You are so biased!

It seems inevitable. Commonplace really. Upon making a not-so-appreciated point, a person responds by saying, “you are biased!” With these words the person speaks her own victory, indicating there is no need to continue the conversation. These words are conversation-killers, and usually intended to be so. You are found guilty. Guilty of one of the most unacceptable social faux pas possible; one that justifies the person disengaging from the conversation.

Being on the receiving end of this verdict, you are expected to know your guilt. The depth of this guilt includes the obvious “beyond intellectual reach” to the “enlightened” one overseeing your trial. The expected result, the only result a normal, thinking individual could possibly embrace, is your silence and shame until, of course, you see the error of your ways.

With these few words, many people (Christians included) slink into silence, fearful of venturing into the dark waters of bias. Their silence is their submission. Their shame becomes their muzzle. And rightly so. Or is it right?

There are many implications when the verdict “you are biased” (or one of its cousins such as being close-minded, judgmental, etc.) is rendered. However, upon closer inspection, these words lack the value, authority, and intellectual substance often simply granted by society.

What is bias?

One of the most important steps in working through any issue involves asking good questions. A fundamental question to ask is what key terms mean. All too often definitions are assumed, and these assumed definitions are often (oh, so often) inaccurate. The first question here is, “what does ‘bias’ mean?”

The accuser may be using “bias” in a specific way (even if she cannot articulate a good definition, which is often the case). For instance, she could mean something like, “you have your opinion which is contrary to the facts and, what is worse, the facts will not alter your opinion due to your stubbornness (e.g., ignorance, will, etc.).” Along these lines, Merriam-Webster provides a helpful definition of bias:

b: an inclination of temperament or outlook especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment: PREJUDICE

(Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. [Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003].)

Bias is an “inclination of temperament”. That is, a person believes and/or acts based upon her nature and not based upon quality analysis of the issue in question. So, a biased person holds a moral, political, or religious opinion because of her (mentally simplistic) nature. If she were to actually engage the issue intellectually, the results would (likely) be different.

Yet, this rather common view of “bias” is overly simplistic to the point of neglect. Notice Merriam-Webster clarifies bias by saying, “a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment” [italics mine]. The key term is “sometimes.” A bias can “sometimes” be an unreasoned judgment though not necessarily always.

Usually the charge of bias assumes the belief is unreasoned or poorly drawn. However, this is the question that must be addressed or shown, rather than simply assumed in discussion.

Beyond the Allegation: Understanding Bias

This additional point on bias, that bias is “sometimes” but not always unreasoned, is significant and should give us pause before leveling the accusation. Here are five points to remember regarding the issue of bias.

1. Some biases develop after reason and evidence.

Without question, as people mature, former, improper biases are replaced by new, proper biases (reasoned vs. unreasoned beliefs). Some white supremacists, for example, change and accept people from other races (e.g., see the movie Best of Enemies for an outstanding example). Many men and women who were formerly pro-choice took the time to delve into this issue realized the error of their ways. In fact, the entire educational system relies upon the principle that people can actually change their minds on matters even if biased! If changing one’s mind is not possible, then there is no need for education, prison reform, counseling, etc.

2. Some biases are right!

Many biases, that is, views a person has without much reasoning, are good. Most people are naturally biased toward their own survival, well-being, and growth. What is more, people can be biased towards truth, love, compassion, God, etc. In other words, just because someone is biased it does not follow that her bias is wrong. Yet, the self-declared judge often claims victory without proper reason. Yes, the verdict drips with irony often lost within the “intellectually superior” nature of the judge.

3. Declaring someone as being improperly biased does not make it so! It is necessary to show that the person is improperly biased and provide quality, thoughtful reasons for this assertion. This is where the discussion should take place; but, in a deliciously ironic sense, the goal is (usually) to do the very opposite. In other words, the one who declares another guilty of bias usually displays the poor intellectual rigor assumed of the accused.

4. What the bias charge often reveals is more than merely an intellectual problem but, significantly, a relationally divisive stance. This stance is often intended to drive the accused into silence rather than seeking an intellectually agreeable basis from which to talk and relate. Even if finding common intellectual ground is unlikely to be realized immediately, laying the foundation for future development will prove wise.

5. Finally, the charge of bias serves as justification for the accuser to remain uniformed. The accuser no longer needs to understand the opposing view, nor validate her own view. She is error-free and no longer needs to reconsider any potential error in her view (even if it is glaring). No longer does she need to find out if there is any truth to the opposing view. In fact, any such prospect is intentionally cutoff often because it is easier to place all (intellectual) guilt on the (supposed) offending party while avoiding any (intellectual or relational) responsibility.

Divine Bias

Significantly, even God is biased. For instance, Scripture reveals that God is “biased” (in the positive sense) toward such things as His plan of salvation (Isaiah 55:6-11; John 14:6), morally right living (1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 John 1:5-10), justice for the oppressed (Psalm 82:1-4; Isaiah 1:17), and monogamous marriage (Genesis 2:24; Titus 1:6; Hebrews 13:4). God is biased against injustice (Proverbs 11:1, 12:22), immoral lifestyles (Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 6:8), adultery (Exodus 20:14; 1 Corinthians 6:9), murder (Exodus 20:13; 1 John 3:15), lying (Proverbs 12:22; Psalm 101:7), and more.

God’s desired way of life for people provides ample reason to seek a properly biased view on matters of religion, morality, family life, and more. However, there are two specific points that reveal proper/improper bias in a person’s life on the issue of God’s ways. These two areas are key “lines of demarcation” for a person’s worldview and ability to proceed down a path of truth, proper bias, and wisdom.

  1. Jesus is the only means of salvation (Psalm 33:11; John 3:18-19; 14:6; Acts 4:10-12).
  2. God’s nature and character establish what is morally right/wrong (Isaiah 6:3; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Revelation 4:8), and not the changing views of society (e.g., progressive morality).

Notice that everyone is “biased” on these two issues. People are either biased for or against these views. The significance of this lies in the fact that, no matter who is speaking, each person is “biased”. The goal is to have properly biased (well reasoned and justified) beliefs rather than to be bias free (which is an impossibility).

Teaching Our Kids

We live in an era when social media dominates the time and minds of youth. Often there is an underlying (and wrong) assumption that it is not possible to work through the myriad of opposing views whether religious, moral, or political. Many people in younger generations simply give-up on the idea that certain moral, religious, or political (or historical, etc.) claims are true.

As such, there is a great fear in drawing conclusions that conflict with what others claim. What is more, this fear is often saddled with claims of “bias” used to undermine intellectual inquiry. Christian parents would do well to help their kids (and youth at church) learn to think through such charges as “you are biased”, and refrain from using them uncritically.

Here are a few things you can do, and ask, your youth to help prepare them on this challenge.

  1. Teach youth to ask good questions by asking them good questions. Instead of stating they are wrong (or right), ask them questions to guide them through the process of learning to (properly) validate and/or critique a view. Ask questions such as, what do you (or the author) mean by that? Is this view correct (even if it obviously wrong)? Or, do you agree with this view? Why or why not? What makes you think the view may be true/false? What kinds of ways are there to justify a view? (hint: history, archaeology, logic, Scripture, science, etc.).
  2. Teach youth to be informed on both what they believe and also what opposing views claim. Do not wait for them to hear it from others. Find out what the opposing views are, what reasons are given to justify those views, and what is said in opposition to your view.
  3. Always be open to changing your view when it is wrong. Because we live on this side of heaven, we will always need to change our views (at least a bit). The goal is to get the core ones correct (e.g., salvation through Jesus Christ alone, objective morality, etc.).
  4. Allow youth time to learn and grow.
  5. Teach youth to avoid taking intellectually cheap shots at those with whom the disagree. Instead, help kids understand disagreement provides a good opportunity to learn.

With a better understanding of “bias”, you and your youth will be less challenged by this charge and less likely to level it at others. What is more, following the previous steps will help you and your youth work through most issues and be informed rather than reactive or even fearful to have a proper view even if it is unpopular.