Two months ago I posted about a short video created by a West Coast ministry depicting the alleged intervention of God in the life of a deeply troubled man, a presentation I discovered during a spin through Jared White’s site, “Finite Calls Infinite.” Jared’s observation:
Check out what this guy went through and how God intervened supernaturally to change his life. It’s amazing! I wish they’d include more of the details, but it’s nevertheless an inspiration. No matter how far you’ve gone into the realms of darkness, God’s light will still penetrate!
Given Jared’s enthusiasm, I expected to find that something remarkable had happened in Mike Leehan’s life–the “miraculous” curing of a disease, or even something as mundane as finding a winning lottery ticket in a bus terminal restroom immediately following a bout of prayer. If you watch the video, you find that what happened can fairly be summarized as: Man with clear mental issues and a history of conflicted feelings about God is visited by members of the ministry, and in their presence has a revelation in which God calls him to do His work for the rest of his life. Those are the facts.
Yesterday, Jared apparently discovered my post and left a comment in which he asked:
I have just one simple question for you: how do you know that whatever was described in this video isn’t actually true? On what basis do you accuse this man or this church of lying? Furthermore, aren’t scientists supposed to search out knowledge and meaning in spite of personal bias and follow the evidence wherever it may lead regardless of comfort level or preference? It seems to me that you’ve already decided how reality is framed, and thus anything that contradicts your predetermined conclusion you dismiss out of hand.
I fail to see how that is scientific, open-minded, or free-thinking.
I left a long reply, but it’s worth visiting what is going on here. Originally, I posted about this because Jared’s enthusiasm represents a classic example of confirmation bias. Religious folk often exemplify this interpretive flaw, which only makes sense; one who spends much of every day praying to or thinking about Jesus will naturally attribute events they perceive as remarkable in some way to divine authorship. In a world in which gods cannot be troubled to actually show themselves, this is understandable. Yet aside from the fact that private visions cannot constitute evidence for anything, the fact that non-Christians can and do have exactly the same kinds of “awakenings” as a result of a nearly infinite variety of experiences (praying to other gods; running 26 miles flat-out; dropping acid; transcendental meditation) underscores the reality–that people simply view “life-altering” experiences through the lens of their pre-existing beliefs.
Note the gross error in Jared’s thinking. He sees a skeptical viewpoint as being not only mean-spirited but unscientific. In other words, because I dismiss the likelihood of God having anything to do with an event in which there is no evidentiary reason to suspect deities playing a role, I am being close-minded. Yet I doubt that he would consider himself closed-minded if he laughed off my claim that my own “salvation” from, say, a lengthy spell of depression is undeniably attributable to blessings from aliens from Altair-6. He would, I presume, expect me to support this claim in some way before accepting it. But he makes an exception, and a grossly unjustifiable one, for himself and other Christians. It’s that simple.
I am also confident that Jared believes that he indeed arrived at his belief in the Christian deity because he was willing to “follow the evidence, wherever it may lead.” I don’t think he’s lying when he claims to have evidence for his god, as he implicitly does, but I would certainly invite him to present it. I am sure he will not–possibly with the observation that I’m a mocker who won’t change his mind anyway–and equally certain that he cannot.
The point here is not to denigrate something that made Mike Leehan feel better or mock, in a throwaway manner, something that makes Jared and millions of other people feel better. It is to point out what a huge divide exists between religious believers and others in terms of what represents “freethought” and rational inquiry. People like Jared epitomize close-mindedness when they basically try to insulate their ideas from criticism despite having no evidence to support them. If you were to give all the Jareds of the world truth serum, some of them might admit that they arrived at their religious convictions–Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian or animist–first and have spent years since then trying to come up with justifications for their beliefs when challenged. But I think there’s something deeper at work; I think Jared (clearly an intelligent man) does think he has evidence for what he believes. But naturally he cannot articulate this, because he’s wrong.
Watching people like Jared talk themselves in bumbling circles, if nothing else, provides an object lesson in how religious programming can forcefully disrupt or ruin someone’s ability to not only apply logic, but to comprehend it. To posit that something is true yet be unable to support this claim with evidence, yet label someone closed-minded for not accepting the same thing (one of countless takes on a basic delusion) at face value, is obviously loopy. But it’s part of the way millions of people approach the world every day.
Anyway, if nothing else, maybe he and other Christians can read this and understand the real basis for skeptical inquiry. I have no more of an inherent commitment to denying a divine Jesus than I do my putative aliens or any other extraordinarily unlikely construct. But refusing to start from a conclusion and work backward is not closed-mindedness, however accompanied it may be by gratuitous jocularity.