Confirmation Bias

The Rev. John D. Lane. This sermon is based on Matthew 25:1-2.


[Jesus said,] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is about readiness. “Be prepared” as the Boy Scouts would say. Preparation begins with the truth. Religious people seek the Ultimate Truth. Pilate asks, “What is truth?” It’s a throwaway line. He is exasperated with Jesus’ unwillingness to defend himself against his accusers. “Are you a king?” Jesus replies, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” For Pilate, truth may be optional. For Jesus, it is not.

Does anyone here remember a 1950’s television show called The Halls of Ivy starring Ronald Colman? He played Dr. William Todhunter Hall, president of Ivy College. My parents, aunt, and uncle loved it. So much for the wisdom of age. I was about 11 or 12 at the time, and I thought it was dumb and boring. There was a lot of meaningless blather, but I did like the motto of Ivy College: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” These were not the words of a screenwriter, but those of Jesus himself, passed along in John 8:32.

The other night I took Bizzy out to dinner, the spaghetti supper at Trinity Church. The election polls closed while we were there, so politics was on the mind of many of us. We bewailed the highly partisan and nasty atmosphere infecting society these days. Bob Craycroft and I were talking and he mentioned “confirmation bias,” a term I hadn’t heard before.

I looked it up and the clearest explanation I found is:

Confirmation bias occurs when people filter out potentially useful facts and opinions that don’t coincide with their preconceived notions. It affects perceptions and decision-making in all aspects of our lives and can cause us to make less-than-optimal choices.

Like many of you, my votes last Tuesday were partly a result of confirmation bias. You and I probably differ on a variety of issues but I want to mention two religious issues, an area where I modestly consider myself something of an expert. One candidate’s literature favored teaching Creationism in the schools, as well as promoting school vouchers. This jumped out at me.

Creationism is the doctrine saying the book of Genesis is literally true, and Evolution is a hoax. Creationists believe the universe, the earth, and everything on the earth was made directly by God less than 10,000 years ago. On the other hand, an overwhelming number of scientists believe the earth to be more than 1 billion years old. That’s a big discrepancy.

Creationism is a narrow religious view, and should not be taught in the public schools. That’s what Sunday schools are for. Creationism is not science, but a religious doctrine based on a shallow reading of scripture called Fundamentalism. It doesn’t begin to emulate the teachings of Jesus, which depend on subtlety and irony and a full reading of the text. Quoting a biblical verse has a lot in common with a sound bite. Flashy, but no depth.

Next, school vouchers are a way of using taxpayer money to support private and parochial schools which are allowed to teach Creationism. Let the churches pay for these schools. Like most of the Founding Fathers, I am against mixing politics and religion. It demeans both. Let’s set aside confirmation bias and work to make public education better. Wouldn’t that be a good thing to do?

In order to be prepared for the future, we need good education. We need religious and political leaders who will tell the truth. When I go to the doctor, I tell her the truth. I don’t hide what’s wrong with me, pooh-pooh my problems. And I especially go to the doctor when I think something may be wrong with me. What’s the point of having an expert if you’re going to lie? Planning for the future involves listening to the experts.

Forty-seven years ago when I was in seminary, Terry Riley, a Peace Corps friend of mine from Montana, came to visit me in New York. It was New Year’s Eve and we went to Times Square. What else would we do? It’s was freezing and I have to admit it was my dumb idea.

We went back to my room and we talked. Unexpectedly, Terry asked me to tell him about Jesus. I know I bungled my response, and I’ve felt guilty about this ever since.

We need to be prepared to dig deeper. The political parties got a message last week. What’s the message to us as Christians? What do you believe about Jesus? Have you worked it out for yourself? What would you say to someone who asked? What would you say to someone who didn’t ask? Dig deeper. You’ll be glad you did.