Friday, August 23, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance: Belief vs. Experience

I was a faithful Christian for the first 20 or so years of my life. I mean a fully indoctrinated, Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, nightly-praying, church-going believer of The Word. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, went to church regularly (even after I was old enough to stay home if I wanted), and even played bass in the praise band during my church's hip contemporary service. I know what it's like to be a believer, I know how most Christians acquire the beliefs that they hold, and, most importantly, I know what it's like to live in a world where those beliefs are constantly being called into question, or as Christians might say, tested.

I got the idea for this blog entry from watching a YouTube video made by a British fellow who goes by TheraminTrees. This video is actually the second in a series about his transition from faith-based beliefs to atheism, and his explanation in this second part is simply a perfect illustration of the effects of having beliefs that are inconsistent with our life experiences.

The phenomenon I'd like to talk about is one that is inherent in any faith-based belief system, and one that every Christian (and Muslim, and Jew) experiences and has to find creative ways to deal with. That phenomenon is something I'll call cognitive dissonance.

That sounds like a fancy phrase, but it simply comes down to this: we all have a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions about the world in which we live, many of which we acquire directly from our parents during our formative years as children. We all also live in a world which is constantly bombarding us with sensory data and experiences. We try to interpret all of these experiences through the lens of our beliefs. Sometimes the two are easily compatible, and there is congruence - our beliefs and our actual experiences coincide harmoniously. Sometimes our beliefs and experiences, however, seem to be at odds with each other, and this produces a problem, which I'm calling cognitive dissonance. Picture it this way:

As you can see, when our beliefs about the world and experiences of the world coincide, there is congruence. When they don't, there is dissonance. Congruence makes us feel comfortable and confident in our beliefs; dissonance makes us feel uncomfortable and uneasy about them.

I'll recount an example when I can clearly recall experiencing this sort of cognitive dissonance. When I was in high school, I took an elective course in Philosophy. One day we were talking about the origins of life on Earth. The various theories were laid out, most specifically creationism/intelligent design and evolution. (The theory of evolution does not actually seek to explain the origin of the first life form, a phenomenon known as abiogenesis, but let's just pretend like we're dealing with apples to apples here.) As a Christian, my belief was that God had something to do with the creation of life on Earth. In the theory of evolution, there is no mention of God whatsoever; the theory works without any such supposition. Looking at the evidence for evolution, however, produced a problem for me: the explanatory power of the theory was overwhelming and undeniable. I simply could not reject the theory outright, even though it did not align with my beliefs. This troubled me greatly, until I heard about a third option, namely special creation. This hybrid theory states that evolution occurred, but God intervened at several key points in order to ensure its success. I immediately latched onto this theory and, for a period of time, accepted this as my belief for the explanation of life on Earth.
In order to correct the dissonance between my belief and my experience, I needed to distort the theory. There was no compelling evidential reason for me to insert God. I was beginning with the assumption that God simply had to be in there somewhere, and so I distorted my beliefs until I could square them with my experiences. This is one way that believers can reconcile dissonance and try to make their beliefs and experiences congruent. The problem is that, just as in my example, this process invariably produces garbled nonsense. In the end, my conclusion was an incoherent bastardization of two different theories, but crucially, it alleviated my cognitive dissonance about the matter at the time.

A more salient example that many Christians are facing right now is the issue of homosexuality. Among younger people especially, this seems to be extremely important - I know people who have decided to attend different churches based solely on this one issue. In this case, the cognitive dissonance arises between the Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality by our culture. Many people who have close friends or family members who are gay find it difficult to condemn these people to hell for eternity as vile sinners.

There is a serious lack of congruence here between belief and experience, and there are many ways in which believers try to force a reconciliation. All attempts to do this require either distortion of belief or denial of experience. The believer has to convince himself that the scriptures must be interpreted in a different way; the translations are wrong, the verses apocryphal, the cultures incomparable, et cetera. The believer desperately wants to find a way to harmonize his sensibilities with his preconceived beliefs, and it is particularly difficult on this issue.

Christianity has some very serious dissonance built into it from the onset, in the form of obvious contradictions. Two examples that come to mind easily are the Garden of Eden story and the entire concept of prayer. Any amount of serious critical thought about these two things will reveal some serious cognitive dissonance, as I will attempt to illustrate.

The Garden of Eden story in Genesis is ridiculous for many reasons, but even if we dismiss it as entirely metaphorical and not descriptive of any actual event, it still has bigger problems. (Mind you, there's no textual justification for dismissing it as a metaphor - the Bible never suggests that the story is anything but literal truth.) We all know the story: God creates Adam and Eve and two magical trees, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. God tells Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge. A wily snake slithers up and tells Eve that God is lying, so she eats from the forbidden tree and gives some to Adam too, so they've both made a mess of it. Yadda yadda yadda, original sin.

The contradiction comes in God's reaction to this incident. By his very nature, God is said to be omniscient. He knows all that ever was, is, and will be. If that is the case, then God should never be surprised or react with any emotion to anything that ever happens, because he already knows exactly what will happen. This makes it absurd that God would ever be angry for anything that anyone ever does or doesn't do. If God is omniscient, then he knew that Adam and Eve would eat from the forbidden tree and be cursed forever. This story is supposed to explain original sin, but it actually implicates God as the originator of sin. God knew what would happen; he set Adam up to fail. The God we read about in the Bible does not react as if he is omniscient. The believer must try to square this massive inconsistency of experience with his beliefs in order to produce congruence.

Prayer is another head-scratcher of a contradiction. This is perhaps the most resonant source of cognitive dissonance among believers, because everyone has experienced a so-called "unanswered prayer." The process by which believers reconcile this troubling experience with their belief is by invoking "God's will." If anything happens, it is because God willed it to happen, and if we cannot understand the reasons, this is simply because we cannot understand God. Invoking "God's will" is a tacit admission that God does not listen to or answer prayers. He's going to do whatever he wants to do anyway, whether you pray about it or not. And remember, since he's omniscient, he already knows what you want. There's nothing you can tell him that he doesn't already know, including the fact that you don't want your grandmother to die from cancer. Praying is one of the most futile, contradictory, arrogant, misguided acts imaginable, and believers all but admit this themselves. One can make giant leaps towards congruence of belief and experience by simply disavowing the idea of a God who answers prayers; by our very experiences we know this to be simply false. Prolonging this clash between reality and unfounded belief only invites unnecessary suffering on oneself.

The problem with faith-based belief is that it demands that we reject our experiences. Instead, people are raised to believe completely arbitrary and unsupported claims like God is perfectly good. We have to dismiss our own experiences, which tell us that any God who offers eternal punishment for a transgression is unjust and cannot be good. No crime, however severe, could ever possibly justify an eternal punishment. One can only reconcile those conflicting statements by distrusting and rejecting one's own intuition. This is profoundly unhealthy behavior.

In the video above, TheraminTrees talks about atheism as a congruence. When you don't begin with a set of beliefs which you did not arrive at through evaluation of your experiences, congruence occurs naturally and much more frequently. There is no struggle to contort your experiences into a rigid predetermined framework. Atheism is not a rejection of God, it is an admission that there is no evidence for God. This is the only logical framework that promotes harmony between belief and experience. Believing things on no evidence, and rejecting evidence which does not fit with beliefs, is a recipe for constant struggle to reconcile belief with the real world, and for the believer, it must be exhausting.

If you believe things on faith, ask yourself why you have these beliefs. You will discover that you don't actually have faith in Christ. You've never met Christ. You have faith in other people who have never met Christ but have told you about Christ. You have faith in The Bible, which was written by people, none of whom knew Christ. This is no way to form beliefs about the world, as it leads to dissonance. Base your beliefs on your experiences, and you'll be stunned how quickly everything falls into harmony and makes sense. I've found that it's much easier to sleep at night as an atheist than as a Christian.

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