Thursday, April 08, 2010

Anti-Supernatural Bias

Recently I monitored one conversation and was engaged in another where the term “anti-supernatural bias” came up. It generally works as follows:

Christian: Here is a whole bunch of evidence for a miracle.
Non-theist: I am not convinced because of this, that, these and those.
Christian: You don’t believe because you have anti-supernatural bias.

(You can see its use here, here, and here at other popular Christian apologetic sites.)

This comes across as a whiney excuse for either lack of evidence, lack of persuasion or both.

Look, here is a simple fact in life. I don’t care what you believe—there is a person who holds a dissimilar position. Whether the field is politics, or economics or medicine or theism or food or countless other areas; there is a person who has “anti-your-position bias.” They believe differently than you. While sometimes it may be an area they haven’t investigated; other times the person has investigated as well as (and maybe more completely) than you and came to a contrasting conclusion.

I couldn’t imagine complaining to an opposing counsel, “Aw…you have a bias toward interpreting the facts favorably for your client and against my position.” Really? That would come as a surprise to…anyone? My job—my obligation—is to present the facts, evidence and argument so strongly to opposing counsel they recognize the danger of going forward and therefore become motivated to settle.

Or imagine a political debate where each side grouses how the other side has “anti-me” bias! We want to hear facts; we want argument. We don’t want to hear how the Republican candidate has “anti-Democrat” bias…I think we already know that! Let’s move on; let’s see the strength of the arguments!

Secondly, I am an atheist and a naturalist. Telling me I have a bias for natural explanations is about as informative as telling a bachelor they aren’t married. Kinda goes with the term “bachelor.” The reason I AM an atheist is for the lack of evidence of a God. The reason I AM a naturalist is because of the lack of evidence for the supernatural. If I thought the evidence sustained for supernatural intervention—I wouldn’t be an atheist! Telling me I have such a bias is patently ridiculous in light of my atheism.

Guess what? I have anti-alien bias. And anti-astrology bias. And anti-crystals-heal bias, anti-yeti bias, and anti-9/11-conspiracy bias. Why? Because I am not persuaded aliens, astrology, healing crystals, yetis and 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. If you want to remove my bias—give me convincing proof on these things.

If you want me to get over my “anti-supernatural bias”—present sustaining proof. Yes, it may be the proof does not persuade me, but persuades others. Perhaps I am blinded by my secret desire to snort cocaine off a prostitute’s butt. Live with it. Because when you retreat to “you atheists have anti-supernatural bias” it comes across as if even you don’t think the evidence is persuasive enough unless you already believe in the supernatural.

Further, having “supernatural bias” isn’t even enough. Protestants are not convinced of Catholic miracles (Fatima), even though Protestants certainly believe in the supernatural. Christians are not convinced of Hindu miracles, even though Christians believe in the supernatural. Jews aren’t persuaded by Christian claims; Christians by Muslim claims; even Christians question other Christian claims. See, it isn’t just bias against supernatural; the apologist is bemoaning the other person’s anti-apologist’s supernatural bias. They can’t even convince others who already believe a God interacts—why would they be surprised they can’t convince me with the same evidence I’ve heard before?

It sounds as if the person is saying, “No fair, no fair, no fair, no fair! If you don’t already believe supernatural interaction occurs exactly how I say it must occur—I can’t convince you with the paltry evidence and measly arguments at my disposal.” Doesn’t say much for the evidence, eh?

Lose the whine. Give it your best shot with the evidence and arguments you have, and if they aren’t with it. Whimpering about the other person’s bias makes you sound like your God didn't give you enough to work with.


  1. There's a difference between a preferential or "prejudicial" bias and a metaphysical bias. Both arguments fail for the theist, but they fail in different ways.

    Before hearing the facts of some specific supernatural claim, we are (in a sense) "prejudiced" against believing that clam. While there are good reasons to be prejudiced based on past history, it is technically prejudice because it's an opinion formed before hearing the facts of the specific claim.

    You correctly address preferential/prejudicial bias in your post.

    However, there's a deeper kind of metaphysical or philosophical bias. Most importantly skeptics have a metaphysical bias for a particular kind of reasoning and argument to establish a claim. This is not a prejudicial bias that can be overcome by presenting specific evidence: there's no logically possible evidence you can present to change my position on what constitutes a sound evidentiary argument.

    Your recent discussion of Ehriman's (?) "minimum facts" argument is a perfect example. First of all, a minimum facts argument is not a valid evidentiary argument; a valid evidentiary argument must account for all the relevant evidence. (Also, the "facts" Ehriman presents, such as the empty tomb, are not actually facts: the only actual hard-core facts in evidence are the copies of the text we can look at with our own eyes; whether or not those facts establish an empty tomb is a conclusion drawn from the facts of the texts.

    I believe that religious apologists, advocates of paranormal phenomena and such people simply do not understand what skeptics mean by evidence and evidentiary argument. The problem is compounded by academic philosophers, who seem not only perversely and obtusely resistant to accepting the validity of scientific evidentiary arguments, but also actively dishonest about what actually does constitute an evidentiary argument.

  2. Because theists et al. do not understand what we mean by a sound evidentiary argument, they are confused and upset when they present what they believe to be a strong evidentiary argument, and we dismiss it as invalid or unsound.

    It's like the old arithmetic fallacy: 16/64 does in fact equal 1/4, therefore we conclude that we can cross out common digits in the numerator and denominator. But of course 17/74 is not equal to 1/4.

    From the theist side, I imagine it looks like we atheist skeptics are just inventing ad hoc "rules" just to avoid changing our prejudicial bias.

  3. As an aside, it's also the case that our "prejudicial" bias, established by our understanding of physics and nature, is so overwhelming that no amount of ancient text is sufficiently "extraordinary" to establish the extraordinary miracle claims.

    In much the same sense, it's probably impossible for anyone to present enough testimony to establish that President Clinton murdered a Chinese peasant in a remote village in Shaanxi province on January 20, 1997 at 12:10 PM EST (i.e. during his inauguration). The evidence that he could not have done so is so overwhelming that even the the testimony of 100 eyewitnesses could not change a reasonable person's mind.

  4. Dagoods,

    I am reminded of my evidence professor who got upset whenever he saw some lawyer on TV object to evidence as being "prejudicial." He used to say "Well of course its prejudicial! Why would any lawyer introduce evidence that wasn't? The question is whether it is unfairly prejudicial in light of its probative value."

    I might admit to having an anti-supernatural bias although I deny that it is an anti-supernatural presupposition because I did not pre-suppose it. It is the empirical result of fifty-three years of observation.

    And while I may have a bias towards the supernatural, I don't have a bias towards crazy shit that I can't explain. I may expect there to be a natural explanation for everything, but I don't expect that I will always be able to figure it out. I expect that there will be highly unusual events--such as inexplicable recoveries from disease--about which I might be forced to say to the theist, "That's some crazy shit. That sure is a good one for your side."

    There is simply nothing about the resurrection that compels me to acknowledge it as anything other than magical thinking typical of its culture.


    Bart Ehrman is the terrific liberal scholar who wrote Misquoting Jesus, God's Problem and Jesus Interrupted. Gary Habermas is the apologist who is the main proponent of the "minimal facts" approach although William Lane Craig relies heavily on a variation of it as well. It does rely on shamelessly cherry picking the "facts" to be considered.

  5. Bart Ehrman is the terrific liberal scholar who wrote Misquoting Jesus, God's Problem and Jesus Interrupted. Gary Habermas is the apologist who is the main proponent of the "minimal facts" approach although William Lane Craig relies heavily on a variation of it as well.

    Thanks. I stand corrected.

  6. Love the rant!

    I think you're right in that when they say that, they show their frustration only and add nothing to the conversation.

    I'd like to offer another interpretation to their whining. What they're saying is, "I do have a point, but you're closing your mind to it because you have already decided in advance that I am wrong, since you don't believe in the supernatural."

    If that is the case, I think they have a point. Personally, I've been hearing their claims for so long, that I no longer listen, or analyze, or take seriously anything they say.

    If I weren't so lazy, I would probably be good at debating them.

  7. What I find funny is that when one side presents "evidence" it works only for their side, not the other.
    For example a group finds where the ark is. They are experts and no one should dispute them. But if the same group, with the same type of evidence find, Valhalla, they are frauds.