Motivated Reasoning and the Resurrection

Motivated Reasoning and the Resurrection October 15, 2020

Luke Breuer reminded me of the old canard of motivated reasoning today (on Bert’s piece on freethought), and it’s a thing that is utterly foundational to beliefs and worldviews. At the end of the day, we are thoroughly psychological creatures.

As you may know, I am writing a book on the Resurrection. I was thinking about the application of motivated reasoning (MR) in terms of the Resurrection. Motivated reasoning can be defined as follows:

Motivated reasoning is a phenomenon studied in cognitive science and social psychology that uses emotionally-biased reasoning to produce justifications or make decisions that are most desired rather than those that accurately reflect the evidence, while still reducing cognitive dissonance. In other words, motivated reasoning is the “tendency to find arguments in favor of conclusions we want to believe to be stronger than arguments for conclusions we do not want to believe”.[1] It can lead to forming and clinging to false beliefs despite substantial evidence to the contrary. The desired outcome acts as a filter that affects evaluation of scientific evidence and of other people.[2] (WP: Motivated reasoning)

So here’s the thing, can MR be applied just as equally to skeptics as it can to Christians in this area? I would say not, for a bunch of reasons, but I want to see what your opinion is.

Primarily, for me, it is a false equivalence when looking at the Resurrection (or broken down to something like the empty tomb narrative, where I think this point is stronger). If the skeptical arguments against the Resurrection/empty tomb don’t work, then it’s not the end of the world for the skeptic – there are plenty of arguments against the existence of God (that I think are stronger anyway). But if the skeptical arguments against the Resurrection/empty tomb are good and work, then the whole Jesus narrative fails and Christianity crumbles. Or, the Christian has more to lose if the skeptic is right than the skeptic has to lose if the skeptical arguments fail (notice my use of “if the skeptical arguments fail” and not “if the Christian is right”).

When you have MR acting on both the skeptic and the Christian, is it equally problematic to both is or MR more of a problem for, say, the Christian?

If the empty tomb can be shown to be a false narrative, then does the Christian stand to lose more than the skeptic if the empty tomb is not shown to be false (which is to say it is not necessarily true, either)? Whoever stands to lose more stands to be more victim to motivated reasoning.

Anywho, I am genuinely interested in your erudite (well, most of you) thoughts.

While you’re here, check out my book on the Nativity (UK).


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