Nearly all of us think that we are open-minded, rational, unbiased, thoughtful people. We follow the evidence wherever it leads, and we listen to reason. When new evidence comes to light about something that we already hold an opinion on, we believe that we will process it in an unbiased way. This is hardly the case.
When I was a christian, I was interested in apologetics, or defending the faith. I read a lot about the topic and was pleased to find that there were good reasons to believe the things I believed. It was important to me that the things I believed were actually true, and not everything had to come down to only faith. Many of the arguments I read about, say, the existence of god, or the resurrection of Jesus, seemed, to me, to be air-tight. They made so much sense to me, and I wondered how someone who didn't believe could remain unbelieving in the face of such conclusive evidence.
So high was my confidence that I would be very surprised to learn that there were many people who did not find those same arguments and reasons to believe as convincing as I did! A visit to infidels.org (or a similar secular website) was a scary and discouraging experience for me, as there were several articles expressing doubt about the very things I so firmly believed. And these writers were in fact aware of the very same evidence I thought so case-closing! How could the same evidence be so convincing to me, and not at all to them?
Now that I no longer believe, I see the same phenomenon, but from a different perspective. The sort of evidence that I held so dearly when I believed is no longer convincing to me. But why is that? Why would I find something so clearly conclusive then, but no longer?
The answer, at least in my case, now seems clear: I had only heard one side of the story.
When I still believed, I had good intentions concerning my own intellectual honesty. I did not agree with those christians who thought it unwise to listen to dissenters or those who questioned our beliefs. I felt it was important to be familiar with the opposition and their arguments in order to be sure I was right in holding the beliefs that I had. I bought “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, with the intention to read it, understand it, and refute it. I never read it. There were other books like that, where I thought I would give the opposition to my faith “equal time” so I could better understand why I believed. I never got far, if at all, into those books.
In reflection, I see now that it while it was a good idea, it was unrealistic for me. Those books were just not very interesting to me at the time. I would start one, but I always ended up putting it down and picking up something that strengthened my faith. I wanted to read books that made me feel comfortable about what I believed, not things that might have unsettled me.
But even if I did manage to read the whole thing, would I have been convinced by them? Who knows? The more important question is this: If I read something that goes against a deeply held, foundational belief (like my religion), can I even truly read it with an open mind? If one has beliefs that just have to be true, then it may be hard to ever really challenge them. I find it really difficult to fully absorb the information contained in a book that you are not at all interested in reading in the first place, much less a book that may be considered anathema! It may, in fact, be impossible to read such contrarian literature with an even slightly open mind when the belief that is being challenged is one that you have built your life around (like religious beliefs).
It turns out I wasn't getting the whole story from these sources. Imagine that! By selecting only to consume the information that was supportive of what I already believed, I was ensuring that I would continue to believe as I already did. This could not be called “seeking the truth” in any meaningful sense. But I was yet to realize this.
As a result, I was unintentionally surrounding myself with only the information that supported my belief in christianity. These sources I chose to read claimed to tell me about what the opposition's positions and arguments were and why they were wrong, and that seemed fair enough to me. But this was not intellectually honest. This was not a search for truth, as I had claimed it was. This was not following the evidence wherever it led. This was looking for support for what I already believed. I was searching for justification for my already held position.
Over a process of many years, full of experiences and conversations with people of other faiths and no faith, I became less certain in my beliefs. I began to notice that the world, and the issues that I felt so strongly about were perhaps not as clear-cut as I once thought. How could there be so much variety of opinion about the same issue if it was, as I thought, obvious? Maybe, just maybe, I didn't have all of the information. Maybe things were not so black and white after all. The certainty that I had before about so many things seemed more and more childish as I got older.
Eventually, my mind was ready to consider other options. The beliefs that I had about god, the universe and all things religious were not so cherished and protected as they once were. If these beliefs turned out to be not true after all, it no longer felt like my life would come crashing down. I had slowly begun to remove those beliefs from the foundational position they had enjoyed for so long. Then, and only then, was I able to truly listen to all the evidence – I no longer had a dog in the fight, so to speak, so I didn't care what the outcome was.
I quickly discovered that the case for believing in god seemed relatively weak when considering everything I was learning. Once I got past the initial fear of such a possibility, it made sense to me that god probably didn't exist. Everything around me, science, the universe, my experiences, they all made more sense in a world where there was no god. I was finally able to accept things like evolution, which I had for so long had to deny because it seemed to be against what I believed. My mind was free. I no longer had to dogmatically deny something that actually made sense because it conflicted with what I believed.
The freedom I am speaking of is that which religion cannot offer. It is the freedom to dispose of a belief if it no longer makes sense. It's the freedom to really follow the evidence, wherever it leads, without fear. If I believe in a particular proposition about, say, the migratory patterns of ducks, but then some new discovery suggests I was wrong, I am free to change my mind about it. It's no big deal, because I didn't build my life around whether it was true or not. If someone believes in god, a religion, or something like that, it is likely that they were brought up to believe in it, and as a result, it is part of who they are. It is probably a foundational belief in their life, and to give it up would be unfathomable. For them, it just has to be true. Their whole worldview, way of life, relationships, family, work and salvation depend on it.
It is often said about religious people that instead of making conclusions fit the evidence, they make the evidence fit the conclusions. While this is true for many of the religious, I think it is also true for everyone. We all do it. We may not do it in all things, but we do when it comes to the things we care most about or have a lot riding on. Are you truly unbiased in your beliefs, whatever they may be? If you are an unbeliever, does the possibility that you could be wrong about that seem unimaginable? Have you “painted yourself in a corner” by elevating your unbelief to a place where questioning it could cause your entire life to unravel? Or would you really be able to give it up if the evidence leaned in that direction? Could you even examine the evidence without bias, and thus be able to see where it led? I don't know the answer to that, but it is an important question to ask.
As I said at the beginning, most of us consider ourselves to be open-minded, rational, unbiased thoughtful people. However, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we can freely admit to several biases in many subjects. We cannot help desiring certain things to be true, and other things to be not true.
So what can we do about it? I don't think the biases we have can be separated from the beliefs we care about, so I think it is more realistic to simply try and “manage” our biases. We must try to do as Bertrand Russell suggested:
“When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe, or what you think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed; but look only and solely at what are the facts.”
To what degree of success we can actually do this is uncertain. But here are some things to remember which may help.
- If you can recognize bias in the way you are thinking, try to adjust for it when making decisions.
- Don't only read things that support how you already believe.
- Don't read things that are contrary to how you already believe only in order to find ways to discredit them.
- Try not to make up your mind about an issue until you have good reasons to do so.
- Regularly ask yourself if it is possible that you are wrong (guess what? It is!), and what sort of evidence could convince you of that wrongness.
- Consider every topic to be “open for discussion.”