.
Christians can have an extreme form of disconfirmation bias when it comes to issues remotely related to faith. They continue to believe in creationism or biblical inerrancy despite strong evidence against them. When challenged, they simply reject the contrary assertions without searching for any information to respond to the challenge or to justify their original belief. This is particularly troubling since many Christians believe in large part because they were raised to have faith. They may go their whole lives without finding real evidence to justify the kernel of truth that forms their faith. Thus, their faith becomes dogmatic and contrary to reason.
Disconfirmation bias is a reasonable way to discern between good and bad information in most circumstances, but when we take it so far as to reject all evidence in favor of our original beliefs, we trap ourselves in an adolescent faith and lose the ability to claim that our position is reasonable. This is the sort of dogmatism that aggravates the academic establishment and our more Enlightenment-minded friends. I can’t blame them. It is incredibly intellectually dishonest to reject criticism instead of actually engaging it.
Such intellectual dishonesty can only lead to cognitive dissonance – the state of holding contradictory beliefs. In the example of my class, if I agreed that my professor’s arguments against Pauline authorship made sense, but rejected the conclusion that Paul didn’t write them, I would resign myself to an untenable position. I avoided this position by disagreeing on his methodology for dating the books. I needed a minimal level of engagement with the issue to recognize that I didn’t find his methodology compelling and to avoid a full state of cognitive dissonance.
Yet even this level of engagement could not end my cognitive dissonance without further research – without understanding why there was another, better methodology for determining Pauline authorship and dating. Sometimes there won’t always be an answer; I don’t think I’ve found an incredibly good solution to the problem yet. But engaging an intellectual problem in Christianity doesn’t always mean coming to a clear decision on it. It may simply mean understanding why the problem exists and why the answer is unclear. Taking this step allows us to demonstrate that reason favors neither side – that both positions require some faith.
In this case, we may not have fully overcome our disconfirmation bias, but we have at least garnered a decent rational justification for our beliefs. Christians are not the only ones susceptible to disconfirmation bias or cognitive dissonance. I’ve talked to many atheists – and I once was an atheist – who suffered from both. But atheists do not have to worry if Christians are not compelled by their arguments, they can simply think Christians foolish. As Christians, however, we must put forth our best possible arguments for the sake of our Lord. In my next posts, I’ll be taking a deeper look at both the effect of intellectual dishonest on evangelism and the personal importance of overcoming cognitive dissonance.