Games Christians Play: Three Common Examples of Confirmation Bias

People often ask me why I left my faith.  There are no good short answers to that question, but one of the simplest ways to explain what happened is to describe the games I was taught to play to protect my beliefs and to keep them immune to falsification.  Stepping outside of my own thought processes long enough to see how these games work probably went further than anything else I did to convince me that my religion was all inside my own head.  “Know thyself,” the Greeks wisely advised.  That’s certainly where it started for me.


Confirmation bias can be a powerful thing.  When you have a strong personal need to believe something, you set out to verify your belief with a mixture of motives.  You want to know if what you believe is true, but the cost of disappointment may be so high that you become susceptible to any number of tricks we play on ourselves to make sure our lives are not too greatly disturbed.  Confirmation bias happens when we preselect for our attention only those data which support the beliefs we had before we even began our quest to find the truth.  As long as we can find quick and easy ways to dismiss and ignore all data which contradict our preconceived ideas, we will find that the remaining “evidence” perfectly supports whatever we thought from the very beginning.

It’s a clever trick our minds play on us, but if we are ever to learn how to think critically, we must learn to recognize this process before it blinds us to the things we’d rather not allow ourselves to see.  To illustrate what I mean by “games Christians play,” I’ll highlight three common claims of the Christian religion and explain the rationalization that kicks in to ensure their confirmation and avoid falsification.  I’ve already mentioned the first two before (here and here) but they bear repeating.

Claim 1:  If you pray for X, it will happen.

I was taught to inform the critics of my faith that you can’t view God like he’s Santa Claus, beholden to each of us who asks for a pony, for a raise, or for whatever our selfish little hearts desire.  For shame!  I was taught to make people feel guilty for thinking they can ask God for things.  The only thing is:  That’s exactly what the New Testament tells us to do.  Jesus instructed his followers to ask for things.  He didn’t guilt them for suggesting such; in fact, it was his idea.  But Christians quickly forget that and rush to bury that fact under a plethora of qualifications and ad hoc provisions.

Take prayers for the sick for example.  Both Jesus and James unequivocally tell us that if we pray for the sick, they will be healed.  They forgot to supply the requisite fine print which stipulates that only prayers already aligned to the sovereign plan of God will be rewarded, and that your motives have to be right, and that you cannot doubt, and that there cannot be unconfessed sin in your life, etc.  Also, if you ask for someone to be healed whom God doesn’t want to heal, you’re out of luck.  So sorry.  And as for determining which ones are which, that part’s easy!  Just wait and see who gets better.  Anyone who is healed, even if it took years of medical treatment, they were the ones God wanted to heal.  As for the others, his ways are higher than our ways so tough luck, man.  It wasn’t his will.

Once you take into consideration this arrangement of excuses, you see that it is impossible to falsify the claim that praying for X will make it happen.  Over the centuries this claim has come to be flanked by rationalizations which ensure that this promise can never be proven false.  Whenever what Jesus and James promised fails to occur, you can simply fall back on one of the following:

  • Your motives were imperfect.
  • It wasn’t God’s will.
  • His answer was “yes, but not yet.”
  • You didn’t believe hard enough.
  • There’s a life lesson you have to learn from this suffering.
  • Shame on you for expecting God to jump through your hoops and perform for you!

That last one is the most effective because not only does it sidestep any resolution between the expectation and reality, but it goes a step further into guilting you about having any expectation at all.  If they can make you feel bad enough, you might even forget that the Bible is what gave you these expectations in the first place.  Achievement unlocked!

Claim 2:  God will never forsake you.

Like I said, I’ve written about this before, but I can summarize it in a sentence:  Once you’ve established that even the worst imaginable injustice, tragedy, or loss may be God’s will for your life, this promise that he will never forsake you becomes utterly devoid of meaning or substance.  The ultimate emptiness of this promise never stops people from feeling that it should somehow comfort them, but for the life of me I cannot see why.  No matter what awful thing you can think of, it can be argued that this, too, is God’s will for you.  So the claim is meaningless.

I defy you to supply an example—any example—of a life circumstance which would constitute God forsaking you.  If you cannot even supply one, you’ve just illustrated my point.  The very idea is constructed in such a way that a counterexample isn’t even possible.  No matter what you come up with, someone will say that God might want that to happen because his ways are higher than our ways, amirite?  That phrase is like magic.  It justifies and dismisses absolutely any and all challenges to faith.  It’s one of the classic moves in the games I was taught to play as a Christian.

Claim 3:  The Holy Spirit can mold a person’s character and empower him to live a virtuous life.

As a Christian, I was taught that all virtue comes from God.  I was taught that people are naturally awful and despicable and that the only thing that can enable them to be virtuous is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Both of these ideas come from the Bible, not from some later perversion of Christian tradition.  But like the other two, this claim becomes meaningless once you read the disclaimers in the fine print.  Besides the numerous promises that this inner presence will produce a laundry list of virtues (love being chief among them), at one point the Bible even goes on to say things like:

God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Watch how easily promises like this become meaningless:  When a Christian exemplifies virtuous behavior, they say it was because “Jesus lives inside her.”  But then whenever a Christian displays poor judgment or moral turpitude, this cannot be a failure of God to deliver on his promise.  It is emphasized at moments like this that God can empower a person’s moral choices through the guidance of this invisible occupant, but it’s still up to you to choose to “let” him enable you to do it.  “Don’t forget about free will, now!”  Just like saying “God’s ways are higher,” when you say “People have freewill” it renders all promises about divine guidance and moral quickening meaningless. This incoherent reasoning sounds a lot like the contradictory scenario in the Garden of Eden wherein Adam was supposed to choose not to eat from the “wrong” tree before he was even imbued with the moral ability to know right from wrong in the first place.  Not only is it logically inconsistent, it constructs and qualifies the promise in such a way as to render it impossible to falsify.  Any time the promise fails to materialize, the blame shifts to you and the promise is kept above reproach.  The one thing that cannot be allowed is that the claim was false.  The entire system depends on it.  Everything must bend to accommodate the claims.

That bending is what bothers me.  It should bother any rational person.  It sends up red flags to me when I see this compulsion to bend over backwards and perform interpretational gymnastics to ensure that these beliefs remain undisturbed, immune to critique.  Most people of faith don’t even recognize when they’re doing this because they learned this skill at a very young age, or else because they learned it at a time when they were made vulnerable under the pressure of some emotionally charged life circumstances.  I know that’s how it worked for me.  But time, experience, and age have given me enough perspective to recognize that these games that we play display a kind of dishonesty toward ourselves.  Once we’ve learned to lie to ourselves, there’s little hope left for approaching anyone or anything else in a straightforward, brutally honest manner.  These games condition us to be more willing to embrace faulty reasoning in any number of other life circumstances, and that can be very dangerous.  They teach us to trust people who haven’t yet earned it nor do they deserve it.  They teach us to see things, not as they really are, but as we believe they should be.  There’s no telling how many of our societal errors and dysfunctions trace back to this overeagerness to embrace unsubstantiated claims and prejudices which are rooted in the cultural biases of another time and another place.

I Remember Playing Them, Too

These games are second nature to the devout.  They become instinctive through repeated reinforcement so that they kick in the instant someone cites any of the above claims.  The disclaimers and qualifications got so drilled into me that I can still sympathize with those under their spell.  It took time to learn to recognize just how willingly I embraced them as long as I was still trying to cling to the belief system that defined my young adult life.  The emotional and mental cost of robustly questioning our most basic assumptions about the world around us can be incredibly high, and that makes us more prone to accept rationalizations which in reality do a terrible job of dismissing the inconsistencies in what we believe.

Does the failure of these promises necessarily mean that all religion is false or that gods cannot exist?  No, it doesn’t.  But it certainly gives us significant reason to distrust the texts from which they are drawn.  And more to the point of this post, the mental gymnastics we put ourselves through to avoid losing faith in them should tell us something about our own lack of objectivity in the matter.  We clearly have something to lose, and it clouds our judgment.  If we learn nothing else from this, we can at least learn to recognize the games we play.  It’s a start.

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35 Responses to Games Christians Play: Three Common Examples of Confirmation Bias

  1. Steve Buckley says:

    Seems to me that you started using human based thinking instead of God based thinking.
    Jesus said that what is impossible for people, is possible with God.
    The next thing that I see here is that you claim confirmation bias. Confirmation bias requires easy solutions to complex problems.
    Job’s story blows that out of the water. The judgment on Job’s friends was because they had religious beliefs, and packaged in nice sayings.

    Are you much for reading? In 1811 a book was published. It’s title is– “Human Nature in its Fourfold State.”
    Thomas Boston is the author. Got a Kindle or other Ereader?
    You can find a free version of this on
    I think he put it together in a manner which explains some of the problems that people are not understanding today.

    • If there isn’t a god, then it’s all human based thinking, I reckon, and that’s not even the first mistake you’ve made here (a classic assumption mistake–you can’t demonstrate that the supernatural exists, but you’re taking for granted that not only does it exist but that you can reliably tell the difference between its thought processes and those of humans). That said, confirmation bias doesn’t actually mean that someone’s reaching for “easy solutions to complex problems.” The non-solution arrived at might be quickly attained, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy at all. It can lead to a lot of cognitive dissonance, which can itself lead to a great deal of emotional distress for the person juggling too much of it at once. And, too, Christians tend to defend those non-solutions to the skies, going through simply astonishing contortions when the very simplest answer is right in front of them dancing before their clouded eyes. The problem is that the bias may feel very satisfactory at first, but the dissonance produced makes things much worse later on. The non sequitur about Job at the end doesn’t make a lot of sense (that’s quite a, uh, idiosyncratic interpretation you’ve got going there, and one that entirely ignores the huge moral quandaries presented by the myth to make a conclusion that sounds like a bumper-sticker slogan), but then, neither does the book suggestion. I hope you’re not unwittingly demonstrating Neil’s point for him by suggesting that he go read a science book that is over 200 years old to make some nebulous religious point or other. That’d actually be pretty funny in its way; usually we get told to read C.S. Lewis or something.

      PS: The link went to an Arab-language site; was that a subtle hint that you’re Poeing and I’m just tired enough to have taken the bait?

    • mikespeir says:

      How do you expect us to think like a god?

      • Joyce Rutter says:

        Excellent question! What we each have is our human mind to think with. None of us are a god. If there was a god who created us (which, of course, I don’t believe), he/she gave us a human mind, not a god mind. Statements regarding human-based reasoning, spoken to imply a character flaw, are laughable.

    • Logan GLT says:

      Quoting from Job is interesting, especially given the rather grotesque display of manipulation that the God-character shows in chapter 2. In the book of Job, we see an interesting story of a ‘righteous man’ being tempted by Satan, but only after God suggested it! Satan, whom the Bible says “roams the earth, seeking whom he may devour” was called to God’s presence for a little chit-chat, and shortly thereafter, God suggests he consider Job as a nice juicy target for attack (Job 2:3). It would be fair to read into the story that God said, “Oh are you looking for someone to devour and chew up? Have you considered Job?”.

      Such is the god of the Bible.

      • Chavoux says:

        Hi Logan
        Just on this, remember that the satan’s position has changed pre- and post-Messiah. He was kicked from his position in heaven after Jesus removed all his legal rights on the cross. Only then did he become like a roaring lion. And in context God was not saying “looking for someone to devour”, He was bragging with Job: “Have you seen my servant Job?!”

        • Logan GLT says:

          Thanks for the comment, Chavoux. I agree that God didn’t literally say “are you looking for someone to devour?”, but God is omniscient (according to the scriptures), and it’s clear that from the beginning, Satan’s goal has always been to attack God’s beloved people and attempt to thwart God, and thus when Satan says I’ve been “roaming throughout the earth”, he hasn’t been roaming around to admire the beauty of God’s creation. He’s looking for people to attack, and thus when God says, “Have you considered my servant Job?”, it is pretty clear that God (who is omniscient and knows how Satan will respond in this conversation) is in fact, offering up Job as a suggested target.

          If someone doesn’t believe that is the case, then you have to conclude that God is not omniscient and that He didn’t realize how Satan would respond in that conversation of Job 2.

    • David says:

      “[Y]ou started using human based thinking instead of God based thinking.”

      This implies you know what God-based thinking is. Me, I am always extremely skeptical when anyone claims to know the mind of God. I find it is always just a means to justify their own particular biases. It’s just circular reasoning.

  2. That was wonderfully written. And so very true. That’s the sort of stuff that killed my faith too, many years ago. I couldn’t maintain the dissonance.

  3. Matt B says:

    Another great post. When I was a Christian I remember having problems with the claim that God would never give you more than you could handle. I always wondered where that line was drawn… Now its clear that it is just another unfalsifiable claim.

  4. Reblogged this on kindism and commented:
    While many argue that Christian Science isn’t really “Christian” the “logic” used in their Confirmation Bias follows a similar track. It uses slightly different language, but the logic is very similar.

  5. Logan GLT says:

    I agree with those above… another great post.
    It took me nearly 7 years to break through the confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance to see the truth. I ended up writing two short pieces about cognitive dissonance on my own blog. When I did a little poll on the topic, most indicated that religious belief or doctrine was the most profound source of cognitive dissonance.

  6. Abraham says:

    I would like to point out a simple refute to the notion that “God” never gives us more than we can handle. Whenever people commit suicide, it is precisely because they have been given more than they can handle. Additionally, for all those people who make this claim are likely unaware of just how much suffering people go through in the world.

    • Jim B says:

      This is a nit-pick, but I disagree with the claim, “Whenever people commit suicide, it is precisely because they have been given more than they can handle.” Some people commit suicide after making a calm, rational decision.

      I wish more states allowed compassionate right to die laws. Like many complex issues, there is a slippery slope to contend with, such as will old people feel an obligation to die early, or even be coerced. Still, I would think that some guidelines could be established that strike a better balance than removing the option to die with dignity.

  7. EG says:

    Reblogged this on Emerging Gently and commented:
    I am a former Christian Scientist, and this post really hits the nail on the head about the very strong confirmation bias that exists in that faith, and also the mental gymnastics (as some of us have taken to calling it) that’s required to accept and embrace this theology.

  8. T.S. says:

    You touched on things I’ve thought about many times. Why is it that religious always credit god when something good happens, but he is conveniently excused when tragedy strikes?

    You really highlight the constant state of confusion people are kept in when following strict religious doctrine with the always convenient “god’s plan excuse” which always ranges from noninvolvement to direct intervention. One thing I’ve always wondered, why do the religious assume god is a higher being? Being a creator does not ensure superiority. Children often surpass their parents. What if god was just stumbling along doing the best he/she can? Maybe god needs the criticism to learn a few things.

  9. Southern Skeptic says:

    Great examples of confirmation bias. I remember people used to remind me, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Until he does, of course. But then it’s your own fault for not praying/trusting/believing/etc.

  10. Esther O'Reilly says:

    What makes you think that a comfortably well-off prosperity preacher, with no tragedy or misfortune in his life, who feels empowered by the Spirit every day, couldn’t be forsaken by God without knowing it?

    • Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. I hope I get forsaken, too.

      • Esther O'Reilly says:

        Be careful what you wish for my friend.

        • What’s so bad about being well-off, and having a tragedy-free life? Doesn’t seem like a threat to me.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            By itself, nothing. But my point is that being forsaken by God needn’t manifest itself in tangible ways on our timetable. In fact, some of the most comfortable, prosperous people are the most separated from God, like prosperity hucksters who milk their congregations for cash. Maybe they’ve even psyched themselves into thinking the Spirit is empowering them, so they don’t FEEL separated from God. Like Samson, they don’t know (yet) that the Spirit has actually departed from them.

          • But what of it? If a person is happy and prosperous, then nothing is missing. What practical difference does it make? Phenomenologically speaking, it sounds irrelevant to me.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Don’t you think the content of a person’s character matters… a little?

    • davewarnock says:

      If the prosperity preacher can be forsaken by God without knowing it- all the while thinking and feeling he/she is being empowered by the Spirit, who’s to say the very same thing couldn’t happen to you? By that logic, anyone who feels connected to God by His Spirit can be forsaken by Him without their knowing it- and they won’t actually know it until they get “to the other side”. Including yourself.

      Every Christian group says that the “other” group has it wrong; and we have it right. And yet, they all claim superiority via their interpretation of the Good Book. How do you know the prosperity preachers and faith healers have gotten it wrong? Maybe their understanding of the book is just a little bit better than everyone else’s and when they get to the throne, Jesus is gonna tell them- “well done!”

      But I agree with your assessment, Esther: the content of one’s character matters. And we don’t need the Bible or preachers or a god for that.

  11. MIchael E says:

    This past week, I watched fairly closely one of the great tragedies that I have seen. My daughter’s best friend from high school died of breast cancer (actually the breast cancer had been removed, but a remnant came back and eventually destroyed her liver. An incredible young woman with a young son and a loving husband. Tragic.
    She battled this for several years and finally lost this past week. A woman and family of great faith trusted god who was always in control of the situation. God was praised throughout. What would the family have done if a doctor had the power to cure her, but decided that it was her time to die. They would have sued and saw to it that the doctor could never murder anyone else again.
    Gut god was glorified and praised. God was in control right to the end of her incredibly short life. As an outsider this is the ultimate indictment of why god fails us (or can’t save us). But the promise of being able to see the person in the afterlife allows everyone to trust god. It is the ultimate cognitive dissonance. Believe in a god that cannot be understood in exchange for seeing your loved one in the afterlife.
    Losing that hope of paradise and healing in the afterlife is incredibly scary for most. But once you break that spell it really is OK. The celebration of life is what really matters.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      But that kind of is the point—if you do in fact believe Christianity is true (and I think putting prayer in a test-tube isn’t the best way to discover that, evidentially speaking—history, archaeology, science etc. should be the place you look for evidence), then you believe the fat and happy huckster I was describing in my previous comment really does have the nastiest surprise of his life waiting on the other side. But this woman who suffered with cancer will have a perfect body, perfect happiness, and eternal life. On the flip side, a person who never got anything worse than a tummy bug here on earth could be separated from God forever. It’s not biblical to use the proportion of earthly tribulations in a person’s life as a litmus test for God’s favor. Once again, I realize this doesn’t matter to you as a non-Christian, but I’m explaining why your logic is flawed within the Christian framework.

      • So ultimately the only way to distinguish what being “blessed” by God versus being “forsaken” by him is to wait until the afterlife.

        Thanks, but no thanks. I see no convincing evidence that there is such a thing, and that’s an awfully convenient trick, kicking the can down the road like that. It really just creates a new example of rendering biblical language effectively meaningless. All the import comes from a time and place which you have to first trust exists in the first place. That’s a bit much for me.

      • MIchael E says:

        For 45 years I believed that Christianity was true and I looked forward to the promises of meeting my departed loved ones on the other side of death. It was real to me. But when that belief crumbles, you are left with a God that you trust to save a life, but fails miserably. And it’s not like disappointment in a doctor who does everything that they can but come up short. God can fix it if you want to but somehow decides that your suffering is a part of his master plan.
        This past year I lost a very good job for clearly illegitimate purposes. Will this eventually work out as Paul would say for all things work together? Yes. But not because some master chess player in the sky somehow will introduce me to something that is better than what I had. It will work together when my own skills and abilities makes it happen.
        And the real determinant of the fate of my daughter’s friend is medicine’s ability to heal, not a God that has things under control. 50 years ago she would have died with no hope several years earlier than today. 50 years from now she probably would still be alive today and likely to live a long life. Dramatic new cures are born at research university, not the result of a prayer. The ultimate test of cognitive dissonnance would be to challenge a devout Christian with a choice? A medical procedure with a proven ability to heal or trust a thousand people who are devout prayer warriors? Their cognitive dissonance would crack in a minute.

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  14. Chavoux says:

    Dear godlessindixie
    Interestingly some of the examples you use here have actually led me to faith, rather than the other way round. :-)
    Claim 1: If you pray for X, it will happen.
    First of all, the original claim was never without qualification (Mark 11:22-25, James 4:2-4, 1:5-8, 5:13-18). Even Jesus did not stop John the Baptist’s beheading! But here is an important difference. When my experience clashes with what the Bible say I can always do one of two things: 1. Assume the Bible is wrong and/or try to explain why whatever it promises is not valid in my circumstances. OR 2. Assume the Bible is true and search for the answer to the problem with myself and find where I do not meet the conditions given for the promise. Most “liberal” theologians decided on the first choice IMHO. And so do many Christians playing the games you mention. No, Jesus did not heal all the sick in all of Israel (Mark.6:5-6). But He did heal many. Oh yes, we are encouraged to ask and to keep on asking. And if God does not answer us, to ask Him why. Where the manipulation (and dishonesty) comes in, is when we start to tell other people why their prayer has not been answered. It was when I made choice no.2 (trust the Bible) instead of no.1 (trust my current experiences) that I actually came to know God personally and He became a reality to me for the first time in my life.
    Claim 2: God will never forsake you.
    Once again, this claim is made within very specific conditions. Originally to Joshua before fighting against the stronger and larger Canaanites. Then to believers struggling after their earthly possessions had been confiscated (Hebrews). But throughout the Bible it is clear that people can be forsaken by God… Ps.22 and Jesus on the cross being two clear examples. Sin in any form separates us from God (Is.59:1-2). You say: “Once you’ve established that even the worst imaginable injustice, tragedy, or loss may be God’s will for your life, this promise that he will never forsake you becomes utterly devoid of meaning or substance.” But it is not! I know what it feels like to be separated from God (after having known Him, I backslid) and regardless of your circumstances, it is awful (although good circumstances can make it more bearable) (compare Ps.32). I also know that even in the worse circumstances, you can be filled with joy and peace if you know that you are within the will of God. Just by the way, regarding the comment on rich televangelists, I doubt that it is truly possible for a person to have lost the presence of God in His live and not know it. Yes, we have a tremendous ability for self-deception. I know, since none of my Christian friends knew when I backslid and I even told myself that everything was still the same, but in my heart I knew that I no longer lived in His power or His love.
    Claim 3: The Holy Spirit can mold a person’s character and empower him to live a virtuous life.
    This one is both very easy and very difficult to answer. I have lived life with and without the Holy Spirit and there sure is a difference. But this is not something I can easily show to you or anybody else. In other words, it is is promise I can depend on when I am being tempted to sin, but I can never proof to you afterwards that it was indeed God who empowered me (or provided the way to endure). However, I know myself well enough by now to know what happens when I confidently think that I can handle things on my own. ;-)


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