A Church Sign and Confirmational Bias

5 May, 2009

I spotted a church sign not too far from the street corner upon which (((Wife))) works:

Consider All Decisions. 
Consult With God.
God will whisper,
“This is the Path.  Walk in it.”

 And my first thought upon reading it?  Confirmation bias.

Now, keep in mind that I am an atheist.  I see nothing in nature, nothing in the universe, which cannot be explained through natural processes.  I see no need to interject god(s).  Which means, of course, that when I consider a decision, I tend to find natural or logical reasons for, or evidence to support, doing what I want to do in the first place.  Rarely, I consider a decision, look at the evidence, and then change my mind.  I suspect that I am a rather normal human being in doing this.

Now take a second look at the quote from the church sign.  Does this mean that a theist (not necessarily a Christian, but any theist who believes in a personally interested god(s)) thinks about a decision, does he or she find that god(s) reinforces whatever it is they really wanted to do in the first place?  Except that, the decision having been confirmed by god(s), it now becomes personal holy writ?  Unalterable by mere humans? Does the person have absolute faith that god(s) have guided their decision making process? 

All human beings have confirmation bias.  Accepting and working around that bias is one of the most difficult things that any adult does.  It involves critical thinking skills (which, unfortunately, grade and high schools don’t do very well).  It involves a willingness to confront and challenge one’s own belief system (which, unfortunately, religion does not do very well).  If god(s), in a person’s mind, is telling them, “Yes, this is the right decision.  God approves of your decision,” is any critical thinking, any confrontation of internal bias necessary?  Or does the illusion of god(s) approval trump common sense, evidence, and critical thinking?  Does god(s) become the ultimate authority figure to be obeyed in any decision?

This would make sense.  After all, if a man is a homosexual hater, chances are pretty good his god(s) will be too.  If a man believes that children should be beaten, his god(s) will also approve.  If a man is a bigot, so is his god(s).  Confirmation bias.  Except that now, all of his prejudices are confirmed by his version of god(s).  Which means they cannot change.

Of course, if the question one is pondering is, “What is a good natural fertilizer?” and god(s) answer is “Shit,” does that mean that the last part, “Walk in it,” should still be followed?


  1. I am a Christ-follower, and if it’s any consolation, many of us wish that local churches would do away with signs with changeable messages.

    A believer who is truly submitting his choice to God would have to accept the possibility that God might indicate some other, completely different path on which the individual should travel.

    As the sign appears, I’d have to agree with everything you wrote. The sign wasn’t theologically right or wrong, it was just theological nonsense.

  2. Paul: Thanks for stopping by. Whether a person is a believer in a higher being or not, making a decision based on evidence, as opposed to the already existing internal bias, is very difficult. And I do agree that the sign is nonsense, theological or not. It would tend to reinforce whatever decision had already been made.

  3. A believer who is truly submitting his choice to God would have to accept the possibility that God might indicate some other, completely different path on which the individual should travel.

    To me, that’s what’s more ridiculous about the sign then what you’re saying, the whole idea that “a path” which comes to mind would necessarily come to mind because a god popped it in your head.

    The ramifications of that can be most troubling. One could consult with their god about a course of action and believe they’ve been pointed to a different path by their god (by way of a feeling, sign, etc). That different path could be detrimental, and while on that path, one might never get off of it, despite the apparent evidence that it was a bad choice, because they believe it was their god’s will.

    Regardless of your stance on the existence of a god or what role it might play in people’s lives, you have to admit such a scenario is possible, and that is what’s dangerous about faith.

  4. As a pagan I have found that although several differant paths may present themselves to you, it is ultimately only your choise which path you choose for only you will see the cosequence of that choise. Which is why a large part of my personal philosophy comes from a well known Robert Frost poem…”I chose the path less travelled, and it has made all the difference”. The guidance of any deity is after all determined by their own failings throughout time.

  5. I don’t know from confirmation bias, but I do know for a fact that Gawd gives the Holy OK to every decision I make, right or wrong.

  6. PhillyChief,

    I agree with you totally, though most other Christians I know would hesitate to admit this. (Of course they wouldn’t leave comments on a blog like this, either!!)

    The point is that Christians are often rushing off to seminars and conferences on “Knowing the Will of God;” but not every prayer for guidance receives a clear answer.

    As a believer, I often have to ask myself, “Is this God telling me something or is it something I ate last night?” Often it’s the pizza from the night before talking.

    Where we might disagree is that I believe it’s possible to know the general will of God. When it comes to the specific will of God for an individual, I’m willing to accept that “confirmation bias” is the best terminology I’ve seen to describe where the process can come off the rails.

  7. Philly: Exactly. Once a path has the imagined imprimatur of god(s), no matter how destructive, the path must be followed.

    Tau: First, Pagan? So if I mock paganism, would you get Thor at me? Second: I agree about the path less travelled; however, sometimes, there is a reason the path is less travelled.

    Postie: So you make the decision and then accept Gawd’s approval? Sounds, um, sneaky?


    As a believer, I often have to ask myself, “Is this God telling me something or is it something I ate last night?” Often it’s the pizza from the night before talking.

    Once again, a commenter comes up with the perfect, slightly off, way of explaining my point. Damn.

    The will of god(s) tends to be rather difficult. How does one know if it is the will of a supreme being, or one’s personal bias? Based on my worldview, it would be the theist’s personal bias with belief providing the confirmation.

  8. (((Billy)))…would not get Thor or even a little Zeussed. I make fun of many of the oddities in what I call serendpity rather than faith, myself. Being of the Druidic persuasion I find the search for wisdom and understanding far mor important than blind faith.

  9. (((Billy))),

    It’s worked for deists for thousands and thousands of years. You ask Pele et al for guidance; you make decision; you declare that decision is backed by your particular god. Voila! Repeat as needed.
    It sounds just like the eponymous sign to me.

  10. Postie: Why would I ask an aging Brazilian soccer star to help me make a decision? You confuse me as much as my kids.

  11. (((Billy))),
    Are you saying Pele is not a god?! Well, personally, I couldn’t care less about soccer, but if I were you, I’d look out for His brand-loyalists throwing things at me in the street.

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