The Skeleton in a Religious Thinker's Closet
Everybody is a religious thinker whether they recognize it or not. The person who sees himself as being either religious or irreligious has necessarily reflected upon the subject of religion at some point. In fact, no mature person can ever hope to escape it.
A person's religious view is always interconnected with the way he views reality — his existing worldview. But different worldviews perceive the world in very diverse ways. People are inclined to reject views that are different from their own. This means that having a worldview also means having biases.
If biases are inevitable then religious devotees and critics alike should freely admit what they are often afraid to divulge. There is a "skeleton" in their religious closet. The skeleton spoken of here is the fact that when they attempt to offer rational proofs in defense of their particular religious stance they do so with an earnest motivation that accompanies the predisposed biases they already possess within them. These biases influence them to reason in such a way that they are psychologically (including emotionally) driven to argue for the view that, in most cases, they would like to believe really reflects the "truth."
Am I admitting that even Bible believing Christians, such as myself, have these biases? Absolutely! Christians are motivated to argue in favor of their religious point of view because they have an eternal hope within them that is rooted in the precious promises of God recorded in the Bible.
Why should we admit our biases? The main reason is that honesty demands it. We must not only be honest with other people, who may have a religious persuasion that differs from our own, but we must be honest with ourselves as well. There is no use trying to pretend that bias is not a part of our human nature and thinking processes.
Atheist writer Aldous Huxley, the grandson of famous Darwinian apologist Thomas Huxley, freely admitted the personal biases that served as an impetus for his religious thinking:
For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom…I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don't know because we don't want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence.1
Atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel was equally forthright in discussing his own biases:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions…in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper - namely, the fear of religion itself…. 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 there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.2
Biases are part of all our thinking, especially religious thought. This potentially makes dialogue between those who hold to differing religious beliefs an emotionally driven event from beginning to end. Each person is internally motivated to reason about their existing worldview in such as way as to justify the truth-claims contained within their worldview. Anyone who says they are able to evaluate religious claims objectively is either self-deceived or lying. No one can be an impartial, objective observer or interpreter of "neutral facts." There is no such thing as neutrality.
Reasoning about religion is, in one sense, like a game for many people. The players involved know the outcome they wish to arrive at and then rationally use every tool of logic they are acquainted with to justify and support that outcome. They always begin with biases and then reason in such a way as to prove what they wish to affirm. This is true of Christians and non-Christians alike.
Admitting our biases doesn't mean that there is no such thing as absolute truth, nor does it infer that one cannot claim to legitimately know this ultimate truth. Openly acknowledging the existence of our personal biases also doesn't mean that the truth-claims made by differing worldviews and religious systems cannot be truth-tested. No one should hold to a particular view of realty unless the beliefs taught by that belief system are true. It's just that we should admit, whether we like it or not, that personal biases are inevitably a part of examining religious claims at every level.
1. Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946), p. 273.
2. Thomas Nagel, quoted by Ravi Zacharias, "Lessons From War In A Battle Of Ideas," Just thinking (Fall 2000: RZIM) pp. 4-5.
Topics: Apologetics, Philosophy