Over the last several months, I have often encountered the claim that my book Jesus Loves Canaanites is guilty of motivated reasoning. That’s a deeply misguided claim as I will explain in this article.
Let’s start with a definition. Motivated reasoning involves the process of seeking arguments or evidence to achieve a desired outcome rather than allowing the quality of evidence to shape the nature and results of the inquiry. The following Dilbert cartoon illustrates the logic of motivated reasoning in humorous fashion:
In this cartoon, Pointy-Haired Boss directs Dilbert to perform an investigation but he then tells Dilbert the conclusion (the desired outcome) that he wants at the end. Thus, we have a bald case of motivated reasoning. (Yes, the reference to bald motivated reasoning was a half-hearted attempt at a pun.)
By the same token, when I argue for readings of biblical violence that are consistent with the plenary inspiration of the text and the moral perfection and omnicompetence of the divine author, am I not likewise engaging in motivated reasoning no less obvious and fallacious than that of Pointy-Haired Boss?
The short answer is, no.
The longer answer is as follows. This objection confuses two distinct projects: open inquiry and reasoned defense. An open inquiry is a type of rational investigation in which one is not seeking to argue for a particular truth claim but rather to gather the available evidence relevant to determine which truth claim it supports. The nature of the open inquiry is precisely that it should not attempt to determine what conclusion will be supported by the evidence. And it is precisely for this reason that attempts to manipulate the results of the investigation, as Pointy-Haired Boss does here, constitutes a case of motivated reasoning.
But the exercise of reasoned defense is a very different matter. In this case, we do not begin wholly uncommitted and then seek what conclusion is supported by the evidence. Rather, we begin with a prior commitment to a particular truth claim and then seek to provide positive evidence for that truth claim and respond to defeaters or objections to that truth claim. Needless to say, it is simply mistaken to insist that reasoned defense must follow the strictures of open inquiry.
In Jesus Loves Canaanites I am undertaking a rational defense. As such, I begin with a commitment to a particular set of beliefs about the nature of Scripture, its authority, inspiration, and divine authorial origin. From that point, the task is to explain how one can continue to hold these affirmations despite the fact that the Bible includes some shocking portrayals of God commanding and commending actions that we would consider immoral in any other circumstance. And so, the project is perfectly legitimate and is not subject to the misbegotten charge of motivated reasoning.