The Psychology of Apologetics: Biblical Inerrancy
In this article, I want to examine one of the more recognizable yet curious features of fundamentalist belief: the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Fundamentalist Christian apologists claim that the Bible is perfect and without error – certainly a striking thing to claim of any book. And this “wow factor” is exactly what gets apologists their mileage with this maneuver. If one were to become convinced that the Christian Bible really is utterly flawless in everything it says, that would certainly be a powerful argument for the truth of a religion based on it.
Now, let me remind the reader that in this series I am assuming a naturalistic stance. I am assuming without argument here that the Bible is not actually inerrant. Instead, what I wish to look at here is two things: one, how to apologists do it? How can they possibly argue that the Bible – which on an honest first reading appears to be resplendent in contradictions and errors – actually only has “apparent contradictions”, not “real” ones? Secondly, why do they do so? What is the pull of this idea, and why is it so hard to let go of for those de-converting?
The Case of the Missing Car
Let’s start with a simple thought experiment, seemingly far afield perhaps, but something that touches directly on how we form beliefs about the world. Suppose one morning you wake up, get dressed, and go outside to get in your car to drive to work, like any other morning. When you get outside, however, you discover that your car is missing. It is not where you think you left it. Here is my question: what explanations might we entertain to account for this finding?
Well, the first, most obvious possibility that springs to mind is that it was stolen. And that could certainly be, but consider a few others: you misremember where you parked it. Or, maybe your spouse moved it and forgot to tell you. Or perhaps you next door neighbor had a life-and-death emergency and needed a car, so he just took it, planning to tell you later. Or, perhaps it was towed for some reason.
Or, perhaps a passing alien spacecraft abducted it for sinister purposes all their own.
Hear me out! I am not by any means saying each of these explanations is equally good. But I am saying it can be very helpful to articulate why. Why exactly is it better to say the car might have been stolen than that it might have been abducted by aliens?
Now, one might be tempted to employ the skeptic’s trump card here: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And although I do agree with this principle, I also note it rather begs the question at hand: why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? What makes this theory “extraordinary?” Moreover, in this example, I deliberately did not provide any evidence at all as to what really happened. Yet most people reading this would conclude – correctly, I think – that “stolen” is a possibility worth more serious consideration than “alien abduction”, despite there being no evidence either way.
My point is that rational belief formation is not simply a matter of what does, versus what does not, have evidential support. Neither is it simply a matter of logic: there is nothing strictly illogical about the UFO hypothesis. In the example above, all the explanations given (including “UFO abduction”) entirely explain the available evidence, and do so logically. But the “updating” of our belief system in the light of new information or evidence does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs, rather, in the context of a very large and complex array of “background beliefs” – not all of which are created equal.
The Web of Belief
W.V.O Quine, a 20th century American philosopher, was the first to articulate this view. Quine’s famous metaphor for this model of scientific reasoning and belief formation was “the web of belief.” Our belief systems consist of a vast set of interlocking statements that impinge on reality (that is, contact with new evidence and experiences) at the edges. There are any number of ways to distribute the “force” of new information and experiences throughout the web.
When a new experience (i.e., evidence) presents itself, we must update or alter our existing belief systems to accommodate it. But which beliefs actually get altered is never forced by the evidence itself. Any evidence can be accommodated, logically, in more than one way – infinitely many, in fact. Quine called this the “underdetermination of theory by data.” As the metaphor suggests, though, there are some beliefs that are more central to the web than others. For most of us, the belief that the laws of nature are constant across time and space is much more basic to our webs of belief than other claims. So, we never explain something by saying, for example, that today is Friday, and the laws of nature are different on Friday, and that’s why my experiment did not produce the expected result (as opposed to saying my prediction was just wrong). In our example above, you would probably be more willing, in this situation, to alter your pre-existent belief that you live in a low-crime neighborhood, than your belief that there are no car-abducting flying saucers.
But you wouldn’t have to, and this is the striking consequence of the “web of belief” model: any given theory can always be coherently maintained, whatever the evidence, if you are willing to make enough modifications elsewhere in your belief system. For example, if I wished to believe in the UFO abduction hypothesis no matter what, I could “explain” any contradictory evidence on other things – a cover-up, perhaps. I can also point to all the many sightings and photos of UFOs, and other (claimed) abductions – and dismiss skeptical efforts as the sinister machinations of malevolent aliens who really want my car. Now, this is not a very elegant theory. But it is not a contradictory one – and, importantly, it is one which any and all evidence (no matter what it is) can be accounted for.
So how do we choose one theory over another if the evidence can be construed to fit logically with any of them? I have already hinted at one way: an inherent conservatism in our belief systems. We usually wish to change the fewest beliefs, and the “smallest” beliefs, as strictly necessary in our pre-existent web to accommodate new evidence.
Quine also identified other “virtues” (his word) such as simplicity, explanatory reach, parsimony, etc. that can be used to guide belief formation. He called these “pragmatic” virtues. What it boils down to, in essence, is that the best way to run a web of belief is the way that makes the most practical, common-sense sense of the data we have. Ultimately, it’s really a matter of good judgment.
Tangled Apologetic Webs
What does this have to do with apologetics? This model of belief-formation bears directly on how we resolve potential contradictions between evidence and belief, and between one set of evidence and another. If we are willing to sacrifice some simplicity, parsimony, and the like, we can always maintain a consistent web of belief while simultaneously holding on to any particular belief we wish. Creationists do this all the time. So do conspiracy theorists, end-times theorists, and radical ideologues of every stripe. These folks all have a strong commitment to a handful of central claims, and they are able to retro-fit the rest of the data in around them. They say they can answer every objection – and they can.
So, when Biblical harmonizers say there are no contradictions in the Bible, in a way they’re right. There is nothing that can’t be “explained”, if you’re willing to accept some rather tortuous explanations. The differing times of Jesus’ death reported in Mark versus John are “really” the same, if you accept that one used “Roman time” and one used a different time frame. The differing stories of the Resurrection narrative are explained by voluntary omissions among different writers reflecting differing emphases. The different lineages of Jesus are explained as one coming through Mary, the other Joseph. Isaiah 53 becomes “really” about Jesus if you accept that all the parts that don’t seem to fit are to be understood as metaphor.
Given the complexities involved in the translation and study of any ancient text, there is always room to maneuver in your harmonizing efforts. One can always delve into the language, the sociology, the context, the historical details, etc., to create a coherent (though unsimple) rationale as to why, when “properly understood”, any two disparate passages “really” mean the same thing. Indeed, debates about inerrancy often turn on these very types of issues, as each debater challenges the other’s premises, and premises of premises, and the whole debate mushrooms into an ugly fractal of syllogistic minutia.
And that’s the point. Simplicity is the first casualty in this sort of endeavor, but for the fundamentalist, needful as he is of sure guidance from his god, this is an acceptable loss. A coherent belief system in which he can maintain his belief in inerrancy is his primary objective; all else is secondary. And so that’s what he creates.
God’s Perfect Word
Many years ago I was in the process of gradually shedding my faith. But I feared being wrong (as many de-cons do) and wanted a way to be “sure” I was on the right path. I searched high and low for some problem in the Bible – a contradiction, error, inaccuracy, something that was just too glaring. Something that just couldn’t be explained away by any apologist no matter how clever. I never found one.
What I have since realized is that, basically, I had been asking the wrong question. There are no irreconcilable discrepancies in the Bible… but that is only because inerrancy, for fundamentalists, is not a conclusion arrived at, it is a premise they start with. It is a central strand in their web of belief. In the face of seeming contradictions, it will be given up last of all – or never.
If you think about it, to even begin the task of harmonization is to assume inerrancy in the first place! After all, given two ordinary texts that contradict one another about some point, no one would sit down and try to show how they are somehow necessarily both correct. We would naturally assume one or the other, or perhaps both, to be simply wrong. Yet this is exactly what inerrancy apologists do not do. They try to find a way for both texts to be correct, and by so doing betray a pre-existing assumption that, in fact, they both are.
The real question, then, is whether these harmonization offered, individually and en masse, are the simplest and most parsimonious explanations for the existence of apparent Biblical discrepancies. Is it simpler to assume inerrancy and then have to write enormous justifications explaining away the hundreds to thousands of Biblical inaccuracies and contradictions? Or is it simpler to conclude that there appear to be contradictions and inaccuracies because there are contradictions and inaccuracies, and that that is exactly what one would expect from a patchwork of human religious texts written twenty centuries ago?
Again, it is not just whether one’s web of belief is coherent and answers all the questions. That part is easy; every crackpot conspiracy theorist in the world can do that. It is whether it does so in a simple, elegant, practical, and convincing way.
The Why Question
But what is the appeal of this idea, and why is it so difficult for many of us to give up? I suggest that Biblical inerrancy is so appealing because it meets a desperate psychological need, for believers. It provides a sure ground for certainty.
Certainty is a defining need of the fundamentalist mindset. Fundamentalists are overwhelmed at the prospect of not being sure, or at least not being sure about the things that matter – one’s role and purpose in life, the basis for ethical behavior, what happens after death, how to make good decisions for your life. Now, these sorts of things often arouse anxiety for many people, not just fundamentalists. But because of their religious indoctrination, adherents to fundamentalist religion have a hard time managing that anxiety any other way.
Remember, as I have been elucidating in this series, the value and competence of one’s self is thoroughly undermined, in fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christianity powerfully hammers home the idea that we are “horrors” to God: corrupt, prideful, and incapable of improving ourselves. The goal of fundamentalist apologetics is to overwhelm you with a gut-level conviction of your own badness, and thereby induce a sense of profound helplessness. It’s every effort is directed against undermining a believer’s sense of self-esteem, competence, or efficacy.
Such a believer can hardly be blamed for feeling inadequate to run his own life! Making important decisions when you cannot be sure of the “rightness” of your decision arouses normal anxiety in everyone. And to tolerate this anxiety and make a decision anyway requires some measure of basic self-esteem and self-confidence. But fundamentalists often have neither, because it has been ground out of them. So they have to get their confidence from somewhere else.
An inerrant text comes in right handy for such purposes. A better anxiety emollient than a perfect Word from a perfect God can hardly be imagined. In errant text quells a believer’s anxiety about life. He does not feel in control of his life, worm that he is – but he doesn’t have to be, because he can hand the reigns to God, certain of the guidance he finds in his book. Inerrancy serves a desperately needed function of establishing confidence in the only guiding star a believer thinks exists. Without it, he is adrift with nothing at all to lead him across some very scary and very lonely waters. The idea of steering using his own judgment just doesn’t occur to him.
So, my proposal for understanding the claim of Biblical inerrancy is this: fundamentalist believers posit inerrancy just because they need inerrancy. They can then just fuss with the details until it all fits. The result is not very elegant, perhaps. But who cares about elegance when your very soul is at stake?
And for those de-converting, the question thus would seem to become: if it is true that there is not, and never will be, perfect and unfailing guidance for making important decisions about your life, how are you going to learn to trust yourself enough to make them on your own?