In my second post I wrote that in order to make a claim convincing we must justify it, and do so in accordance with to some basic principles. My assertions may have seemed obvious and intuitive enough: of course we cannot go around making claims about whatever we want with no justification and expect others to believe them. But while I think such a rational approach to belief is necessary to give our arguments epistemological structure, it omits the equally pertinent but unfortunate reality that belief is a messy business.
I challenge you now to think of even a single belief you hold (that has implications beyond your own experience) which you came to believe through a purely rational and structured process of justification of the sort I discussed in the earlier post. You may find it surprisingly difficult, and this difficulty reflects an important truth about the nature of belief: we rarely follow such a process to come to any belief whatsoever. I’ve already mentioned that we take many, if not most of our beliefs for granted from some kind of authority; but even those that need not (or should not, as I argued last time) be taken for granted in this way can be hijacked by what I consider the truth’s most insidious enemy: bias.
By definition, bias undermines our ability to justify our beliefs rationally by influencing us to to see, hear, and remember that which conforms to our preconceived ideas about reality. Bias enters our minds through our media, books, relationships, emotions, personal interests, upbringing, and personal identity, among other sources. These are all sources of intellectual influence that, in principle, have nothing to do with the justifiability of the beliefs themselves which they support.
Rather than write a small book about every manner in which bias affects our beliefs, let’s consider its effects on another subject which is comparable to religion in significant ways: politics. The analogy is perhaps more poignant today than ever; just think back on our most recent election cycle. If you yourself did not engage in any heated political disputes, you probably at least witnessed such an exchange. (Social media, to the agitation of many, was an excellent place to find them.) You probably noticed the tendency of these conversations to devolve into an emotionally charged shaming match in which neither side is able to get their ideas through to the other, no matter how clearly or reasonably they articulate their arguments. Neither side wants to cede any ground; even when its seems obvious that one side has lost and should give up, they seem to be willing to say anything—to employ even the most outrageous fallacies—just to cling to what they already believe… and they don’t even realize it!
The smallest amount of critical analysis reveals that this kind of discourse, this process of determining what is true and what is not, is not based on a cool, rational process of justification; there is something much deeper tugging at the strings of our beliefs—something more emotional, more irrational, more inscrutable.
But why is this analogy to political bias so relevant to our discussion about religion? There is a reason why it is said that religion and politics are the two subjects one should never discuss in mixed company. Both subjects seem to empower the greatest impetuses of bias that I mentioned above: they bear heavily upon our personal identities, upbringing, and experience. The same kind of bias that hijacks political disputes between staunch republicans and a democrats, for example, affects disputes between committed Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and so on. If you have ever tried to have a rational dispute with a believer of a different religion, you have probably already noticed this. (Unfortunately these conversations rarely happen because we too often consider it taboo to challenge another person’s religion.) It is easy to see bias in our opposition, but extremely difficult to see it in ourselves.
This is not at all to say that no political position can be more accurate than another, or that the existence of bias proves that all religions are false. I simply want us to acknowledge that we are all susceptible to it, especially when it comes to our religious beliefs (or lack thereof). It must be part of the conversation. Trying to find religious truth without acknowledging the power and inevitability of bias is like looking for buried treasure without a shovel. It is, unfortunately, a powerful and unavoidable fact of the human condition… You are biased. I am biased. The media is biased. The scientologists are biased. Your strange opinionated uncle is biased… Everyone is biased!
But if everyone is biased, what’s the point of talking about it except to say that we should all “be careful” to not let ourselves be influenced by it? Presumably, many people have already done that, yet we still all believe in different faiths. No—bias affects us in far more insidious ways than can be counteracted by simply “being careful,” or, “thinking harder about it”. So what can we do?
There is no “rational vacuum” where we can go to be completely free from bias, but there are methods of thinking that we can employ to counteract it. This is where I think the skeptical approach to knowledge (not the “atheist” approach per se) becomes helpful. Bias still plays a role, of course, but I think that epistemologically speaking, it is the best way to prevent us from holding false beliefs. I will explore what I mean by the “skeptical approach to knowledge” and how it counteracts bias in my next post… so don’t miss it!
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