Decades ago, when two people had a disagreement, they had three options: continue to disagree, adopt the opponents view, or mutually agree on some third viewpoint.
In modern times a fourth option has been invented and become practically mandatory: everybody’s viewpoint is correct. It is not a problem if the two ideas contradict one another because truth is like ice cream: it’s a matter of opinion. Your taste in truth is as valid as mine.
Alternately, people now believe that no one can really know what is true. Everyone operates off of the limited information they have, but can’t say with any confidence that they are right and someone else is wrong.
Given these viewpoints, it is understandable that people get offended when Christians or other idealists act like they know the truth and reject all viewpoints that differ from theirs. However, there are some obvious flaws with both of these concepts of truth.
In the first case, two people’s beliefs cannot be true if they contradict one another. They can both be false, or one of them can be true, but there is no third option. To say that everyone’s beliefs are true is a copout because then the person is not forced to have to do the hard work of evaluating their own view, they are not forced to consider the alternatives, nor are they forced to have to take a stand against an idea they believe to be wrong. There is no conflict, but there is also no resolution.
The second idea, that no one can be certain of anything, is self-refuting. How are you certain that no one can be certain? Isn’t it possible that there is some way that a person can be certain, and you just don’t know about it?
Western religions and Materialism all take a similar stance on the concept of “Truth”: they define Truth as “that which is descriptive of reality.” Moreover, these worldviews tend to adopt the Law of Noncontradiction as valid, that is, they believe that two ideas that contradict one another cannot both be true. Consequently, when people of differing religious views interact, the result is generally some kind of conflict of ideas. In recent years, Materialistic Atheism has joined the fray. Classic Atheism tended to stay out of idealistic quarrels because it was fundamentally Nihilistic. Since nothing really mattered, there was no point in arguing about it. Modern Atheism tends to be more idealistic. They believe in a standard of “right” and “wrong” and that any form of Religion falls under the category of “wrong.”
Interestingly, the New Atheist’s reasoning for why Religion is fundamentally “bad” is instructive of religious conflict in general: they believe that the pursuit of truth leads to the greater good while deception leads to bad consequences. As one of their slogans goes: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings,” (referring to the events of 9/11).
Because the New Atheism tends to be as dogmatic as Religions have traditionally been, it is appropriate to lump them into this discussion.
In 1956, psychologist Leon Festinger published When Prophecy Fails, a book about a UFO cult that had predicted an impending apocalypse. The time they had predicted that the world would end came and went without incident. Rather than abandoning their beliefs, the cult began frantically revising them to explain how their worldview was true even when their prediction was wrong.
What Festinger observed in his book was that it is human nature for people to absorb or deflect facts that don’t seem to accommodate their existing worldview, rather than changing their worldview to fit the facts. Festinger labeled this phenomenon “Cognitive Dissonance.”
While no worldview is immune to this human tendency, as Festinger observed in his book, this is especially prevalent in religious communities. In many, if not most, cases, when a person embraces a religious idea, they do so as a result of indoctrination. Children naturally adopt the views their parents teach them. A person might be pressured by a peer group to adopt a view because everyone else holds that view. Or a person might be taking the word of an authority figure, such as a pastor, without researching the reasons behind what that authority is saying.
Once the person has adopted their belief, they will naturally tend to interpret any future information they may receive through the lens of that belief structure.
In small measure, this tendency is not entirely unhealthy. The scientific method involves four basic steps: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and reconciliation. A scientist observes the facts concerning their subject matter, then they form a hypothesis about how those facts fit their subject matter, they form an experiment to test the truth or falsity of their hypothesis, and then they reconcile the results of the experiment with the hypothesis, altering it as necessary. Rarely does this process result in the scientist discarding all of the theories within their field and starting over from scratch; throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
The reason scientists don’t abandon an entire belief structure every time they are wrong is that it is assumed that much of the work that went into forming that belief structure in the first place – the experiments that succeeded, and the theories that were upheld by the evidence – were, in fact, correct.
At the other extreme of cognitive dissonance lies Postmodernism: the belief that there is no overarching truth that governs all of reality. This belief conveniently allows the subscriber to hold any number of conflicting beliefs without discomfort, as each separate belief is true “in its own way.”
While the religious in general and Christians in particular are often criticized (and rightly so) for their over-reliance on “confirmation bias” – the tendency to only consider ideas that already conform to one’s preconceptions – they are by no means the only ones guilty of this crime.
In debate, there is a mistake called “the genetic fallacy.” This is when a person dismisses wholesale any idea that comes from a source they consider to be disreputable (you can’t say the earth is round. Adolf Hitler believed the earth was round), or accepts an idea on the basis that it comes from a reputable source (slavery must be good. The Founding Fathers upheld it in the Constitution).The problem with doing this, of course, is that it doesn’t consider the idea itself, only the source of the idea.
Examining one’s preconceptions is rarely an unbiased process, and frequently very emotional. Most people are raised to believe certain things. Examining those beliefs is essentially questioning the authority figures that the individual has respected their entire life.
On January 15th, 2012, CNN published an article written by a single mother about why she is raising her children without God. In this article she states:
“God has a plan for you.” Telling kids there is a big guy in the sky who has a special path for them makes children narcissistic; it makes them think the world is at their disposal and that, no matter what happens, it doesn’t really matter because God is in control.
When we raise kids without God, we tell them the truth—we are no more special than the next creature. We are just a very, very small part of a big, big machine–whether that machine is nature or society–the influence we have is minuscule. The realization of our insignificance gives us a true sense of humbleness.
The woman’s point is well-made. Believing something for the reason that it makes the believer feel special or feel good about themselves does little to credit the belief. This type of belief is suspicious in that it seems too convenient and appears to have an ulterior motive.
There are no end of spiritual beliefs, Christian and otherwise, that are just that. One need only watch a few episodes of Oprah or read the latest book by Joel Osteen or Deepak Chopra to encounter this narcissistic, self-focused brand of spirituality. However Biblical Christianity properly understood is far from narcissistic. Jesus blessed the meek and the poor in spirit. He said the last will be first and the first will be last. Over and over again, Christ praised humility, self-sacrifice, service to others, and the placement of God as one’s highest focus.
As this article has shown, all belief systems tend toward a bias against opposing belief systems. Clearly the brand of atheists that this single mother represents and the Biblical Jesus both value humility. In the spirit of this humility, then, it is important that any given person afford someone of an opposing viewpoint the courtesy of an open-minded hearing and fair consideration of what they have to say. One or both of them is going to be wrong, and they both expect the other to respect their powers of discernment.
Each person born into this world must re-discover all of the collected knowledge of the previous ages for themselves. The history of human discovery is riddled with errors, and presumably many of these errors are still on-going. Each child is largely dependent on their parents to guide them in their views of truth, reality, and issues of right and wrong. Many never re-evaluate the teachings of their parents once they have reached a point in cognitive development to do so. Again, this can be an emotional issue, because it is difficult to admit to the fact that one’s parents are people prone to error just like anyone else.
It is possible, however, for a person to critically examine their parent’s views and teachings without disrespecting them, just as it is possible to respect any other person that one disagrees with. Very few parent’s teachings are entirely without virtue, and the life-lessons and experience they have can be instructive, even if their overall worldview needs adjustment. The duty of a parent is to guide their child into adulthood, and an adult who never thinks for him or herself has never truly matured.