Drew Rick-Miller: Some Science Behind Sin

In seminary I first heard that most pastors only have a handful of sermons. They repackage them in different ways with different texts, but most of their messages come back to a few key proclamations.

I wonder if that applies to bloggers and newsletter writers.

If so, one of mine might be that science informs our prayers of confession. Whether it is our selfish nature that compels us to prioritize ourselves and our families, or the study of various neuroses, or understanding how our emotions get the best of us, science has a lot to say about sin.

Implicit Bias and Race

In this column I want to revisit cognitive bias. Essentially, these biases are cognitive shortcuts our minds take to help us process huge amounts of sensory information. These shortcuts enable us to make quicker decisions, to create narratives of meaning, and to organize which memories we are able to recall. Not all biases are bad, many are neutral and some can be good. All of them help our brains to avoid being overwhelmed.

Many biases are connected to what the church would label as sin, especially unconscious or unintentional sins. Bias is a big reason why systematic and corporate sin exist. Our minds process information in ways that justify the status quo and accept the rational for corporate actions even when those may be hurtful to other groups of people.

Bias contributes to categories our mind creates around gender, age, social roles, and all of the stereotypes we hold about other persons. Bias, especially implicit bias, is a major factor in racism and the actions (and inaction) that perpetuate it. Psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt defines implicit bias as “the beliefs and the feelings we have about social groups that can influence our decision making and our actions, even when we’re not aware of it.”

Eberhardt’s research team has learned a lot about bias and racism. Here are some highlights:

Brain areas linked to facial recognition light up more readily when we see faces similar to our own. This helps explain why we remember and distinguish faces connected to the cultural groups with whom we were raised. This is not inborn; rather, “our brain is getting trained on” the faces around us.

All too often, black faces are associated with both crime-related objects and apes. Even worse, after glimpsing an ape image, students were more likely to say a black man beaten by police deserved it.

People who saw photos of black middle-class families subconsciously associated them with bad neighborhoods.

Teachers, regardless of race, are more likely to think a black child, as compared to a white child, is a troublemaker.

When financial managers were given nearly identical portfolios of successful investment firms that differed only in the race of the key principals, they found the white-led firms were favored.

An analysis of 28,000 traffic stops from a local police department found that 60% of the stops involved black persons in a community that was only 28% black. Body camera footage exhibited key differences in how drivers were treated. White motorists heard phrases like “I’m sorry to have to pull you over” or “Drive safely” whereas black motorists were told “Keep your hands on the wheel.”

What is most troublesome in this research is that it reveals how widespread and pernicious implicit bias is. This isn’t simply the province of bigots. All of us harbor one or more of these biases without even knowing it.

How Shall We Overcome?

Is there a simple intervention or a handful of steps to overcome our biases? Sadly, no. Scientists can show us our biases, but I found much less to help us eliminate them. Here are a few ideas, nonetheless.

Start Early: Our brains form many of these biases and associations early on. Once formed, it is clear they cannot easily be undone (although we must try). So, how can we help our children form different associations and interactions? More diversity may decrease the bias imprinted on their minds while also building bridges with those outside our own social groups.

Create Protocols: Awareness of biases does not directly undo their effects. Knowing my mind is likely to make racist associations is k from doing so. As a result, rather than individual discretion, we need protocols so that our intuitive reactions are replaced by intentional processes. As an officer approaches a car, or a teacher considers discipline, clear protocols help overcome biases.

Slow it Down: Intuitive, gut reactions are where biases are most dangerous. Creating what scientists call “friction,” something that makes us second guess our intuitions, may help. Eberhardt describes a neighborhood watch platform that made it hard to warn neighbors of a suspicious black man. To issue a warning you had to identify a suspicious behavior and not just their race. It reduced racial profiling by over 75 percent.

Confession: As noted, awareness of our biases is not sufficient to eliminate them. Still, as Christians, we do trust in the power of forgiveness and God’s ability to work for good. Let us name our sin and ask God’s help to overcome our biases. That is exactly what we do each week in my church. After calling ourselves to worship, we confess our sin in unison and in private. We ask for forgiveness. We trust God can effect change in us and in the world.

The events of the past month have identified the sin of racism unlike any moment in my lifetime. The calls for change are loud. I pray that the science I have outlined above allows us to name the sin behind our biases and help us as individuals and church begin to respond to the calls for change.


Dive Deeper

This Science magazine article highlights a number of Eberhardt’s studies.

A captivating interview with Eberhardt after publication of her 2019 book, Biased.

An interview with another psychologist who has spent 25 years studying cognitive biases.

Several studies have been done on race and bias in classroom settings.

Ministry Resources

The Greater Good Science Center is building out several resources on science and race.

From their resources, I found this piece and this one helpful with ways to overcome racism.

I first considered cognitive bias in this April 2019 newsletter.


Drew Rick-Miller

Drew Rick-Miller is Project Co-director of Science for the Church and the lead editor of the weekly email. In addition to leading this project, he does freelance work on a range of projects including Science for Seminaries, Orbiter magazine, and programs at the Fuller Youth Institute and Biola University. Previously, he spent more than ten years with the John Templeton Foundation, most recently leading the Religious Engagement Department, where he developed programs helping religious leaders and media engage scientific content. Drew studied literature and physics at Northwestern University before attending Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.). Drew’s vocational passion is to help the church navigate the faith and science interface. Drew lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, a Presbyterian pastor, and their three daughters. He still proudly dons purple and cheers on his Northwestern Wildcats.


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Strengthening the church through engaging with science​
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.