Do Christians Have a Bias to Believe?

To the skeptssic, most Christians – certainly most who appear willing to “defend” their faith – may seem a bit one-dimensional, perhaps in some cases fanatical. They seem so convinced of their views, regardless of how bizarre some of these views seem to the unbeliever. Many conclude, then, that the believer is simply biased in favor of what he wants to believe. He has accepted a “bill of goods” without having struggled over where best to place his trust.

But this is not an accurate description of the faith journey of many believers. Indeed, most go through a period of doubt in which they struggle with what they were taught in childhood. That was certainly my experience. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I was taught doctrines and rituals which were both mysterious and comforting. Until I began law school, though, these beliefs went largely unchallenged, leaving me unprepared to defend what I thought was “the truth.” Encountering highly intelligent people who were not afraid to point out why they viewed my faith as foolish, I began to believe that all religions were pretty much the same – they could provide comfort, but they weren’t really true. Truth, after all, was a relative concept, dependent on one’s point of view and cultural narrative. And science had pretty much shown that there isn’t a need for God. While faith might make a good crutch when bad things happen, it probably did more harm than good in the long run, because it was at odds with reason. These conclusions just happened to coincide with an increasing desire to put the restrictions of Christianity behind me and to put aside whatever feelings of guilt would arise from time to time.

As I look back on it now, I realize that despite my upbringing, I did not actually have a bias to believe in Christianity. My bias, as I was discovering, was to take the path of least resistance. As a practicing Christian, I needed to conform my behavior to something outside myself, depriving me of a certain amount of freedom. Removing the restrictions of religion would allow me to remain “moral” but would also allow me to define morality any way I chose. After all, with no law-giver, there was no reason to comply with rules that I did not make for myself.

Since I knew many believers, I would raise these issues with them, hoping that they could respond to my challenges. Most, unfortunately, would talk about faith as a feeling or remind me that the Church’s teachings were infallible. They would suggest that my skepticism was not pleasing to God and raise the specter of eternal punishment. In short, they were telling me that I was wrong, but not why I was wrong. I would just have to take it “on faith.” They were wrong: I wasn’t persuaded by discussions of how faith would make me “feel” (I already felt good in church) or with threats of hell for failing to follow someone else’s rituals. I also wasn’t satisfied with “infallible teachings.” If in fact the world was broken down into “faith” and “reason” – as my law school friends maintained – then I knew I would side with reason.

I thought this conclusion would satisfy me, but in the end it did not. Two things continued to nag at me. The first was this concept of truth. As a criminal investigator and then a prosecutor, I had chosen a field in which truth actually mattered. After all, it just wasn’t okay to get a conviction if I had the wrong guy. I became increasingly fascinated with and drawn to the concept of objective truth. From my legal training, I also had developed a strong interest in reason. Concepts such as “the reasonable person” standard and proof beyond a “reasonable doubt” showed that the thinkers who laid the foundation for the orderly society we developed put a great amount of stock in the mind’s ability to reason to a just result. I didn’t know how this applied to religion, and I still suspected that no one religion had the corner on truth, but I made a commitment to myself that I would follow truth where it led. In other words, I realized that I had some strong motivations to ignore the truth, especially when it seemed inconvenient, and I made a promise to myself that I would seek the truth and submit to it, to the best of my ability.

The second problem nagging at me was with the notion that only simpletons adhered to religion. As I learned more about history, I realized that some of the greatest and most powerful thinkers in history grappled with the same questions that troubled me, and that they concluded that there is in fact a God and that he is the God described in the Bible. These included not just philosophers, but also the scientists who essentially developed what we recognize today as Western science. The more I learned, the more I realized that treating religious belief as an “opiate for the masses” just wouldn’t fly. There was something there, and I wanted to find out what it was.

In sum, then, my journey began with faith and that faith ran into a brick wall that I thought was “reason.” It ended with the realization that the dichotomy between faith and reason was in fact false. The two are in fact compatible. Christianity was never based on wishful thinking, nor is it dependent solely on “faith.” Instead, it was based on specific truth claims about events which occurred in history, and which were verifiable. This evidence supports a conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, providing a rational basis to place one’s faith in his message of salvation.

Sadly, the non believer accuses those who have taken this journey of having a closed mind. Quite the contrary is true: while my mind is open – to receiving and evaluating new evidence – given what I have seen so far, I am not ambivalent. Can the skeptic say the same?

It is also worth noting that remaining perpetually “on the fence” – unwilling to reach a firm conclusion – brings with it risks as well. In my next post, I will attempt to lay out just what those are.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Peter Hammon says:

    Hi Al,

    This post is very responsive to some things I have been asking myself about recently, so I’m very glad you wrote it. I am curious, though, what evidence lead you to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead?

    As a “non-believer,” this is usually where my “faith” gets de-railed. Although I agree that Catholicism and science are not mutually exclusive belief systems, Jesus’ re-birth is one issue where the two are not compatible. Scientifically, there is no explanation for a man actually dying and then coming back to life. If modern medicine cannot make it possible, then I cannot fathom it happened 2,000 years ago. Yet, as you wrote in this article, that event is the crucial building block your faith rests on (as i’m sure it is for many other Catholics).

    In order to be a true believer, I would need to be presented with significant evidence that Jesus actually came back to life. Noone has ever been able to show me what I’m looking for, but maybe you can.


    • Gary Nickerson says:

      The first question you must ask yourself is whether it is possible for God to exist. If you answer that question in the affirmative, then the possibility of the resurrection exists. Not necessarily the fact of the resurrection, but at least the possibility. Second, does man know all there is to know about life and death? I would argue that he does not. We still do not know all there is to know. In fact, can we know all there is to know? If we could, then we would be God. Finally, if the possibility of the resurrection exists and man does not know all there is to know about life or death, then the evidence indicates that an event occurred that is beyond our knowledge and understanding. There are credible eyewitness accounts of these facts. We can only deny them by ignoring the evidence or denying the possibility of an event that we cannot explain with our own knowledge.

      Blessings as you pursue faith.

  2. thom waters says:

    Al, Thom here. Stumbled upon this post from Feb along with some others. Quick comment. From our previous discussions I would like to question the notion that you are truly “open to receiving and evaluating new evidence” that might challenge your belief in the Resurrection. This not only pertains to new evidence but a new look at the evidence you have already investigated. I offer that this happens with apologists because of a “confirmation bias” that dictates two things. Number one because of this CB you interpret information in such a way that it conforms with your opinion or what you want to believe. What do we know? We will all die. The offer of Resurrection is “Live forever”. Who wouldn’t want to buy into that? Anyway, we are all predisposed to that belief as an answer to what we know.

    Secondly your CB dictates a type of selective thinking whereby you tend to notice and to look for only what conforms to one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts your beliefs.

    These two inherent weaknesses found with CB help to reveal the pitfalls to be found in the Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection offered by Habermas and others, which we have discussed. As i have suggested in the past the notion of open minds within the community of Christian apologists is one that can be easily challenged. I do so on both grounds of Confirmation Bias, the interpreting of information to create the “minimal facts” that conform with your opinion, and the selective thinking that must eliminate other “minimal facts” that would argue against the Resurrection Hypothesis as the result of an historical investigation. As a trained criminal investigator I know that you appreciate my concerns and approach, as we all do our best to maintain “open minds”. The end of my own investigation of “all” the “facts” suggests only that it is reasonable to doubt the Resurrection Hypothesis on historical data. Happy to let the jury decide. As always, wishing you the best. Thom

    • Al says:

      Thom, thanks for weighing in. You’re certainly free to question the notion about how free we are to question our beliefs. Of course, the same applies to skeptics. I think the important point here is that believing in something that limits your control, limits your available choices, is a bit counter intuitive. From childhood on, people display an amazing capacity to seek their own self interest, not to find ways to limit it. Something to think about when considering what biases Christians might have.

  3. thom waters says:

    Al, thanks for the response.Somewhat concerned by your interjection of the word “skeptic” into the discussion. I consider myself simply an investigator into the Christian claim of Resurrection. I come to the documents/data with a mind eager to investigate the claim. In so doing I hope to discover those things that bring a degree of evidentiary relevance to the proceedings hoping to eliminate an approach to the data that would appear to be prejudicial. Too often in my experience I have found apologists too eager to introduce, usually through an eisegetical approach, certain “facts” that can be questioned, because of CB. It happens and I understand why. You write,”From childhood on, people display an amazing capacity to seek their own self interest, not to find ways to limit it.” Herein, to an extent, you make my case for me. Do you come to the crime scene open to all the evidence even to that evidence found by someone else? And can you evaluate the evidence without passion or prejudice as we together investigate the answer to “What really happened here?” What do we conclude and why? My experience with the Resurrection Hypothesis and most all apologists is a passion filled, prejudicial attempt to defend their turf and belief at the expense of a true investigation. They think their position has been arrived at from an honest investigation, but when their “facts” are challenged and other “facts” introduced they run to the nearest exit. Self interest? Perhaps. And my own? I would love to believe, but the evidence leaves too much room for doubt regarding the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. We can run to the exit, but we cannot wave a magic wand and have the evidence and facts simply disappear. As always, thanks for your time. Some time you might find all of the “minimal facts” to the Resurrection, especially those not pursued by Habermas, Craig, and others to be of interest. They certainly broaden the scope of our investigation. Parting question to consider: What was it do you think that made Pilate so amazed, surprised at the news of Jesus’ death in Mark 15:44? If Pilate truly reacted in this way and if the physical condition of Jesus prior to the cross was that of a man near death, barely clinging to life, as so many apologists want us to believe, shouldn’t Pilate’s response been more along the lines of, “I’m surprised he lasted so long,” instead of surprised by the news of what appears to be his quick demise and sending someone out to get confirmation? And, of course, this throws the entire account by John into some serious question. That for another time perhaps. Thanks again.

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