Confessions of a Former Fundamentalist: Confirmation Bias

I stumbled into fundamentalism by making a common assumption: I'd become a Christian because I wanted to know and follow the Truth (the capital "T" is intentional here and not conventional), and being a fundamentalist merely meant adhering to the "fundamentals" of faith.

This is of course what the fundamentalist thinks and would have others to believe, but often what is fundamental to Christian fundamentalists is not and was never fundamental to the Christian church at large or historically.

Consider for instance a particular doctrine, such as the imminent return of Jesus in the clouds meeting those who have been saved in the sky, all of whom are changed in an instant, leaving behind the rest of the world to suffer through tribulation followed by an anti-Christ figure who leads the world for seven years, culminating in the last judgment. The basic doctrine is known as the "rapture," and many Protestant fundamentalists consider it to be one of the basic building-blocks of the faith, so much so that if one does not believe in it one may not really be born again or saved, or worse, one of those who will be caught up in the clouds with Christ when the time comes.

The doctrine of the rapture is clothed with other abstract eschatological positions, such as whether or not one is pre, mid or post-tribulation, a question concerning when the rapture will occur in terms of the tribulation, each position backed by a number of theories based on various readings of the Bible.

There may be variations of disagreement allowed, but some for many fundamentalist sects, this particular apocalyptic view is a fundamental when in fact such a view is very recent in the history of the church.

The point is that sects adopt specific views as being important and vital to the faith that measured by history are not at all dogmatic, or non-negotiable truths central to the witness and life of Christians since the very beginning. Fundamentalists have a tendency to hone in on distinctive doctrines and bloat them until they become central to what it means to belong, or to the identity of the group, in other words, and rejecting beliefs such as the rapture may be thought of as aberrant, or nominal or even heretical.

One would think that the available history on such matters would have some bearing on how significant interesting and new doctrinal formulations might truly be to the church. But it isn't, and that has to do with reasons that are relevant to the formal beginning of fundamentalism as a radical reaction to modernism in the early part of the twentieth century. The Reformation, deeply intertwined and influenced with the Renaissance in a way that is similar to the conflation of fundamentalism and modernism today, locked in the Lutheran proclamation of sola Scriptura as the basis of Christian revelation and authority.

The Protestant distinctive that dogmatically affirmed the Bible as the sole and final arbiter of special revelation to the church and world played itself to some of its logical conclusions during sectarian infighting among American Presbyterians and others. Never mind that this view of Scripture, which isolates Biblical texts from context and reduces them to a kind of analytic methodology that at least mimics the modernist liberal hermeneutic that had threatened Christian identity in the United States, is also not found as a dogma or creed in the history of the church since the beginning.

The result is a rigid, black-and-white, affirmation as dogma that not only is "Scripture alone" a fundamental truth of the faith, but so is the resultant idea that the Bible is also infallible and inerrant. Such a stance demanded that every word of the Bible be perspicuous (in other words, clear and easy to understand), and at least implied that the Bible should by-and-large be taken literally, rejecting the vast literature from the Church fathers going back at least fifteen hundred years that offered numerous figurative, mythic, metaphorical and allegorical interpretations of texts.

These distinctive doctrines affirmed the foundation of American fundamentalism as expressed primarily in the Protestant and evangelical church without any note of irony whatsoever to betray the fact that every single one of them was an innovation, and had never been considered fundamental to Christian belief since the beginning of the church. It becomes easy to see that fundamentalism really has little to do with adhering to the fundamentals of the faith, even though fundamentalists will claim that each distinctive is in fact and has always been the truth, but that only remnants of Christians have adhered to it, the faithful few on the narrow road of salvation.

Or, at any rate, there is no need to elaborate a justification for ignoring history or context precisely because the Bible clearly and literally expresses each distinctive as the Word of God, and since one of the distinctive doctrines is that the Bible is clear in expressing revealed Truth, one can trust it, or have faith in the truths that are being revealed. The fact that the doctrine of inerrancy and its corollary regarding perspicuity is itself deemed to be true on the basis of nothing but its own claim seems to be the elephant in the room.

And so, as a young fundamentalist, I had faith in the clarity of the Bible because the Bible said it was clear and the all-sufficient arbiter of divine revelation, even though the Bible really doesn't ever, anywhere, say that. If I make the claim that it does say that, I have to argue my case, which at least intimates that either I am more righteous or more reasonable or more knowledgeable than anyone who disagrees with me, or the Bible isn't really perspicuous - a contradiction of the claim.

I understood the necessity of the claim, though, in terms of functioning in a way that I thought the Bible was supposed to function. It was supposed to not only introduce me to God, but provide principles for living my life. To a large degree, for me and everyone I knew at the time, this meant that the Scriptures primarily informed my belief system, or as I was fond of saying then, my "world view." It didn't really seem too odd to me that its clarity seemed to depend on my acceptance of doctrines that started out as hypotheses not usually initially indicated in the text.

So, when I was a charismatic who could proof-text the need for a baptism of the Holy Spirit, whereby one was empowered by God and given the gifts of the Holy Spirit (evidence by the phenomenon of speaking in tongues), the Bible seemed really clear on the subject. It perplexed me that anyone could argue to the contrary.

And later, when I was a five-point Calvinist who thought God gave us all five fingers on each hand so that we could more easily memorize the doctrines of grace as summarized by the acronym TULIP, the way that the Scriptures fell into an extreme clear pattern to confirm all this was astonishing. The fact that numerous people could not see it was shocking to me.

I did not want to assume that I was just better or holier and able to understand the otherwise clear Scriptures than they, but I did anyway. After all, if the Bible is the sole authority, then it must also be perspicuous; and if others are not seeing it as I do, they must have bad motives or be invested in erroneous conclusions. I guess I could excuse myself through an appeal to youth (I was in my mid-20s). But I was utterly convinced that what I believed was Truth, and anyone who disagreed was either ignorant of the Scriptures, immoral, illiterate, or heretical.

It did not occur to me that the Scriptures seemed just as clear to detractors as it did to me, or even that what I thought was clear might have come across as a bit more obscure to others, and legitimately so.
Now, however, I realize how powerful confirmation bias is, and what a strong role this cognitive error plays as a factor in determining personal belief.

Confirmation bias is an unconscious process in which I favor information that supports my hypothesis. It is not a conscious act, but one of the products of human finitude, and it takes some training to try not to do it; even then, I don't think anyone is free of it. It impacts personal relationships, as well as affirms social constructs and the schematic shorthand that overwhelmingly substitutes for actual engagement with people or information.

Think of a common hypothesis that appends to constructs having to do with poverty in the United States, such as: poor people are lazy, drug-addled, users of the system, etc. As is usually the case, the abject and weakest members of society are the scapegoats for its illnesses.

Confirmation bias would seek to prove the hypothesis rather than disprove it - the latter is the scientific method; the former is an error. In proving the hypothesis, one automatically and unconsciously selects evidence that favors it, such as listening to narratives about people on food stamps using their allotment to buy items deemed to be unnecessary. (The fundamental attribution error plays into this as well, since often items deemed to be unnecessary to others are often okay and justified to oneself.) One may then see someone use their food stamp money while texting on a cell phone. Or, one may see someone use their food stamp card to purchase junk food. One might notice that the person on food stamps is overweight. One may watch a family on food stamps drive off from the store in a nice car, or at least one in better condition than one's own.

All of these observations collect to provide a narrative of evidence that proves the hypothesis, and then the proofing stops. A multitude of factors may be at play here to motivate bias, including political ideology or even envy - envy of the poor who seem to be getting something for nothing often underlies the rhetoric of forcible austerity.

There is no questioning of the evidence, and no seeking to disprove the hypothesis, which is the only way to substantially deal with bias. If you cannot disprove the hypothesis, then it can be accepted - not as absolute truth, but for further consideration, research and investigation. But when confirmation bias occurs, there is no attempt at all to disprove the hypothesis, and personal bias is not even remotely addressed.

As a result, confirmation bias reaffirms and substantiates wrong conclusions, reification of social constructs, poor polity that secures the powerful and marginalizes the disempowered, and even bad theology, which is also used to substantiate and justify all of the foregoing.

But one of the odd and perhaps unfortunate realities about how the mind works is how amazingly convincing our experiences and biases can be. Especially referent to my own experience of clarity in terms of finding first Pentecostal/Charismatic doctrinal evidence in the Scriptures, then finding clear Calvinist doctrines there, and then a little later, finding post-millennial, Reconstructionist concepts there. People in the church who know their lingo call this proof-texting, and that's basically what confirmation bias is.

We set out to prove our biases, but not just in relation to a text we assume is inerrant, but in the whole play and action of living. Seeking to disprove our biases, challenge conventions, dismantle constructs and question orthodoxies is a far more reliable method for at least shaking off the fog of bias that clouds and distorts perception.

The need to eliminate bias is not only intrinsic to the process of thought and investigation in scientific research and studies, but it is further employed through both repetition and peer review. In less scientific realms where belief is involved it is no less important, ranging from one's personal world view and the formulation of opinion to team projects in business and enterprise to Church councils, canons and creeds.

Even in these situations, such as a peer review journal or a team meeting that decides, for example, whether or not to send a space shuttle into orbit, there are still cognitive problems that arise due to group dynamics, including the acceptance of normative values that may be contingent upon faulty social constructs. The oppression of women due to gender constructs, not allowing women basic citizenship rights such as to vote (for example) was often robustly justified in peer review religious and scientific journals, as well as affirmed by both religious canon and secular legal courts, including the Supreme Court.

Confirmation bias and the unquestioning acceptance of values cuts right to the heart of the matter, and jumps to error without even bothering with critical thought. The reality is that this is largely how people in United States culture operate. We value our personal opinions; our opinions are based almost completely on our biases, our biases are informed by the apparatuses of convention, and when challenged we merely seek to prove our opinions to be factual rather than question our own assumptions. Proving bias is easy. Knowing what is true and what is not can be much more difficult.