Cognitive Dissonance and My Religion

(Warning: Long post ahead)

(Disclaimer: Remember this blog is only a description of my spiritual journey and conclusions and should not be mistaken for “scientific research” or “rhetorical argument”)

There’s been much debate over at DeConversion blog about losing one’s faith. I’ve met pastors, doublethink.jpghousewives, scientists, philosophers, and people from every other walk of life who are in the throes of faith-loss. Many of us are in various stages of mourning. Some can get over it quickly and are upset with those of us who can’t. Some take forever (hand waving) and can’t seem to get a handle on their newfound loss of faith, who keep slipping back into mind-numbing fundie-think. But the majority of us realize that we can’t continue believing what we have and maintain our own integrity. There are those posting who are trying to talk us out of it. At least I think that’s what they are doing. I suppose they see it as a mission field or their duty or they may honestly be dealing with loss of faith issues themselves. I know I was when I first joined up.

I’ve tried for several years now to release myself from fundamentalism. It is indeed an insidious thought process. I think I just might have that part licked. I don’t know. But, it’s religion in general that I have a problem with now. What is fundamentalism? Well, the “fundamentals” are these:

The original formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897) and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which distilled these into what became known as the “five fundamentals”:[1]

  • Inerrancy of the Scriptures
  • The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14)
  • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God’s grace and human faith (Hebrews 9)
  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28)
  • The authenticity of Christ’s miracles (or, alternatively, his pre-millennial second coming)[2]

If you believe these, you are a Christian fundamentalist. I can say that I most definitely do not believe in #1 any longer, nor is #2 necessary to faith. I also do not believe in miracles and gave up my belief in a premillenial second coming ages ago. These two things do not matter to faith either. (All of this begs the question, ‘is my intellectual assent to doctrine necessary at all when it comes to faith in a deity?’ But that’s clearly for another post.) Which leaves the atonement and resurrection, both centered on the man/god Jesus. I have yet to reconcile what I know is true in the real world and what we are told is true by ancient texts, bible interpreters, pastors, teachers, web sites, etc. I doubt I will ever reconcile it. And that is precisely because of this very dichotomy between reason and faith, between what we learn about life here and now and what we are told life is supposed to be about, between these two irreconcilable differences that will most likely never be reconciled, that most people of faith will either choose one of two paths. They will either quell all doubt whenever it occurs, believe what ancient texts tell them to believe, or they will try to understand why doubt persistently appears, explore why they believed at all, and deconvert. I’ve chosen to explore the latter.

What is this phenomenon of persistent doubt about the truth claims of Christianity or any other religion for that matter? Christians will tell you that a person of consistent doubt is probably not a “true” believer (1 John 2:19). That God will not answer the prayers of the double-minded and therefore we are doomed anyway (James 1:8). This tactic of us vs. them relieves them of the mystery of having deconverts in their midst (one of the few mysteries they refuse to accept by the way). Psychology comes in handy here when defining this kind of doubt. There’s a term called “cognitive dissonance” that explains a lot about what deconverts go through when they are confronted with new information that doesn’t jibe with what they used to believe:

According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.

Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent….

Let’s examine why someone of faith might experience cognitive dissonance. Take the example of what Christian’s call “God’s love.” We are told over and over that a God loves us. It was one of the main reason I converted to faith to begin with. It was such an appealing idea to believe that there was someone over and above the human that would love me; that there was something called “God’s unconditional love.” But wait, there’s a catch. God’s love is not unconditional at all. We are told that God loves us, yes, but hates us too because of inherent sin. God’s now in a quandary. He’s (sic) got some cognitive dissonance of his own to deal with. We are told that the very fact that we aren’t dead right now is because God got tired of destroying the world due to sin after he caused the flood. Therefore, we should be most thankful God doesn’t wipe us off the face of the earth again because of our sin (which he caused us to have by creating us capable of it; another mystery). Now, witness that there are wars, plagues, famines, child abuse, droughts, tsunamis, 9/11’s, serial killers, and other phenomena. We are told this is our own fault. Again we are told God loves us, but chooses not to stay these disasters for our own good, you know, much like a mother who would allow her child to get run over by a car to teach them not to play in traffic! God wishes he could, but really, it’s for our own good or destruction that he doesn’t intervene. This belief is not consistent; a God who loves yet does nothing about evil. Yet millions of Christians try to reconcile it by saying it is a “mystery.” We can’t understand it! Don’t even try, just accept. Yet, there are those of us who refuse to accept it. It’s senseless. Therefore, we must give up the belief to relieve the dissonance. We have no choice. It’s not reasonable to believe consistently contrary evidence.

Therefore, the only logical conclusion for the Christian is to see that we aren’t really worth that much if God never intervenes. We are certainly taught that the earth is not worth much. We hear that the only thing of worth is the hereafter. The only concern we should have is where we will spend eternity AFTER we die. That’s it. That’s all the Christian lives for is death. While we are here, living our lives, we should always think of our lives after death. Everything we are taught is geared toward heaven or hell. Every thought is taken captive toward that end, nothing else matters. Now there will be numerous Christians ready to defend all of their beliefs with various arguments. But they are all trying to reconcile inconsistencies in their own faith systems. My point is that some of us choose not to reconcile what cannot be reconciled. Rather than have faith in a “mystery” we choose to face it head on and realize the god of Christianity is not as “loving” as we were told. Examining scriptures closely bears this out, as does simply looking at life as it is lived out by billions every day. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is a god who LOVES this world in any meaningful sense of the word. (Absence of destruction is not evidence by the way)

Meaningless also are the actions we are told we must do in order to be made acceptable to such a god. Actions that signify nothing but the reflection of ancient purification laws and holy codes, are encouraged as signs that we are trying to clean up our lives in order to be ready for heaven. Doctrinal assent is another action we are told will effect our eternal destiny. If such actions are not performed then hell awaits us. We are told that by living a holy life, even though no one can precisely define “holy” consistently, God will love us. This also begs the question, “why live a holy life if Jesus saved you anyway?” What difference would it make how we live if Jesus’ act of dying and rising “brought salvation” to the world? In fact, the larger question would be, what difference would our lives make to any god outside space and time or even inside space and time, where destruction and creation go hand in hand? Of course, the first thing Christians will do is point to various passages of the bible to prove this or that point, but there is no evidence that god sanctioned such texts as authoritative at all. Why should we believe what ancients had to say? And besides, reliance on such texts for thousands of years certainly hasn’t proven that a god exists, let alone a god who loves.

Take another example, churchgoing. When we become Christians we are told over and over that not to go to church is tantamount to not having faith. We are told that there are no “lone Christians” that we are meant to worship in groups, etc, etc. This is obviously a tactic by those in charge to stay in charge and keep their salaries coming in by enforcing tithes and offerings. If no one went to church, then no one would be susceptible to their teachings and group-think. There would be no guilt foisted upon people Sunday after Sunday. And, there would be no money for these “ministries.” Psychology says that the herd mentality is again at work here. No one likes to think they are believing things alone, especially unprovable things, so they convince themselves of its necessity:

Here are some examples [if group behaviors and cognitive dissonance] provided by Morton Hunt in his classic work ‘The Story of Psychology’:

* When trying to join a group, the harder they make the barriers to entry, the more you value your membership. To resolve the dissonance between the hoops you were forced to jump through, and the reality of what turns out to be a pretty average club, we convince ourselves the club is, in fact, fantastic.
* People will interpret the same information in radically different ways to support their own views of the world. When deciding our view on a contentious point, we conveniently forget what jars with our own theory and remember everything that fits…. [parentheses mine]

This describes the Christian to a T. Deny, deny, deny. The first obvious step then in resolving our dissonance is to stop going to or stop reading where we get most of our group-think messages; church and bible. Shutting off the source of dissonance is necessary in recovery. So, now I’m back to where I started; explaining why it’s better to relieve the dissonance by not believing, by not going to church, by not reading a bible. Rather than play numerous mind games with myself about this or that inconsistency in the bible or this or that contradictory teaching by pastors and teachers in various churches, I choose to not hear it at all. I choose to close off the conduits of unreason and contradiction. I choose to go by the evidence right in front of me rather than the “evidence” we were offered, all of which never proved to be true except in our own minds. Edward Babinski, a famous deconvert, wrote:

Fundamentalist Christianity was for me an 11-year ordeal of confusion, self-censorship and self-abasement. After the joy of my initial religious experience wore off, I moved into the modus operandi of Christian fundamentalists everywhere: I shut down emotionally and instead relied on the Bible to dictate my feelings. In Christian fundamentalist circles this is known as “living by faith.”

I felt as if I was issuing a direct challenge to God himself, and lived in great fear of divine retribution. My doubts led me to discover that it was indeed possible to make sense of life, to make decisions for myself, to set and attain goals, and to know my own heart. My spiritual path forked. Do I remain true to honesty, or true to the faith? I chose honesty. Thus was I deconverted. (Babinski, Edward T., Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of former Fundamentalists, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995)

Many of the faith will say we weren’t true Christians, or we did not understand how to live the Christian life, or that we misunderstood what we were taught, or ________ (insert favorite excuse here), but that’s just a form of rationalization and their own cognitive dissonance speaking. All I know is that my head’s clear for the first time in years (especially minus the Lipitor! 🙂 ). So why do those of us leaving the fold keep discussing it? Because it only takes a moment to fall for a belief system that claims to have all the answers, but it takes years and years to recover from it. Blogging is therapy.

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28 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance and My Religion

  1. For so many years I have been trying to say EXACTLY that!

    You nailed it.

    There’s something in developed societies that requires a person to know and profess (and propagate in his children) a belief. What’s so wrong about choosing not to defend a particular belief? Why is it so unthinkable to stand on neutral ground while we explore the possiblities and test the practical truths of the teachings we encounter? Cognitive Dissonance is a form of self protection that fundamental religions weaken and destroy.

    I personally found great relief when I realized the obvious truth – beliefs are a moving target and should be . The is no true guilt or shame in not knowing what one believes.

  2. Marge,
    Bingo! Why do we have to declare beliefs or take sides in religion, politics, etc. when clearly no thought is truly systematic or explains everything? I think a true agnostic acknowledges that we not only can’t know for sure, but why should we?

  3. **We are told that God loves us, yes, but hates us too because of inherent sin.**

    It kind of makes you wonder how much God follows the “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

    **Therefore, we should be most thankful God doesn’t wipe us off the face of the earth again because of our sin (which he caused us to have by creating us capable of it; another mystery).**

    Thank you. I’m often puzzled as to how we can be responsible for our sin prediciment when we didn’t choose to be created with free will or the sin nature in the first place.

    ** Yet millions of Christians try to reconcile it by saying it is a “mystery.” We can’t understand it! Don’t even try, just accept.**

    I guess the question would be what you’re then accepting? How can you accept what you can’t understand?

    Good post.

  4. OSS,

    See, this is the thing. Christians are taught to accept what they cannot understand. That’s the root of cognitive dissonance. It’s like telling people the sky is really a glass ceiling or the earth is flat in ancient times. No one’s been there to prove it wrong and when someone does, they are told to still believe that the earth is flat. It’s a mystery. Amazing that we settle for it and trade truth for comfort. Well, maybe not so amazing.

  5. MOI,

    This is another generalization, but that’s one of the frustrating things about dialoguing with those who “just have faith.” There are a lot of claims made without any facts to back it up. Claims made about God, or such, and the only support seems to fall back to “because the Bible says so” or “because I just know.”

    It’s like the idea behind the inerrancy of the Bible. If you can find any sort of logical idea behind “contradictions” that make it so the contradictory statements are logically possible, then you’re okay. Except that is lowering the burden of proof to such a — weak standard. Something like the idea of God, or anything approved by God, should meet the highest standards.

  6. OSS,

    Yes, right now (and at previous times) I’m struggling with an idle God; one that can act (if what religionists say is true) but refuses to act. What then is the difference between believing in such a God and not believing such a God is there? You still suffer, but it’s supposed to make us feel better that someone or thing is standing by your side thinking, “I feel your pain.”? That’s not very comforting. We have husbands, boyfriends, and siblings and parents to do that. Really, it’s all a mental game. More and more I see that it’s all which pair of “reality” glasses you put on that day, the ones that mask it or the clear ones.

  7. MOI,

    I just read your article, “Fundamentalism: A Disease of the Mind?” at de-conversion. I don’t go there much these days, and I refuse to post comments there. I have issues with the people who maintain and contribute to the blog, and I can’t abide the Christians who participate. However, as I agree with everything you’ve said in that article and in this one (and I wish that this sort of thing were being said publicly more often; I’m sickened by what I perceive as a capitulation to the Christian subculture), I thought you’d be interested in this:

    http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/tik0709/frontpage/neuroscience

    This is one of a few articles on the subject I’ve come across recently. Apparently, there is evidence now that there is a physiological basis for fundamentalism.

  8. cipher,

    Thank you for reading both articles and for keeping a level head. Most of the participants that are Christian see de-conversion blog as a mission field. They refuse to actually ponder the arguments, but feel they can “share” whatever usual trite statements without limit. Like you, I tire of it. I do agree there is capitulation. What Christians and non-Christians alike despise in Muslim fundamentalism, they refuse to see in the Christian variety. But, like I wrote, it’s extremely difficult to take such a hard look at your own biases. It’s even more difficult when you are blinded by a thought system that is designed to quell any doubt.

    Thanks for both the comment and the link!

  9. You’re very welcome.

    Frankly, I can’t even stand the Christians there who don’t try to proselytize – at least, not overtly. The guys from the Seminarian blog come to mind. They seem to prize “civility” – they’ve made comments about my “lack” of it – but they think that everyone who disagrees with them is going to hell for all of eternity! Moreover, they’re Calvinists; they believe that God planned it that way from the beginning. But, as long as we’re “civil” to each other, that’s all that matters – “Why, yes, you’re going to hell – but we can at least be polite about it.” Morons.

    And I’m not too happy with your co-contributors there, either. LeoPardus knocks Christianity all the time, and no one says “boo”. But, when I say the same things, even when I’m backing him up – suddenly the Christians are offended, and complain about my lack of “civility”. And no one takes them to task over it.

    I’m not too crazy about anyone on either side of that fence.

  10. MOI,

    The other frustrating thing, and this somewhat sidetracks from your post, but I’m wondering how others feel about this.

    When discussing matters with someone in a ‘fundamentalist’ viewpoint, does anyone else feel that half their points/questions go unaddressed? There are lots of times when I’ll question a claim, show support for why the claim is incorrect, and not only does it not get ignored, the claim is repeated down the line.

    It’s not a matter of the person not acknowledging I’m right. It’s a matter of being acknowledged at all, or having the point properly refuted.

  11. cipher,

    I’m afraid I have to agree. I’ve had my runarounds with the co-contributors as well over other issues. I’m debating becoming a former contributor.

  12. OSS,

    You are acknowledged only if you have a point they find they want to refute, but your logical refutation of their comments is not something they are interested in. It confirms what you said about not listening. It’s like talking to someone face to face and you can see they aren’t hearing, they are already formulating their response to what they think you are saying. Frustrating.

  13. OSS, I agree with what MOI is saying (I may change my pseudonym. I want three initials!). They hear what they want to hear. It’s a form of denial, which is a symptom of addiction – which is what their adherence to that belief system is.

  14. Keep in mind though that the idea behind the site is to bring an awareness to all who read it as well as a forum for discussion. Yes, there is debate, but participation is a choice. When I found the site 2 months ago I had NO idea there were so many with almost identical experiences to mine. I’d never heard the term “de-convert” before, just knew that I’d made the decision 10 years ago and never looked back. I called myself a “jack-christian”. Finding the site and reading other’s stories was a big eye-opener and helped me to better articulate my feelings on the matter.

    The contributors and the discussion are one thing, the silent readers are another. Givingyour input, especially in contrast to some of the whiners and preachers helps keep the balance.

  15. MOI/Cipher (you could abbreviate, but that would leave you with CIP).

    It is frustrating. When debating someone, I spend time researching, or stating my points. I feel that I address all points the other side does. And yet, out of eight or ten paragraphs, maybe two of mine are responded to.

    Actually, it’s more than frustrating. It’s disrespectful. I spend time engaging with them intellectually, and they can’t respond in kind? The initial indication is that we’re worth the time … until we start the logical refutation.

  16. Actually, it’s more than frustrating. It’s disrespectful. I spend time engaging with them intellectually, and they can’t respond in kind? The initial indication is that we’re worth the time … until we start the logical refutation.

    One of the many reasons I will no longer engage them.

  17. Cipher,

    You are wise. I was stupid, got sucked into a discussion, and the person — when my points were actually refuted — kept refuting arguments I never made.

    I was very stupid.

  18. It isn’t wisdom. They enrage me. I’ve had to disengage for the sake of my mental health.

    I would dearly, desperately love to see these cretins pushed back to the margins of society where they festered for decades after the Scopes trial, until they were whipped into a frenzy during the seventies/eighties by the psychotic ravings of their leadership – men like Falwell, Robertson, Kennedy, etc.

    I don’t like them.

  19. Cipher,

    It gets even better. I was dialoguing on a subject that is guarenteed to polarize any sort of discussion: Abortion. I’m pro-choice. The other person was pro-life. The only reason why I got involved is because he was making some blanket statements about abortion that were flat-out wrong. I questioned him, I provided links, I provided arguments, and everytime he rephrased them, it was like he was holding the conversation with himself. I didn’t care that his viewpoint was pro-life, I just wanted him to state the other side correctly. Hell, just state his *facts* correctly.

    My favorite part of the whole thing was him essentially saying that if a woman doesn’t want to be pregnant, then she doesn’t want to be a woman, which he said I said.

    Yes. I, as a woman who am pro-choice, will define a woman as woman only by whether or not she wants to be pregnant. No other factors matter.

  20. It’s typical of their incoherence. Really, why do you bother? You aren’t going to get anything even remotely resembling reason out of them. And the more you argue, the more they’ll take it as validation. I said this to you the other day – “The world will hate you for my sake”, or something of the sort. The fact that you think they’re wrong just proves they’re right. You hate them, you hate God, yadda yadda… . Like a goddamn broken record.

  21. Cipher,

    Because I’m stupid, really. 🙂 My roommate saw a bumper sticker today about arguing on the internet is silly, because you get nowhere and it shows that you’re retarded.

    Her: “I thought of you!”
    Me: “Because that’s totally me!”

    I hate ignorance. I really do. And I hate people who speak of ignorance, who’ve announced that they have dealt with the opposing side when all they’ve set up are Strawmen. Because this is the viewpoint of a lot of people out there, and if maybe I just reach one, it would make a difference.

    At which point, we hear a giant sucking sound.

  22. OSS and Cipher,

    I think the problem as I see it, is not to blow one’s stack when confronting. I have a problem with this too, so I can’t trust myself to stay calm during debate. It ALWAYS pushes my buttons and certain people on the site know it, so they push them on purpose. Then I end up saying stupid stuff, blah, blah and from there they can slam me and not see my original argument. It’s not even really WHAT you debate, but HOW that seems to make it worth it.

  23. MOI,

    I can’t speak for you, but I think part of what pushes my bottons is not that they disagree with me. It’s the attitude. In the abortion post I was involved in, the last comment was the guy saying that I was twisting logic so bad that he wouldn’t be surprised if I were close to an anuresim (sp?). He then repeated my argument, which was a Strawman.

    Had his repetition actually been what I said, then yes. I would be close to a brain problem.

    That’s what sets me off. Those little comments, that aren’t even relevent because they don’t even address your argument.

    And yet, he holds the “absolute truth.”

  24. Absolute truth? I find it inconceivable that people who regularly assault the English language and who think that the velvet Elvis is the height of artistic achievement have anything of any value to say, on any subject, at any time.

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