Saturday, September 29, 2007

Inescapable Bias?

I have observed in myself a bias towards those with whom I share a commonality. In particular I am thinking of political and religious contexts. For example, when I hear of a politician accused of being unethical, I have noticed my reaction varying depending on whether he shares my political views or not. If he shares my views, I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, whereas if he has views I strongly dislike then I find myself more sceptical of him. Now I know this reaction is not rational, as the politician's ethical conduct is not going to be better or worse if he shares by views, so I find my reaction curious. It is a trusting of, and a partiality towards, the in-group contrasted with a suspicion towards the out-group.

Now I believe this kind of reaction is very common currently and historically. It is a good excesize to search for it in your own reactions to different people. Can you find yourself putting greater trust in someone simply because he/she has a commonality with you such as the same race, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, home-town, religion, political-orientation, or some such thing? These in-group preferences are not rational in the sense of truth-serving, and in some cases have lead to all kinds of nasty behaviors such as to slavery when applied racially or ethnically. So I see this bias towards the in-group as an evil that we have to struggle against.

Addressing religion, I believe there is a more insiduous working of this bias that I have observed in myself and others. In various churches that I have been a member, I found myself putting great trust in the leadership and doctrines of the church. I would put significant weight on the particular leader's interpretation of the bible, or his views on divisive issues like homosexuality or the role of women. But why did I put so much weight on the views of my church as opposed to the multitude of other views of other churches many of which are even better considered? Somehow I absorbed the idea that my church was special and had a special corner on the truth. This applies not only between churches, but between religions. I put far greater trust in the teachings of my religion and its holy book, than any of the other religions and their books. But why, if a priori there is no reason that one religion or revelation should have greater insights or be more likely to be true than others? Well, that was the role of the evangelist; to sell Christianity as having a corner on the truth that no other religion has. Indeed the salesmanship worked on me and I believed for a long time that Christianity and the Bible had a hold on the truth. And this was self-reinforcing as I would naturally trust the claims of Christianity and the Biblical writers as I considered them part of the in-group. In fact it took many years of struggle to escape from this in-group allegiance I had. Now that I can look back from the outside, I see that I was sadly deceived in part by this tendency to trust the in-group. Indeed, I see many deceived in the same way I was and I don't know how or if they will escape. But at least from my experience I know there is hope and a way out for those who seek.

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