Negativity Bias and the Problem of Evil

negativity, homeless, suffering

The Problem of Evil causes me more trouble in my faith than any other atheistic argument. It’s the best case against God. When I see children with cancer, or hear of vulnerable people being abused, I wonder how God could allow it to happen. The argument comes in several varieties, but it runs something like this: the world contains a lot of evil–let’s say the quantity is X, and X is too much. If the Christian God exists, the world would contain less than X. So, the Christian God must not exist.

cancer, child, evil, faith, negativity bias

Now, the reason we think that X is too much evil is because of its relationship to the amount of good in the world. If there was infinitely more good than evil, then I don’t think the problem would get off the ground. But it seems to many people that the good-to-evil ratio is less than optimal. Maybe there’s more evil than good, or maybe there’s just not enough good to “make up” for the evil in the world. Maybe the ratio would need to be 100:1 (good:evil), or 1,000:1. But whatever the ratio is, it seems wrong for a world superintended by the Christian God.

Doubting My Doubts

But a year or so ago, I read about something that made me question my reasoning about evil: negativity bias. Could it be that the power of the Problem of Evil argument rests on a flaw in our cognition? I first encountered the concept in Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. They call it “negativity dominance.” They talk about how the brain reacts more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. For instance, look at these two images:

negativity, eyes
From Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 300.

According to Kahneman’s research, the image on the left will cause your heartbeat to speed up, but the image on the right will not. Researchers have also found that angry faces “pop out” of a series of faces, but happy faces don’t.(1) Negative images and experiences affect us more deeply and broadly than positive ones, and stick in the memory easier.

Slanted Perception

In a paper entitled, “Bad Is Stronger than Good,” researchers wrote:

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. . . Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.(2)

negativity, child, evil

Another study claims that, “There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”(3) You only need to google “negativity bias” to see the mass of evidence. The bottom line is that our perception of the world is slanted. We tend to notice more bad than good, remember more bad than good, and feel the impact of bad more than good.

A Defeater for the Problem

So why is this a problem (or a ‘defeater‘) for the atheistic argument from evil? It undermines the argument, or at least the force of it, because our judgment about the good-to-evil ratio in the world is purely subjective. And if it is subjective, then it is undoubtedly inaccurate, and not just by a little. The bias is quite potent. How much good did we miss or forget or discount? How have we exaggerated evil in our minds? It’s not unlike an optical illusion.

negativity bias, evil, illusion

The truth is, we don’t know what the actual ratio is. Gathering such data accurately seems nearly impossible. But once we know we have a bias toward noticing and feeling evil, we should recalculate our judgment about the ratio. We should tell ourselves, “It may seem like there is far more evil than good in the world, but the ratio is probably closer to 1:1 than I thought.” And this should, rationally, lead us to doubt the force of the Problem of Evil. 

(1) Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, Ch. 28.
(2) Baumeister, Roy F., et al. “Bad is stronger than good.” Review of general psychology 5.4 (2001): 323.
(3) Vaish, Amrisha et al. “Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development” Psychological bulletin vol. 134,3 (2008): 383-403.

Why Are We Afraid To Talk About Our Beliefs?

fear, amygdala, beliefs

Our family walked down to Hillsborough Bay, where a spectacular view of the fireworks could be enjoyed. Bayshore Boulevard, with its seemingly ancient stone rail, stretched along the water, just down the street from Grammie’s house. I stood on my six-year-old tip toes to see the salty water below lapping against the rocks. This walk down to the water was a common ritual on visits to Grammie’s house, especially on the Fourth of July. As we stood waiting for the fireworks to launch over the water, my father hoisted me up and put my feet on the railing. I screamed in terror! “No, no, put me down!” My Dad held me securely, insisting I was safe, but I remained unconvinced. He finally relented and put my feet back on the firm, safe, concrete sidewalk. Never was concrete so comforting.

This, my friends, is a tale of the amygdala, a tale of fear. The amygdala, an almond-sized part of your brain, tells you when “fight or flight” is necessary. It’s the alarm going off in my six-year-old head, saying, “Get off that railing before you plummet to your grisly death!” Perfectly reasonable fear, right? (Please don’t take my Dad’s side!) Some of our fears, however, are less rational. 

Why Belief Discussions Trigger the Amygdala

fear, amygdala, beliefs

A belief discussion is a conversation about religious, political, moral or other kinds of important beliefs. I think that we fear belief discussions for the same reason we fear physical confrontations–fear of being hurt. But the injuries we fear are mental and emotional, not physical. Of course, if we know that the other person agrees with us completely, then no fear! But typically, we suspect there will be disagreement. And disagreements often feel like mental punches, bruising and even crashing through our worldview. I’m not saying that all conversations about beliefs are “fights,” but they often can be.

Our amygdala normally helps us to avoid danger and protect our bodies when necessary. But it can get a little too jumpy. In our age of social media and high-stress work environments, our response systems are on high alert too often. “The result,” writes New York Times columnist Kate Murphy, “is often a juiced-up amygdala more apt to flip you into fight, flight or freeze mode in response to even the slightest concern, and keep you there, rather than return you to a state of calm in the absence of clear and present danger.”

Calming Your Amygdala

relax, meditate, amygdala, beliefs

So what do we do? There are several options. First, you can avoid all belief discussions. This seems neither realistic nor desirable. It lies outside reality because any community we engage with will draw us into belief discussions. To avoid these conversations is to avoid meaningful relationships altogether. It is undesirable because without engaging in dialogue with others about important issues, we never mature in our own views. We remain as children, clinging to simplistic perspectives with inadequate support.

A second approach is learning to suppress your amygdala. I’ve read a number of articles on practices and techniques for avoiding amygdala-triggering. Psychologist/author Arlin Cuncic writes that, “Emotionally intelligent people know how to de-escalate their own emotions as well as those of others by becoming engaged, focused, and attentive to their thoughts and feelings.” Dr. Matt Lieberman found that when people label their emotional reaction, like saying “I’m feeling angry,” the amygdala response decreased.  “Psychologists and neuroscientists are also finding that the amygdala is less apt to freak out if you are reminded that you are loved or could be loved.” Dr. Ried Wilson writes that we can train our amygdala to not freak out by simulating stressful scenarios with positive outcomes.

I think these techniques are helpful, but I want to propose a third approach. Rather than training ourselves to suppress our amygdala, why not take a preventative strategy? I think we can find a way to prepare ourselves so that belief discussions don’t trigger the amygdala at all, or at least trigger it far less often.

Strengthening Our House

brick, amygdala, beliefs, secure

Remember the tale of the three little pigs? The story teaches us that a well-built house, though it takes more time and and effort, provides peace and security. The first two pigs probably experienced fear and anxiety when the wolf approached. But not the third pig. Now, I’m not saying that those who disagree with us are like dangerous canines who must be barred from our lives. The analogy in the story only goes so far. What I am saying is that a strong house/worldview, constructed carefully with solid bricks/beliefs, decreases our fear of injury.

So if you want to experience less fear and more confidence in belief discussions, you might take a page from all three play-books mentioned above. Avoid unnecessary, hostile conversations. Learn to de-escalate your panic reaction by labeling your emotions, remembering that you are loved, and even practicing belief discussions with safe people. But most of all, do a little “home improvement.” Survey your worldview, reflect on important beliefs and your reasons for holding them. Shore up sagging cross beams, repair the leaky roof, replace parts that are weak or inadequate to bear the load of a mature set of beliefs. This takes time and effort, but the payoff is peace, intimacy, and even the ability to persuade when needed.

The Epistemology of Social Media

social media, epistemology

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? I’m not so sure anymore. Consider this: I post a photo of myself or my family on social media.

That photo literally represents about 1/30 of a second of my life. We look so happy, right? Believe me, we wrangled, bribed, and threatened our kids to strike this pose. The smiles? Mostly forced. I’m not even sure the dog was having a good time. Ordinarily, they say facial expressions and body language do 93% of the work in communication (though some dispute this figure). But when it comes to social media, I think we have a special reason to be skeptical of what we see. Aside from the fact that we’re seeing 1/30 of a second, people intentionally put on their best faces for social media. And among the “best face” pics available, we select the very best of those! This is not truly representative of a person’s life.

The truth of this really hit me when I read Maddi Fielike’s insightful blog post, “I’m Not A Liar, But Facebook Sure Is.” In her post, she isn’t criticizing social media; I think she’s pointing out its epistemic limitations. (‘Epistemic’ refers to how we know the truth about things.) I think she’s put her finger on a special case of hasty generalization, a common informal fallacy of reasoning. (Check out my related video post about “anecdotal evidence.”) A hasty generalization happens when we form a conclusion based on inadequate evidence, or a “bad sample.”

Sample Size

burger, social media

We’ve all made this mistake–hundreds of times. For example, I visited a local restaurant for the first time to “sample” their cuisine, and they burned my burger. Without much thought, I found myself forming the belief, “This is a bad restaurant.” The error here lies in relying on a sample size that is too small. A “sample size” is just the number of things in a certain group that I have examined to learn about that group. In this case, I had examined one sample out of hundreds of meals served by the restaurant. A better conclusion could be obtained after a few dozen meal reviews. 

Judging a person’s life based on a few snap shots commits the same fallacy. Would you want to be judged based on one second of your life? I guess it depends on the second. Catch me in a really good moment, and that sounds good. But how many of us have been unfairly judged by others based on one experience? Like that trig test I failed in high school. If only I had known about sample size then! “You should let me take the test at least 10 times, Ms. Smith, just to get a decent sample size.”

Sample Bias

cheifs, social media

The epistemic problems of social media go even deeper. Not only is the sample size (1/30 of a second) too small, but it is a biased sample. A good sample is one that represents the diversity of the set. For instance, if I wanted to know how many Americans are fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, I could take a poll. Now, I want to avoid having a too-small sample, so I’ll poll 100,000 people. Seems like a good size. But if I only interview people who live within 100 miles of Kansas City, I’ll bias my sample. This is because I will predictably find a very high percentage of Chiefs fans in that geographic circle. My sample needs to represent the diversity of the set–it should include people from all 50 states.

Pics on Instagram or Facebook portray us with the same kind of bias. We pick and choose which images to post, rather than just putting up a random sampling of all our photos. Not only that, but even a random sampling of pics from my iPhone would not give you an unbiased look at my life. We don’t even take pictures of things we would not want others to see, like the time times I yelled at my kids for no good reason, or the time times I felt completely overwhelmed by life.

As Maddi Fielicke points out, we don’t always intend to deceive. We’re just posting (our best) pics, often to let family and friends know what’s going on in our lives. Neither are we setting out to make a raw documentary about the good, the bad, and the ugly of our existence. But when we sit at the other side of these displays, scrolling through other people’s Facebook or Instagram feeds, our minds automatically take these photos and try to construct a story. “These people are really happy and having an amazing time.” “This family always smiles and loves each other.” “She takes the greatest vacations ever!” “His kids are perfectly adjusted and successful!” We instinctively misinterpret their posts as a narrative of their lives.

Using Social Media Responsibly

marathon, social media

Knowing the epistemic limitations of social media, should we be more thoughtful in our use of it? Think of what we post. Social media is littered with posts like, “Hey, here’s a pic of me finishing a marathon,” or “Here I am helping underprivileged children in a third world country,” or “Here’s my kid winning first place in everything.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating our families or sharing our happiest experiences with friends. But I know that many people will automatically misinterpret my “happy” photos to mean that my life is perfect. And I know that social media contributes to depression and loneliness for this very reason. So should I rethink how I post? Should I try to give a more realistic, representative picture of my life? I admit I don’t have the answer. 

Now, what about the way we consume social media? Rather than simply avoid or ban social media, the best thing to do is install a new filter. But this filter isn’t on our phone or on our computer. It’s in our minds. What we need is to process all these happy, beautiful photos differently. When we see happy, shiny people on social media, we can resist the automatic tendency to construct that Disneyland narrative in our minds, imagining their lives to be fairy tales. We can stop our minds from slipping into comparison mode (their life/job/kid is so much better than mine). Instead, we can take a deep breath and remind ourselves that their life is a lot like ours–filled with good and bad parts. We can reflect on our own happy, shiny moments, and imagine the person in the photo as being a real human with real struggles–struggles invisible to the camera eye.

I Think, Therefore I Know

introspection, evidence

In graduate school, I once took a course on mind-reading. Seriously. But it was a big disappointment. It turns out that what academics mean by ‘mind reading’ is just reading people’s body language. Next time I’ll make sure the course is taught by Professor Xavier of X-Men fame. We are all glad, though, that actual mind-reading (mental telepathy) is currently impossible for humans (as far as we know). I would not want people knowing my inner-most thoughts, nor would I want to know the secret thinkings of others. We enjoy the safety of being able to hide a part of ourselves, only revealing it to those we deem trustworthy. But this means that there is a huge body of knowledge that I alone have access to: my own thoughts! This access comes through something called introspection.

Introspection allows us to access our memories and be aware of the logical progression of our thoughts. It enables us to consider the sensations created by the five senses. Introspection is how we know our reaction to a person’s story–whether we believe it or not, whether it makes us angry or sad. It ties everything together and makes knowledge possible. Philosophers and scientists puzzle over the nature of introspection, but all recognize it’s importance.

Introspection and Faith

religious experience, prayer, evidence, introspection

In other posts, I’ve discussed various kinds of evidence for belief in God. But how can introspection provide evidence? In Christian theism, we believe that God reveals himself, among other means, through a special form of internal communication or awareness. Some, like John Calvin, have called this the “sensus divinitatis.” God, through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, can “speak”to us, lead us, comfort us, etc. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, says that believers are “led by the Spirit of God.” It is the Spirit who “testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” (8:16) Jesus himself taught that when the Spirit comes to dwell in us, He will “teach you” and “remind you of all the things I told you.” (John 14:26).

This means that we have access to evidence that comes directly into our minds from God, and we access this evidence via introspection. This probably works in the same way as when you suddenly have a new idea, and you reflect on it. But in this case, it is God who forms the idea in your mind, rather than your own cognitive processes. (So mental telepathy IS possible! But only between you and God.) So a Christian may be able to know that God exists and loves her simply by introspecting on evidence conveyed to her internally by the Spirit.

This Sounds Crazy

If you consider yourself a skeptic of Christianity, then this might sound crazy. But this is where you have to distinguish between irrationality and falsehood. Because if there is a God, then there’s no obvious reason why God couldn’t speak to humans in the way I’ve described. The Christian may be factually wrong, but she isn’t being irrational or crazy. To make a “crazy” charge stick, the atheist must show that there is no God, which cannot be done.

Still, I admit it is odd to say, “I know there’s a God because of this voice in my head.” (Though, it isn’t literally a voice.) We would never accept such an argument for any other claim, right? “I know there are aliens/will be an earthquake/Bob is the murderer because of this voice in my head.” So what makes the God case special? 

Here’s one way to think of it. If Bob were the murderer, there’s no reason to expect that I could know this via a “voice” in my head. But if the Christian God did exist, we have good reason to expect that a Christian could know this via a “voice” in her head. In other words, the Christian God (if real) is willing and able to communicate with believers in this way. Admittedly, the case of aliens is more plausible than the murder case. But we still lack good (non-ad hoc) reasons to think aliens would communicate with us in this way. It’s also important to point out that this is not necessarily the way that people initially come to know that God exists. This source of evidence comes into play only after a person comes to believe in the Christian God.

Craig’s Folly?

William Lane Craig has infamously/famously (depending on your viewpoint) said that “the fundamental way in which we know that Christianity is true, including the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, is through the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit.” He goes further to say that the inner witness of the Spirit “can be so powerfully warranted in our lives that it will intrinsically defeat the extrinsic defeaters that the atheists and skeptics bring against it.” In English, what this means is that no matter what evidence is presented to him against Christianity, the inner witness of the Spirit will override all of it. Is this reasonable?

Critics of Christianity go berserk at this point. This sounds like flat-out irrational, blind faith to them. Surely, they reason, there could be evidence that would be sufficient to cause a reasonable person to give up their belief in Christianity. But while I may not necessarily agree with Craig, I think the open-mouthed astonishment at so audacious a claim rests on a misunderstanding. 

Clarifying Craig

The fact is, there are certain beliefs we all hold that are so fundamental to us, no amount of counter-evidence would ever be enough to uproot them. Consider this example from atheist philosopher, William Rowe: 

“Suppose your friends see you off on a flight to Hawaii. Hours after the take-off they learn that your plane has gone down at sea. After a twenty-four hour search, no survivors have been found. Under these circumstances they are rationally justified in believing that you have perished. But it is hardly rational for you to believe this, as you bob up and down in your life vest, wondering why the search planes have failed to spot you.”1

In truth, no matter how much evidence they produce supporting your death, it wouldn’t be enough to convince you. So the idea of a powerfully warranted belief that is immune to counter-evidence is a perfectly coherent notion, common to everyone. And Craig simply argues that the inner witness of the Spirit is just such an indefeasible source of evidence.


So no matter your religious views, there’s no harm in acknowledging the reality of introspective evidence. Such evidence pervades our beliefs–it is indispensable. And even the religious skeptic can concede the following conditional claim: If the Christian God exists, then Christians have introspective evidence of his existence. (In fact, the only way to refute such a claim is to show that God exists, but no such introspective evidence exists!) Still, skeptics can maintain that given atheism, no such non-misleading evidence actually exists! In any case, everyone benefits from reflecting on the role of introspective evidence in their belief system. 

Is There Evidence for God?

skeptic, evidence

Summer, 1998. I traveled to Europe (Hungary, to be precise) and sat down in a little restaurant one day for a bite. I ordered the “Greek salad.” I love Greek salad! I’ve eaten many Greek salads growing up in Florida: shredded lettuce with cucumber slices, beets, feta and shrimp. To my horror, what emerged from the kitchen was a bowl full of chopped cucumber and tomato, with feta, onion and Kalamata olives. No lettuce at all! This was most definitely not a Greek salad.

Greek salad, evidence

But I was wrong! 20 years later, I found myself in Athens, Greece. To my surprise, I discovered that my salad in Hungary was authentic. Succulent chunks of cucumber and tomato, mixed with onion, feta and olives. It turned out that I needed to adjust my definition of ‘Greek salad.’

I often hear skeptics say things like, “there’s no evidence for God.” But I think this view arises from some confusion about what evidence is. The search for evidence resembles my blunder with Greek salad. When we look for evidence, most of us don’t know what we’re looking for. We follow a mistaken notion of evidence, and finding none, we proclaim its absence. So what is evidence, exactly?

What Is Evidence?

smoke, evidence

“Smoke is evidence of fire.”1  I think this makes sense to most of us. When we say this, I think we mean something like this: “Well, fire causes smoke, and I’ve always seen smoke with fire, so I think it’s pretty likely that we’ll find fire where that smoke is.” The reason this kind of logic works is because evidence raises the (epistemic) probability of what it supports (e.g., a hypothesis). In this case, the presence of smoke raises the probability that there is a fire. Does it guarantee the presence of fire? No. It is possible to have smoke without fire. But nevertheless, when we see smoke, we are quite rational in thinking, “there’s a fire over there.” So evidence is something that raises the probability that a hypothesis is true.

Kinds of Evidence

What are these “somethings?” Evidence comes in a variety of kinds. Philosophers typically recognize five sources: perception, testimony, memory, inference, and introspection. The smoke example is a combination of perception (seeing the smoke) and inference (making a logical or causal connection between smoke and fire). Many of our beliefs rest almost solely on the support of evidence from our five senses, like my belief that the coffee I’m drinking is hot. Others, like mathematical and geometrical beliefs, are backed up by pure reason.

restaurant, evidence

Another illustration: The other day, I thought I remembered visiting a certain restaurant with my kids. But one of my kids said he’d never been there. So, I asked two of my other kids, and they both agreed with kid #1. So, what do I do? I have conflicting evidence. My memory of visiting the restaurant raises the probability that we went there, but the testimony of three other people lowers the probability! My total evidence suggests that it is unlikely that I took my kids to the restaurant. 

Introspection comes into play when we think about the contents of our own mind, or of various bodily states. When I feel a sensation of pain, or have a feeling of sadness, that evidence makes it 100% likely that I am in pain or sad. If someone were to tell me, “You’re not in pain,” my introspective evidence would override them. I have special, private access to the states of my own body and mind.

All of these come to us via some kind of experience. Perceptual experiences (hearing, seeing, etc.), introspective experiences (self-awareness), inferential (cognitive) experiences, and perhaps religious experiences. And all of these are subject to error, so some caution (but not paranoia) is important. The rule of thumb is: trust your faculties unless you have clear reason to doubt them, e.g., you just took an hallucinogenic drug.

Evidence and God

court room, testimony

So how does all this apply to God? Well, our evidence for God can come in all five of these forms. I can hear or read testimony from someone else who has experienced God in some way. It’s like court testimony. I’ve served on one jury, and the jury’s eventual belief in the defendant’s guilt was based largely on the word of several witnesses, including the victim. Hearing a credible witness testify that “X happened” raises the (epistemic) probability that X happened. It works the same way with testimony about God (including written sources, like the Bible).

I can infer from various experiences of my own (“religious experiences,” perception of order and design in the universe, etc.), or from other facts (everything that begins to exist must have a cause) that God exists. The logic of the Kalam Cosmological argument or the Fine-tuning argument raise the probability that God exists. Religious experiences, when the best available explanation is the presence of God, also raise this probability. Such experiences may even come to us via  introspection; perhaps it seems that God is “speaking” to me in my mind. This is defeasible, of course, but until it is shown to be faulty in some way, it provides a probabilistic lift to the God hypothesis.

Skeptics, Don’t Worry!

This accumulating evidence by no means settles the issue or “proves” there is a God. Several other factors come into play which may “cancel out” the sorts of evidence I’ve described. First, there’s plenty of evidence against God as well. Two examples: the apparent existence of unnecessary suffering in the world, and perhaps the confusion about God that persists in the world. These may counter evidence in favor of God. (Whether they are enough to outweigh the evidence in God’s favor, is debatable.) Second, our cognitive faculties can make mistakes. We can “perceive” things that aren’t there and “infer” things that don’t follow logically. Surely some of what we think supports our belief in God will turn out to be faulty. (Note: this also applies to any support I might have for atheism.)

Skeptics may also worry about really weird cases where people claim to have evidence. UFO sightings (and abductions), ghost encounters, and other bizarre phenomena also involve alleged evidence. Must we also concede that their beliefs are evidence-based? Well, perhaps. If I’m concerned about a claim of this sort, or about a Christian who claims to witness a miracle, I will investigate. I’ll use the same general approach as Prof. Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he was presented with Lucy’s fantastic tale about visiting Narnia.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”
“Oh, but –” began Susan, and then stopped. . . “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That’s the funny thing about it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.” 
“And what do you think, my dear?” said the Professor, turning to Susan.
“Well,” said Susan, “in general, Id’ say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true–all this about the wood and the Faun.”
“That is more than I know,” said the Professor, “and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.”
“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan. “We thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.” [The children don’t know what to think at this point!]
“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”

Now, before you dismiss this example as fanciful fiction and irrelevant, consider what is going on. The Professor simply asks the children to examine how they formed their beliefs, and urges them to apply logic, no matter where it leads.  As I will explain below, there is no rational, unprejudiced way to rule out supernatural explanations prior to unbiased examination.

Misleading Evidence

As I have said, having evidence doesn’t settle the issue. Sometimes, even when we follow the evidence, this rational method fails us. How can this happen? Evidence can mislead us. According to Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly,

 E is misleading evidence for p just in case (i) E is evidence for p and (ii) p is false. Thus, misleading evidence is genuine evidence in that it satisfies the conditions for being evidence (whatever those conditions turn out to be). In this respect, it contrasts with apparent evidence or fake evidence, which seem to satisfy the conditions for being evidence but do not. The fact that misleading evidence is genuine evidence is why beliefs based on misleading evidence can be reasonable, given that what it is reasonable to believe depends on one’s evidence.3


So if it turns out there are no gods, then all the theist’s evidence was misleading, like evidence used for a false conviction in a court. But before the skeptic proclaims our evidence misleading, she should consider a couple of thoughts.

  1. We can’t know that our evidence for God is misleading without first knowing whether God exists! This means that a skeptic cannot rationally say that a theist has no evidence, nor can she say that the theists’ evidence is misleading, unless the skeptic has first proven that God does not exist. And even if the theist turns out to be wrong, she may still be quite rational. You might have a worry like this: “But does this also imply that I don’t know if my evidence is legitimate unless I can prove God’s existence?” The rational approach, it seems to me, is this: as long as the evidence points toward a hypothesis, and there are no live defeaters (see below), then we should consider it legitimate. Without this assumption, science, law, etc. would be impossible. 
  2. The skeptic certainly can work to show that the theists’ evidence is fake or apparent evidence (rather than misleading). The best way to do this is by introducing defeaters, either by showing that the means of acquiring the evidence was flawed or unreliable, or that the evidential belief is itself false. But one must be careful to avoid circular reasoning here. For example, one cannot argue that (A) religious experience is fake/unreliable because (B) there is no God, since God’s existence is the very claim under dispute. Arguing this way would be like the following exchange. Sally: The earth is flat. Harry: But photographs from space show a spherical earth. Sally: No, those are fakes. Harry: Why do you think they’re fakes? Sally: Because the earth is flat! That is circular reasoning. What Sally ought to do is give an independent reason to think that Harry’s perception is unreliable or that his evidence is “fake.”
flat earth, evidence


Skeptics and believers both should recognize that evidence for God abounds. The task of the careful thinker is to evaluate the quality of the evidence and weigh it against counter evidence. If a person’s total evidence significantly raises the probability that God exists, isn’t defeated, and isn’t swamped by counter evidence, then belief in God can be quite rational.

Reason, Evidence, and Politics

In the interest of well-formed and grounded political beliefs, I’m presenting a challenge.

Give me your opinion of how President Trump is doing. 

spectrum, evidenceI’m hoping to hear a variety of perspectives, since I have friends all along the political spectrum and from a variety of backgrounds. But I have two conditions: (1) it cannot be a moral criticism, and (2) you must provide empirical evidence. Why the two conditions? Well, most people I know on both sides will agree that Trump is morally embarrassing as a president (e.g., Trump’s vulgar comments about women to Billy Bush). But those who like Trump and those who dislike him speak often about either his accomplishments or errors in office. That’s what I where I want to focus. One may still reasonably argue that a man of his moral failings should not be President, but for now, that is beside the point.

Evidence Required

The second condition prevents us from merely shouting out assertions, like:

“His foreign policy is terrible,” or

“His economic policies are good for the country.”

evidenceYou’ll have to give evidence for your claim, and I want the source–give me enough information so that I can look it up myself. Saying, “His economic policy is making the stock market go up,” isn’t enough. You’ll have to give some evidence showing how his policies have directly affected the market. Saying, “His Supreme Court nominations are hurting our country,” isn’t enough either. You have to provide some reason why you think this. And it can’t simply be the fact that the nomination is a conservative or Republican. You’ll have to be more specific. Also, if you think one single policy decision outweighs anything else he might do, you’ll have to say why you think that is a reasonable view.

Let’s Avoid Partisan Reasoning

politics, evidenceImagine you are talking to someone on the other side of the political spectrum. The only way we can communicate with those who disagree is to find common ground. For instance, we all want peace, security, quality health care and education, etc. We want to avoid policies that hurt more people than they help. So instead of saying, “That’s bad because it’s liberal,” describe exactly what sort of harm the policy ultimately causes, and it ought to (ideally) be harm we can all agree on. The reverse is true as well. Also, if a policy provides a benefit to some group, does it also have costs to other groups? And do the benefits outweigh the costs? Does a policy degrade or demean human beings? Does a policy violate the Constitution in some way?

The Goal

This post aims to assemble reasons for and against the claim, Trump is doing a good job as President. In the end, I hope to have a more well-formed belief about this claim–as to its truth or falsity. And I hope all of my readers will be challenged to step out of the echo chambers of social media and backup their views. When no one ever pushes back on our opinions, we become evidentially lazy. Let’s push one another toward evidential excellence.

So, in the comments, give me one or two reasons, with evidence, for your belief about Trump’s performance in office so far. It will be interesting to see what happens!

Can Atheism Be Justified?

skeptic's only, justified, athiest

In October, I started conducting interviews in the “free speech zone” at the University of Missouri. I sit at a table with a sign inviting “Skeptics Only” to come and talk about why they are skeptical about God or religion, and I offer them $5 for their time. A line of waiting interviewees often forms next to the table. Some aren’t even interested in the $5! Some sound justified in their views, and some struggle to articulate the reasons for their skepticism.

Ironically, an atheist friend inspired me to try this. Anthony Magnabosco, a nationally-known practitioner of “Street Epistemology,” runs a YouTube channel with 28,000 followers. He expertly engages in Socratic conversation with people, encouraging them to re-examine the reasons for their most deeply-held beliefs. While I disagree with him about God, I applaud how he models friendly conversation about religion and other touchy subjects.

Pleasant Surprises

believe, belief, think, rationalThe biggest surprise has been people’s candor and willingness to have their story filmed and put on YouTube. I was also pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness and depth I heard in many of their responses. Some point to Christians behaving badly as evidence against the faith. Some bring up perceived conflicts between science and faith. Others suggest that a loving God would not allow good people to suffer. These can serve as justifications for atheism.

Some atheists and skeptics, in an effort to gain an edge in the debate about God, will insist that they don’t need to offer support for their view. But nearly all the people I’ve interviewed can offer coherent reasons for their disbelief. I think this is how any rational person ought to respond. Whatever your position is on God, you ought to have a rationally justified basis for that position. You ought to have reasons for your view. Otherwise, it’s no different than blind faith.

A Real-life Example

In the video below, Lacey raises several legitimate reasons for her skepticism.

  • Religion often seems to conflict with science.
  • Christians fail to live up to the ethic of Jesus.
  • Good people suffer for no apparent reason.

Based on her experience and reasoning, she seems quite justified in her rejection of the Christian faith. Her “total evidence” can be construed to point in the opposite direction. But she also seems open to acquiring new evidence and re-thinking her conclusions. This openness further demonstrates her rationality and intellectual virtue.

resurrection, justifiedI probed for further thoughts on a few points she made. For example, if we take bad Christians as evidence against Christianity, shouldn’t we also take good Christians as evidence in its favor? And if we reject the resurrection account, then what alternative explanation do we have for the data (e.g., empty tomb, resurrection appearances, changed lives, etc.)?


I think, given a certain set of total evidence, atheism can be rationally justified. We all possess a different set of total evidence, which makes it difficult to compare our conclusions. What is rational for me may not be rational for you. But openness to hearing one another can help improve our set of total evidence, which may mean revising our beliefs. Do you agree?

Interpreting the Bible: Straightforward or Sophisticated?

Bible, interpretation

I recently debated (cordially) with a friend about the words of Jesus to Thomas in the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 29 — “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” My friend interpreted this to be an encouragement toward “blind faith,” while I took Jesus to be saying that those who believe based on the adequate evidence of testimony are even more “blessed” than those who see Jesus in the flesh. My friend takes his interpretation to be the straightforward, common sense view, and he sees my interpretation as strained.

When I make a complex argument for my view on this (or other passages), he contends that we shouldn’t need a PhD to understand this stuff–it was written by, and to, simple, every day people without years of graduate education. I can’t disagree with him on that point. But, at the same time, I believe we make mistakes in interpretation easily due to certain kinds of ignorance. What I want to do in this post is not debate this passage in particular, but rather to argue that the Bible is both simple and complex, both easy and hard, at the same time.

Ask Someone Who Knows

Eugene Peterson, BibleEugene Peterson, who recently passed away, wrote some of my favorite books and my favorite translation of the Bible (The Message). I trust him as an “expert witness” in this area. I trust Peterson for a few reasons. (1) He was a good man, by all accounts, (2) he translated the ENTIRE Bible from the original languages, and (3) he presents an honest and balanced approach to our question.

The Bible As Straight Talk

Peterson argues, in his book, Eat This Book (Eerdmans, 2006), that the Bible was written in ordinary language for ordinary people. This conviction drove his translation work. “I identified with the first writers and readers/listeners of Scripture, whose first concern had to do with living in the company of the Trinity while walking down the muddy roads of Galilee and Judea and navigating through the sexual chaos of Corinth.” (p.165) “[It] occurred to me that the first people who heard or read the Bible didn’t need a dictionary of a concordance. . . All these books came out of the common life and common knowledge of the people, many, maybe most, of them illiterate. Not unintelligent, mind you, but not schooled.” (p. 166)

Peterson agreed with the Reformers on the “perspicuity” of the Bible–“the conviction that the Bible is basically readable as it is. It is not a body of secret lore accessible only to an academic elite. It is written plainly for plain men and women. “(p. 167) This motivated him to work hard to capture the original ideas and intentions of the biblical authors and to translate them into contemporary language and idioms that the ordinary person can understand today.

Daily Bread

bread, Bible

Here’s an example of the tendency to overdo interpretation. For centuries, scholars assumed that the phrase “daily bread” (arton epiousion) in the Lord’s Prayer must have been a reference to some spiritual sustenance, rather than actual, humdrum bread. Part of the argument was that the term epiousion (daily) was not found in any other ancient Greek writings, and must therefore be a special “spiritual” word, obscured from pedestrian readers.

This, of course, all turned out to be rubbish. In 1925, an archaeological dig at Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) unearthed, in an ancient scrapheap, an ordinary housekeeping book. It contained a shopping list for chickpeas, straw, and . . . wait for it . . .  epiousion. It turned out that Jesus’ prayer referred to good old, fresh-baked bread. (pp. 147-150) Sometimes the simplest view is the correct one.

The Bible As Complex Literature

So how can I still maintain that the Bible contains complexities that require expert guides? One reason is what I call the “time travel” problem. Let me illustrate. In Back To the Future, Marty McFly experiences this problem while trying to order a soda at the local hang out.

Marty, who time traveled from 1985 to 1955, asks for perfectly ordinary soft drinks like ‘Tab’ and ‘Pepsi-Free.’ So why doesn’t the bar keep doesn’t understand?  Marty’s not using “mysterious,” confusing words, and yet, no one is 1955 would know what they mean. In fact, some readers in 2018 feel equally flummoxed by the terms. When we read an ancient text from another culture, we experience the same difficulties, but amplified even more. Instead of 1950’s America, we’re reading about 1st century Palestine, or 20th century BCE Egypt.

Peterson discusses these temporal/cultural complexities of exegesis and translation in an essay entitled, Eat This Book: The Holy Community at Table with the Holy Scripture.

The scriptural text is complex and demanding. The primary witnesses to God’s revelation are the Old and New Testaments: Torah and Prophets and Writings from the Old Testament; Gospels, Letters, and Apocalypse in the New. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, languages that have, as all languages do, their own peculiar way of inflecting nouns, conjugating verbs, inserting prepositions in odd places, and arranging words in a sentence. Written on parchment and papyri. Written with pen and ink. Written in Palestine and Egypt and Syria and Greece and Italy. . .

. . . Each book has its own way about it, and generally a careful reader begins to learn how to read a book by slowly and carefully poking around in it for a very long time until a way is found. A careful reader (an exegete!) will proceed with caution, allowing the book itself to teach us how to read it. For it soon becomes obvious that our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyperspiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncracies of local history and peasant dialect expunged. There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be recovered. (pp. 2-3)

International Time Travel

Peterson understands that we, as readers, are international time travelers. And as such, we face all the problems that international travelers face, multiplied by 1,000. The original text makes simple sense to an ordinary person in the ancient world, but can confound modern readers. This is why Peterson felt so passionate about his translation.

ancient, Parthenon, BibleWhen my wife and I travel to another country, we start preparing with Rick Steves. We want to learn as much as we can about the history, language, culture, and geography of our destination. We have enjoyed “walking tours” in places like Athens and Barcelona while listening to Rick Steves’ narration piped through our ear buds. The places simply come alive for us, and we miss out on this without a knowledgeable chaperon. Peterson does the same with the Bible in his teaching and translation, informing and even correcting our experience of the raw text.

I think people sometimes resist this viewpoint–that the Bible often requires additional insight and effort to understand–for at least two reasons. First, they like the idea that reading the Bible is an effortless process, requiring very little intellectual work. They passively assume the Spirit will reveal everything to them. Second, skeptics want to flatten out all the genre distinctions and hermeneutical nuances in order to generate more problems and inconsistencies. This sort of fundamentalism helps make the atheist’s case.


study, BibleSo is the Bible straightforward and easy to understand? To the original audience, absolutely. But because we are international time travelers, we often need guides to help us understand what we are seeing. Additionally, interpreting any work of literature has challenges, and the Bible has these more mundane issues as well–verb tenses, vocabulary, context, literary devices, etc. None of these are insurmountable obstacles to understanding for regular folks, but they often require some work and a guide. The “first impression” of a passage isn’t always accurate (or complete), any more than my first impressions of the Parthenon were.

The take away here, for me, is that we ought to hold these two truths in tension as we read the Bible. We come to the text both adequate and inadequate at the same time. This should stir up humility and motivate us to put in our “due diligence” in understanding what is said. But it should also guard us against both discouragement and elitism.

How To Talk To Your Relatives at Thanksgiving

thanksgiving, civil discourse

Are you dreading Thanksgiving this year? Are you anticipating arguments and tension over religion, politics, and more? Well, I have the solution! Well, not THE solution, more like A solution. Well, honestly it’s not a SOLUTION so much as a way to improve things a bit. At least from your end. Right!

In the video, I share how knowing what you believe and why you believe it can make a huge difference in conversation with Aunt Gertrude this year. You don’t have to live in fear of those pesky disagreements any more. If you find the video helpful, feel free to share!

If you’re interested in the book I mention in the video (Alan Jacobs’ How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds), there’s still time to order it before Thanksgiving!  It’s a great first step toward becoming more confident in our contentious world.

(One idea I leave out of the video: approaching a conversation with confidence is great, but humility is also crucial! Never forget that you could be wrong. Confidence isn’t the same thing as absolute, dogmatic certainty.)


Epistocracy and Voting

driving, children, epistocracyIn our family of six, two of us can run for president, three of us can drive, four of us can marry, and five of us can open social media accounts. In this week’s elections, only three of us can vote. These restrictions limit our rights for good reasons. Take voting. We don’t allow children to vote because: (1) they may be unduly influenced by their parents , and (2) we assume they don’t have the requisite understanding to make a responsible decision. In other words, knowledge matters. 

This epistemic rationale takes center stage in the other restriction cases as well.  But how far should the “knowledge requirement” go? In his book, Against DemocracyGeorgetown philosopher Jason Brennan argues that voters should be required to pass a test on basic political knowledge. This would result in what he calls an “epistocracy,” or a rule by the knowledgeable. Only those who impartially educate themselves on civics and current issues (Brennan calls them ‘Vulcans’) would be eligible to vote, according to one proposal. (I encourage you to read this interview with Brennan and listen to this radio show to hear more about his intriguing ideas.)

Is Epistocracy A Good Idea?

test, epistocracyOn the one hand, competent voting sounds great. A great many of those who vote have no idea what they’re really voting for. Columnist Ilya Somin, in his Washington Post piece, writes that many people vote badly because

[t]hey often lack even basic political knowledge; and what they do know, they analyze in a highly biased way. Instead of acting as truth-seekers, they function as “political fans” cheering on Team Red or Team Blue.

So why not implement a simple knowledge test? Legal immigrants, before they can vote, must pass a civics test that many native-born Americans would fail. Why not require this for everyone?

As a passionate knowledge activist, I am generally in favor of anything that helps people improve their beliefs about important issues. But I have two main reservations about this plan.

Two Objections to Epistocracy

second amendment, arms, epistocracyFirst, from an ethical/political standpoint, universal suffrage protects us from certain dangers and should not be rolled back lightly. I tried to compare the right to vote to other rights, and I think one apt comparison is with gun ownership. The right to bear arms originally aimed to protect the citizens from the potential tyranny of their own government. We still keep some restrictions on who may own a gun, but we generally maintain high levels of freedom here. (Set aside the question of whether the second amendment still serves the original purpose.)

Similarly, not everyone uses their right to vote, but everyone could, and that’s the important thing. If voting is restricted to the epistocracy, then it is easier for tyranny to arise. Why? Because it is always easier to manipulate a few than to manipulate many, regardless of education or understanding. We can tolerate some bad voting in order to preserve this safeguard.

complex, country, epistocracySecondly, and the most relevant to my own research interests, is the problem of epistemic limitations. Several philosophers (David Estlund and Udit Bhatia to name two) have argued that the amount of knowledge needed for an elite epistocracy to effectively vote on national issues would be prohibitive. Our country is so big and so complex that it simply cannot be effectively governed by so few, simply because they lack the necessary insight and information. No matter how smart they are, they understand only what they can put their epistemic arms around. And this will always be less that what universal suffrage can collectively represent.

Ilya Somin agrees:

Even if epistocratic selection mechanisms work better than I expect them to, the resulting more competent electorate might still lack the knowledge needed to effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the activities of the large and enormously complicated modern state. That herculean task may exceed the competence of even Vulcans. Ironically, the main flaw of epistocracy may be that we don’t have the knowledge to make it work.


vote smart, epistocracyIn conclusion, the best way to solve this problem is to educate yourself and vote. Alternatively, if you know absolutely nothing about the issues at hand, you may have a moral obligation to abstain from voting. In either case, as you engage in public discourse about the elections, match your speech to your knowledge. If you haven’t looked into the issues, then just say , “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t know what to think yet.” And if you have done the homework, speak up and offer reasons for your views. And whatever you do, don’t let tribalism be a substitute for thinking!