In “Working Class Hero” (which, profanity notwithstanding, is a much better song than its A-side, “Imagine”), John Lennon complains that “they” keep blue-collar people “doped with religion and sex and TV.” As a result of this triple-acting sedation, the working class doesn’t think to rise up and overthrow oppressive economic and social conditions. “They” continue to profit off the backs of the workers, undisturbed. 

Even more well-known is Karl Marx’s treatment of the first member of Lennon’s triad: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Marx posited that religion made life under capitalism somewhat bearable, which was highly unfortunate because such a life was not to be borne. For Marx, religion is one of many cultural forces and institutions that legitimize and stabilize existing economic arrangements. Differences between particular religions in theology and practice are ultimately superficial, since all religion is fundamentally economics by other means. 

Now, Marx is wrong about this. For one thing, religious people frequently challenge the socioeconomic status quo, citing their beliefs as motivation. More fundamentally, Marx’s dream of a classless society and the elimination of scarcity, if realized, would only free us up to deal with other, more existential problems. 

But Marx is a bit less wrong than I’d like him to be. People do use religion to buttress various ideologies drawn from non-religious sources. If, for instance, you meet a Christian who likes to emphasize the Scriptural teachings about working hard and taking personal responsibility (e.g., 2 Thes 3:10), you can be pretty sure how he votes. The same holds true for a believer who frequently cites biblical passages touching on God’s concern for the poor and marginalized. There’s no reason, of course, to doubt the sincerity of either person’s faith, but it’s very much open to question how much their political leanings influence their scriptural interpretations rather than the other way around. 

This, of course, is not a new problem. Antebellum Southern theologians looked into Scripture and found support for slavery; British aristocrats felt confident that God had ordained a strict class hierarchy; 19th-century Christian socialists read the second chapter of Acts as a societal blueprint. Both Luther and Calvin, those champions of sola scriptura, lamented on separate occasions that the Bible seemingly has a “wax nose,” susceptible to being twisted this way and that. Christians are committed to Scriptural authority, but to a pretty large extent they tend to find in Scripture what they want to see. 

To use a helpful term recently in vogue, the confirmation bias that affects all human beings does not exempt Christians. “Confirmation bias” refers to the well-documented phenomenon that people latch onto evidence that supports their pre-existing beliefs, while discounting or simply ignoring evidence to the contrary. To cite a famous example: In 1979, researchers at Stanford University selected a group of students, half of whom supported the death penalty and half of whom opposed it. The group read two studies: The first presented data supporting the claim that capital punishment deters crime, while the second called the first into question. Both factions found the study supporting their side “highly credible,” while discovering all kinds of flaws in the opposing study. In fact, most students walked away more convinced than ever of the rightness of their cause. The twist? Both studies had been completely made up. 

Prior commitments and ideologies incline us to pick and choose which bits of evidence we like. And so Marx’s specter looms, accusing us of carefully editing the Scriptures and Christian teaching to use as a prop for our other agendas. It’s not a specter we can entirely banish, nor a charge we can entirely escape.

But while confirmation bias cannot be cured, it can be mitigated. The mitigation process is admittedly unpleasant, as it involves a willingness to have our cherished ideas about the world challenged, attacked, modified, and sometimes completely trounced. Such willingness is impossible without humility. That’s why the opinionated Anglican T. S. Eliot realized that, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility.”  

Fortunately for us Christians, God likes reminding us that we’re just not that smart. To become a Christian, in fact, is to publicly admit that one is in all likelihood not that impressive, intellectually or otherwise (1 Cor 1:26-29).  So, the next time you feel dumb — rejoice! This is God’s mercy. He is helping you dispel your biases and learn how to listen — not least to the Scriptures, including and especially the parts you naturally find off-putting.  If we’re finding in Scripture (and our lived experience) only that which “fits” comfortably with our perceptions of the world, then we’re likely not growing. The foolishness of the cross is the wisdom that confounds our confirmation biases. God loves us enough to make us uncomfortable! As we admit our errors, receive correction and learn to listen, Marx’s specter recedes and, perhaps, we can hear the voice of Christ a bit more clearly.