The answer to that question for most Christians would be "Scripture," but how honest of an answer is that? Could there be other factors that exert an influence on our religious opinions?
A friend sent me an article by Ezra Klein today entitled "How politics makes us stupid." You can access the article at this address:
In reading through the article, it occurred to me that the points that were being made about our political opinions could also be applied to our religious opinions. Klein talked about the fact that much of our political elite is operating under the mistaken impression that given more information our differences on the major questions of the day could be narrowed or eliminated. The problem is that both sides believe that the other side is the one who doesn't have access to adequate information.
Couldn't the same observation be applied to us religious folk? Don't most of us believe that given more information everyone would believe the way we do? We think: "If we could just show them our scriptures, they would come to see the truth as we do." or "If they were truly led by the Holy Spirit, they would see things the same way we do."
Nevertheless, Klein points out in his article that this type of reasoning was recently refuted by a group of researchers led by one Dan Kahan. The researchers discovered that people aren't really trying to get to the truth of a matter. Instead, they discovered that most partisans simply want to come out on top of the argument. In short, they found that the ideology of the person in question had more influence over the conclusions that they reached than on the information they were given access to. In the words of Klein, "People weren't reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right."
That sounds an awful lot like religious folks using proof-texting to try and convince each other that their doctrines are correct or true. If we're honest with ourselves, most of us aren't really interested in what is right or wrong or determining what God's will in a matter happens to be. The reality is that most of us are seeking to reinforce or support what we already believe and refute or disprove our opponents thesis. There is a very old saying that applies in both religious and political arguments: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."
The researchers learned that most people subconsciously dispose of any information that challenges the values that they hold dear. Their study concluded that people defined an expert as "a credentialed person who agrees with me." This phenomenon is known as Identity-Protective Cognition. In other words, we marshal our intellectual capabilities to protect what we believe in and destroy anything that threatens that construct.
From a religious standpoint, that sounds an awful lot like the mindset that Christ had to deal with among the religious elite of his day (the priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees). Notice that, whenever they confronted Jesus on some point, they were careful to craft a question or answer that would make them look good or make him look bad - those were the primary motivations behind most of their responses.
Let's look at just a few examples to illustrate the point:
"And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, 'Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?' that they might accuse him." (Matthew 12:10) Notice that they weren't really interested in the correct answer to their question of whether it was right or wrong to heal on the Sabbath. They wanted an opportunity to destroy their opponent.
"Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how the might destroy him." (verse 14)
"The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, 'Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?'" (Matthew 19:3) Once again, they were not interested in the truth of the matter. After Christ gave them his answer, we read: "They say unto him, 'Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?" (verse 7)
On another occasion, the priests and elders approached Christ in the temple and asked him about his authority to do the things he was doing and who gave it to him. (Matthew 21:23) Jesus, however, turned the tables on them and asked them whether or not John's baptism was of Divine or human origin. (verses 24-25) Then we read: "And they reasoned with themselves, saying, 'If we shall say, from heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.'" (verses 25-26)
"Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, 'Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?'" (Matthew 22:15-17) Do you think that they really cared about what Christ thought about the issue?
A little later, in the same chapter of Matthew, we read that the Sadducees tried their hand at discrediting Jesus. They were of the opinion that the doctrine of the resurrection was a false teaching that could not be defended. Hence, knowing that Christ taught the resurrection, they told a story about a woman who married and buried seven husbands in the course of her lifetime. (Matthew 22:23-27) "Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her," (verse 28) they asked. Once again, however, they were not interested in the truth of the matter (they had already decided that). They were trying to do a gotcha on the Lord.
In light of this information, we may all want to do a little soul searching and self examination regarding our religious opinions and our motivations for defending them. Maybe it's time to really seek the truth of the matter and stop trying to defend our own turf. Are we really that afraid that someone with an opinion that is different from our own might be right about something? Why not try using our intellects to get at the truth?