How do I know my beliefs are true?

This is a transcript of a program presented by Tyler Owen on March 18th, 2018.

How do I know my beliefs are true?

  1. Have you ever held a false belief?

  2. What made you realize you were wrong about that belief?

  3. How did that realization make you feel?

  4. Is it possible that you might hold false beliefs right now and you just don’t realize it yet?

  5. What would it take to convince you that a belief you hold right now is false?

  6. Are you passively or perhaps even actively resisting a change in your beliefs because of the emotional impact it might cause to realize you are wrong?

  7. What is more important to you… Believing true things? Or believing things that confirm your existing worldview and don’t challenge you emotionally?

Changing what we believe is hard.

It’s not so simple as just “choosing” to believe something. Think of a closely held belief you have and try to remember if you chose to believe it, or if you were just exposed to enough information about it that it became impossible not to believe it. Do you choose to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow or do you believe it will based on what you’ve experienced about every sunrise before? Could you actively choose to believe that the sun will fail to rise tomorrow without some evidence that it won’t? Actually, you might say that you don’t “believe” the sun will rise tomorrow, you “know” it as a fact. Well, strictly speaking from a philosophical viewpoint, none of us “know” anything with 100% certainty. When we say we know something we really just mean that we have a very high confidence in that belief. Knowledge is a subset of belief. There are likely objective truths about reality that we can observe and make conclusions about, but personally I don’t see how we could ever perceive reality with 100% accuracy. This is a humbling concept to admit that we don’t actually know things, and even the things we have a high certainty in believing, we must admit that we may only have part of the picture.

I’m going to frame the rest of this discussion around a belief that I held very closely for most of my life. Up until I was about 22 years old, I sincerely and wholeheartedly believed that there was an eternal being who created the universe and gave us a special place in it. His only son came to Earth and sacrificed himself to give us a life after death. It took me several years, but I was exposed to enough outside information that challenged this belief that I was eventually forced to abandon it. I didn’t choose to lose my faith, in fact, there were times where I actively wished I could choose not to. Losing my faith came from a larger process of skepticism and scientific thinking.

When did I choose reason over faith?

It started with the first question I asked you here today. How do I know my beliefs are true? When I left home for the first time to attend university, my worldviews were thrust wide open. I was being exposed to new people, new ideas, new beliefs. Often times these new things were at odds with my personal experiences to that point. I was recognizing that my perception of the world was quite small. Like I had been looking through a spyglass my whole life. I relied too heavily on that narrow view. It was very jarring to have someone take my spyglass and point it at something I couldn’t see before. I lost confidence in many beliefs, and I realized if I was wrong about even simple things, perhaps I was wrong about pretty important things like religion. I wanted to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible. I started pointing my spyglass in directions I had never looked before. In fact, what I found most disconcerting was that my faith sometimes actively discouraged me from looking in certain directions. But my intent at that point was not to actively find reasons not to believe. It was actually quite the opposite. I believed in God and Jesus Christ, but I thought my narrow spyglass perspective of Christianity wasn’t sufficient. I wanted to increase the certainty of my belief, and in the process of doing so I unwittingly decreased it to the point of non-belief.

I want to use my experience and show you how you can examine your own beliefs in a similar way. If you care about holding true beliefs then I think there are some valuable tools here that you can use.

#1) Never exempt any one belief you hold from the same criticisms you apply to other beliefs.

The inverse is also good advice. Don’t defend your beliefs with reasoning that you don’t accept in relation to other beliefs. Almost every child of Christian parents is taught this backwards way of thinking. When they ask “If God made the universe, then where did God come from?”, they are given the response “God just is, and always will be.” This is certainly a question I asked at some point and obviously my young mind found the answer satisfactory since I continued to believe it for many years. This argument remains relatively identical even when discussed among adults; however, just with slightly more complex philosophical language. In fact, this argument has a specific name, called the Cosmological Argument. Christian apologist William Lane Craig uses the following form:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

  2. The Universe began to exist.

  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

From here he jumps to assuming that the cause of the universe must itself be un-caused. If whatever caused the universe to exist had a cause itself, then we create an infinite regress of causes that require causes. So what caused the universe? Well, an eternal, necessary, and perfect being called God of course. In apologetics this is called a presupposition. He jumps from requiring an un-caused cause to a god. He has exempted his god from the same criticism that he applies to the universe itself. Why insert a god at all? How does he know that the conditions required to spawn a universe could not have simply existed and been un-caused? Furthermore, scientists are relatively confident that time itself began with the big bang. What sense does it even make to claim that something existed before the universe that could cause the big bang if time itself did not exist yet? Before and after, cause and effect. These are all temporal concepts. What does it even mean to say that something existed before matter existed? Can something completely void of matter exist? If mister Craig and others who use the Cosmological Argument were consistent in their application of philosophical criticisms they would see that the only reasonable position to take is to admit that we are here, we exist, we’re not sure why, and we may never find out. From a young age I was told that our beliefs about God were special. That the normal rules don’t apply to God. I can’t use human logic to understand God. When people describe their beliefs about God as being “sacred” what they are really saying is that they should be exempt from criticism. But beliefs about God aren’t the only ones we can hold sacred. If you’ve ever talked to someone about any belief they hold who said “there’s nothing you can say to convince me I’m wrong”, then you are talking to someone who doesn’t care about whether their beliefs are true. Be open to criticisms and strive for a consistent application of logic and reason between all your beliefs.

#2) Never attempt to bolster your beliefs by only seeking sources that confirm them.

This is called Confirmation Bias. Early on in my journey to increase my confidence in my religious beliefs I was absolutely guilty of practicing in confirmation bias. I wanted to believe that there was a God that cared about me and that I would get to see my family again when I died. I sought out theologians to help answer some of my most difficult questions, like why an all-powerful God would allow children to suffer and die, or why he would include verses in the Bible that detailed how you are allowed to beat your slaves as long as they don’t die within 24 hours. While many might have found their answers satisfactory, I did not. I started to realize that lots of other people also didn’t find their answers satisfactory, and many of them called themselves atheists. I had never actually met someone who didn’t believe in any kind of god, so this was quite a shock to find such a strong and vibrant online community who had more satisfactory answers than the leaders within my own faith. Investigating the claims of those that disagree with you is perhaps the most important point I can make today. In fact, it should be the first thing you do when you find yourself falling on one side of an issue. Always challenge your first assumptions when forming a belief by playing your own “devil’s advocate”. It is much too easy to find an echo chamber of support for your beliefs and become rooted in them before you learn the full picture. If I had stuck to only religious sources for answers to my questions I would still think that all atheists are just people who want to sin without remorse and hate god.

#3) Never assume we already have the complete picture.

I’ve already mentioned how our own narrow view of the world can be problematic for discovering truths. This is especially the case for Christianity. Growing up I was never taught what other religions believed or why they believed them. I was told that the Bible was all we needed. It was the complete picture of our origins, of our purpose, and of our destiny in the afterlife. For some reason, this perfect picture of divine knowledge was bestowed upon some Middle Eastern sheep herders 2,000 years ago. I wasn’t satisfied with that answer and I thought that perhaps the historical record would confirm the claims of the Bible. Much to my surprise, there is virtually no historical mention of the man called Jesus Christ in sources outside the Bible. There is no historical evidence that the Jews were ever slaves in Egypt or that Moses led them through the desert for 40 years. We can’t even be sure who wrote the books of the Bible, let alone account for the veracity of their claims. These are not things you are taught in Sunday school. Always be skeptical of any belief that claims ownership over the truth. Doubt anyone who tells you to ignore other sources of information that might contradict their claims. Don’t let someone with authority dissuade you from seeking to learn more and investigate claims for yourself. If you are not familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave I strongly encourage you to seek it out as it perfectly encapsulates the idea of being trapped in an insular belief system.

#4) Never assume that rest of the picture is impossible to fill in.

This is closely tied with the previous point, but there’s a subtle distinction. Sometimes I would have questions that Christians would honestly say they don’t know the answer to. Not only that, but the answer was designed by God to be beyond our reach. I was told that “God works in mysterious ways” or “maybe you will find out the answer some day when you are face to face with God in the afterlife” and many other cliches and platitudes. The truth is that Christianity never did provide answers, it provided excuses that inhibit knowledge. If Galileo had accepted the authority of the church we would still believe that the Earth was the center of the universe. If barriers placed in the way of progress were wrong in the past, how many discoveries about the world are currently being held back by similar modes of thought? Never accept that there are things we cannot know. A few minutes ago you might remember I said that we might never know why we exist, but that doesn’t mean we should stop searching. The only way to find out what we can’t know is to search in the first place. And you don’t have to seek out only things that have never been known before. There are plenty of things that each of us can learn that will widen the aperture of our spyglass and help us form a more accurate picture of our world.

#5) Never turn a blind eye to beliefs you hold that are inherently contradictory.

One side effect of having a low evidence threshold for accepting certain beliefs is that you can actually end up holding beliefs that are mutually exclusive. This is especially true for many religions where you are encouraged to adopt an entire umbrella of beliefs without critically examining them. When you do take the time to ensure your beliefs are compatible with each other you might experience something called Cognitive Dissonance. This is the feeling of emotional discomfort you get when you recognize an incompatibility. One example in Christianity stands out to me from my deconversion process and that is the concept of Free Will. I’ve had this discussion many times over with numerous Christians and it has always perplexed me. If God is omniscient, meaning that he knows all things, including our future, how can we possibly have free will? If he knows exactly what actions I will take, then by definition those actions have been determined for me. If I had the power to change those actions, then God could not claim to know which one I would choose. So if a God exists, either free will is an illusion, or God is not omniscient. My feeling of cognitive dissonance with these beliefs was just one more reason that I felt I needed to reject the premises altogether. Yet many Christians have no issue holding these seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time. And that’s usually because they have never compared the two separate beliefs. When presented with events that are difficult to understand, Christians will claim that it’s part of God’s plan and that he has a reason for everything that happens. Yet when they discuss moral matters they will stress the importance of free will and that your choices will impact the most important thing of all, your eternal salvation. It is exceedingly rare to find these two concepts discussed in relation to one another. No priest wants to answer the question, “Does God override our free will to enact his divine plan?”. The lesson here can be applied to all of your beliefs. When you adopt a new belief about the world it necessitates that you then compare that new belief to as many other beliefs you already hold to ensure they are internally consistent. Perhaps you’ve heard a headline that said something to the effect of “New discovery causes scientists to go back to the drawing board”. This isn’t a failure of science, it is one of the most important features of the scientific method. Bad ideas should be thrown out and we should work every day towards a consistent and compatible set of beliefs that conform to reality as accurately as possible.

What about things that other people believe?

Once we have increased the confidence in our own beliefs (and rejected the ones we no longer have good reasons to believe) how do we help others to reassess the confidence in their beliefs? More simply, how do we convince others that they are wrong?

One of the most powerful tools for influencing belief is the Socratic method. The following is a excellent description of how it works taken from Wikipedia: “The Socratic method is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape beliefs and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic.” I asked you a series of questions at the very beginning of my talk that were very much designed to influence your thinking according to the Socratic method. And actually, the title I picked today is probably the most impactful question you can ask yourself and others. “How do you know your beliefs are true?” When it comes to using the Socratic method to address Christianity, there is actually a very active community of people who practice something called Street Epistemology. It’s something I only discovered recently, but I can tell you that if I had been approached by someone using Street Epistemology back while I was having serious doubts I likely would have abandoned my faith much sooner.

As I came through this process of inspecting my own beliefs, I realized that I actually felt more secure, confident, and honest. I felt the cognitive dissonance slip away. Even when there are things that I’m still not sure what to believe it feels natural to admit that “I don’t know” until I have gathered enough justification to believe one way or the other. Eventually I found that there was a group that call themselves Humanists that most closely aligned with my new worldviews. The very first bullet point on their list of affirmations reads as follows: “We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.” Thankfully I found the Tri-State Humanists right here in Burlington and it has been a wonderful community to be a part of. I’d be more than happy to speak to any of you about it after we finish here today.

But there’s one last thing I’d like to talk about and that is how I have chosen to embody the goals of Humanism while using the Socratic method to get others to more closely examine their beliefs. Specifically Christian beliefs. I started a website called BibleInspectors.com that is devoted to cataloguing answers to various Biblical questions.

So, why target Christianity?

Well, it mostly comes down to it being one of the most profound beliefs that I have rejected during my lifetime. So much of my headspace was occupied with my religious beliefs for such a long part of my life that it is somewhat of an obsession now that I find myself on the other side of the fence. Why are these beliefs so prolific? How do they spread? How are these claims accepted with so little skepticism? I realized that part of the answer is that Christianity is so monolithic, especially in the United States, that rarely is anyone presented with someone who disagrees with them. Christian beliefs are inherently insular. They explicitly discourage questioning and they enshire the concept of faith which is essentially just accepting things without evidence. The idea for the Bible Inspectors website came about when I realized that this insulated state of belief extended even onto the internet. When someone does a Google search for some question they have about a problematic Bible passage, they are met with page after page of results that speak only from the perspective of believers. Which, if you recall from earlier, is just another form of confirmation bias. If you go searching for Bible questions, you will likely only find Christian answers. Even if you do find a Catholic site that gives one answer and a Protestant site that gives another, it’s incredibly difficult to compare them and make an informed decision as to what you should believe or not believe. And it’s nearly impossible to find secular answers to Biblical questions. I wanted to solve that problem. So far I think I’ve been fairly successful.

The primary content on the site is the database of collected Bible answers from different faiths and traditions. Each post consists of three main components. The central Bible verses in question, an editorialized section of Socratic method inquiries about the verses, and summarized answers from many different theologians and secular authorities. The idea is to compare and contrast these answers so that they no longer exist in a vacuum. I also have a database of religious debate videos that are tagged according to topic and participants. And finally there is a blog where I can post my own original articles focused on skepticism of Biblical claims.

If any of you have ever read the Bible it should be no surprise that there are some passages that most Christians would rather not acknowledge and rarely learn about in church. These passages are where I focus most of my efforts. This turns out to be great for search results because there are some people who really do want answers to this difficult questions, but few other sites are willing to address them. I currently have at least 5 posts that appear in the top 6 search results on Google when searching for a similar question.

Popular Bible Inspector Posts

  1. Why did Moses kill the Egyptian?

  2. Why did God turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt?

  3. Why did Jesus need to spit on a man’s eyes to heal his blindness?

  4. Why did God kill of of Egypt’s firstborn?

  5. Why did God make all the women of Abimelech’s kingdom barren?

If you’d like to look at any of these posts today we can do that if we have time, but I encourage you to go and check out the site for yourself. I’ve really learned so much already about some more obscure Bible verses and what the faiths of the world have to say about them.

It’s very important to me that these question posts are as impartial as possible. The point of the Socratic method is to expose fallacious reasoning through pointed questions. It is not nearly as effective to just tell someone they’re wrong. That immediately initiates a defensive response. They must realize it for themselves. I make no personal judgements about Bible verses. I don’t ridicule or taunt. I only ask clarifying questions and point out that not even Christians agree on the answers. I want to surface all the theological muddiness and let people draw their own conclusions. And most importantly, I have never considered myself above the material. There are times where I go in expecting there to be a contradiction that vindicates my worldview, but when I dive into the research there can often be a legitimate theological explanation. I have yet to encounter anything that would swing me back to the realm of religious belief, but being open to change my beliefs based on the evidence is something I must practice just as I preach.