People Tend to Believe What They Want to Believe

Jim Denison | Denison Forum | Thursday, March 2, 2023
People Tend to Believe What They <em>W</em><em>ant</em> to Believe

People Tend to Believe What They Want to Believe


A Christian school in Vermont forfeited a girls basketball game last week and withdrew from the state championship tournament because the opposing team included a transgender player.

Mid Vermont Christian School (MVCS) Head of School Vicky Fogg explained: “We withdrew from the tournament because we believe playing against an opponent with a biological male jeopardizes the fairness of the game and the safety of our players. Allowing biological males to participate in women’s sports sets a bad precedent for the future of women’s sports in general.”

If you share my biblical beliefs regarding LGBTQ ideology, you may agree with the school’s decision. But what if the opposing team had a Black student-athlete on its roster?

According to our secularized culture, the situations are identical. Christians who defend biblical sexual morality are considered the modern-day equivalent of white supremacists defending slavery. Not only did MVCS deprive its players of a chance to continue in the tournament—they deprived the opposing team of a chance to compete and brought unfair attention to its transgender athlete. Or so critics could claim.

In such cultural conflicts, is there a way we can convince skeptics that we are truly “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15)?

Religious participation lowers deaths of despair

One response is to use secular means to persuade secular people of the relevance of our faith.

For example, a new study profiled in the Economist shows that American states with more participation in religious services have fewer deaths of despair (drug overdoses, alcohol-related illness, and suicides). The article cites another study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showing that of 110,000 health workers, those who participated in religious services were less likely to die from such causes.

However, the article also notes that “private prayer was not linked to lower deaths of despair.” In the author’s view, this finding “suggests that the risk reduction stems not from belief, but rather from the interpersonal connections that organized religion provides.” Of course, Christians know that “private prayer” is efficacious only to the degree that we are praying to the one true God, an element the study does not explore.

In addition, the article notes that “secular groups like charities or labor unions also produce such ‘social capital,’” but it also reports the JAMA authors’ observation that “faith-based networks provide unusually potent protection.” Christians are not surprised: we know that our “networks” are made powerful by the One who promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20).

Here we find a fascinating case study in secular attempts to explain and perhaps minimize the efficacy of religious experience.

Consider another: after Ross Douthat argued recently in the New York Times that religious experiences such as the Asbury Revival transcend predictions or easy explanations, a Psychology Today article disagreed. Robert N. McCauley writes that “religions provide tools for rendering many extraordinary experiences culturally acceptable.” He points to “representations (e.g., gods) and routines (e.g., rituals)” which are useful for “framing such experiences.”

In other words, religions are popular because they help humans make sense of experiences that may or may not be religious in their origin. Or so the author claims.

One way forward

I report on these reports to make this point: people tend to believe what they want to believe.

If you are a secularist looking for ways to defend your secularism, you will find secular ways to explain and minimize the relevance of religion to society. If you are a Christian looking for ways to defend your faith, you will find biblical ways to explain and maximize the relevance of religion to society.

One way forward is, therefore, to help secular people want to believe what Christians believe. For that to happen, they must first want what we have.

For example, everyone wants to experience more “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). When we manifest such “fruit of the Spirit” out of an intimate daily relationship with the living Lord Jesus, others will inevitably be drawn to him through us.

By contrast, as Oswald Chambers notes, “The reason some of us are such poor specimens of Christianity is because we have no Almighty Christ. We have Christian attributes and experiences, but there is no abandonment to Jesus Christ.”

"You are not what people say about you"

So, let me ask you: How abandoned to Jesus Christ are you today? Asked differently: How fully would those who know you say the “fruit of the Spirit” are being displayed in your life?

The key is not to try harder to do better. It is to ask God’s Spirit to help you be more in love with God’s Son. It is recognizing how much you are loved by Jesus and then responding in kind:

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

To that end, let’s close with this observation by Henri Nouwen:

“You are not what you do, although you do a lot. You are not what you have collected in terms of friendships and connections, although you might have many. You are not the popularity that you have received. You are not the success of your work. You are not what people say about you, whether they speak well or whether they speak poorly about you. All these things that keep you quite busy, quite occupied, and often quite preoccupied are not telling the truth about who you are.

“I am here to remind you in the name of God that you are the Beloved Daughters and Sons of God, and that God says to you, ‘I have called you from all eternity and you are engraved from all eternity in the palms of my hands. You are mine. You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.’”

How will you respond to such “everlasting love” today?

Publication date: March 2, 2023

Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/RUNSTUDIO

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit

The Daily Article Podcast is Here!

Click to Listen

People Tend to Believe What They Want to Believe