Monday, June 6, 2011


“It seems that expecting people to be convinced by the facts
flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”
Chris Mooney 

I read an interesting article (by Chris Mooney) in the May 30th issue of The Week, entitled ‘Made-up Minds,” condensed from a longer article in Mother Jones.

Mooney was attempting to deal with the strange phenomenon that people hold to all sorts of bizarre ideas, and cannot be convinced otherwise, even when confronted by facts to the contrary.  Actually, people often hold more tenaciously to their ideas when presented with contrary evidence.

Mooney presented an array of examples of such tenacity:  doomsday cults, global warming opponents, birthers.  He pointed out that education has little to do with it; in fact, those who hold these contrarian views the most tenaciously are often quite well educated and thus better able to defend them.

Mooney credits this anomaly to something known as “motivated reasoning” which he says “builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience:  reasoning is actually suffused with emotion.”  He explains, “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close.”  He attributes this to our “fight-or-flight reflexes.”

“In other words,“ he tells us, “by the time we’re consiously reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing our prior emotional commitments.”  He gives an analogy:  “We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.”

This explains a lot.  When people are confronted with information that may be contrary to their belief systems, they don’t absorb it and check it out for its factuality, they automatically hit the reject button.  Rather than using reason to examine whether the information is true and seek how to fit it in with previous knowledge or to modify previously held views, the emotions take over and employ reason to defend cherished positions.

Do Christians do this?  I’m afraid we – especially evangelicals – are so concerned about maintaining the truthfulness of our positions that we often shut out the possibility of taking in new truth.  We like to think of it as “defending the faith.”

But if all truth is God’s truth, then this is an improper (though natural) reaction.  We should have nothing to fear.

And what’s more, we sometimes employ unChristian means in our reactions to those whom we regard as assailing our cherished beliefs.  We personally attack our “opponents” (i.e., those who present new, contrary information) verbally and question their motives.  And it is not always the essentials of the faith that we desire to defend.  More often than not, it is some little morsel of “truth”; and, it’s often more political than theological.

It seems to me that we may be taking our cues, not from the Word of God, but from talk radio and the TV news networks.  There we find little rational discourse but personal attacks.  When speaking of or to someone with whom the speaker disagrees, motives are immediately brought forth and the truth is ignored.  Interviews become, not discussions, but quarrels.  The truthfulness of a person’s views is not discussed, except as a basis for character assassination.  And yes, preachers and Bible teachers often behave in the same manner.

I recently had the experience of having my motives and character called into question because I had questioned some statements made by some Christian folks on Facebook, people who did not even know me.  It was not the first time and it probably won’t be the last, but it called my attention back to this article.

I suppose I should rejoice; I’m in good company.  The Apostle Paul had his motives questioned many times, and at least one time it was by people that he had personally ministered to, many of whom he had personally led to faith in Christ.  His words to them are informative.

I Corinthians 4:3-5:  “But to me it is the least thing that I should be examined by you or by a human court.  In fact, I don’t even examine myself, yet I am not justified in this, but the Lord is the one who examines me (3, 4).

So then don’t go on judging before the time; wait till the Lord comes, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and expose the motives of our hearts.  And then each one’s praise will come from God” (5).

The word translated “examine” is the Greek word anakrino, which is a legal term meaning something like “examine before trial,” “investigate,” even “conduct a preliminary hearing.”  It was used of Pilate’s “examination” of Jesus in Luke 23:14.  I t is used frequently in Acts of the “examination” of the Apostles and others by various courts (4:9; 12:19; 24:8, 28:18).  Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 2:14, 15 of the Spirit’s work of “evaluating.”

Throughout the New Testaments, believers are urged to “judge” behavior.  Even in this letter (5:1ff), Paul urges his readers to deal with a brother who was shacking with his stepmother.  Behavior does matter!  But what Paul was speaking about here, was something different.  They were apparently judging his motives.  That was off limits.

If I may paraphrase loosely what I believe Paul was saying to his readers is this:

“You are putting me on trial and examining what you believe are my motives.  It means nothing to me.  I’m not even capable of understanding my own motives.  I have a clear conscience but really, only the Lord really knows my (or anyone else’s) motive.

So stop condemning me for what you thing my motives are.  You can’t know that.  Just wait till the Lord returns.  He’ll reveal to us all what’s really going on in our hearts.  And then He will praise us, if He can.”

So what can we learn from all this?  What have I learned?  How am I to respond to truth claims that seem to contradict my beliefs?
·        Listen.  The one who presents new information which classes with my views is not necessarily attacking me.
·        If all truth is God’s truth, facts can’t hurt me or my belief system.
·        My responsibility, when presented with new or conflicting truth claims, is to examine them to ascertain if they are really true.  Of course, the truth I already know is one standard for examining.
·        If the new information proves to be true, I may need to modify my belief system.  Not all things that I (and other Christians) believe, are essential.

As Chris Mooney says, “If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.”

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