‘Bias confirmation’ refers to the tendency that people have to notice evidence that seems to confirm their existing beliefs, and to ignore or discount contradictory evidence. It amounts to unconscious ‘cherry-picking’ from the available evidence, and can lie behind expressions such as, “There – I told you so! Now will you believe me?”
To a lesser or greater extent, we are all prone to bias confirmation. We cannot objectively and rationally evaluate all the sense experiences that come our way, and yet we need quick and easy ways of making sense of things, and of fitting them into our existing world views.
Bias confirmation can become pathological. A deluded person may be convinced that “everyone is out to get me”, and can point to any number of pieces of evidence that seem to confirm that believe. The resulting misery may be terrible.
No religious person (or non-religious person, for that matter) is immune from the problem of bias confirmation. While not at all excusing Christians from this tendency, I noticed it in a rather obvious form in comments made by Muslim apologist Abdul Haq in his discussion with Christian Anthony Mcroy.
The topic of discussion was the beliefs of the early Christians. Amongst other things, Abdul Haq attempted to defend the idea – standard amongst Muslims – that the earliest Christians did not believe that Jesus was ever crucified. In an attempt to support this claim, he appealed to the following:-
- Certain sects, such as the Ebionites, did not believe that Jesus died on the cross
- The Apostle Paul is an unreliable witness
- The four Gospels are of late (2nd century) origin, and are historically unreliable
- Matthew 27:32 may indicate that Simon of Cyrene was crucified instead of Jesus (that verse says, ‘they forced him to carry the cross’)
Anthony Mcroy repeatedly asked Abdul Haq for evidence from the 1st century that the first Christians did not believe that Jesus had been crucified, but he was unable to provide any. The ‘evidence’, such as it was, was in the form of quotes from John Toland (18th-century deist), the Jesus Seminar (a group of radical New Testament scholars), and Bart Ehrman (an agnostic whose writings do not support Abdul Haq’s main point at all).
Mcroy strikes me as a reasonable man, but even he became so exasperated that he was forced to describe Haq’s views as ‘nonsense’. Haq, of course, did not concede. He had already made up his mind.
But, as I have mentioned, Christian thinkers are by no means immune from bias confirmation. I think of the attempts made to find in the Bible anticipations of modern science. We will all do well to check and re-check the quality of our evidence and the logic of our reasoning.