Though most of us might be biased, not all biases are created equal. There are degrees of honest biases, and there are clearly dishonest biases. But I’ll be generous and propose that biases are usually honest. The most common kind is Confirmation Bias: The tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms your beliefs, and ignore or discount evidence that refutes your beliefs. Political issues like Obamacare, Medicaid, Mideast policy, immigration, climate change, taxes, and whether government is a force for good or evil are certainly susceptible to confirmation bias. We usually recognize at some level when we are being biased, but we genuinely believe our position is correct and try to make the strongest possible case for it.
Perhaps a more honest and more naïve bias is what I’ll call Magic Bias: The belief that supernatural forces intervene in our natural world. In his wonderful book, “The Demon-Haunted World,” Carl Sagan argues for critical and skeptical thinking about such beliefs, while promoting science as a candle in the dark. Magic bias includes belief in gods, demons, horoscopes, psychics, tarot cards, miracles, and lots of other superstitions. People who accept some of these beliefs usually consider other magic beliefs ridiculous. I’m with “ridiculous.”
Miracle believers can find “evidence” for miracles, disregarding coincidence or luck or medical skill; psychic believers have their faith strengthened when a psychic predicts something that can be interpreted as accurate, forgetting predicted inaccuracies. While many may truly believe in magic, some just pretend to believe the unbelievable either because they are expected to play “make believe” or because they profit from believers. (Just picture your favorite charlatan.)
Even when a magic belief is incontrovertibly proven wrong, some cite the cliché, “That’s the exception that proves the rule.” No mathematician would ever say, “That’s the counterexample that proves the theorem.” In fact, counterexamples disprove hypothesized theorems. And so it should be with magic.
Now for my “Dishonest Bias Award,” which I hereby present to Todd Stames, host of “Fox News & Commentary,” for his recent piece titled American Humanist Association sues teacher who prayed for sick student. It’s not the only dishonest commentary from Fox News, probably not even the worst; but as a member of the American Humanist Association (AHA) Board of Directors, I can say it’s the dishonest bias with which I’m most familiar. I, too, would be outraged if the AHA sued a teacher because she prayed for a sick student or because she organized a project to feed hungry children. Stames went on to claim that the AHA said it was unconstitutional for a Christian club to meet before the start of the school day, and that the AHA accused the teacher of owning a Bible. He closed his commentary with, “This over-the-top attack on Christianity is just unbelievable. Then again, what do you expect from a bunch of humanists who don’t believe in anything that really matters?”
The AHA press release presented the facts of the case (which have nothing in common with Fox’s report). AHA objections include: weekly Christian “devotional” prayer sessions led by a teacher in her public school classroom during school hours, in which the teacher tells students that God will punish them if they are not good; morning announcements by the principal over the school’s public address system promoting the prayer sessions; a prominent display of the book “God’s Game Plan” in a classroom during class time.
It’s a clear violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause for public school officials to encourage students to pray in class or to participate in prayer activities with students during class. In an attempt to resolve the situation and avoid court action, the AHA sent a letter six months earlier that outlined why school-sponsored and school-promoted classroom prayers are unconstitutional. School officials ignored the letter.
The American Humanist Association has no problem with students or teachers who pray privately or as part of an extracurricular religious group. However, the AHA definitely wants to end unconstitutional, staff-led religious activity during school hours. Fox News apparently never bothered to contact a spokesperson from the AHA for comment or even link to the AHA press release. Had it done so, the friendly folks at Fox News might at least have been true to its motto, We report, you decide.