Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret evidence and reality in such a way as to affirm what we want to believe. A simple example of confirmation bias can be seen when two people are watching a football game but are supporting the opposite teams. A play is made in which a wide receiver catches a ball near the sideline, and there is some uncertainty whether he caught the ball inbounds or out of bounds. The person supporting the offensive team will be looking for proof that the receiver caught the ball inbounds and will argue for this interpretation of the various replays. The person supporting the defensive team will be looking for proof that the receiver caught the ball out of bounds and will argue for that interpretation of the replays. Each of them is looking for confirmation of what he wants to be true. Each is biased toward a particular interpretation of the evidence so as to confirm his desired outcome.
Are Christians sometimes guilty of confirmation bias? Are Christians perhaps unknowingly interpreting evidence in such a way as to “prove” what they want to believe is true? The simple and quick answer to these questions is, yes, Christians are sometimes guilty of confirmation bias.
However, a more helpful and realistic way to address this topic is to rephrase the question this way: “Are people influenced by confirmation bias?” Another helpful way to address the issue would be with this question: “Are people perhaps unknowingly interpreting evidence in such a way as to prove what they want to believe is true?” The answer to both of these questions is a strong “yes.” Realistically, no one ever views a situation or evidence from a completely objective or neutral frame of mind. In fact, it would be helpful to remove the concept of “guilt” from the discussion. Confirmation bias isn’t necessarily good or bad. It simply is a reality of the human condition.
Thomas Nagel, an atheist philosopher who has taught at New York University, strongly affirms the reality of confirmation bias as being a part of the human condition. In 2003, Nagel wrote an essay entitled “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” In this essay, he makes this honest statement of his own confirmation bias: “I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear [of religion]. I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (The Last Word, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 130). It would be helpful for all people to be as aware of and as forthright concerning their own confirmation bias.
How, then, should a Christian confront the reality of confirmation bias? First, a Christian needs to honestly admit this reality, not just for himself, but for all of mankind. We need to be striving to live truthful, honest lives before God and men (Psalm 51:6).
Second, we need to recognize that a person apart from the miraculous work of God in his or her life has a confirmation bias against the truth of God’s Word. Psalm 14:2–3, which Paul references in Romans 3, makes this reality clear: “The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” In Romans 8:7, Paul informs us that “the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will” (NLT). Most Christians can recall the time before they were saved when they were in this place, hostilely opposed to God, His ways, and His Word.
Third, we should not deny the reality of confirmation bias in our defense and proclamation of the gospel. Rather, we should gently and respectfully convince our neighbors and friends of the reality of the life of Christ and the truth of God’s Word.
Last, knowing that all people everywhere are subject to confirmation bias, we should be praying for God to show our neighbors and friends their own bias against God and the biblical worldview. We should ask for God to show them their sin, need, and hostility toward God; we should ask God to show them how forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal are available in Christ.
In summary, Christians should recognize that all people are subject to confirmation bias. The believer should strive to recognize his or her own biases and make sure that these biases are in line with the truth of God’s Word (Psalm 139:23–24). And the believer should be praying for and gently pointing out the confirmation biases in the lost. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we should be pointing all people to the ultimate reality of truth in Christ and God’s Word.