Beliefs vs. Behavior: Evangelicals’ Redefinition of Occam’s Razor

Beliefs vs. Behavior: Evangelicals’ Redefinition of Occam’s Razor January 19, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I mentioned briefly that White evangelicals’ own stated beliefs regarding racism contrast mightily with their actual often-very-racist behavior. Indeed, a lot of the awful stuff these Christians do should be impossible for people holding their stated beliefs. This whole topic came to me a bit ago, when we talked about an Evangelical’s post about election-fraud conspiracy theories. In it, Daniel Bennett invoked a concept very familiar to non-Christians: Occam’s Razor. Today, let me show you how someone who thinks of himself as rational and truth-seeking can demonstrate through his behavior that he’s nothing of the kind — through his misunderstanding of Occam’s Razor.

occam's razor on the election conspiracy theory
(mana5280.) Bye Don!

(In today’s post, I mention simplicity numerous times. I do realize that simplicity does come into play when the elements of a claim are all factually true. Once we get there, we can start testing elements — and we can slice out the irrelevant bits to achieve the most economical expression of the explanation. But in today’s discussion, we have not yet reached that point. Here, we examine only explanations still suffering from unsupported elements. The ways Christians misuse “simplicity” is, itself, probably a whole other post. For now, I’ll just say there is a LOT there that they misunderstand.)

Everyone, Meet Occam’s Razor. It’s Being Misused Again.

Occam’s Razor describes a very old critical-thinking tool.

Back in the 14th century, William of Ockham, a Franciscan friar from England, developed the idea that “more things should not be used than are necessary.” It’s a beautiful idea, really. Basically, when we create an explanation for something, Occam’s Razor tells us to go for the one that makes the fewest unsupported assumptions. I really liked this way of putting it from Quora:

The use of the word “simplicity” here may be misleading; by “simplicity” we don’t mean illogical or absurd simplicity, such as saying, “It was just magic,” but rather a logical hypothesis which makes the fewest assumptions, or posits the fewest number of necessary explanatory entities (e.g., things, beings, causal mechanisms) or sub-hypotheses.

So:

  • fewest assumptions OR
  • fewest number of necessary elements

Used correctly, then, Occam’s Razor can help people sift through claims. It’s not an automatic disqualifier to a claim, but it does guide us very well.

Maybe that last bit explains why those who can’t think critically rarely seem to understand exactly what Occam’s Razor is — or how it’s meant to be used. A lot of people make a lot of critical mistakes with it.

Today, we’re hanging out at the first part of that bulleted list, “fewest assumptions.” It’s how Daniel Bennett demonstrates to us that he happens to be one of the many Christians who misuse Occam’s Razor.

When Daniel Bennett talks in his essay about the serious importance of “rejecting nonsense and embracing truth, however dispiriting,” it’s crystal clear that he considers himself to be exactly the sort of Christian gentleman who does both. His students are very lucky he came along!

A Post-Truth World.

There’s not an easy way to teach evangelical flocks to develop real critical thinking skills. They have even more trouble using those skills consistently and correctly. Who’s surprised? Everything about their indoctrination process seeks to destroy those skills and discourage such thinking. Indeed, we have very good reasons to blame evangelicals for turning America itself into a post-truth culture.

Early on in his January 6, 2021 post for Christianity Today, Daniel Bennett writes:

Speaking as a political scientist and as a Christian who did not vote for Joe Biden in November, I think it is important to say that these allegations are baseless nonsense. They are grounded in selectively presented half-truths, ambiguous and out-of-context videos, and outright falsehoods. They fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.

… Yes, but so does every single apologetics argument ever devised. No wonder evangelicals have trouble with critical thinking.

Daniel Bennett teaches college classes at the private, evangelical-leaning John Brown University. From his post, it sounds like most of his students are very fervent young evangelicals. In trying to convince them to abandon election-fraud conspiracy theories, he despairs at the difficulties he faces there.

I don’t think he realizes just how carefully Trumpist ideas piggyback off of evangelicals’ indoctrination points — and hijack evangelical leaders’ own tactics.

And that’s what’s going on here.

A Common Misunderstanding of Occam’s Razor.

Right after complaining about election-fraud conspiracy theories, Daniel Bennett relates his attempt to bring his young charges around to using critical thinking skills, at least selectively. He writes (bracketed numbers mine):

In the days following November’s election, I asked my students what was more likely: that [1] a consistently [2] unpopular president overseeing [3] a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis and [4] sputtering economy, who [5] narrowly won his previous election against [6] a deeply polarizing opponent, narrowly [7] lost his current election to [8] a less polarizing and [9] more popular opponent? Or that this same president was [A] the victim of unprecedented fraud and corruption, even though [10] his own party actually overperformed in many down-ballot races?

Occam’s razor isn’t a perfect tool, but here it proves especially useful. The simpler explanation really is better.

It doesn’t get much funnier than this, or as saddening.

It is not “the simpler explanation” that Occam’s Razor nudges us to accept.

No, it asks us instead to create and prefer explanations that involve the fewest unsupported elements possible.

And evangelical Christians make this mistake alllllllll the goddamned tiiiiiiiiiime. 

A Common Misunderstanding of Occam’s Razor.

In Daniel Bennett’s case, his argument runs like this:

One explanation involves a number of well-supported elements — 10, in fact, that he names in his post — that come together to cause a Donald Trump election loss in November 2020. The other explanation he presents involves ONE completely wackadoodle element (which I labeled [A]) that has never even come within arm’s reach of being credibly supported. 

I’ve heard these conspiracy theories more than a few times by now. Sometimes, its believers weave together other elements before serving forth their porkie pie. Alas for them, these are all, as mentioned, unsupported elements. Sure, their story’s elements are much simpler than the accurate, verified, well-supported elements of Donald Trump’s stunning loss. But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

So if we were just looking at the simpler explanation for that loss, it doesn’t get much simpler than magical thinking.

it's like magic
Maaaaaagic Election Fraud.

When we look to construct an explanation for an event, we want to weave together the fewest number of unsupported elements. So nobody reputable is using election fraud as an explanation for Trump’s loss. It can’t be supported. So it doesn’t make its way into explanations. Even if someone tries to use election fraud as an element of their explanation, we don’t accept it until that person comes up with support for that element.

(An evangelical college professor made a mistake of this nature, just as a reminder. If I hadn’t audited a Biola lecture, I might be quite confused here!)

Another reminder: It’s not that Daniel Bennett is wrong about Donald Trump’s loss being completely true and real. He’s just using a bad argument for it. Someone can be right for the wrong reasons. And Daniel Bennett is here.

Camera: zoom out, because we’re about to go into the big musical number.

Holding Occam’s Razor at Arm’s Length.

As I mentioned above, the simplest explanation of all is magic.

That’s what magical thinking is in the first place: thoughts and actions that someone thinks will affect the future, when in reality those thoughts and actions have no relationship whatsoever with that hoped-for future. Prayers are the usual example of the trope, in fact. Religion offers a number of magical-thinking non-solutions for people’s problems.

When we look at Elizabeth Olsen doing her wacky hand gestures in those videos from a few years ago without the special effects, it looks obviously silly. 

We know hand gestures don’t affect reality like that. Flipping the bird at someone may affect one’s interpersonal relations on an emotional level, sure. But no remote gesture will alter the laws of physics for falling objects or forcibly restrain people.

And yet the simplest explanation for the Scarlet Witch’s powers is that her hand gestures remains:

They really are exactly what they seem to be. She’s a real live “witch.” Her hand gestures really do stop men from drawing guns and blast enemies from afar and create shields to protect herself from physical attacks.

I mean, that’s the simplest explanation.

It’s just wrong.

This strange confusion of simple with correct, all to make the case that magic represents a perfectly valid and simple explanation for anything? Yep, that’s more Christian than their habit of stealing corporate slogans for their cringeworthy T-shirts.

Occam’s Razor, Misused in the Wild.

Obviously, examples abound of the simplest explanation as evangelical Christians use it — or rather, misuse it.

The simplest answer is not always the correct one, one Christian site sternly tells us. Then, they deploy their redefined Razor. They do so for a reason: to dodge burden of proof:

[I]s it simpler to say that “X” happened rather than the resurrection? Well, “X” must first be stated and then evaluated on its own peculiar merits. It may or may not be simpler, but again the simpler answer is not inherently the correct one.

Elsewhere, this same site (called “Prove the Bible,” hilariously enough) sniffs down its nose at “the Occam’s Razor of non-Christian thought.” Uh oh! They write:

Resurrection and the integrity of Scripture are dismissed almost without consideration by means of this simple argument:

A. Literal, physical resurrection cannot happen, therefore,…
B. Literal, physical resurrection did not happen.

This is probably the Occam’s razor of non-Christian thought. The reasoning is simple, powerful, and superficially appears to be the most likely conclusion concerning the resurrection account.

“Superficially appears to be?” Sure, Jan.

(Bad attempt to minimize the biggest dealbreaker there is to the claim, btw. 1/10. See me after class.)

But…

Simple and powerful? Yes, absolutely.

The most likely conclusion? Yes, absolutely.

And those features make the real Occam’s Razor very challenging for Christians. In response, they do everything they can to destroy it and misuse it. In their hands, Occam’s Razor becomes PROOF YES PROOF of their utterly-unsupported claims.

The mistakes I’ve described here, the ones that these Christians made with Occam’s Razor, are incredibly common, especially in Christian groups that mistakenly think the Bible describes literal real true honest-to-goodness history.

Using Occam’s Razor Correctly.

Here are the problems with this very-common reasoning, to go back to that Christian site about PROVING YES PROVING the Bible:

We should construct explanations using the fewest number of unsupported elements, not the simplest answer we can manage. The resurrection myth contains no supported elements beyond surface similarities with Roman-era justice. It contains, on the other hand, many disputed elements. So in explaining the death of the supposed founder of Christianity, we wouldn’t use any of those elements. We’d end up with “Christians really don’t know what happened to Jesus, but they think this happened.”

Second, evading their burden of proof won’t get Christians anywhere. Their claims aren’t an arena fight to the death with their ideological enemies and competitors in the religious marketplace. We’re not comparing their claims to anything else at all. We’re asking them to pony up support for their own claims so we can evaluate them. They just can’t, is all. That’s why they’re dissing the real use of Occam’s Razor in that second link (relink).

Ironically, they actually used the concept correctly there, but then they tried to make it seem like that usage is the wrong one.

And yes, Occam’s Razor used correctly does, indeed, knock their claims out of the water. The myth of the resurrection contains elements we know Christians can’t support. So we dismiss that claim out of hand until they can. That’s exactly what everyone should do. Indeed, it’s what growing numbers of people do do.

Want another? 

want another?
Yes?

Cuz these exact misuses are ALL OVER evangelical Christian sites.

This is like finding Republican traitors in churches.

In the Wild #2.

A website called “Rivers of Life” in the United Kingdom (UK) offers up their own redefined Occam’s Razor. Interestingly, they also define it correctly at first and then proceed to egregiously misuse it. As Timperator used to say, Ere we go ere we go:

In its simplest form, Occam’s Razor states that one should make no more assumptions than needed. Put into everyday language, it says:

The simplest explanation is the best. When multiple explanations are available for a phenomenon, the simplest version is preferred. For example, a charred tree on the ground could be caused by a landing alien ship or a lightning strike. According to Occam’s Razor, the lightning strike is the preferred explanation as it requires the fewest assumptions. [. . .]

Occam’s razor – a widely accepted principle – would actually seem to support the historical resurrection of Christ. That Jesus actually did rise from the dead and appear to His disciples is a very simple and complete explanation for the complex series of events that followed including the empty tomb and the series of appearances. It also explains [various myths involving early Christianity’s growth]. Any alternative explanation of this series of events will, of necessity, involve a large number of different happenings and coincidences. It is just far simpler to believe that Christ really did rise from the dead.

That is almost hilariously wrong.

It’s also quite common, as mentioned. They make the same mistakes as “Prove the Bible,” and as every other link I’ve offered on the topic so far.

“Simplicity.”

Again, the simplest explanation is not the same at all as avoiding unsupported assumptions in constructing one’s explanations. Unfortunately, the latter is exactly what these Christians did. Jesus’ resurrection myth makes a whole bunch of unsupported assumptions:

  • Jesus existed in the first place as a real human.
  • He died as a real human due to Roman justice and Jewish perfidy.
  • Humans can and do resurrect from the stinky end of fully dead. Happens all the time!
  • And that’s totally what happened to Jesus.

See? Totally simple explanation: he just did, y’all, through magic. What’s simpler than magic?

Not one bit of that is actually supported, however, through objective evidence.

Occam’s Razor offers a more concise explanation that involves no unsupported elements:

  • Religious people often claim that their myths really happened.
  • No evidence ever discovered has ever credibly supported any of those myths.
  • Believers may think that their myths are true, but they really don’t know that this is the case. Every time we manage to test one of their claims at all, the claim dissolves like mist.
  • Thus, the resurrection story operates just like any other religious myth, because that’s exactly what it is.

But I guess TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would say that’s the wrong Razor at work.

So, So Many Mistakes.

I wish I had more time to show you more of these. These folks are so totally convinced they’re being oh-so-rational. For example, check out Matt Slick’s spectacularly-wrong version of Occam’s Razor. It blew my mind with how bad it was:

If an adequately plausible explanation cannot be offered, then the simplest one is best; namely, that Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and Paul was then converted.

There is a principle known as Occam’s Razor. This principle states that, generally, the simplest explanation is the best. When we examine the facts about the New Testament claims is it simpler to say [strawman objections] or that [their myths] simply all happened and they recorded it? Which is the simpler explanation? Which requires greater faith?

Ohhh, my head!

As we saw in the other examples, a redefined Occam’s Razor here helps Matt Slick avoid his burden of proof. He needs to avoid it, because he can’t actually credibly support his own claims. So his strategy pivots around to trying to make his competition seem implausible. Redefining Occam’s Razor allows him to make his strawman opposing argument seem needlessly complicated and counterproductive — while also making his own claims sound simple and reasonable in nature.

Matt Slick is just trying to play Last Ideology Standing here. And he’s not even doing a good job of that. But it makes him feel very good to think of himself as rational and logical, and to think he believes what he does for very good, compelling reasons.

Redefined Razors Won’t Help Evangelicals Now.

So now let’s come back to Daniel Bennett’s essay. Let’s re-enter his classroom.

We find him in his educator’s seeming. He’s sad that his students — bright-eyed young evangelicals — are Trumpists! Oh noes! They’ve bought into their Dear Leaders’ conspiracy theories about the election. Oh dear!

Daniel Bennett wants to help his students escape those conspiracy theories.

He knows that Trumpism has already destroyed evangelicals’ credibility as salespeople of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. And he hopes he can positively impact his tribe’s future. Maybe his intervention now will awaken them to reality.

He wants to teach them critical thinking, but not too much of it and only used in selective areas.

In attempting to awaken them, however, he uses the same tools that put their minds to sleep in the first place.

Pulling out the tribe’s warped perversion of Occam’s Razor will not actually change any great number of evangelical minds.

Why Christian’s Redefined OcCaM’s RaZoR Won’t Help.

Evangelicals deploy their redefined Razor to snuff out critical thinking — not to spark it.

In the real Occam’s Razor, people are encouraged to seek and create explanations without unverified, unsupported elements. They try to show preference toward explanations that have none of those sorts of elements. (In a way, yes, I’m talking about falsifiability here.)

But Christians can’t wield that Razor. Everything they claim is unverified and unsupported. If they ever figure out how to check support for a claim and then insist on using those critical-thinking skills on their religious beliefs, well, let’s just say that won’t end well for Christian leaders.

So instead, they set their false claims up against other false claims — or against strawmen — or against real facts that they simply reject for Jesus Reasons, and then they expect the tribe to support their own false claims over anything else.

Guess what, though?

Christians already know how to respond to someone invoking the tribe’s redefinition of Occam’s Razor. They just reject the attempt. They have their own redefined Razors in hand, and they’re doing the same exact thing to people like Daniel Bennett that he just tried to do to them in the classroom.

Since nothing Christians believe tethers to reality, their arguments end up being endless manipulation attempts, confusing arguments, and power-grabs. That’s where we find this redefined Occam’s Razor in Daniel Bennett’s hand.

Beliefs vs. Behavior.

What I describe here is exactly how Christians can call themselves very rational people indeed. They can congratulate themselves for “rejecting nonsense and embracing truth” on both sides of the election fraud issue.

They can tell themselves that they would certainly recognize false claims. After all, they totally know terms like Occam’s Razor. They can parrot wise, sagely phrases like the simplest explanation is the best one. Their explanations are the simplest ones, by definition. That’s totally how simplicity works!

It’s almost ironic that this time, the person deploying the redefined Razor just happens to be on the correct, factual side of the issue. He could just as easily have been on the wrong side of it. We may count on this: if so, he would still have considered himself the rational, wise, sage there trying to reeeeeeach dese keeeeeeeeeeds. His beliefs just duke it out with his students’ beliefs, with both sides using tools for claim-assessment that don’t work in the first place to maintain their own beliefs!

So I’m betting that his students, that day, rejected his attempt to reason with them. They instead just maintained the simplest explanation that they already accepted, as their tribe has defined simplicity:

The conspiracy theories about the election must be totes for realsies. Somehow. We just KNOW it. Poor Dr. Bennett! His complicated explanation couldn’t possibly be the real one.

NEXT UP: Belief vs. Behavior in the “Logical Christian” mind. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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