A fascinating new article appears in The New Yorker this week entitled "I Don't Want to Be Right." 1 In it, author Maria Konnikova highlights the research being done by a number of psychologists and sociologists showing that people's beliefs help shape the core conception of themselves, and thus if one tries to correct the false beliefs of someone, it may not only fail, but have the adverse effect of corrupting the source in their eyes.
As an example, Konnikova cites one 2013 study conducted by Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks who sought to correct misinformation about access to health records. At first, they thought that the facts were making a difference, as some people changed their beliefs. "But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn't work—it made the subject more distrustful of the source."2
Before some of my atheist readers jump too fast, the article was very clear that it mattered not which side of any contention one was on. This applies as much to liberal views as conservative one and it applies to secular and scientific views as much as religious ones. As Stephan Lewandowsky states in the article, "False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one's stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? All ideologies are similarly affected"(emphasis added).3
Facts are Threatening ThingsI had a similar experience a couple of years ago when I was working an online chat, answering web viewers' questions for the Harvest Crusades. A man came on the line and said that he really wanted to believe in Jesus in his heart but he felt that he couldn't because of his head. After a bit of conversation, it came out that he was a professor of philosophy, and he had difficulty with the problem of evil. Of course, I immediately went into apologetics mode and began telling how arguments such as Hume's have been shown to be incorrect.
This was all well and fine, but I noticed something strange. The more we talked about philosophy, the more resistant and hardened he became. Gone was the open, vulnerability in admitting that he would like to believe in Jesus. I realized that subconsciously that talking philosophy with this philosopher wasn't helping. Instead of weighing the arguments, he fell back onto his rhetoric. He had spent maybe 20 years studying and building a career in philosophy and for him to admit that he was wrong on such a fundamental point was more than we was willing to sacrifice, at least to someone over an Internet chat. He wasn't defending an abstract idea; his philosophy was how he viewed himself.
We must be open to the SpiritAfter seeing his resistance, the Spirit took me in another direction. I retreated from my arguments and readdressed his felt need. I acknowledged his position but then asked him to reaffirm his felt need to believe. "You believe that these problems are real and I can see that. However, you asked to speak with me because you said you really want to believe. Can you tell me more about that?" That jump allowed him to again express his feelings and his vulnerability, and while he wasn't ready to convert just then, it gave us a much more honest conversation.
In Luke 18, Jesus was asked by the rich young ruler "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus pointed him to the commandments laid out in scripture, laws he already knew and kept. At that point Jesus switched from the facts of the matter to the heart of the matter. "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Luk e18:22). But the man's self-identity was wrapped up in his possessions as much as the philosopher's was wrapped up in his education. That's what these studies are saying. Of course, the disciples were stymied by the man's resistance, asking "Then who can be saved?" Jesus reply places the emphasis back where it belongs: "What is impossible with man is possible with God."
As those who would defend the Christian faith, we must be sensitive to both the leading of God's Spirit and the reactions we get when talking with others. Because logic and evidence play such a big part of apologetics, the apologist naturally goes there, but logic and evidence are not enough. You must care for and be sensitive to the person with whom you're speaking. Remember, it is the people who matter. Arguments are only one tool to aid them in seeing the truth.