Confirmation Bias in Atheism

A most interesting article appeared in a special edition of EOS, a science magazine in Dutch. It was about the quest for the historical Jesus. For those familiar with the material it was not a very revealing article. Nonetheless, it provided a kind of summary, albeit sometimes in a tendentious manner (click here for a better article on the subject from skepp). Take, for instance, this statement at the end of the article: “The scepticism of Christian researchers turns out to be quite a bit more flexible than the scepticism of atheist researchers.” This is a poor statement because it is made without any arguments. The article itself even provides some counterarguments. Let’s have a closer look.

A Marginal Jew Volume 1 (John Meier)First of all, the information contained in the article primarily comes from Christian researchers, and some of them are briefly mentioned. John P. Meier is quoted with this claim: “Jesus was a marginal Jew leading a marginal movement in a marginal province of a vast Roman empire.” Whoever is familiar with research on the historical Jesus knows that John Meier, a Catholic priest, has written the contemporary standard for historical Jesus studies. Meier’s four part magnum opus, entitled A Marginal Jew – Rethinking the Historical Jesus, is an instant classic. The first volume appeared November first, 1991. The fourth and final volume appeared 18 years later, May 26th 2009, completing the series with a total of 3102 pages.

Jona Lendering, a well-known Dutch historian who also writes columns as a “mild atheist”, claims that “the most important book any historian of antiquity should read is, actually, John P. Meier’s brilliant series A Marginal Jew – Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Better still, the quest for the historical Jesus is the most innovative and methodically most advanced specialism in ancient history. A Marginal Jew simply is the best book in the best developed research on ancient history.” (click here for pdf of “De joodse Jezus”).

Martin Luther King quote on science and religionIt is strange that Marc Meuleman, author of the article on the historical Jesus in EOS magazine, makes a statement about the supposed confirmation bias of Christian researchers while he simultaneously refers to websites like The Jesus Puzzle and a podcast like The Bible Geek. These atheist sources deny that Jesus ever existed. Some people all too easily accept and believe conspiracy theories. Meuleman correctly mentions that this claim is not the scientific consensus. Christian and atheist historians alike, concerned with research on the historical Jesus, agree on the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth and certain facts about his life.

In short, Marc Meuleman gives evidence for all too flexible and exaggerated scepticism by atheist researchers regarding the historical Jesus in his article, while he does not give any evidence to support his claim on the so-called lack of scepticism by Christian researchers. On the contrary, by mentioning John Meier he gives an example of a Christian researcher who meticulously distinguishes what can be said “as a historian” and what can be said “as a believer or non-believer (interpreting from different ideological backgrounds)” on the figure of Jesus.

quote Martin Luther King on scienceAtheists with a strong emotional aversion towards the Christian faith, apparently suffer from a confirmation bias regarding ancient history similar to the confirmation bias of certain Christian fundamentalists regarding the theory of evolution. Seen from their respective scientific specialisms, the claim that Jesus never existed is as stupid as the claim that evolution never happened. Richard Dawkins used to make the former claim (click here), followed later on by a statement that “it doesn’t really matter whether or not Jesus existed.” Well, maybe it doesn’t matter to someone who is not interested in scientific research, although Dawkins claims to foster “science and rationality”. And now we’re at it, how “rational” is Dawkins if he continuously minimizes “positive” examples of faith and religion in order to confirm his conviction that faith and religion are, in most cases, a “bad, delusional thing”? Confirmation bias, anyone? For instance, Dawkins claims that Martin Luther King’s leadership of the civil rights movement did not arise from King’s Christian beliefs. Maybe he should read King’s work first before making such statements. That’s what a scientist should do…

confirmation biasPerhaps Marc Meuleman’s statement on Christian researchers in his article can be understood by taking into account the influence of the anti-theistic “new atheism” of people like Richard Dawkins on the minds of the average atheist. Many atheists hold a confirmation bias on the supposedly ever present confirmation bias of “believers”. That’s why Marc Meuleman fails to see that he somewhat contradicts himself in his article. Atheists often ask for the author of an article to judge whether or not they will read the article, or whether or not they can trust its “objectivity”. Actually, a scientific mindset should focus on “what is being said” and judge by rational and scientific criteria, and not judge on the basis of a preliminary argument from authority. Everyone who reads John Meier’s work on the historical Jesus can judge this work by rational and scientific criteria and will most likely agree with Jona Lendering’s appraisal of it.

Anyway, whether we’re believers or atheists, we’re all human 🙂 and we often judge something by looking at others first – “Who said what?” Yep, we’re mimetic creatures, imitating the ones we’ve (again mimetically) learned to trust, even if this clouds our judgment…

“War is a stupid game” (Hobbes)

Cartoonist Bill Waterson is spot-on regarding the destructive mimetic dynamics of war with this cartoon of Calvin and Hobbes. It succinctly evokes what Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) called “the escalation to extremes”.

How to avoid bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all), as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) phrased it? Let’s begin by taking a look at the cartoon character that was named after this philosopher. Seeing the kind of killing “games” some people play, we might truly have the need for “more role models of peace”.


Turn the other cheek

Once there was this girl, having the time of her life in a happy relationship. Until her boyfriend cheated on her. After that, she couldn’t go on with him. So they broke up.

A year later, she met this other guy. Love at first sight. They started dating. A few months down the road of this new romantic affair, a little fear started creeping into her mind: “What if I’ll be cheated on, again?” The fear grew bigger, as did her desire to safeguard her relationship. So she started controlling her new boyfriend, pressing him to inform her about his whereabouts. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he nevertheless had to suffer from her anxieties. Until he couldn’t stand it any longer, and her worst fear came true: he broke up with her. Tragic. Ironic. All she had done to avoid the destruction of the relationship brought about the relationship’s downfall. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it… (Matthew 16:25a).

What happened? Well, the girl was hurt, and she had been sad and angry because of it. Instead of letting go of her sadness and frustration, she started focusing on these emotions again while being in a new relationship. And she started hurting a guy who hadn’t done anything to cause her pain, insinuating he was not trustworthy and accusing him of being a liar and a cheater. In other words, she imitated the blows inflicted on her persona by inflicting similar blows on someone else. It was her way of taking revenge. Her new boyfriend turned out to be her scapegoat: someone who had to answer for her anger, although he was innocent. There is indeed, as René Girard and so many other Christian thinkers rightly point out, a nearly inextricable connection between the mimetic principle of vengeance and the scapegoating impulse.

In order to break the vicious cycle of hurt inflicting hurt – the cycle of original sin -, Christ invites us to take part in an act of creation. This is a creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), meaning that our actions are no longer defined by the lesser and greater evil we endured in the past. To return to the situation of the girl: Christ invites her to “turn the other cheek” as she begins a new relationship. To turn the other cheek indeed means that you refuse to let your relationships and yourself be defined by the hurtful mechanisms that eventually destroy relationships. Christ invites the girl to trust being vulnerable again. He invites her to keep faith over fear – for “fear leads to anger, to hate, to suffering” as some famous wise man summarized Christ’s advice…

Forgiveness is at the heart of creation, destabilizing the balance of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – for, as some other wise man allegedly said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Coming from outside the cycle of bad deeds or “bad karma“, the grace of forgiveness opens up the possibility of a new kind of imitation or mimesis. Instead of imitating each other in trying to assert ourselves over against one another – as theologian James Alison would say –, “turning the other cheek” is an invitation to begin an imitation of recognizing and accepting each other’s vulnerability. Recognizing that “no one is without sin”, in order to end “casting the first stone”. It’s an invitation to shy away from self-assertion over against one another – which would be called a movement of kenosis (“self-emptying”) in theological terms. The imitatio Christi would thus lead to the recovery of human beings, for “being human” means “being in relationships”, and the act of grace Christ invites us to take part in is precisely aimed at restoring those relationships. Therefore: Whoever loses his life for me will find it… (Matthew 16:25b).

So Matthew 5:38-39 is not an invitation to be masochistic. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a radical refusal to surrender to the evil that we experience from time to time. It’s an invitation to obey the creative call of Love (click here to read more) – which is, paradoxically, truly liberating:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”