The Attraction of Self-Deception


(Spectrumbot) #1

When I was growing up in the church there were various expressions used by Adventists for self-definition. Two common ones were “people of the Book” and “we have the Truth”. Over the course of my (now somewhat lengthy) adulthood I’ve concluded these two phrases intersect in the understanding of those using them. “Truth” was mostly intended as a label for correct Biblical doctrine. Thus such truths would be more applicable to answering a religious question in the American game show Jeopardy than something embedded deeply in one’s ethics.

I’m oversimplifying, of course. And I am trying to be descriptive, not snarky. But my life experience within Adventism has given little evidence that church members have a higher interest in truth seeking than the general population. Perhaps less. An attraction for many is the belief that Adventism has the important religious questions all worked out. So after you’ve gone through the initial exercise of following the argumentative narrative – and accepted the package – you arrive at a world-view stasis. Things then make sense (e.g. the Great Controversy motif), a direction has been charted for your life and you enter the “ark of safety” to proceed on life’s journey as a passenger.

Hopefully those of you with significant SDA background have had a richer and less mechanistic church experience than this description. But my point is that “The Truth” too often turns out, in Adventist practice, to have little to do with an epistemology quest. A seeking for understanding. It’s more about digesting propositional knowledge.

Discovering this disconnect was (and is) somewhat troubling to me because, at first glance, one might guess that Adventists would be questers, which would connote a journey in progress. Instead I find a church that in practice is more interested in protecting a position.

Now, we all have positions – views on what reality looks like, views on what is true vs. false. Both from a religious and non-religious perspective. It could hardly be otherwise. But someone who is positioned, in my lexicon, holds his or her collection of knowledge-opinions with a tight fist, not an open palm. The tightness is to keep them from slipping away. The fist is to fend off attack.

But who would want to hold tightly to error? No one, of course. At least, that’s something we seemingly would have to agree with. But, in practice, I see tremendous resistance put up by some when a cherished position is questioned by another. Now, admittedly, that other person who questions the belief is often attacking verbally, which dramatically increases the probability of a defensive response. But even if any threat component is removed, it seems curious that it is so common for a position-holder to resist investigation.

This is, ironically, the exact opposite of the scientific method.

Ah, science. Just introduce the word and some Christians have a viscerally negative reaction. That is mostly because a small percentage of scientific inquiry overlaps religious territory and has reached conclusions at odds with historically accepted dogma. Most contentiously regarding the age of the Earth. But the scientific method, while most applicable to examining the natural world, is more broadly an epistemological approach. Here is a reasonably uncontroversial definition of the scientific method:

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon.

2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena.

3. Use the hypothesis to try to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict the results of new observations.

4. Performance of experimental tests by multiple, independent experimenters with properly performed experiments in an attempt to verify or falsify the hypothesis.

As you can see, using the word “phenomenon” implies the target for the method is the natural world. But if one steps back and substitutes something like “supposed truth” or “belief” for “phenomenon”, then the process has a possible wider scope of applicability. But also significant limitations. How, for example, does one “experiment” on Biblical doctrine? So let me suggest a restructuring to disengage the definition from science and apply it to truth seeking generally – outside of physical reality.

A hypothesis, in the Biblical realm, is a lot like a doctrine. It is an explanation about truth supposedly revealed by God and perhaps corroborated by logic and our own internal sense of morality. Theology reaches these doctrinal conclusions and makes other predictions about God and ethics that are extensions derived from the core Biblical data. One does not do experiments in the religious universe, but there is discourse where people – formally trained or not – try to get Truth from the material. This involves exegesis, argumentation, textual analysis, investigation into language and culture. There is nothing quite as strong as falsification in this realm, but a looser analog exists – where the theological position fails to pass muster on the various criteria used to form the viewpoint.

Foundationally the scientific method is an approach for truth inquiry. It tries to falsify positions that deserve such a judgment, it endeavors to be rigorous in its analysis and it seeks wide input from people who have relevant correlative skills and a reputation for clear thinking.

This process, in concept and practice, is available to each of us as we seek for understanding in a personal truth quest. We can read widely and critically on any topic that impacts our ethics and religious beliefs. We can learn the basic skills of logic and argumentation. But most of all – we can be open to disconfirming views. We can try not to be positioned. This is not at all the same has not having positions. It is recognizing we might be wrong and being willing to change – letting the “chips” fall where they may.

But this is what seems to be rare in epistemological discourse – not just from Adventists and not just from Theists. It appears to me to be a common human mindset. As noted above people generally – I would argue – operate exactly opposite to the scientific method as translated to a religio-ethical truth domain. They seek confirming evidence, and read or watch thought leaders who engage in apologetics for positions they presently hold and desire to keep.

I’ve wondered about this for years. My best conjecture is that such individuals find falsification of an invested belief to be severely unsettling, perhaps triggering a slippery-slope mudslide of confusion, which might bring down the entire world-view. Also, a rigorous approach is not easy and it is time-consuming. So they shore up the cherished positions wherever they can find confirmation – regardless of quality. This would provide presumed safety within the current view, but the risk is that they are investing energy in propping up error. And, thus propped up, there is no reason to discard it, so a life is lived by erroneous precepts.

I further postulate that such ones are simultaneously in denial that they are thus positioned. It is not a very flattering self-attribute. We all like to think of ourselves as objective and ready to change a view if persuaded. So in order to have the attractive comfort of a position currently held, we have to tell ourselves that it is indeed the superior position and we have done a commendable job of exploring its viability and the alternatives. But if we are, in fact, not doing this, then we have to engage in self-deception. And deceit, by definition, has to be unrecognized to be working.

I therefore propose a test for each of us. Ask yourself if there is anything that you now believe to be true that, if you could know with certainty you were wrong, then you would prefer not to know. It may be just as tricky to answer this honestly as it would be to recognize self-deception. But if there are such positions in your world-view, they are likely the candidates where you try to look for verification instead of falsification.

Rich Hannon is the Spectrum website Columns Editor and a member of the Adventist Forum board.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6783

(Tim Teichman) #2

Great article! Thanks so much.

I see both happening at the same time, to some degree:

I see the church as an institution, the hierarchy, consistently and doggedly only interested in protecting its position, as if everyone (and the devil) were out to get it. As if any change is the beginning of the end.

I see many members who are closed to new ideas if they conflict with what they cherish. Some are just passively uninterested. Others vehemently so (see any conversation here on Spectrum.)

But I also see individuals within the church body who are on a quest, who question their faith and its teachings, who seek a truth based on study. Sometimes that study strengthens an existing belief, other times it alters it, and other times it shows it to be unworthy and/or incorrect.

I’m on such a quest because for me an unexamined faith really isn’t one worth having. If my faith cannot stand up to scrutiny, then why have it? If things I believe, or did believe, crumble under scrutiny then so much the better.


(Marianne Faust) #3

Interesting article! Thank you Rich Hannon!
Yes I think I am deceiving myself sometimes. May be I wouldn’t if I knew which times…Most of the time we don’t realize our self-deception. Thank you for reminding us!
I think we also tend to forget, that Truth is a person. What this really means, I don’t know, but I think it also implies that 100% certainty is impossible. And that the truth has to a certain degree to be revealed to us. The truth about myself is probably less easy to find out by any scientific method and much more by revelation. Also truth cannot be separated from love. When we separate the two, we are making an idol out of truth. (Blaise Pascal)


(k_Lutz) #4

Thank-you, Rich, for your thoughts on this conundrum.

Jesus, in being confronted by ‘the Jews’ (John 5) for healing on the Sabbath, not only disclaimed propositional truth but illustrated its fallacy.

[quote]‘And the Father who sent me Himself hath testified concerning me; ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor His appearance have ye seen; and His word ye have not remaining in you, because whom He sent, him ye do not believe.
‘Ye search the Writings, because ye think in them to have life age-during, and these are they that are testifying concerning me; and ye do not will to come unto me, that ye may have life; glory from man I do not receive, but I have known you, that the love of God ye have not in yourselves.’ - YLT[/quote]

Truth is not ascertained in cognitive assent of the proposition, but in living it, such that "in this shall all know that ye are my disciples, that ye have love one to another."

Actually, I don’t see that one has evidence (faith - Hebrews 11:1) until the propositional belief has been tried (James 2:20).

Trust The BEing!


(Sirje) #5

There are always individuals who are looking beyond the horizon (the old song - “The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see…”. While the church is its individual members, the point is the church, as an institution, is not on that quest, as it advertises itself, being a “movement” not a church, (at least that is how it was presented to me, initially). In reality, it is anything but a movement - and that’s understandable. Every institution, no matter how far reaching at its inception, becomes bogged down with self-preservation. It’s up to its members to keep pushing the envelope. What is lacking, in this regard, is a respect for it’s own members, especially those who have chosen to be the theologians - the searchers - the educators. What we have, instead, is a corporation, terrified of change.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #6

WOW. Adventism is a straw man. you are inviting everyone to take poke at it. If I have read you in the past, you have a thing about FB #6 Creation/ recent et al.

but the straw was gathered out of Dan 8:14 and Revelation to form the perfect straw man into a perfect final generation. So they had had to make Christ as fallen as Adam in nature but not in behavior. No need for the immaculate conception concocted by the beast of Rome.

The drum beat will increase as August draws near. semi Arianism, semi gnostic and Theistic evolution will all be there will their own monographs and their own axes to grind. The reaction will ensure the re-election of Ted Wilson the Lion tamer. Tom Z


(Carolyn Parsons) #7

That love is the answer.
That people are good.
That my puppy will be housetrained.


(Bill Garber) #8

Very stimulating, Rich. Many thanks.

We are all positioned with reason.

One is positioned because to not be positioned is terrifying.

Fear is what drives position defenses.

The Three Angels Message describes exactly such a situation.

And the path to repositioning.

The First Angel proclaims with a loud (clarifying) voice, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ declares that the World has been fully saved by its redeemer and creator Jesus Christ. Note: This is not anti-positional. It is proto positional. Nothing less can breach positional defenses.

The Second Angel reports the collapse of Babylon, its defenses fully breached by the newly embraced truth of its citizens, namely that Babylon’s self-help path to salvation has been spit out like the bitterness that it has always been.

The Third Angel describes the position of the remnant clinging to the memory of the now defunct self-help position Babylon sustained.

Kenneth Wood, editor of the Review and Herald at the time, reflected with me in the 1970’s the role of editor as prophet, and the roll of church leaders as priests. He then noted that the legitimate role of priest is the present positions, while the role of prophet is to advocate new positions. One of the prophetic efforts he and his associate editor, Herbert Douglass, engaged with was advocacy of what became known of Last Generation Theology. See “Why God is Urgent and Yet Waits” in the 28-page Special Issue: Righteousness by Faith http://docs.adventistarchives.org/docs/RH/RH19740516-V151-20__B.pdf#view=fit

Seventh-day Adventist questing has been historically rooted in its periodicals. Today, denominational leadership has fully coopted its publishing enterprises in its commitment to positional defense.

It is left to modest independent journals Spectrum and Adventist Today to lead the quest to reposition.

And while proving a position wrong may work in the world of science, offering a potentially more compelling position for consideration is also rooted in science.

And this is the path ahead in the positional world of spirituality it feels like here.

‘Last Generation Theology’ leaves a bad taste in some mouths, yet the Three Angels Message is very last generation. Just that at last self-help personal salvation, common across Christianity, will be demonstrated in its full futility by the clarifying proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by the First Angel. There is a reason that Ellen White quickly transformed the new 1888 Righteousness by Faith position to become the foundation of the Three Angels Message … calling the former, the Three Angels Message, the new, Righteousness by Faith, ‘in verity.’

For the first time in the World’s history, a single picture or a single sentence can be experienced around the world without gaining editorial permission.

It is a different world for sure.

Positions are no longer so easily defended.

Positions, however, will not be overrun, they will be abandoned by those leaving for something far more reassuring.


(Andrew) #9

I am an antirealist (the church, I believe, was antirealist in the past) therefore, by definition, I pretty much accept everything I believe could be falsified.

But, what works for me now is ok. If I need to change my beliefs at some time in the future, then that is fine also.

Greater pain comes from hanging onto a belief in the face of truth.

Good luck with the puppy! Lots of patience :smile:


(k_Lutz) #10

[quote=“bill, post:8, topic:8233”]
We are all positioned with reason.

One is positioned because to not be positioned is terrifying.

Fear is what drives position defenses. [/quote]

  1. Many, not all, are positioned upon reason. At least, not of their own reasoning, but by the reasoning of others.
  2. I suppose, that being ungrounded in human terms leads to various psychoses. But being grounded by God is really not that terrifying, unless of course, it has to do with what He will make of one. Yet He has already assured us of our capacity in Him.
  3. Fear for one’s position is admission that it has not been tried and proven. There is no need to defend the True.

Thank-you again, Bill, for you most cogent observations.

Trust The BEing!


(George Tichy) #11

Excellent article Rich. It reflects the experience of many of us.
It is certainly challenging to those who feel comfortable with any status quo, and you will certainly hear from those soon! …

I think it’s also known as “the train of foolish happiness”…(since the bridge ahead collapsed …) :wink:


(George Tichy) #12

And now you just presented us a “perfect” reflection on this issue!
Perfect! :wink:


(George Tichy) #13

Best “psychological” approach for such training: every time they do it, stick their nose into it. A little slap on the butt is a great enhancer of this process…

Quick results guaranteed!!!

(Don’t worry, I won’t bill for this session! :slight_smile: )


(Kim Green) #14

Fantastic article, Rich.

The only thing that we can trust absolutely is the love of God for us. Everything else is man-made (including the Adventist church) and therefore subject to deception and folly.


(Tim Teichman) #15

Yes. Somehow I find this more forgivable in a corporation than a church that self-reports as wanting to find the truth, the best truth, and insists that they are special because the have a better truth. Oh well.


(Bill Garber) #16

Yes, Kenn

No need to defend … I like that phrase.

Free to change positions is another way of saying that.

As I once heard a Brit note, too wonderful for words.


(Jan Long) #17

Rich, a thought provoking article.

I have thought about this subject a lot. I have not read the thread, so perhaps someone else has already made some of these points, but perhaps self-deception is part of the human condition. It is possible to recognize that this is woven into the human fabric to some extent, while others simple seem not to recognize it exists. For one thing, we live in an insecure world, and there is psychological benefits to “being certain.” That is where the benefits end, however, for having a certain mind does not guarantee contact with reality. I am also mindful that the epistemic process is a very difficult skill to hone, and most people simply do not have the personality to engage in such discipline. Finally, it seem that even practitioners of a more scholarly bent, also sometimes have trouble sticking to “process.” For sure there are “experts” who know the importance of peer review, yet sometimes take publicly contrary positions. While peers recognize what is going on, most lay people do not, and are often fooled.


(Kevin Seidel) #18

The more I learn, the less I know. I have more than once had to unlearn some common knowledge that was wrong. Certainty is the easy way out, but does not come to grips with reality. Most would rather the comfort of certainty than the surrender of self needed to follow truth.


(k_Lutz) #19

Having lived with God as my pilot for awhile now, I extol the comfort of total surrender far above the dis-ease of uncertainty. Of those things we have experienced we can determine which are true. The rest is all hearsay. Faith is not implied by the belief, but realized when the belief is practiced with God. One need not live in ignorance any longer.

Trust The Process.


(Elmer Cupino) #20

I often see this in our mental health clinic and once wondered, while still a resident, why some of my patients engaged in “self-deception,” as you would say, until it became clear to me that a belief can only be surrendered if there were a viable alternative to provide the same function being provided by the old belief. After all, one does not tear down the whole house simply because one segment needs upgrading. It is a tedious process. Some individuals have the ability to discard old beliefs in no time at all, while others take deliberate time to transition. There are times when what matters most is not our world view but how that world view “glues” our own self. No one in his sane mind should intentionally relinquish a belief and disintegrate to oblivion because his beliefs were wrong until a viable alternative is available. I have never claimed the right to resolve my patients’ psychosis or neurosis, until they have developed alternative ways to cope with what led to their psychosis and neurosis initially.

Just another rational view why people are seen as “close minded.”