Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.
Consider two choices almost all of us have made: buying a car and choosing a religion. Both decisions are fairly important but surely religion more so.
For many people, buying a car is a significant research project. They look up reliability figures in Consumer Reports; they test-drive several models; they inquire about their friends’ experiences with their cars; they carefully consider what they can afford. All this for something that most people claim is only important to the extent that it will get them “from point A to point B” for maybe 10 years.
In contrast, religion lasts a lifetime for most people and is of much more consequence. Their choice of faith will likely constrain everything from their sexual behavior to how they spend several hours of precious time each weekend, plus it will cost them a good chunk of their income if they are serious about it.
Most importantly (at least in my view), they will also be signing up for innumerable truth-propositions such as divine inspiration of a sacred text or which God created the universe and will answer their prayers.
And yet, whatever post hoc justifications people my offer, they have usually chosen their faith based on whatever they grew up with, or who is nice to them, or what faith-group they stumble upon at a particularly needy point in their lives, rather than based on cold, hard reason–which, however cold and hard it may be, has shown itself to be a much more reliable path to the truth than any of those other things.
Why is this? Why do we get it so backward?
I think it’s because most of us are not really searching for truth. We’re searching for what makes us feel better. Whether it’s buying a car or subscribing to a religion, we spend exactly as much effort as required to feel good, and no more.
What makes us feel good about our automobile purchase? High on the list is the conviction that we will not be stuck with a “lemon” for the next decade. Avoiding that sickening feeling requires some actual research, so that’s what we do.
On the other hand, if your friend invites you to a worship service and you get there and everyone is singing, everyone is happy, and you are warmly welcomed, then you immediately get the sense that you’ll feel good if you can have whatever these people have. To obtain that good feeling, it is not necessary to do critical research into the truth-propositions that their faith includes. In fact, your subconscious knows that being critical will likely subvert your real purpose of feeling good, so you avoid it.
Before you know it, the tail has wagged the dog and you believe what they believe because you wouldn’t want to live in a world where those things are not true.
I’m not making this up. In both of the evangelical churches where I spent significant parts of my adult life, it was a truism that nobody is brought into the faith through reasoned argument. Rather, people are brought into the faith through what was called “friendship evangelism” — letting your friends see the results of your faith in your life and then conveying the gospel to them once you have won their trust and they want what you have. If you were not knowledgeable enough to make a convincing case, that was okay; what was important was to “testify to what the Lord has done in your life.”
What do you think? Do you agree that people are fundamentally after what makes them feel good rather than what’s true? If so, is there anything wrong with that?