Monday, March 7, 2016

Are we too certain about our beliefs?

I recently conducted a Facebook survey to determine how confident people feel about their beliefs regarding “ultimate reality” -  Is there a God? What happens when we die? Is there an absolute standard of morality? Do miracles happen?

Let me pause to acknowledge that this was not an academic survey. Part way through someone pointed out that I had left out major religions like Judaism and Buddhism (whoops – went back and added those!).  And with my non-representative sample of 97 Facebook friends and family members, well lets just say that statistical significance is low and bias is high.  And apparently, I need to make a few more friends of other faiths.

I shouldn’t be surprised at the results, but I am – a bit. Maybe the better word is disappointed.

Leading the pack, Evangelical Christians were the most confident that their beliefs were correct. All but two expressed 90% confidence or higher and over half said they were 100% confident. For each religion/worldview, on average people were over 50% confident in their beliefs. Only a handful were willing to say they were not very confident. Three brave souls were willing to say that their confidence was close to 0.

Overall, people seem to be more certain about belief (or non-belief) in God and the afterlife and less certain about miracles and the absoluteness of morality. 

The next thing I wanted to know was, even if you are certain about your beliefs are you open to changing them in light of new evidence and experiences?

Once again, Evangelicals top the charts. A staggering 79% said they would not change their beliefs even if “Strong, widely-held scientific evidence is found against my view “, “I experience a powerful personal experience that contradicts my current views”, or “Several people I highly trust and respect and who share my views change their beliefs.” The next runner-up in terms of unwillingness to budge were the Militant Atheists. Opposite ends of the spectrum often collide. 

The most powerful factor in changing someone's mind turns out to be personal experience followed by strong scientific evidence. So if you convert, it's unlikely your friends will follow.

With the exception of the Buddhist/Unitarians (there were 3), for every single religion/worldview there was at least one person who said they wouldn’t change their mind. (Believe it or not, this was even true for the Agnostics).   How certain you are tends to be negatively correlated to how open you are to changing your mind in the future; if you are really confident, you are less likely to be open to new evidence. (A problem if the same holds true for courtroom juries).


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Perhaps the fault lies in in the wording of the questions (how do you define “correct”, “certain”, or “strong scientific evidence”). Perhaps had I given people a chance to explain their views the results of the survey would look different. But I’m going to work with what I have because even with its faults, I think the survey is telling.

From here on out I’m going to focus on just one segment, the Evangelicals. For one, their conviction and unwillingness to change their minds was by far and away the strongest. And also, because they are my people. (At least were? I’m on a journey….). But for the rest of you, keep reading, maybe it will be interesting….

FAITH is one of the hardest words in the Christian vocabulary to define. It can simply mean religion or trust or belief or hope. Unfortunately, more and more it’s become synonymous with Certainty. And Certainty, in turn, has become a sort of universal litmus test of one’s spiritual fervor.

Let me give an example.

When I was in high school, I went to a Christian tennis camp for the summer. I remember one of the questions asked was – “How certain are you that you are going to heaven? If you are not 100% certain you need to recommit your life to Christ.”  At the time, I don’t think I actually thought much of it. I thought it was a little intense, but at that time I was pretty certain of my faith – or felt I should be - and would have probably answered 10 on all the survey questions.

But for me that experience has become indicative of what Evangelical Christianity has come to be. “Are you sure?” “Are you really sure?” It’s as if Jesus will only save you 50% if you are only 50% sure. So you better be 100% sure.

Where did this need for certainty come from? Part of it is simply human psychology and affects everyone. It is really hard to live your life constantly sitting on the fence. After my own years of journeying, I can attest that my bum is really sore.  Questioning, paradoxes, cognitive dissonance, what if’s, are incredibly taxing.

But the second reason is that Christianity is a faith that is based heavily on doctrine and creeds. Judaism, for example, is a faith largely based on history, a people group, and laws to love God and neighbor. It’s hard to find systematic lists of doctrines or creeds, and inclusion into Jewish community is based primarily on bloodlines and following ritual and moral codes. While Evangelicals like to say that a Relationship with Jesus Christ is all you need, the reality is that you also need the Apostle’s Creed. Or the Nicene creed. Or the Westminster Catechism. Or Calvin's TULIP theology. Or some combination of correct doctrine. Check out a church’s website, and most likely it will list their statement of faith, i.e. their list of core doctrines.  There is nothing wrong with doctrine and disagreeing over doctrine, but it has become such a focal point of the church that we now have more than 30,000 (!!) denominations. Fortunately, the term “heretic” has gone out of fashion but at one time the correctness of your belief could even mean life or death. In a faith that puts such weight on doctrine, it is no surprise that certainty has also become so important, and in many ways a marker of your fervor and sincerity. 

But is this how we should practice our faith? Or, to phrase it in Christian terms, is this notion of Certainty even biblical?

Dr. Greg Boyd is one of my favorite writers/Christian thinkers. I love his honesty and his way of grappling openly with the hard stuff. In his book, The Benefit of the Doubt, he goes as far as to call Certainty an “Idol.”  I’ll provide a few quotes, though I’m tempted to just type out the whole book:

“There is something amiss with a concept of faith that inclines me to be anything but totally honest with whatever my research uncovers.”

“Why would God place a premium on one’s ability to convince oneself that something is true?”

“..the biblical model doesn’t demand or expect certainty….because it is perfectly at home with ambiguity, doubts, and unanswered questions.”

“while the certainty-seeking model of faith is psychological in nature, the biblical concept is covenantal. That is, while the former is focused on a person’s mental state, the latter is focused on how a person demonstrates a commitment by how they live.”

Not only can certainty be problematic, but its follow-on, a lack of openness to other ideas, is hypocritical. We expect people of other faiths to consider Christianity when we do very little to sincerely explore their faith.

A few weeks ago I went to a "healing service" at my church. They brought in a guest speaker who a was a world-renowned miracle healer. After he performed a number of back-pain healings I asked him if he had considered working with any research groups to document the healings. (I still don’t know what I think about these things – they are admittedly strange - so I usually try to dig a bit). He said something along the lines of – Oh it doesn’t matter how much evidence you give, they never believe. If you give them a medical document, they want a video. If you give them a video, they want it from multiple angles. It’s never enough.

I agree – often science is completely biased against anything with the "M-word" – but don’t we do the same thing? Isn’t this survey evidence of that? I’ve heard several Christian debaters say that they would give up their faith if we were able to prove that the Resurrection didn’t happen. Isn’t that a more honest place to be? Faith because of evidence rather than in spite of it?  If we don’t consider evidence and experience, don’t we risk becoming no better than a cult or like the fundamentalists of other faiths?

Finally, my own place in my journey leads me to plead for more openness. If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you know that I come from an evangelical background but for the last 10 or so years I’ve been uncertain of what I believe. I’ve tried to hold on to the Christian faith, I didn’t want to let go. But ironically, one of the things that’s made it hard to stay is the evangelical church itself. I have not been shunned or deeply wounded, but rather the evangelical church just isn’t built for people like me. It is not a place that embraces, encourages and curiously probes doubt but rather it is a continual mantra of belief and certainty: “I know”, “I believe”, “I affirm.” If only two evangelicals on this survey expressed less than 90% certainty, I’m clearly pretty alone. I’ve debated moving to a more liberal denomination or simply leaving the church all together (which I did for a season), but the stubborn part of me says – no, you must make room!

And so I ask, please make room. Both in your church but also in your minds. We must remember that “we see but through a glass dimly.”  “His ways are above our ways.” Or if you are an atheist and prefer Carl Sagan, we are but “a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”

Ok, I'll get off my soapbox (climbing down...).  No doubt I’ve ruffled some feathers and I apologize if you feel unjustly criticized for your convictions. Belief is also a gift and some people are just naturally more certain than others. It may be that you are certain not because you feel you have to be but simply because you are. If so, amen and God bless you, though please don’t stop the search for truth – there is always more and our fragile minds are always fallible!

With that, thank you all so much for taking my survey. I hope you found the results interesting and even personally enlightening! I'm sure it's sparked some additional observations and alternate interpretations, so please feel free to share in the comments below.