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Personally, my own experience with the Bible was, for a long time, essentially a process of never quite managing to confront those questions. Unlike Jefferson, I never took the time to go through the Bible point-by-point and figure out exactly which parts I agreed with and which parts I didn’t. It wasn’t necessarily that I consciously avoided it – I was happy to spend hours obsessing over the parts of the Bible that I genuinely found valuable and inspiring – but when it came to the less-than-wonderful parts, I just sort of kept my beliefs vague and never really focused on them too much. Sure, I may have had some kind of distant peripheral awareness in the back of my mind that certain parts of the Bible were historically or scientifically inaccurate, or that some of the stories had a lot of bloodshed – but these concerns were never really anywhere near the front and center of my attention, where they might have been fully subjected to the spotlight of scrutiny; they just kind of lingered on some hazy subconscious level, never quite fully formed. When I thought about the story of Noah’s flood, for instance, I didn’t think about it in terms of millions of terrified families desperately trying to keep their heads above water until they inevitably ran out of strength and drowned horribly; I thought about it as that fun story from the colorful picture books I had as a kid, with all the cute animals in it. When I thought about God killing all the firstborn Egyptians, I didn’t think about it in terms of all the grieving mothers whose beloved children were mercilessly taken from them; I thought about it in the same way I thought about Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star in Star Wars – i.e. the fact that countless people were being violently murdered didn’t register with me on a visceral level; it was just, “Hooray, the good guys beat the bad guys!”

In retrospect, of course, I’m horrified by the fact that I wasn’t able to see these things for what they were. But I think my experience is pretty common among people who were raised religious. If you’ve known these stories your whole life, you never really stop to think about them critically in the same way that you would if you were hearing them for the first time as an adult; you just take them for granted as part of your baseline of knowledge. To draw a non-religious analogy: Do you remember that nursery rhyme, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”? (I realize this is a pretty random example, but it’s one I just came across recently, so it’s still fresh in my mind). This is a story that most of us have heard a million times and could probably recite large portions of by heart. If asked, you could probably give a pretty good description of Santa Claus just based on lines from the original text. (His eyes – how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry! / His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! […] He had a broad face and a little round belly / That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.) It turns out, though, the version of Santa Claus that we imagine in this story differs from the version that actually appears in the story in a surprisingly significant way that few of us ever notice. In the original text of the poem, Santa Claus does have all the usual features that we expect of him – white beard, round belly, etc. – except that he’s not described as a full-sized man; he’s a tiny little elf-person. That’s why he drives “a miniature sleigh [with] eight tiny reindeer.” It’s why he’s able to fit through the chimney so easily. The poem even explicitly says he’s an elf – “a right jolly old elf.” And yet somehow, despite it being literally spelled out for us right on the page, our brains never consciously register this fact, because our preconception of Santa as a full-sized man is so firmly rooted in our minds that we never even consider that it could be any different. We see the illustrations in our childhood picture books depicting him as a full-sized man, we internalize that image, and then, having internalized it, it never occurs to us to go back and question it again as adults. The text of the story is so familiar to us by then that we don’t even consider the words themselves anymore, just the ideas and images that we associate with them – even if those ideas don’t actually match what the text says. And in the same way, most Christians never manage to register the horror of the Bible’s worst stories, like the flood or the Exodus, because they’ve so deeply internalized the fun, colorful, picture-book versions that it never even occurs to them to step outside of their familiar mental model and examine the stories with fresh eyes.

If you’d really forced the issue, and pushed me to give some kind of defense of the Bible’s worst teachings, I probably would have said something like, “Well, you have to look at these passages in context; a lot of those commandments might seem immoral to us today, but they were appropriate to the era in which they were written, and they were especially appropriate to the circumstances that the Israelites were in at the time. Those commandments to kill adulterers and unbelievers and so forth weren’t intended for everyone, for all time; they were just being directed specifically at the Israelites and the particular situation that they were in.” I also might have added that as bad as things were back then, all the most brutal laws of the Old Testament were ultimately superseded by Jesus and his message of love and mercy, so at some level, they weren’t necessarily as applicable anymore. Mind you, I wouldn’t have been so blunt as to just say “We can completely ignore the Old Testament laws now because Jesus overruled them” – I would have at least paid lip service to the contextual validity of the Old Testament laws – but in effect, it would have amounted to the same thing. By focusing on the New Testament, I was essentially giving myself permission to hand-wave away all the barbarity of the Old. (As it happens, there’s actually a whole movement of Christians, called “Red Letter Christians,” who do the same thing, only more explicitly – they ignore pretty much everything in the Old Testament, and just base their beliefs on the words of Jesus alone, which were originally printed in red ink). The way I saw it, the stories and teachings of the Old Testament were important, but they just weren’t as central to the core of my faith as God’s love and Jesus’s sacrifice were. The stories of the Old Testament were… well, not expendable, exactly, but it just wasn’t as crucial to have perfect justifications for them.

Similarly, if you’d asked me to explain the parts of the Bible that were historically or scientifically inaccurate – Noah’s flood, the Tower of Babel, the six-day creation story, etc. – I might have initially tried to defend them as being literally true (and for a while, this was my preferred approach – I had a whole bunch of intelligent-sounding arguments for why evolution was impossible, why the flood could have really happened, etc.); but if really challenged, I ultimately would have hand-waved away the inaccuracies in those stories as well by saying something like, “Well, they might or might not be literally true, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still metaphorically true. We’re not supposed to take everything in the Bible 100% literally – Jesus used parables all the time – so why wouldn’t God use them in the Bible too?” It wasn’t much of a stretch, after all, to believe that (for instance) even if evolution did happen, that didn’t mean that God wasn’t involved; maybe evolution was just another one of God’s creative mechanisms for developing his creations. Maybe the whole process of evolution was simply being guided by the hand of God. Likewise, I had little trouble talking myself into the explanation that although Moses and the Israelites might not have literally parted the Red Sea and walked across it, there might simply have been a translation error; maybe it was actually the Reed Sea that they walked across (i.e. a nearby body of water called the Sea of Reeds, which theoretically would have been passable at low tide). Explanations like these are fairly common among Christian apologists, and for a while I was pretty satisfied with them.

The problem, though, was that I still had this nagging subconscious awareness in the back of my mind that when these stories were written, they weren’t intended to be metaphorical at all – they really were intended to be literal accounts. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, but it’s worth stressing again: If these stories had been intended metaphorically, they wouldn’t have included the key points that they do. If the story of Moses parting the Red Sea, for instance, had just been a matter of the Israelites walking across some shallow marsh or lagoon at low tide, then why would it have been described as such a spectacular miracle? Why even mention it at all if there was no miracle there? And for that matter, if Moses didn’t actually part the Red Sea, how could Pharaoh’s entire army have been crushed under its mass? It seems obvious that the whole point of the story is to illustrate God’s power – to claim that he really did cause the Red Sea to miraculously split in two, and that he really did bring it crashing back down again on the heads of his enemies. A metaphorical interpretation, in which the Israelites simply walked across some shallow lagoon, totally defeats that purpose.

Likewise, if the story of Adam and Eve had only been intended metaphorically, then the Bible wouldn’t repeatedly refer to it in other places as having happened literally. In Exodus 20:9-11, for instance, it explains that the commandment to rest on the Sabbath day is based on the belief that God created the world in six literal days and rested on the seventh. In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, it refers to Adam and Eve as real historical people; and in Romans 5:12-19, it explains that the whole reason why Jesus had to die in the first place was because of the sin committed by Adam, which was passed down his bloodline “from Adam to Moses” and ultimately to “all men.” This concept of original sin depends on Adam having been a literal person who really did commit a sin in the Garden of Eden and subsequently passed it down to his descendants. And the Bible’s emphasis on direct familial descent is reaffirmed by its constant inclusion of passages meticulously cataloguing the genealogies of all its most important figures; Genesis 5 traces the precise family tree of Adam’s descendants all the way through Noah, Genesis 10 and 11 continue that genealogy from Noah to Abraham, and 1 Chronicles outlines the whole ancestral history all the way from Adam up through David and beyond. Luke 3:23-38 even does the same thing for Jesus, tracing the ancestry of his earthly father Joseph back through David, Abraham, Noah, and finally all the way back to Adam himself. If Adam was just a metaphor, then would that mean that all these other biblical figures – including Jesus himself – were just metaphors too? Or is the more likely explanation just that the men who so obsessively wrote out all these genealogies really meant them to be interpreted as the literal family trees of real people?

Here’s a better way of asking the question. In probability theory and statistics, there’s a theorem for logical reasoning called Bayes’s Rule, which says that if you’re trying to determine whether a particular piece of new information supports your belief or contradicts it, you should imagine two alternate universes – one in which your belief is true, and one in which it’s false. Then, if you find that you’d be more likely to encounter this piece of evidence in the universe where your belief is true than in the universe where your belief is false, you should feel more confident that your belief really is true. Conversely, if the evidence is more likely to appear in the universe where your belief is false, then you should take it as a piece of evidence against your belief.

Applying Bayes’s Rule to our interpretation of the Bible, we have to ask what’s more likely: that a hypothetical universe in which the biblical authors intended their words to be read literally would phrase them using the wording that we see in the Bible? Or that a hypothetical universe where the authors intended them to be read metaphorically would use that same wording? Mind you, this isn’t asking which universe would be more likely to exist in the first place – it’s asking whether, if they both existed, we would be more likely to find these passages about post-Adam genealogies, Red Sea crossings, etc. in the former than in the latter.

Considered in this light, the content of the Bible makes for strong evidence that its authors really did mean what they wrote, and that they weren’t just writing metaphorically. But honestly, we didn’t need Bayes’s Rule to tell us that; it’s clear from even the most cursory study of the historical setting that people back then actually believed this stuff literally. Like I said before, in the days before genetics and evolutionary theory, they had little reason not to believe the story that God had created humans and animals in their current forms. In the days before modern physics, they had little trouble believing that the rainbow was a symbol of God’s favor, or that thunder was a sign of his anger. Just like the ancient Greeks believed that the gods really did live on the peak of Mount Olympus – an actual physical location in the real world – the ancient Israelites believed that God really did live in a physical location in the sky (Heaven) and that it was possible to reach it if, say, you built a tall enough tower (as in the Tower of Babel story). Of course, having invented airplanes and satellites since then, we now know that this belief is false – there’s nobody living up in the clouds – but it would be disingenuous to pretend that humans have always known that, just like it would be disingenuous to pretend that humans have always known that the earth is round, or that it orbits the sun. Scientists like Darwin and Galileo didn’t get in trouble with the Church for no reason; people back then really did believe in a literal biblical cosmology that had the earth at the center of the universe. They believed the earth was only a few thousand years old. And they believed that it all started with two people named Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If you’d gone back in a time machine and tried to talk to the biblical authors about the “true” metaphorical interpretation of their words, they would have looked at you like you were crazy (and/or gotten annoyed with you for misrepresenting them so badly). It’s only recently that the “it’s just metaphorical” interpretation has become popular – and that’s not because it’s actually indicated by the Bible itself; it’s because all the facts we keep discovering that contradict the Bible have forced believers to retreat to the “it’s just metaphorical” interpretation in order to preserve their belief in the Bible’s inerrancy.


The same thing applies to the Bible’s ethical teachings. You might try to argue that all the abominable practices prescribed by the Bible were “right at the time,” or that they were ethically justifiable in the Israelites’ specific context; but this is scarcely better than arguing that the belief in a 6,000-year-old geocentric universe was “right at the time,” or that it was “right in that context.” Those beliefs are wrong in any historical context – it’s just that the Israelites didn’t know that yet, because their ethical sensibilities, like their scientific sensibilities, hadn’t yet reached the more humane level that we’ve attained in modern times. As far as they were concerned, stoning people to death for trivial offenses made perfect sense. We just know better than that nowadays.

Besides, if you try to argue that the worst commandments in the Bible are no longer applicable because they were just contextual – i.e. they were directed specifically at the Israelites rather than at future readers – then that could apply just as easily to all the good parts, and would disqualify them as well. When God issues the Ten Commandments, for instance, he prefaces them by saying, “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:1-2). Clearly, he’s not talking about modern readers, since none of us were ever slaves in Egypt – so should this introductory statement therefore be interpreted to mean that his subsequent commandments were solely directed at the Israelites, and not intended for universal use? If you’re using a consistent standard here, it’s hard to throw out the bad without also throwing out the good.

And there are similar problems with the argument that we can disregard the worst Old Testament laws because Jesus overruled them. For one thing, there are verses like Deuteronomy 4:2, Deuteronomy 12:32, Proverbs 30:5-6, 2 Timothy 3:16, and Revelation 22:18-19 which explicitly stipulate that holy scripture is sacred and that it’s forbidden to alter or overrule it in any way. There are also verses like Deuteronomy 7:9, 1 Chronicles 16:15, Psalm 119:151-52, and Psalm 119:160, which reaffirm that God’s laws are not temporary but remain in force forever. But more to the point, there’s also the fact that Jesus himself goes out of his way to confirm the laws’ validity in Matthew 5:17-19, making sure to do so in the most decisive possible terms:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law [the first five books of the Old Testament] or the Prophets [the dozen or so Old Testament books of prophecy]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

He reiterates this in Luke 16:17 – “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the letter of the law to become invalid” – and makes the point again in Matthew 15:3-9, Mark 7:6-10, and John 7:19 when he chastises onlookers for not adhering to the Old Testament laws. In fact, the strongest example of Jesus going against the Old Testament law is probably the story in John 8 where he stops an angry mob from stoning an adulteress by telling them, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” – but again, recall that that passage was never in the original text of the Bible; it was only added centuries later. (Most likely, it was added by Christians who were wrestling with the same issue we’re discussing now; they recognized the barbarity of the Old Testament laws, but they had trouble finding good examples of Jesus contravening them, so they supplied one themselves.) This impulse from Christian moderates to want to annul (or at least soften) the harshest parts of the Old Testament goes back all the way to the beginnings of the Christian Church; even Paul himself implies in Romans (3:28, 6:14, 7:4-6, 10:4) and Galatians (3:13, 3:24-25, 5:18) that he doesn’t think the old laws should remain valid anymore for Christians. But if we’re strictly going by what Jesus himself supposedly said, it’s hard to justify throwing out the Old Testament laws as fully as we might wish to. By and large, if we do decide to disregard them, we’re essentially doing so based on our own cherry-picking moral judgment, not on strict scriptural literalism. In other words, as Harris points out, when “moderate Christianity” is practiced nowadays, it’s not so much a result of its adherents finding that the Bible itself compels them to take a moderate approach to its content – it’s more a matter of them just deciding on their own to selectively ignore the worst parts of it outright:

It is only by ignoring such barbarisms that the Good Book can be reconciled with life in the modern world. This is a problem for “moderation” in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of the divine law.

The only reason anyone is “moderate” in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc.). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt.

Of course, actually admitting to yourself that you selectively ignore certain parts of the Bible (even if it’s clear that every Christian does this to some degree or another) opens up a whole new can of worms. Once you’ve decided that there’s some outside basis on which you can legitimately reject certain portions of your holy scriptures while retaining others, the question inevitably becomes: Where exactly do you draw that line? Which parts of the Bible – specifically – are God’s truth, and which are false gospel? And how do you make that determination? If you’re no longer content to just give the Bible a blanket endorsement and have that be the entirety of your belief, then what are your beliefs? If you had to go through the Bible, chapter by chapter, and write out a full list of which stories and teachings you accepted and which ones you rejected, what would that list look like?

These are dangerous questions for believers. The trick here, then, is not just to ignore all the most troublesome problems with the Bible, but to never even allow yourself to realize that you’re ignoring them. If you don’t even allow yourself to become consciously aware of these issues, you don’t have to wrestle with them. Sure, those verses where Jesus endorses the whole of the Old Testament law might be tough to deal with if you’re the kind of person who wants to reject the Old Testament while embracing the New – but if you never allow yourself to internalize (or even learn about) those verses in the first place, it’s a whole lot easier. If you just keep your center of attention on Jesus and his love for you, rather than on the literal words of the Bible themselves, then you can keep right on believing that the Bible says whatever you want it to say, rather than dealing with what it actually says. You just have to avoid scrutinizing things too closely; or to borrow a photography term, you just have to keep things “soft focus.”

Like I was saying before, for a long time this was the kind of mindset that I subconsciously maintained as a Christian. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says; he is always convinced that it says what he means.” That was basically me. I never consciously realized that this was what I was doing, of course, so for quite a while I was able to sustain it with relatively little mental discomfort. Gradually, though, some of the things I’d been ignoring became harder and harder to ignore. The Bible’s scientific and historical inaccuracies became more and more glaring as I learned more about science and history. The immorality of biblical law came into sharper focus as social issues like gay marriage started to become a bigger part of the national conversation. I started noticing that a lot of the problems that plagued the Old Testament, like internal contradictions and practical implausibilities, kept cropping up in the New Testament too (more on that later). And the more of these nagging issues I ran into, the more of a strain I started to feel on my beliefs.

I had always had occasional doubts, of course. Every Christian does, to some extent. (Maybe I wouldn’t have called them “doubts” at the time – probably more like “divine mysteries that my mortal mind doesn’t fully understand yet” – but still, every now and then I would find myself feeling a twinge of niggling uncertainty whenever some aspect of my religion didn’t seem to be adding up quite as beautifully and effortlessly as I felt like it should have been.) But whenever these uncertainties would arise, I would push them aside. Instead of confronting them head-on, I would try to “grow past them.” In practice, this basically meant suppressing them. The way I saw it, though, there was no need to try and resolve them directly – because after all, since Christianity was clearly true, that meant there must have been valid explanations for all of my concerns, even if I couldn’t quite put my finger on them at the moment. There was no need for me to selfishly demand a concrete answer to every little question I had; all I had to do was to just have faith that the answers did exist out there somewhere.

Commenter Sophocles does a good job summing up the kind of mindset I had at the time:

[The reason why true believers don’t question their religious beliefs in the same way that they question other things is] because they think they have the inside scoop.

Imagine you’re a homicide detective. Most of the time you don’t know who the killer is, so every piece of evidence is a valuable clue that might lead you to the truth and you are going to weigh it carefully.

But let’s say on one case, you already know who the killer is, and all you’re trying to do is gather enough evidence to convict. (Let’s say you witnessed the crime firsthand, but your testimony is inadmissible for some reason.) Now your standard for evaluating evidence is completely different. You aren’t trying to find out the truth – you already know it – you are just trying to find enough evidence to corroborate it.

In most things true believers are like the rest of us. They don’t know the truth ahead of time and must rely on a critical evaluation of evidence to tease it out. But when it comes to religion, they think they already know the truth. They think they have witnessed firsthand the answers that everyone else is groping in the dark to find. So they aren’t judging the church against the evidence for and against it. Rather, the evidence is judged according to whether it supports what they already know to be true.

I already discussed this kind of mentality quite a bit in my last post, but I want to dig into it again here because I think it’s really important. (If you’ve already read that last post, I apologize in advance for repeating myself in these next few sections; but this played such a major role in my religious experience that I’d be remiss if I just glossed over it.)

See, what Sophocles says is right: When you’re in this kind of mental mode, you don’t try to come up with answers to hard questions – because as far as you’re concerned, you already know the answer in advance. You’re not on some open-ended search for truth – you already have the truth – so there’s no need to account for (or even recognize the existence of) any new facts you encounter that might point elsewhere. If you do encounter some new fact that happens to conflict with your beliefs, you can’t necessarily just accept it on its own terms; you first have to make sure it fits into your already-held belief system – even if that means blurring, skewing, and massaging it a little bit in order to make it fit – and it’s only then that can you accept it as true. To repeat a Bill Clinton quotation from my last post:

The problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you’ve already decided you’ve got to have.

And to add another one from Arthur Conan Doyle, delivered by his character Sherlock Holmes:

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.

As Sophocles points out, in most areas of our lives, we have no problem altering our views to fit the facts instead of the other way around. If (say) you start off believing that the capital of Michigan is Detroit, but then find out it’s actually Lansing, you can just say “Oops, my mistake,” update your mental map, and move on without issue. With religion, though, it’s different. New facts no longer serve as avenues toward discovery, re-evaluation, and improvement of your worldview; either they’re compatible with what you already believe (in which case they can be readily accepted), or they’re just obstacles to try and get past, in service of the greater goal of preserving and reinforcing what you already believe without any changes. In other words, you aren’t trying to find the truth; you’re trying to find a truth – one truth specifically. You already have in mind the conclusion that you’re aiming for, and you must always find a way to steer yourself back toward that conclusion even if it means rationalizing away anything that might conflict with it along the way. As James Harvey Robinson puts it:

We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to it. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.

John Trever also illustrates the idea in comic strip form:


In an ideal world, all of us would think more like scientists. A belief wouldn’t be something that you’d feel like you could choose, per se; it’d be more like a condition that was imposed on you by the facts you perceived. When you encountered new facts, your beliefs would have to automatically change to accommodate them, regardless of whether those facts contradicted what you might prefer to be true.

In reality, though, having a religious mindset means that you don’t think so much like a scientist (willing to examine all of the facts and then honestly follow them toward whichever truth they might point to); you think more like a lawyer (taking a side first, and then embracing only those facts which reinforce your side’s case, while ignoring, denying, or rationalizing away the facts that seem to undermine it). Chris Mooney elaborates on this analogy a bit:

Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation – a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information – and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end – winning our “case” – and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

That’s a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I don’t want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else – everybody who isn’t too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. That’s not to suggest that we aren’t also motivated to perceive the world accurately – we are. Or that we never change our minds – we do. It’s just that we have other important goals besides accuracy – including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self – and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

Haidt himself provides more insight on the topic:

The social psychologist Tom Gilovich studies the cognitive mechanisms of strange beliefs. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then (as [Deanna] Kuhn and [David] Perkins found), we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.

In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.

You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.

Psychologists now have file cabinets full of findings on “motivated reasoning,” showing the many tricks people use to reach the conclusions they want to reach. When subjects are told that an intelligence test gave them a low score, they choose to read articles criticizing (rather than supporting) the validity of IQ tests. When people read a (fictitious) scientific study that reports a link between caffeine consumption and breast cancer, women who are heavy coffee drinkers find more flaws in the study than do men and less caffeinated women. Pete Ditto, at the University of California at Irvine, asked subjects to lick a strip of paper to determine whether they have a serious enzyme deficiency. He found that people wait longer for the paper to change color (which it never does) when a color change is desirable than when it indicates a deficiency, and those who get the undesirable prognosis find more reasons why the test might not be accurate (for example, “My mouth was unusually dry today”).

The difference between a mind asking “Must I believe it?” versus “Can I believe it?” is so profound that it even influences visual perception. Subjects who thought that they’d get something good if a computer flashed up a letter rather than a number were more likely to see the ambiguous figure [below] as the letter B, rather than as the number 13.

If people can literally see what they want to see – given a bit of ambiguity – is it any wonder that scientific studies often fail to persuade the general public? Scientists are really good at finding flaws in studies that contradict their own views, but it sometimes happens that evidence accumulates across many studies to the point where scientists must change their minds. I’ve seen this happen in my colleagues (and myself) many times, and it’s part of the accountability system of science – you’d look foolish clinging to discredited theories. But for nonscientists, there is no such thing as a study you must believe. It’s always possible to question the methods, find an alternative interpretation of the data, or, if all else fails, question the honesty or ideology of the researchers.

And now that we all have access to search engines on our cell phones, we can call up a team of supportive scientists for almost any conclusion twenty-four hours a day. Whatever you want to believe about the causes of global warming or whether a fetus can feel pain, just Google your belief. You’ll find partisan websites summarizing and sometimes distorting relevant scientific studies. Science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.

As Kevin Simler sums it up:

When we have [strong] incentives to believe something, we stack the deck in its favor. Or to use another metaphor, we put our thumbs on the scale as we weigh the evidence. Blind faith – religious, political, or otherwise – is simply “benefit of the doubt” taken to its logical extreme.

These quotations together do a pretty good job describing my own experience as a Christian. Having already decided in advance what my worldview was going to be (Christianity), whenever I encountered new facts my main goal was to rationalize them to fit that worldview. Rather than doing the intellectually honest thing, which would have been to follow the facts wherever they might have led, regardless of whether the ultimate end agreed with my preferred conclusion, I started off by assuming that the ultimate end was my preferred conclusion, and then I worked backwards from there. When I was faced with biblical contradictions or absurdities, I would often come up with explanations out of thin air – not because there was any biblical, historical, or scientific basis for my explanations, but simply because of my desire to see the biblical conflicts reconciled without issue. And when I was faced with evidence that seemed to contradict Christianity outright – well, I would just turn around and look for evidence that suggested otherwise. As commenter tired_of_nonsense puts it, my approach was like “taking your car to 100 mechanics before you get to one that tells you your brakes are working just fine [… or like] going to 100 doctors before you find the one that tells you your cholesterol level is healthy.” It might not have been intellectually honest in retrospect, but at the time, it seemed like it was perfectly reasonable – because after all, it was allowing me to preserve my belief in what was true – Christianity.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I was able to sustain this for so long. But then again, it’s not like my case was a particularly unusual one; instances of motivated reasoning are everywhere, even outside the realm of religion. As Mooney points out, you can see it all the time in interpersonal relationships, where emotional investments are particularly high. And you can also see it a lot in other ideologically charged areas, like politics; as soon as someone aligns themselves with a particular political ideology, they immediately develop a kind of “brand loyalty” that makes them more inclined to embrace anything that bolsters their side and to repudiate anything that doesn’t. Regardless of the context, though, this inclination to want to maintain the party line at all costs can have some major effects on a person’s psychology. Just knowing that there’s a “correct” answer to any ideological question you might be asked – a specific answer that you’re supposed to give – can mean that in a lot of cases you’ll end up feeling like you have to forcibly override your own thought processes in favor of those required by your religion or political ideology. Eliezer Yudkowsky provides an analogy:

Depending on how your childhood went, you may remember a time period when you first began to doubt Santa Claus’s existence, but you still believed that you were supposed to believe in Santa Claus, so you tried to deny the doubts.

Belief in Santa is a relatively trivial example, of course; but the parallels with religion are clear (and not just because they both involve bearded, all-seeing beings who judge your behavior and reward you if you’re good). When your religious belief is embedded deeply enough, you might find yourself being faced with arguments that are essentially irrefutable (e.g. arguments for evolution), and yet you still can’t allow yourself to be convinced by them because your religion forbids it. Dawkins describes one especially overt instance of this:

Fundamentalist religion […] teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect. The saddest example I know is that of the American geologist Kurt Wise, who now directs the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College, Dayton, Tennessee. It is no accident that Bryan College is named after William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor of the science teacher John Scopes in the Dayton “Monkey Trial” of 1923. Wise could have fulfilled his boyhood ambition to become a professor of geology at a real university, a university whose motto might have been “Think critically” rather than the oxymoronic one displayed on the Bryan website: “Think critically and biblically.” Indeed, he obtained a real degree in geology at the University of Chicago, followed by two higher degrees in geology and paleontology at Harvard (no less) where he studied under Stephen Jay Gould (no less). He was a highly qualified and genuinely promising young scientist, well on his way to achieving his dream of teaching science and doing research at a proper university.

Then tragedy struck. It came, not from outside but from within his own mind, a mind fatally subverted and weakened by a fundamentalist religious upbringing that required him to believe that the Earth – the subject of his Chicago and Harvard geological education – was less than ten thousand years old. He was too intelligent not to recognize the head-on collision between his religion and his science, and the conflict in his mind made him increasingly uneasy. One day, he could hear the strain no more, and he clinched the matter with a pair of scissors. He took a bible and went right through it, literally cutting out every verse that would have to go if the scientific world-view were true. At the end of this ruthlessly honest labor-intensive exercise, there was so little left of his bible that

try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible . . . It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

I find that terribly sad. […] The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. All he had to do was toss out the bible. Or interpret it symbolically, or allegorically, as the theologians do. Instead, he did the fundamentalist thing and tossed out evidence and reason, along with all his dreams and hopes.

Perhaps uniquely among fundamentalists, Kurt Wise is honest – devastatingly, painfully, shockingly honest. […] Wise brings to the surface what is secretly going on underneath, in the minds of fundamentalists generally, when they encounter scientific evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Listen to his peroration:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

He seems to be quoting Luther as he nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, but poor Kurt Wise reminds me more of Winston Smith in 1984 – struggling desperately to believe that two plus two equals five if Big Brother says it does.

Dawkins’s mention of George Orwell’s 1984 is fitting, because it was there that Orwell himself gave one of the best descriptions of this kind of motivated reasoning. He was describing how people in the world of 1984 would rid themselves of any thoughts or ideas that contradicted their party’s ideology, but his explanation works just as well as a description of how religious faith can constrict genuine freedom of thought:

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments […] and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

To put it even more succinctly, as Frater Ravus says: “Faith does not give you the answers – it only stops you from asking the questions.”

There’s an old story about how Galileo, after discovering that the Church’s model of the solar system was fundamentally flawed, asked a representative of the pope to look through his telescope at the newly-discovered moons of Jupiter – and the clergyman responded, “I refuse to look at something which my religion tells me cannot exist.” This story is probably exaggerated – it seems unlikely that the clergyman would have used those exact words, anyway – but apparently it’s at least loosely based on true events. Michael Shermer explains:

According to Aristotelian cosmology – the Catholic Church’s final and indisputable authority of Truth on matters heavenly – all objects in space must be perfectly round, perfectly smooth, and revolve around Earth in perfectly circular orbits. Yet when Galileo looked for himself through his tiny tube with a refracting lens on one end and an enlarging eyepiece on the other he saw mountains on the moon, spots on the sun, phases of Venus, moons orbiting Jupiter, and a strange object around Saturn. Galileo’s eminent astronomer colleague at the University of Padua, Cesare Cremonini, was so committed to Aristotelian cosmology that he refused to even look through the tube, proclaiming: “I don’t believe that anyone but he saw them, and besides, looking through glasses would make me dizzy.” Those who did look through Galileo’s tube could not believe their eyes – literally. One of Galileo’s colleagues reported that the instrument worked for terrestrial viewing but not celestial, because “I tested this instrument of Galileo’s in a thousand ways, both on things here below and on those above. Below, it works wonderfully; in the sky it deceives one.” A professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano was convinced that Galileo had put the four moons of Jupiter inside the tube. Galileo was apoplectic: “As I wished to show the satellites of Jupiter to the Professors in Florence, they would see neither them nor the telescope. These people believe there is no truth to seek in nature, but only in the comparison of texts.”

Four centuries later, our telescopes have improved immensely – but human psychology is still the same as it ever was. (Harris notes a similar story from modern times: “When the members of the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ cult failed to spot the spacecraft they knew must be trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, they returned the $4,000 telescope they had bought for this purpose, believing it to be defective.”) And in fact, even outside of such cosmically significant religious contexts, our ability to shut out unwelcome facts for ideological reasons is practically limitless. Even if the cost of changing our views is relatively low, and even if the evidence against us is not just a single “possibly flawed” telescope but an entire field of science, we can often still find a way to write it off if we’re ideologically motivated enough. Here’s David McRaney:

Geoffrey Munro at the University of California and Peter Ditto at Kent State University concocted a series of fake scientific studies in 1997. One set of studies said homosexuality was probably a mental illness. The other set suggested homosexuality was normal and natural. They then separated subjects into two groups; one group said they believed homosexuality was a mental illness and one did not. Each group then read the fake studies full of pretend facts and figures suggesting their worldview was wrong. On either side of the issue, after reading studies which did not support their beliefs, most people didn’t report an epiphany, a realization they’ve been wrong all these years. Instead, they said the issue was something science couldn’t understand. When asked about other topics later on, like spanking or astrology, these same people said they no longer trusted research to determine the truth. Rather than shed their belief and face facts, they rejected science altogether.

To quote John Kenneth Galbraith, “faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” And considering the lengths that people will go to in order to protect even the most minor of their beliefs, is it any surprise that people will resist that much more strongly when the belief under threat isn’t a minor one at all, but one that forms a cornerstone of their identity and defines their most fundamental values? As Gary Klein points out:

The more central [a] belief is to our thinking, the harder it is to give up. These core beliefs anchor our understanding. We use them to make sense of events, to inquire, and to arrive at judgments about other ideas. And so we are much more likely to explain away any anomalies rather than revise our beliefs in the face of them.

Imagine, let’s say, a person who had spent their entire life trying to track down the Loch Ness Monster – reading all the magazines, moving out to Scotland to set up their own Nessie-hunting operation, etc. – only to discover one day that scientists had conducted a full sonar sweep of the lake and determined once and for all that there was definitely no monster there. How do you think this person would respond? Would their first reaction be to just say “Oh, well I guess that’s that” and promptly drop their life’s work? Or would they be more inclined to start coming up with ad hoc explanations for why the sonar sweep must have been flawed or incomplete in some way? If there was even a 0.01% chance that the sweep might have been flawed, do you think they’d recognize the remoteness of that possibility and admit that the weight of the evidence did seem to suggest that their belief was wrong – or do you think they’d seize on that tiny sliver of doubt as proof that their belief was still absolutely true and there was no need to change it? More importantly – do you think that they’d be right to do so? Do you think they’d be justified in continuing to act like their belief was true, simply on the basis that it was still possible for it to be true?

Maybe you wouldn’t have any problem saying what the more rational approach would be in that specific situation – nor should you – but these kinds of things are always easier to evaluate from an outside perspective, when you don’t have any personal attachment to the issue at stake. It’s one thing to imagine how you might respond if you were in that situation yourself – but you probably don’t have a very strong investment in the belief that the Loch Ness Monster exists, so it’s not hard to imagine giving that belief up. It’s another thing altogether when your own core beliefs are the ones being challenged.

Just to take one more example – I mentioned a moment ago how the Heaven’s Gate cultists refused to give up their beliefs even when their telescope showed that they were wrong. Mooney recounts how the members of another cult dealt with a similar experience of their own:

[Leon] Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens – including one, “Sananda,” who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers – the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, the “boys upstairs” (as the aliens were sometimes called) did not show up and rescue the Seekers. Then December 21 arrived without incident. It was the moment Festinger had been waiting for: How would people so emotionally invested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted?

At first, the group struggled for an explanation. But then rationalization set in. A new message arrived, announcing that they’d all been spared at the last minute. Festinger summarized the extraterrestrials’ new pronouncement: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Their willingness to believe in the prophecy had saved Earth from the prophecy!

From that day forward, the Seekers, previously shy of the press and indifferent toward evangelizing, began to proselytize. “Their sense of urgency was enormous,” wrote Festinger. The devastation of all they had believed had made them even more certain of their beliefs.

In the annals of denial, it doesn’t get much more extreme than the Seekers. They lost their jobs, the press mocked them, and there were efforts to keep them away from impressionable young minds. But while Martin’s space cult might lie at on the far end of the spectrum of human self-delusion, there’s plenty to go around.

As it happens, a number of Christian doomsday prophets have also made predictions about the end of the world. Time after time, these prophecies have failed spectacularly. And yet, time after time, that failure has seemed to do absolutely nothing to budge the believers’ confidence that their faith is 100% correct. When it comes to religious belief – more so even than aliens or the Loch Ness Monster or anything else – people’s personal conviction that their beliefs just have to be true can outweigh even the most definitive evidence to the contrary. And that applies not only to belief in false doomsday prophecies, but also to more common beliefs like belief in the Bible’s historically untenable legends, belief in its flawed cosmology, and so on. When you’ve got a worldview that you’re convinced explains everything, which you’ve built up over the course of an entire lifetime, the prospect of simply scrapping the whole thing and starting over from scratch isn’t something you even consider as an option. At most, you might make a few minor tweaks around the edges. But a person doesn’t just casually change their entire life philosophy overnight, as if it were as simple as picking out a new haircut or something. A religious worldview is more like a giant 20-bedroom mansion that you’ve spent an entire decade building by hand, one brick at a time. If you happen to go down into the basement of that mansion one day, and out of the corner of your eye, you glimpse some dark lines on the wall that you hadn’t noticed before – which might just be innocent shadows, or might be cracks in the foundation that would require you to tear down the entire house and spend another whole decade building a new one from the ground up – then wouldn’t it be understandable if your natural response was just to say, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that,” and not give those dark lines a second look? Wouldn’t it be understandable if you tried to assume the best-case scenario (“Those were just shadows”), not because it was necessarily more likely to be true, but simply out of a fear of what the worst-case scenario might entail?

Based on my own experience, this impulse to want to “overlook” or “neglect to notice” certain potentially difficult or threatening facts is the most natural thing in the world. It’s the same reason why people will often refuse to go to the doctor, even when they’re experiencing noticeable symptoms, and choose to believe that their health problem will “go away on its own” instead. If you never have to actually hear your doctor tell you that you have an extremely severe condition, you can still believe that there’s nothing to worry about. By never actually confronting the question of whether your beliefs are right or wrong, you can keep right on telling yourself that it’s an open question, and that there’s therefore a possibility that your preferred beliefs remain totally justified. As Robert M. Price puts it: “The controlling presupposition seems to be, ‘If [your preferred belief] cannot be absolutely debunked beyond the shadow of a doubt, if it still might possibly be true, then [you] are within [your] rights to continue to believe it.’”

For me though, needless to say, that approach only got me so far. As much as I was able to rationalize away individual problems within the Bible and Christianity on a one-at-a-time basis – i.e. maybe the six “days” of creation were actually metaphors for eons; maybe the different “kinds” of animals on the ark were actually different animal families rather than different species; etc. – over time those rationalizations started to pile up, to the point that their accumulation eventually became painfully glaring. Even though I was able to convince myself that each of these explanations made sense on its own, when I stepped back and considered the likelihood that they all just conveniently happened to be true – that the wildly counterintuitive explanation just happened to be the correct one in every single one of these instances – it started feeling like a lot more of a stretch. To go back to an earlier analogy, it was like those medieval astronomers, back in the days before Copernicus and Kepler, trying to maintain the old model that the other planets and the sun must have all orbited the earth in perfectly circular orbits. Even though it seemed to them like the geocentric model was the “simplest” and “most elegant” one, their preferred belief kept failing to match up with reality; the planets had this odd tendency to slow down, speed up, and occasionally change directions relative to the earth in ways that the geocentric model wouldn’t have predicted. The astronomers kept having to add orbits within orbits to explain the disparities – what they called “epicycles” – and to an extent, their ad-hoc, kludgy additions actually kind of worked for a while, at least if you squinted a bit and were willing to overlook some slight inaccuracies. But the more inaccuracies they discovered, the more epicycles they had kept having to add – until eventually those clumsy, tacked-on additions had become so numerous that they overwhelmed the rest of the model, and what had started off seeming “simple” and “elegant” was now too convoluted to hold up under its own weight.


I’m oversimplifying things a bit here, but you get the point I’m trying to make. When I looked at how many rationalizations I kept having to add to my biblical worldview just to keep it intact and maintain its basic appearance of reasonableness, it started to feel a bit like that; more and more, it started to feel like I was just adding epicycles. My justifications for my biblical worldview started to feel increasingly forced. I kept running into things that were clearly and demonstrably true, but which my religion required me to dismiss as false (or vice-versa). I started to feel more and more bothered by that nagging sense of cognitive dissonance – the recognition that the facts I was facing were inescapable yet at the same time could not be accepted. And gradually, I started to notice that there was a continual sense of underlying tension in my mind between what I believed, and what I believed. There were the things that I’d convinced myself I believed were true (because my faith required it), and then there were the things that my deep-down mental model of reality actually regarded as true. There were the beliefs that I’d professed my allegiance to, because they were tenets of my religion, and then there were the beliefs that the operational parts of my brain actually used when controlling my real-world thoughts and actions, because I subconsciously considered them to be the more accurate ones (even if I was unable to admit it to myself). The goal of faith, I suppose, is to convince yourself that these two levels of belief – what you believe and what you believe – are one in the same. But in my case, once I noticed that I was compartmentalizing my beliefs in this way, it was impossible for me to un-notice it. Once I realized that my belief in biblical stories like Genesis and Exodus somehow wasn’t quite the same as my belief that the earth orbited the sun or that Christopher Columbus sailed in 1492, it created a kind of mental itch that I just couldn’t leave alone. It felt like I was one of those sports fans who claimed to be 100% certain that their team was going to win the big game, but then when actually challenged to put money on it, suddenly became a lot less sure of themselves. Did I really believe what I thought I did? Were the beliefs that I was outwardly professing the same as the beliefs I was keeping hidden in the privacy of my own mind, concealed even from my own conscious awareness?

I suppose it’s possible that, at some level, I had always been aware that my beliefs didn’t necessarily match up perfectly with the claims of Christianity. But I had spent most of my time as a believer not allowing myself to consider that directly; like I said before, my approach was just to keep those more questionable beliefs vague and “soft focus.” Still though, I was coming to realize that if these matters really were as important as I claimed they were, just maintaining a kind of vague, hand-wavy belief wasn’t going to cut it. These questions about the nature of God, the origins of life and the universe, and the foundations of morality were the most important things in existence – so I couldn’t just shrug my shoulders and ignore them. I needed to nail down exactly where I stood on this stuff. Not only did I owe it to myself to figure out what my beliefs actually were; I owed it to God. After all, as an evangelical Christian, I considered it my sacred duty to win as many people to Christ as possible; and if the only defense of Christianity I could give was a kind of wishy-washy beating around the bush, that wasn’t going to convert anybody. I needed to have a formulation of my beliefs that was solid enough to actually convince people. As 1 Peter 3:15 instructed, I needed to be able to give a defense of my faith to anyone who asked. And that meant I had to fully come to terms with exactly what I believed and why I believed it – whether that coincided with the literalist interpretation of the Bible, the metaphorical interpretation, or some other approach entirely.

Admittedly, subjecting my beliefs to such intense scrutiny was terrifyingly new territory for me. Forcing myself to look at my doubts straight on, after years of only glancing at them out of the corner of my eye, was like staring into the sun. Whenever I’d had doubts before, they’d always been accompanied by a paralyzing feeling of guilt; I knew I wasn’t supposed to be having such thoughts, and I knew that God, being omniscient, would have been able to see into my mind and know that I was having them – so the mere fact that I was having these forbidden thoughts at all felt like an act of treason. It wasn’t a safe feeling – and it certainly wasn’t a comfortable one – so whenever any trace of doubt would enter my mind, I would immediately try to suppress it. The thing that finally changed my perspective, though, was the realization that because God was omniscient, and because he could see into my thoughts, there was no point in trying to hide them or ignore them, because God already knew what was in my heart even better than I did. I wasn’t fooling anyone. God would have been perfectly aware of the questions that still lingered beneath the surface of my mind. More reassuringly, though, the fact that he knew everything also meant that he would have been aware of the fact that my doubts weren’t coming from a place of malicious rebellion against his will; they were coming from a place of genuine uncertainty and a desire to understand his truth, whatever that was. God would have known that I was still a faithful believer despite my lingering questions; he would have known that even if I doubted some parts of Christian doctrine – or even if I rejected certain parts of it outright – this wasn’t because I was rejecting God himself, but simply because I didn’t think that some of the things that had been written or claimed about him were adequate reflections of his perfect nature. He would have known that deep down, at the core of my being, I still believed in him and wanted to follow his will; and he would have known that even if I wasn’t always on board with everything the Church did or everything the Bible said, I was still a Christ-follower. He would have known what was in my heart. So really, there was nothing to be afraid of after all; I didn’t have to keep feeling guilty and trying to suppress my doubts. I could actually confront them, wrestle with them, and dissect them. I could ask the questions I’d kept bottled up for so long, and I could push for answers. I could venture outside of my comfort zone, and God wouldn’t condemn me for it. On the contrary, once I finally sorted out what I believed, it would make my conviction stronger than ever, because I wouldn’t have to deal with all those paralyzing doubts and uncertainties anymore. I’d actually have a belief system that was fully fleshed out, with justifications for every point – and because of that, I’d be able to give a full account of my beliefs to anyone who asked, and would accordingly have a much better chance of winning them over to the truth as I knew it.

As Ehrman says, it’s better to have an informed faith – one that knows what its principles are based on and where they came from – than an ignorant faith – one that feels satisfactory on a superficial level but can’t actually support any conceptual weight once you dig into it. The Bible itself told me to seek truth and understanding (Proverbs 2:3-5, 14:15; Matthew 7:7-8; 1 Thessalonians 5:21); so that’s what I would do.

Having resolved all this, then, I became much more willing to immerse myself in the parts of history, science, and philosophy that I’d tended to shy away from before. I became more willing to grapple with the most questionable parts of the Bible; and I also became more willing to introspect – to ask myself questions, and to actually insist on answers, rather than just shrugging off the hardest subjects. One of the most important things I did was to actually try to itemize my beliefs explicitly – that is, instead of just holding a nebulous cloud of half-formed ideas in my head, I tried to actually list out exactly where I stood on each individual question, and why. Did I believe that God created the universe? Did I believe he did it in six literal days? Did I believe that God the Father was the same being as Jesus? Did I believe that Jesus rose from the dead as a physical body, or in spiritual form, or neither? Did I believe that Noah’s flood happened exactly as described in the Bible? Did I believe that the apocalypse would happen exactly as described in Revelation? And so on.

And crucially, as I was doing all this, I made a concerted effort to be as brutally honest with myself as possible, even if I didn’t like the result. Having realized that God knew my true deep-down beliefs even better than I did, I decided that the most important thing was to try and get on the same page as him – to know what I really believed, rather than just what I told myself I believed. And that meant unflinching honesty. So when I’d ask myself whether I believed something, I wasn’t just asking myself, “Is this something I’d endorse as a belief in the abstract?” but rather, “If someone hooked me up to a lie detector and held a gun to my head, is this something that I’d honestly be able to say I actually believed was true?”

Once I started taking this kind of critical approach, a weird thing happened: For the first time, I found that I was able to step back and see the Bible’s claims “from the outside.” I was able to sort of step outside all the internalized assumptions about my religion that I’d always taken for granted, and see things with fresh eyes. Instead of working from the body of received wisdom that I’d been taught as a child (and had never thought to go back and question again), I imagined seeing these Bible stories for the first time as an adult, and asked myself how I’d respond to them if they hadn’t already been inculcated in my mind at a young age. Knowing all that I know now about science and history and so on, which of these stories would I uncritically accept if I’d just heard them for the first time today?

There’s a clip from Bill Maher’s film Religulous where he asks, “If they told you Jack and the Beanstalk was religion, and that a man who lived in a whale was in a fairy-tale book, do you think when you got to be an adult, you’d be defending the one instead of the other?” I don’t usually like it when people use the term “fairy tales” when discussing religious beliefs – most of the time it just seems needlessly condescending – but in this case, I think Maher’s question is actually a reasonable one to ask. I’d always just taken it as a given that the story of Jonah and the whale was true, and that talking snakes actually existed, and so on – but if I came across these stories for the first time today, as an adult, wouldn’t I just assume that the book containing them was fictional (like Aesop’s Fables or The Lord of the Rings or something), as opposed to being a historical or scientific account of the real world?

The funny thing here, incidentally, is that there aren’t actually any elements of the Jack and the Beanstalk story that aren’t in the Bible. It’s got giants (Nephilim), supernatural beings living in the clouds (God and his angels), and even a massive structure tall enough to reach that heavenly realm (the Tower of Babel). Is it really that hard to believe, then, that someone who had never read or heard of the Bible before would find its contents unbelievable, or even just outright silly?

The more I forced myself to reconsider these stories – and the more I reconsidered all the arbitrary, bigoted, and brutal moral teachings in the Bible – the more I had to come to terms with the fact that, inconvenient as it was to admit, my own beliefs and values just did not always match up with them. I still believed in God, of course. And I still believed in Jesus with all my heart. In fact, my faith in him was as strong as ever. But in spite of (or perhaps because of) my faith in him, I was starting to feel like the God I worshiped was too grand and all-consuming to fit within the narrow confines of the parochial biblical worldview. Despite still considering myself a die-hard follower of Christ, I no longer felt compelled to keep my faith walled up within the formal confines of organized religion. I felt that my God was bigger than that. As Bishop John Shelby Spong puts it:

Every church I know claims that “we are the True Church,” that they have some “ultimate authority” – we have the infallible Pope, we have the inerrant Bible. The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system, by any human creed, by any human book, is almost beyond imagination for me. God is not a Christian. God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, a Buddhist. All of those are human systems, which human beings have created, to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition. I walk through my tradition. But I don’t believe my tradition defines God. I think it only points me to God.

More and more, I was starting to realize that I agreed with this. The dogma wasn’t what really mattered to me – God was what mattered. So although I was keeping my faith, you might say I was moving away from my religion. I was remaining committed to Christ, but I wasn’t necessarily remaining confined to Christianity. I was moving away from organized religion, and toward a more personal kind of faith – one without constraining labels – one that was between me and God.

And as it would turn out, this new approach to my faith actually proved to be much more rewarding than my old pattern of forcing myself to stay within the lines of what the Church dictated I believe. I was quickly discovering the reason why so many people described themselves as “spiritual but not religious” – not only was it becoming increasingly apparent to me that religion and God were two wholly separable things; they were, in fact, often directly at odds with one another. God himself may have been perfect and unchanging – but the men who led his Church were all too human; and just because they claimed to be working and speaking on God’s behalf didn’t mean that I should regard them as being synonymous with him. More to the point, just because some of these men happened to write down some of their ideas a long time ago – like the idea that we should execute gay people and non-virgin brides – and just because some other men later selected some of their writings and compiled them into a book, didn’t mean that the loving and merciful God that I knew was responsible for such teachings, nor that he would have ever endorsed them. The dogma and the deity were not the same thing. The pillars of my faith, like truth and love, didn’t come from any particular book or building or organization. They came from God himself; so as long as I believed in him, accepted his sacrifice of Jesus, and wanted to follow him and do his will, everything else was secondary. And that meant that there was no requirement that I had to restrict myself to the confines of the Church or the Bible; I could simply believe whatever God had shown me to be true, and define my beliefs purely within those lines – whether they fit within the formal religious framework of Christianity or not.

This realization was a pretty major turning point for me. My whole life, I’d been locked into this mindset that Christianity and the Church and the Bible and all the dogmatic baggage that came with them were some kind of all-or-nothing package deal – that if I believed in God and Jesus, then I necessarily had to believe that evolution was false, and that Noah’s flood was true, and that sexual desire was a sin, and that different languages were God’s punishment for human ambition, and all the rest of it. And in fairness, I think this is how most believers think of religious belief – they don’t typically pick out which beliefs they find plausible on an individual basis; they instead just pick a pre-assembled bundle of beliefs (i.e. a “religion” or an “ideology”), and then subscribe to it on a wholesale basis.

When you think about it, though, this is a really bizarre way of determining what you believe. There are literally thousands of different questions that religion tries to answer – everything from the origins of the universe, to the nature of morality, to the existence of angels and demons, to the possibility of an afterlife – and with billions of people living on the planet, you’d think there would be billions of different combinations of answers to these questions. You’d think that everyone would have their own unique combination of beliefs, and that no two people’s combinations of beliefs would be exactly alike. Instead, though, what we see is this weird consensus that there are basically only about five or six possible combinations of religious beliefs that a person can reasonably hold; you must either subscribe to the specific bundle of beliefs known as “Christianity,” the specific bundle of beliefs known as “Islam,” the bundle known as “Judaism,” the one called “Hinduism,” or the one called “Buddhism” (or you may just not believe in the divine at all – “atheism”). Does that really mean that there are only five or six possible ways of seeing the world? Obviously that’s not true – and yet the way most people think about religion (or at least the way that the most devout believers think about it) doesn’t allow for any ideological space outside of those few pre-packaged worldviews. If you self-identify as a Christian, for example, you might not actually be all that comfortable with the idea that homosexuality is a sin or that the earth is only 6,000 years old or what have you – but within this kind of all-or-nothing paradigm, it’s simply not considered possible to reject those ideas while still considering yourself a follower of Jesus at the same time. Religions are considered to be package deals; if you choose to follow a particular religion, you’re prohibited from acknowledging that certain parts of that religion might not always necessarily correspond with your own personal views. In fact, there’s no room for having personal views of your own at all if they conflict with your religion; if your religion says something’s true, then that’s what you believe as well, end of story. In other words, the question of religion is not a free-response, essay-style question – it’s multiple-choice. You don’t come up with your own worldview, seeking out answers to all the different questions about life and the universe and then cobbling them together into your own unique perspective; you’re presented with five or six pre-assembled worldviews, each of which has already decided all of the answers in advance, and you choose one of those.

Again, it’s actually a lot like how party politics works. The same kind of black-and-white thinking operates there; despite the fact that there are thousands of political issues, and despite the fact that so many of them are completely unrelated to one another, the prevailing attitude is that everyone should somehow distill all of their thousands of opinions on these issues down into one of just two flavors – Republican or Democrat. These are considered to be the only two possible combinations of views that a person can reasonably hold; they’re the only two possible answers to any problem a person might encounter. As Orson Scott Card writes:

We are fully polarized – if you accept one idea that sounds like it belongs to either the blue or the red, you are assumed – nay, required – to espouse the entire rest of the package, even though there is no reason why supporting the war against terrorism should imply you’re in favor of banning all abortions and against restricting the availability of firearms; no reason why being in favor of keeping government-imposed limits on the free market should imply you also are in favor of giving legal status to homosexual couples and against building nuclear reactors. These issues are not remotely related, and yet if you hold any of one group’s views, you are hated by the other group as if you believed them all; and if you hold most of one group’s views, but not all, you are treated as if you were a traitor for deviating even slightly from the party line.

There’s no reason why anyone should have to force themselves into this black-and-white binary, of course. In fact, as John Cheese points out, it’s probably the case for most people that if they “had never heard a single thing about Republicans or Democrats, and they were asked a hundred questions about their personal beliefs, morals, economic views … you couldn’t place them securely into one side or the other because they’d share large chunks of beliefs and values from both parties.” Nevertheless, rather than actually figuring out what their own unique worldview is and charting it out for themselves, most people seem content to just slot themselves into one of the two pre-constructed ideologies that already exist, and say “There, whatever that ideology says is what I believe.” And the result is that, in a lot of cases, they practically forget that they’re even able to have their own independent views at all, separate from the ideology that they’ve aligned themselves with. As Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson write:

Once people form a political [or religious] identity, usually in young adulthood, the identity does their thinking for them. That is, most people do not choose a party [or religion] because it reflects their views; rather, once they choose a party [or religion], its policies [or doctrines] become their views.

This is how you end up with cases like the one mentioned by Balioc, where he describes “a self-identified libertarian asking ‘can a libertarian believe X?’ rather than just figuring out whether X is a reasonable thing to believe.” Or to give a religious example, I remember hearing about a Jewish man who casually mentioned one day that he didn’t believe in Hell anymore, and when asked why, replied that he found out that Judaism doesn’t include a belief in Hell, so since he was Jewish, then that wasn’t a part of what he believed anymore. Similarly, you might know Catholics who have reversed their opposition to evolution after finding out that the Vatican accepted it as true.

But this kind of approach gets it exactly backward. Your beliefs should determine which ideology you subscribe to, not the other way around – and on a more basic level, the facts you perceive should determine your beliefs, not the other way around. If the Bible said 2+2=5, would you believe it? Maybe being able to identify yourself as a Christian is so important to you that you actually would at least try to force yourself to believe it. But assuming you weren’t able to (which seems like a safe bet), does that mean you’d no longer be able to consider yourself a Christian? Or would it mean that you were a Christian who just didn’t necessarily believe every single word of the Bible? Or would it mean that you were someone who had their own beliefs, most of which matched up with Christianity, but not all of which did? How many parts of the Bible would have to differ from your own worldview before you considered the “Christian” label no longer applicable to you? Or would you ultimately just decide that the label didn’t really matter, and that the beliefs themselves were what mattered in the end?


The thing is, most religions – like most political ideologies – aren’t just one belief that you either subscribe to or don’t; they’re complex webs of thousands of different beliefs that interconnect and overlap with each other. So it’s perfectly possible to accept certain nodes within a particular belief-web without buying into the whole thing; and it’s perfectly possible to have a worldview whose nodes stretch across multiple different belief-webs and connect in ways that differ from the most popular mainstream clusters. In the same way that it’s possible to self-identify as a Republican or a Democrat without necessarily agreeing 100% with every single point in the party platform, it’s possible to self-identify as a Christian or a Muslim even if you don’t share 100% of your beliefs with every other person in the world who uses that same label. It’s even possible to forgo the labels altogether and just believe what you believe. You don’t have to pigeonhole yourself fully into one category or another; you can have your own set of beliefs, which takes ideas from any number of sources and combines them into something new and unique. You don’t have to just pick one pre-assembled worldview from the menu; you can choose the buffet, so to speak, and assemble your own. And although some Christians might reject this kind of buffet-style approach as “cafeteria Christianity,” RationalWiki points out that basically every believer cherry-picks their beliefs to some degree or another; if they didn’t, they’d be in jail for trying to stone people to death or some other such thing.

It can be argued that cafeteria Christianity is not only commonplace, but actually required in order for the believer to remain a functional member of society.


According to A. J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire who wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically about his attempt to follow every rule in the Bible (no matter how obscure or outlandish) to the letter [here is a TED talk he gave about the subject], pretty much every religious person is a cafeteria Christian/Jew/Muslim of some kind no matter how fundamentalist they claim to be, and cafeteria faith is really the only tenable kind.

The truth is, the ability to take good ideas from different ideologies and cobble them together into your own unique combination of beliefs isn’t a sign of spiritual weakness or ignorance; on the contrary, it’s a sign that you’re able to think for yourself and have your own worldview. By contrast, I’ve actually encountered people whose first impulse, when asked about tricky theological questions, is to hesitate and say “I’ll have to ask my pastor and get back to you on that,” because they aren’t sure what their religion requires them to believe. Doesn’t that seem bizarre, that you’d have to go to someone else to find out what your beliefs are? The question, after all, isn’t what your religion says you ought to believe – it’s what you believe yourself!

But that’s the whole point I’m trying to make here. What I finally realized, as a Christian, was that I didn’t have to force my own beliefs to be completely identical to anyone else’s; I could modify or lose some of the beliefs that fit under the traditional “Christian” label without losing my identity as a Christ-follower. I didn’t have to constrain myself to any pre-defined label or pre-constructed ideology at all; I could assemble my own ideology, based simply on what I thought was actually true. In the same way that I could be “post-partisan” in politics by adopting the best beliefs wherever I found them, regardless of which party they came from, I could be “post-denominational” in religion. Maybe my beliefs actually would end up matching perfectly with one of the pre-constructed religious ideologies that already existed – maybe it would turn out that there actually was some denomination out there that described my beliefs perfectly – and if so, great. But if not, that was OK too. I was no longer fixated solely on whether my beliefs were sufficiently biblical or whether they matched a certain label; instead, I just wanted to base them on whether I actually believed them. Truth, as they say, is non-denominational. So I would be too.

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