One of the most common phrases I hear about research scientists is that they love to be wrong. Why? Because when they are wrong, it means there’s a good chance they have discovered something new. This new data, which does not fit the current paradigms, can lead them to a breakthrough discovery. So being wrong can quite literally lead to fame and fortune.
By contrast, of course, the common perception seems to be that Christians absolutely hate to be wrong. Rather, Christians (especially conservative, evangelical, or fundamentalist ones) appear to have a high need for certainty that they are right.
Think about it: don’t these words all seem to go together?
- Absolute truth
- Bigoted / prejudiced / intolerant
And by contrast, we assume the words skeptical, flexible, open-minded, relative, imperfect, tolerant, liberal, and accepting all fit with one another. (At least, Thesaurus.com suggests this is the case).
Do People Really Think Christians Hate Evidence and Being Wrong?
Yes. Yes they do. For instance, Sam Harris often articulates this perception of Christians and religious people in general.
In The End of Faith, he writes (emphasis added in bold):
Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence what so ever.
He goes on to say that religious moderates are no better, for,
Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism…By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us—religious moderates will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.
But it gets worse:
And so it is that every human being comes to desire genuine knowledge about the world. This has always posed a special problem for religion, because every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence. In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This put the “leap” in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.
Certainly there are some religious people who seem to exhibit these characteristics of inflexibility, close-mindedness, and a disdain for evidence. (Before proceeding, let’s briefly note that Dr. Harris confidently uses very absolutist words like “every,” “always” and “no” without reference to any sociological or scientific data that supports his grand hypotheses. In True Reason we go into this kind of problem in more detail).
In any case, I’d like to explain why, precisely because I am a self-identified conservative, evangelical Christian, I absolutely love being wrong as I learn new evidence and information.
The main reason, in every case, is because acknowledging you are wrong is absolutely central to the Christian faith. Christianity is about God’s love for us – a love that enables us to become fully human.
Becoming A Christian Means Admitting That You Are Wrong
Consider: What does it mean to become a Christian in the first place?
For me, I had to confess that I was pursuing my life goals – including religious ones – for the purpose of self-advancement. It was a very simple system: be good, be religious, and, therefore, be blessed. The better I was, the more God would do my bidding. What a deal!
But becoming a Christian meant apologizing to God – and to others – for my proud, selfish, and wrong approach to everything.
When the church started on the day of Pentecost, Peter preached a powerful sermon about the sin of his audience. They responded well: they were “cut to the heart” and asked what to do. Peter told them,
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, ESV).
That is how people get into the kingdom of God – by repentance – that is, admitting they are wrong.
To even be a Christian in the first place means that the greatest experience of my life – starting to know God’s love in a personal way – was possible because I learned that I was truly, terribly wrong.
I am so glad I learned the truth about my sin. That’s one reason that I love being wrong.
Growing As A Christian Means Admitting That You Are Wrong
The Apostle Paul explains how disciples of Jesus are to become mature Christians in Ephesians 4. He writes:
But that is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:20-24, ESV).
Growing as a Christian means putting off your old self, having your mind renewed, and putting on the new self.
In other words, on a daily basis, acknowledging, I was wrong!
For instance: when I learned that Christianity was rationally defensible, supported by evidence and reason, I had to admit that my old view was wrong. Christians don’t have to “just take it on faith”: we can love truth, skepticism, and rational inquiry as much as anyone else.
So I absolutely love being wrong because, in every sphere of life, it means I am growing to maturity in Jesus.
My Best Friends Tell Me I Am Wrong
When a friend points out a flaw in my life, sometimes I grumble or defend myself. Don’t we all? But at other times, I say “thank you” because to be corrected in love is a gift. As the Proverbs put it (27:5-6, ESV):
Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
When people flatter you, they do so out of self-interest and not because they necessarily believe the compliment.
But when a friend honestly, humbly, and wisely points out a sin in my life, they have strengthened our friendship.
My best friendships are built, in part, upon being told that I am wrong, for my own good. I cherish these friends for all the mistakes – and worse – that they have corrected in my life.
I Love Being Wrong Because I Love To Learn
These religious reasons may not seem very relevant or interesting to those who are not Christians. But look: we are all humans. We share a great deal in common.
- When I learn there is a better solution for solving a problem – I’m glad to learn that I was wrong and try the new method.
- When I learn about a new scientific discovery – I’m happy to learn that my old understanding of the world was wrong and embrace the scientific discovery. Though I’m still kind of bummed that Pluto is no longer a planet.
- When I learn about a new culture or kind of person – I enjoy the experience of understanding how they see and interact with the world.
I’m happy to change my mind about all kinds of things: new technology, new books, new research. All of these changes involve admitting I was wrong about something and embracing progress. As a Christian seeking to become fully human, I’m for that. In other words, I love to be wrong. (And I imagine I’ll have a good laugh when someone tries to use this confession against me).
There are intolerant, close-minded, dogmatic bigots in every group of people. Given that Christianity is the world’s largest religion, it is no surprise that the movement includes some people who don’t represent the way of Jesus very well. As I said above, this includes me too. But I know that’s wrong! And I am glad to be wrong because it keeps me (a little bit) more humble, growing to maturity, having better friends, and becoming fully human.
If you are not a Christian, the best kind of open-mindedness would mean you fairly examine the evidence for Christianity. And the most honest kind of skepticism would mean that you treat the claims of atheists as skeptically as you look at religious ones. I’d encourage you to even be skeptical of the skepticism itself.
If you are a Christian, join me in admitting that you are very wrong. Let’s make it clear to our friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors that we have gotten it and continue to get it tragically wrong. As the Apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Philippians (3:12-16, ESV):
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.