Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Cognitive Dissonance and the Religious Mind

Posted by Ann on July 29, 2008

Cognitive scientists generally agree the human mind does not naturally base its beliefs on evidence but that people can actively work on overcoming this human tendency toward irrationality. During a process of changing long held ideas or belief systems, people usually experience what is referred to as cognitive dissonance. An uncomfortable feeling, arousal, or stress resulting from holding contradictory ideas or beliefs.

The theory of cognitive dissonance, supported by a significant amount of research, postulates people have a drive to reduce discomfort caused by dissonance. This natural drive may result in modification of existing beliefs. Or, it may result in the rejection of evidence contradicting a person’s beliefs, even when the evidence is empirically justified. Research has indicated people will go to extreme lengths to rationalize their beliefs. If irrational beliefs are not corrected, people will continue making bad choices for the sake of consistency. Regardless of whether there is justification for their decisions.

Cognitive dissonance occurs in a person who holds strong self-concepts and yet behaves discordantly. For instance, a man may believe he is an honest person, but then he consciously lies, creating a personally stressful situation. Cognitive dissonance is experienced since he did not perceive himself as a liar. The stronger the self-concept, the more likely it is he will reject the evidence to maintain the consistency of his belief. Whether or not the belief is actually true.

Most people are resistant to changing their beliefs. Even with clear evidence contradicting them. There can be many motivations, either conscious or unconscious, for this selective awareness including, but not limited to, making oneself look good or protection of a self-image, avoiding isolation, or imitation of personal heroes. Although it is common to question other people’s views of reality, it’s rarer that people question and examine their own views or distortions.

I like George Orwell’s term “doublethink” from his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Does a good job of describing the experience of cognitive dissonance. In the novel he describes doublethink as:

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

And later when describing the character Winston’s thoughts while exercising:

His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved using doublethink.

Cognitive dissonance exists in the religious mind that desires to relieve the stressful effects of holding beliefs without evidence. I think it’s likely that most agnostics and atheists who were once religious have to work through cognitive dissonance at some point in making a cognitive switch from their unjustified beliefs. If the supernatural is something that has been taught as reality since childhood, it seems that strength of will and a strong desire for independence of thought is needed to change beliefs that have been accepted as reality.

I find that for many people, including myself, overcoming cognitive dissonance is not something that happens quickly. I’d compare it to being deprogrammed. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

As I look back on my life, I know now I have never witnessed anything supernatural, although I have experienced weird coincidences and situations I could interpret as supernatural. But this would be without actual supporting evidence. Coincidences occur all the time in life, but that doesn’t mean a deity is manifesting his power. Those who value rational thought will probably always be freeing themselves from cognitive biases. Developing a worldview that’s based on rational thought, and requiring solid evidence for ideas, through constant self-exploration, provides the basis for a good life.

There are many different forms of cognitive bias and I don’t want to go into a description of them here. For your reading pleasure: Cognitive Biases. The upside of our cognitive biases is that they enable faster decision making. The downside is they enable the adherence to irrational beliefs. Irrational beliefs are notoriously difficult to overcome. Some people will actually strengthen their beliefs despite evidence that would be expected to weaken them. In the end, I think everyone can be illogical at times. But it’s the courageous, the daring to be honest few, who are willing to confront their doublethink. It is a little like delving into a labyrinth of the mind.

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One Response to “Cognitive Dissonance and the Religious Mind”

  1. Paulo said

    You can see how religious people try to deal with the cognitive dissonance by separating spiritual matters completely from nature. Whenever you ask for proof of the existence of God, for example, a Christian will be quick to tell you that you cannot prove the existence of God because he is beyond the material world. In other worlds, he’s in a spirit world that operates beyond all the natural laws governing this one. So we have two worlds going on at the same time, one of which you can know nothing about using the methods available to you in this one (except for, of course, Scripture, prayer, divine revelation, etc…)

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