Not that “confirmation.” I am talking about confirmation bias — I do too much of it and it seems every pundit on legitimate media and expert amateurs on any social media platform are also addicted.
Last week a dear friend of mine came to visit from out of town. We rarely get a chance to get together, reminisce about old times, catch up on new times, and share our memories and laughter — all of this despite the fact that my friend and I have little in common.
For starters, my friend is an atheist. He is not the only friend I have who bends this way. He is on the opposite political spectrum from which I inhabit as well, but for some reason, we became friends in high school and have remained friends ever since.
This is either a testament to our bond of friendship or proof that we have not matured much since we were 17 years old. In either case, friendship endures. We have yet to solve all the world’s problems, but we haven’t given up hope.
He married and moved away a long time ago, but even with our now infrequent encounters, we seem to pick up where we left off. He likes to push my buttons and I like to fire back.
When he came over to the house for pizza, wine, and enjoyable conversation, as usual we covered a wide range of topics. He dangled a couple of pieces of red meat my way — mentioning how much he admired pop culture atheist Sam Harris, and how he was really getting into the late pop philosophy of Joseph Campbell. My Catholic spidey senses tingled a bit, but I did not approach the hook. I opted to talk about the many foibles and happy misadventures my friend and I shared in days gone by.
I must come clean though. Just a day after my friend’s visit, I was busily scouring the internet looking for “answers” as to how his belief in nonbelief, and especially in two of its greatest disciples, was wrong and I was right. I wanted to confirm what I already believed. I knew enough about both Sam Harris and Joseph Campbell to understand they are the antithesis of what I believe, but I wanted more.
Then I stopped myself. Is my faith that fragile? Do I need to constantly remind myself that I am right and my friend is wrong? It really does not work that way.
In my quieter, more God-centered moments, I am graced with the understanding that I am not in a competition with my friend, or anyone for that matter, when it comes to matters of faith. I cannot argue him into belief anyway, even though I have been foolishly trying to for nearly 50 years.
The term for what I was doing is “confirmation bias.” It is when we search high and low and back again for data, opinions, and anything we can get our hands on to affirm something we already believe. It is not healthy. The algorithms that drive social media know this about us and that is why when you search for something you are likely to get like-minded articles and even advertisements that reinforce your bent.
The holy Bible has been part of the “confirmation bias” ever since the Reformation. Scripture can be cherry picked ad infinitum to support one argument or another. There is an entire cottage industry where hit-and-run social media tactics are fueled by biblical “support” taken out of context. Fortunately, we have a Church that tempers this abuse with tradition and a magisterium.
Like everything else, the real answer to this phenomena is also found in scripture. Those seeking to confirm their own biases about what they thought the true Messiah should be and what he should do had their hopes dashed. He was from the House of David, but there was nothing all that regal about an out-of-work carpenter who hailed from one of the lowliest parts of Israel.
Jesus did not help matters much either by never seeming to cooperate with people’s preconceived notions. Rather, almost every page of every Gospel highlights Jesus telling people exactly what they do not want to hear: love your enemy, lose your life to save it — the list goes on and on.
So, us modern-day confirmation bias adherents need to tread with caution when we get too comfortable and turn to Scripture to make us even more so, as Jesus so often does not give us what we want, but what we need.