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Wouldn’t it be great if, when someone disagreed with you, they took the time to understand what you believe and to interact thoughtfully with your viewpoint as they converse with you about it? Would it be a relief to express yourself with the confidence that your ideas would be met with a kind, thoughtful critique, rather than an attack on you as a person? How are you at doing these things for others?
My last question is hard to answer because each of us thinks we are relatively free of bias (Proverbs 21:2); we assume that we think rightly and fairly about others and that we respond appropriately to them given their positions.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice (Proverbs 12:15).
Every person, without exception, has confirmation bias, which means we tend to interpret new information in light of what we already know or believe, even if the new information is ambiguous. You think you see the world relatively clearly; therefore, you think others do, too, provided they agree with you.
What you know about something and what can be known are not the same
This perspective isn’t intrinsically a bad thing: if you’re a biblical Christian, you don’t have to start from scratch as you think about every cultural issue that comes down the pike. You’ve already processed numerous things in light of objective truth, and the presuppositions you’ve formulated as a result, guide the way you understand new situations. The danger is not in having confirmation bias; you can’t avoid it. The risk is in being blind to it.
I have never shared an article linking coffee consumption to hypertension. I have, however, shared several studies about how drinking coffee reduces your risk for Alzheimer’s. I’m sure you don’t have to ask me why. If you challenge me about this before I’ve had my morning coffee, I might seriously consider whether I need to keep subjecting myself to this kind of negativity. See how confirmation bias works? Usually, it’s harder to spot than this, at least in ourselves. It’s much easier to see it in other people.
Blindness to confirmation bias can have a severe side effect: self-righteousness. Do you remember the Pharisee in Luke 18—the one who was thankful he wasn’t like the tax collector? He had generally good mental categories about tax collectors and their moral shortcomings, but he didn’t know that particular tax collector.
The Pharisee’s certainty about his rightness, which was further bolstered by his view of the Scriptures, blinded him to the truth and caused him to elevate himself above a fellow sinner, one who was much more righteous than he was. Does that sound familiar to you? Do you know anyone like this? Is that person ever you? Let me ask you a few questions.
Climate – If a new batch of climate data is released, two different news sources may interpret and report on the same data in vastly different ways. Which one will you share on social media? Why? Are you willing to consider that the data may best represent the view you don’t hold?
What will your opinion be of a friend who shares the other one? Will you be tempted to unfriend him, or to lash out at him in anger and disdain? What would your reasons be for doing so? Your view may very well be the right one; for our purposes here, it doesn’t even matter. How emotional and ungracious you become over the issue is potentially the heart of confirmation bias gone awry.
President – Here’s another question: what do you think about the President? Could you have a reasonable, gracious conversation with someone who disagrees with you about him? Are you open to the possibility that you might learn something from them? Would you ever be humble enough to concede when someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you had a valid point about something, even something small?
Bible – In the Christian world, the fact that many people think they only believe what the Bible clearly teaches adds to the difficulty in seeing bias. Have you ever seen a discussion about Calvinism, baptism, or the end times get ugly? If not, you’re probably not on the internet much. Because these are such important issues, people can become passionate when they discuss them.
Sometimes they unwittingly permit themselves to sin in their passion (Ephesians 4:26-32), even being willing to misrepresent the other side’s position to defeat it more easily. This tactic is called a straw man argument, thus named because a straw man is easier to knock down than a real man.
Another common fallacy is called an ad hominem argument. Ad hominem means “to the man;” it refers to the tactic of attacking the person rather than his or her ideas in an argument. These logical fallacies should concern Christians because, at their root, each one is a failure to speak the truth. Let me illustrate.
“Women have historically been treated unfairly in the church. We need to do better at recognizing them as co-equal heirs in Christ.” – Madge
“Your feminist ideologies are a blight on the church! If you had your way, women would be running everything. You need to quit following your feelings instead of the Bible.” – Bart
This example is a straw man argument: Bart is exaggerating Madge’s viewpoint, which is a failure on Bart’s part to love his “sibling in Christ” well by bearing false witness against her. Sadly, untruthful fallacies tend to beget other untruthful errors.
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15:1).
“Oh, really? How much stake should I put into the opinion of a woman-hating bigot who just wants to protect his power?” – Madge (Ad hominem)
As you might guess, the conversation that follows from this last statement will generate more heat than light, as they say. Can you see the resemblance of these Christians to the Pharisee in Luke 18? Let’s look at some more examples of handling disagreements.
“This article says that 54% of evangelicals are more likely to support the president because of his rude and outlandish behavior. This poll is discouraging to me.” – Mable
“I suppose you wish the candidate from the other party had won? Maybe we should all move to China, where they don’t have a choice in who to vote for at all.” – Marge
“My friend, I’m not saying or implying either of those things; you haven’t represented my viewpoint fairly. The point of the article is that Christians, of all people, should care about the character of their leaders.” – Mable
“Fewer unborn children are being killed under this administration than the previous one. Does that matter to you at all?” – Marge
“Of course, I’m happy abortions are down. It doesn’t follow, though, that everything the president does is righteous and acceptable because of the good things he’s done.” – Mable
In this case, Mable calmly called out Marge’s faulty, untruthful arguments without responding to her in kind. She did not return evil for evil but attempted to correct her friend respectfully. If a person is harsh toward another image-bearer, it says more about the harsh person and their relationship with God, than it does the person they are putting down.
With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:9-10).
“I was strongly convicted to homeschool my kids because I wanted to have the most substantial influence over their lives. What made you decide to send your kids to public school?” – Biff
“Thank you for asking. I struggle with sinful anger sometimes when I have to help my kids with their math homework. I can’t imagine all the conflict we would have if I were their primary teacher. Our relationship is much better if someone else handles the academics, and I manage the discipleship.” – Bert
“That’s understandable. Are you ever concerned about the worldview they’re receiving at school?” – Biff
“Oh, definitely. Thankfully, the Lord put it on my heart early on to spend some “one on one time” with each kid in the evening. I ask them about the best parts of their day, and also the worst. We laugh, and sometimes cry, and process what happened each day. Now that they’re in middle school, I notice the kids aren’t as peer dependent as their friends are, which is a huge blessing. And they’ve had lots of practice at telling the truth from error, let me tell you! Thankfully, by God’s grace, I’m still the most influential voice in their lives, at least for now.” – Bert
“I have noticed you have really good kids. I still don’t think I would make the same decision about schooling that you did, but I appreciate hearing about how you’ve consistently discipled them through their public school experience.” – Biff
In this conversation, Biff asked questions about his friend’s choices, rather than assuming Bert was a neglectful parent for having different convictions than he did. Both people chose not to become defensive, and each made a conscious effort to treat one another with respect.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).
Notice that they ended the conversation still disagreeing about schooling choices, but willing to learn from and be kind to one another in their differences. Both people were patient and kind, rejoicing in the truth, unwilling to bear false witness about each other to win an argument.