Motivated Reasoning and Religion

Applying motivated reasoning [or confirmation bias] to religion…

As much as liberals would often wish it otherwise—and no matter how much conservative Christians may claim their beliefs all come from the Bible—the truth of the matter is there’s no real relationship between what a person believes and what their religion ostensibly teaches them to believe. In practical terms, the word “Christian” is an empty term that can basically mean whatever the believer wants it to mean. Christians decide what they want to believe first and then, after they’ve chosen their beliefs, search for any excuse, no matter how thin, to claim that their belief is consistent with their chosen religion.

It’s a process called rationalization or motivated reasoning, and to be perfectly fair, it’s how most people think about most things most of the time: They choose what to believe and then look for reasons to explain why they believe it. Huge reams of psychological research show this is just how the human brain works. Almost never do we look over a bunch of arguments and choose what to believe based on reasoning our position out.

While most people engage in motivated reasoning most of the time, injecting religion into a situation only makes this process worse. That’s because, unlike most other belief systems, religion is impervious to empiricism. …
With religion, however, there’s no limits about what you can claim to believe. Jesus is a mythological character: he believes whatever the person speaking for him says he believes. For one person, Jesus believes we should feed the hungry and clothe the naked. For another, Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said that stuff; he was just handing out goodies in order to recruit new believers. We weren’t there (and it probably didn’t even happen), so the sky’s the limit when making up reasons why what you believe counts as “Christian.” If you want to believe Jesus was actually a space alien brought here by Martians to teach us how to fly, you have as much right as anyone else to believe what you want. It all has equal amounts of evidence to back it up.

The point here reminds me of an essay I read somewhere by the author of How to Create Your Own Religion ( — the point in the article (and presumably the book) being that no religious person endorses every single passage of whatever Holy Book they claim to follow. They pick and choose. (So many obvious examples…) In effect creating their own, unique, personal religion.

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