Unconscious bias – hearing what we want to hear…


Mark 6:1-13 A sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk – Trinity 6

A father and son are involved in a car crash and rushed to hospital. The father dies but the boy is taken into the operating theatre. The surgeon says, “I can’t operate on him, he’s my son.”

How is this possible?

May be you’re feeling enlightened for realising the boy could have two fathers. May be you’ve heard the riddle before. But apparently many people can’t answer, because they can’t imagine that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

An example of unconscious bias. We know women are just as able to be surgeons as men…but our subconscious tells us otherwise. Mention surgeon – and our brains give us a picture of a man.

I think today’s gospel reading gives another example of unconscious bias. Here are the people of Jesus’ home town, they’ve known him all his life, they know his family. At first they’re amazed by his wisdom and his deeds – and with everyone else they wonder who he is. But their brains say – he’s the carpenter, the son of Mary, we know his brothers and sisters. Their subconscious says…prophets and healers don’t come from Nazareth.

According to Mark, Jesus was ‘amazed at their unbelief’ – modern science suggests he shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Conscious thought is slow and energy intensive. Our brains, bombarded by far more information than they can deal with, develop short cuts. They use past experience to develop automatic responses with a good chance of being right.

This is mostly pretty useful…ducking when something comes towards us…definitely safer than evaluating the risks first. But it affects the way we see others, gives us biases.

Our brains automatically put people into categories, using experience and the surrounding culture. This makes us biased towards people like us – because we’re comfortable with them. We have an idea how they will think and behave. This is affinity bias.

We also like to be right, to have our decisions confirmed. So we look for things that support our first impressions, we ignore evidence that suggests we’re wrong. This is confirmation bias.

This is not to do with being good or bad – it’s how our brains work. And the really scary thing is that we don’t even have to believe something for it to become our unconscious bias – we just have to be exposed to it enough.

If we go back to the riddle I started with – even female surgeons are fooled by it…because nearly all the surgeons they see in the media are male.

What has this to do with our faith? Well it affects the way we treat others – but this morning I want to consider how unconscious bias changes the way we see Jesus.

Jesus’ neighbours looked at him and saw the boy next door. Carpenters from Nazareth didn’t do miracles, didn’t speak with great wisdom. This idea was so embedded that they managed to ignore the evidence before them.

We’ve grown up with the idea that Jesus is God’s son; we know a carpenter from Nazareth can be our saviour. But perhaps we’re also too familiar with Jesus and his teaching. Perhaps we too find what we expect to find.

As a year 6 RE teacher I came across the most staggering piece of affinity bias – bias towards people like us. One child announced regularly that he didn’t believe in God. But when we started talking about Islam he asked “You know how our God is white…is their God Asian?”

Even the God he didn’t believe in had to be English…because he was important, an authority figure. The culture this child grew up in told him authority figures are white.

I’m sure we don’t have a picture of Jesus looking just like us – but it is easy to assume he must believe in the things we believe in…

For all its problems, Britain’s not a bad place to live. We have a society that prizes fairness, order, freedom. I’m guessing we’re proud to be British – at least most of the time. Our education system talks of ‘British values’…our culture tells us they are morally good.

I wouldn’t argue with that – I love a good queue! But does this investment in social norms, the unconscious bias it gives us, sometimes get in the way when we hear the teachings of Jesus? Does confirmation bias mean that we hear what we would like Jesus to have said – rather than allowing ourselves to be confronted by what he really said?

For the last 6 weeks I’ve been part of a Pilgrim group thinking about the Lord’s Prayer. Each Pilgrim session starts with a really close look at a piece of scripture. Studying Jesus’ words in this way has showed us that our investment in British Society can makes it easy to assume that what Jesus said must agree with ‘British values’

Take the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. The radical forgiveness at the heart of that story challenged our assumptions about prison. British values of fairness and order suggest it’s right for people to be punished for their crimes, that this is part of the role of prisons…Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness mentions repentance…but does it talk about punishment?

Fairness is so important in our society, that it’s easy to assume Jesus was all for it. It seems unfair that some claim as much in benefits as others earn by hard work – so it feels right to make sure it doesn’t happen. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad, but I don’t think it’s what Jesus taught.

We know the carpenter from Nazareth is our saviour. But are we too sometimes guilty of making him into the boy next door, of assuming that if not an Englishman – then he would at least support British values.

Do we let our unconscious bias give us a much tamer, less disturbing Jesus than is really found in the gospels?

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