In my last post, I discussed disconfirmation bias and how it leads to intellectual dishonesty and cognitive dissonance for Christians who do not truly engage criticism of their beliefs. This post, I want to flesh out some thoughts on what “engaging the opposition” really means. It wouldn’t do to critique the way people resolve (or fail to resolve) the dispute between reason and faith without offering a better way to go about it. Since Nick pointed out that we have to be careful to not equate intellectual dishonesty with “disagreeing with our personal opinions,” I think it is best to give an outline of what doesn’t qualify as engaging the opposition.
If we look back at the disconfirmation model in my previous post, we see that when we receive an argument that contradicts our previously held beliefs, we undergo a deliberative memory search to undermine the argument. This is a good process to have – and that’s the first step to intellectual honesty. Obviously, if you don’t even recognize that the information contradicts your current beliefs, you’re going to be in a bad place intellectually.
Yet this can easily lead to disconfirmation bias, because we force all opposing arguments to undergo a more thorough examination than our original beliefs. It is very easy to get defensive and to stand by your beliefs for the simple fact that they are yours. As Chesterton put it, “Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed.”
So to avoid that bias, the next step is to research the arguments for your opponent’s side. To engage them, you have to review their evidence and claims thoroughly. Afterward, you must do greater research into your own perspective. Look at the rebuttals that your side has to offer and whether or not they sufficiently refute your opponent. (Hopefully, you’re right and they do!)
I think many Christians skip the second step. When presented with evidence which contradicts their beliefs, they do no further research into the opponent’s arguments, but they immediately search for more claims to back up their beliefs. This is dangerous because it avoids actually understanding the opposition and relies too heavily on one’s preconceived ideas. For example, in my History of Ancient Christianity class, my professor dated Acts after the fall of Jerusalem. Having read The Case for Christ, I knew that one argument for an earlier dating was the fact that it ended before the fall of Jerusalem and before Paul’s death. I could have easily relied on that information to make me feel secure in my beliefs about the dating of Acts. Yet my professor is pretty smart guy. He has obviously heard the arguments for an earlier dating and is not compelled by them. To avoid disconfirmation bias – to rationally re-evaluate my faith on this issue – I am obliged to look into his arguments.
The last step, which I think most people fail to do is to ask themselves why their opponents do not find their arguments compelling. I have heard Christian’s attribute nonbelievers’ disbelief to “not wanting to change their lives” or “being too caught up in sin to stop.” While this may be true for many people, it does a disservice to anyone who has a legitimate disagreement. Taking the ad hominem route is not only insulting, but it fundamentally underestimates the opposition while giving us a false sense of security in our natural inclinations. Instead, we should ask ourselves: why do they still disagree? Sometimes it may be an issue of obtaining different information about the situation surrounding the argument. Sometimes it may be an issue of hermeneutics. Sometimes it may be an issue of personal values. But to fully engage one’s opposition, one must understand in the end why they have chosen their opinion in spite of the evidence against their side.
And that will leave us with the question: why should I prefer my value system? Why is my hermeneutics better? If we are going to have rational faith, we must go through this full process to truly engage our opposition. This process will only serve to improve our own faith and knowledge, but I will wait until my next post to fully elaborate on that idea.