Confirmation bias and pet sins
I was recently reading my son a bedtime story from Ura Miller’s 101 Favorite Stories from the Bible. The story that I was reading that night was the story of Lot in Sodom. The story, as told in this particular storybook, included these words:
One big sin of Sodom was that men married men and women married women. God wants one man to marry one woman. But the people of Sodom did not care about God’s law….
God wants us to stay away from evil. It is His will that one man marries one woman. God will judge people who do not do right.
As I read those words, I could not help but think that they display something of a confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. When we display confirmation bias, we give considerably less consideration to alternative possibilities.
In what way do the words quoted above display confirmation bias? It is in the claim that “one of Sodom’s big sins was that men married men and women married women.” Now, don’t get me wrong: Same sex marriage is indeed a sin in God’s eyes. But is there evidence in the text of Genesis 19 that same sex marriage was being practised? Or is that simply the narrative that we have been led to believe over the years, which is now confirmed by our pre-existing bias?
The narrative in Genesis 19 certainly does hint at a form of depraved homosexual lust. The text speaks of two angels, in the form of human men, arriving at Sodom. When Lot took them into his house, “the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.” They demanded that Lot deliver the “men” to them “that we may know them.” “Know them” is a euphemism for sexual activity. The CSB states it plainly: “Send them out to us so we can have sex with them.”
The text goes on, however, to make it plain that this wasn’t simply an instance of same sex marriage. The men of Sodom wanted to sexually abuse the men who went into Lot’s house. Their goal was violent, homosexual rape. No mention is made in the text of marriage. The Sodomites did not want to enter into “loving, consensual marriage” with the men whom Lot was hosting. The claim that “one big sin of Sodom was that men married men and women married women” is hardly substantiated in the text. If the issue was the same sex nature of the sexual activity, then Lot’s proposal of offering the men his virgin daughters should be viewed as a fitting solution. Had the men agreed to Lot’s proposition, same sex activity would have been removed from the equation. But no one reading the text would suggest that it would have been acceptable for the men of Sodom to treat Lot’s daughters in the way that they intended to treat the angels! The sexual activity that they proposed was abominable whether it was homosexual or heterosexual in nature.
I do not want to be misunderstood: The Bible very clearly opposes same sex marriage. But same sex marriage, at least as we see it in the world in which we live today, is not what we find in the text of Genesis 19. It must be read into the text because of confirmation bias. And it is often done so precisely because homosexuality is something of a pet sin for Christians today.
It is instructive that, when the Bible speaks of Sodom, it doesn’t typically draw attention to the sin of homosexuality. Jude speaks of Sodom’s “sexual immorality” and “unnatural desire” (v. 7), a clear reference to the homosexual lust of the Sodomites. But that is about the only text in Scripturethat speaks to the sexual sin of the city. Elsewhere, the sin of Sodom is defined in very different terms. Consider, for example, Ezekiel’s allusion to Sodom: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Sodomy, as defined by that text, includes pride, gluttony and materialism. Ezekiel makes no reference to same sex sin.
Was the same sex lust described in Genesis 19 an abomination before the Lord? Yes, it was—in the same way that heterosexual lust is an abomination to him. God was angered by the “sexual immorality” and “unnatural desire” of Sodom, but no more than he was angered by their “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease.” However, the narrative that we have been fed for so long is that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality, and so when we come to that text we automatically read into the narrative the preconceived bias that we have been fed.
Is same sex activity a sin in God’s eyes? Yes, it is. Does the Bible stand opposed to same sex marriage as it is practised in the Western world today? Yes, it does. Is Genesis 19 the best text to go to in order to prove the Bible’s opposition to same sex marriage? No, it isn’t. Is same sex activity in some way a categorically worse sin than things like “pride, excess of food and prosperous ease”? Evidently not.
As I read that story to my son, two things struck me.
First, let’s be sure that we allow the text of Scripture to speak for itself, rather than reading into it our own preconceived biases. Of course, that is easier said than done. We all approach Scripture with preconceived notions. It is impossible to approach the Bible with a completely blank slate. However, as we read and study the Bible, we should do so asking God to allow the text to speak to us and to correct our preconceived notions where that is necessary.
Second, we must be careful of placing our own pet sins above other equally heinous sins in order of priority. We live in an age in which same sex marriage is one of the defining sins of our generation. But that doesn’t make it categorically worse than other things that the Bible also clearly identifies as sin. According to Ezekiel, God condemned Sodom for “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” sins of which much of the Western church today is guilty—even as we voice our opposition to same sex marriage. That does not mean that we should remain silent when sin must be exposed, but it does mean that we must speak out against sin at the same time being honest about, and willing to repent of, our sin.