Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance and Religion

Cognitive dissonance is an intellectual tension that occurs when two contrary ideas present themselves.  Normally, this happens when a person invests themselves in a belief and then is presented with contrary information.  All rational responses to contradicting facts lie between these axes:
  • Either your old belief was wrong, or
  • The new information is wrong
We usually try to resolve this disharmony of ideas by taking the path of least resistance, which often results in an irrational third option that we see all too often in religion (among other things):  Rather than dissecting how either idea is false, we accept both conclusions as true and then reverse engineer supporting data for both ideas using confirmation bias.  There must be some way both things can be right!

Actually, I’m being too abstract.  Let’s get specific: A friend of mine came across a Flat Earther subforum and, like a car crash, it commanded his fascination.  Being a professor of mathematics and a physics enthusiast, he felt obligated to get involved.  He was remised to find that while the Flat Earthers’ conclusions were obviously wrong, they had realigned their axioms and twisted math and astronomy enough to actually support their claims!  For example: the horizon is an easy demonstration of the Earth’s curvature, but in this forum, the horizon wasn’t evidence of the Earth curving out of view, but instead the curious result of light refraction – and they had the formulas to back them up!

Obviously, as he dug deeper, he hit on bits of astrophysics that debunked the Flat Earth theory (and I use the layman’s “theory” here, not the scientific term).  What would happen when he presented these proofs to them? They’d simply respond with the self-affirming “It needs more study.”  That would be a fair retort in the 15th century, but since then we’ve circumnavigated the globe, seen the Earth from space, and developed layers of irrefutable math that demonstrates an elliptical planet.  We’ve solved the mystery.  Some of these people were apparently skilled mathematicians, so how could they maintain that the Earth was flat with a huge pile of documented evidence in front of them?  Through the combined powers of cognitive dissonance and denial!

Let me stop you right there.  It's turtles all the way down.
To be fair, most of these people were probably young, intelligent physicists-in-training looking to test their abilities in a hobby exhibition of Poe’s Law, but a small chunk of them had to be true believers.  A select group had to have honestly at some point decided for themselves that the world was flat. Employing reverse scientific method, they then fought from their conclusion backwards until they’d cherry-picked a large enough cocoon of unfounded jibber-jabber to encase their worldview.  Some would say the same thing about string theory supporters or other scholars of emerging theories, and in the end, this type of exploration is mostly harmless fun.  Besides, I said something about religion in the title, and it’s time I get to the point.

I was raised Roman Catholic.  By that I mean I was raised Northeastern United States Roman Catholic – the cafeteria Catholic variety that doesn’t go to church or believe in Jesus, but gives credence to the basic moral teachings of the Vatican.  I wasn’t raised to read a literal Bible, but “Don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t covet, and don’t cheat on your wife” are pretty well embedded in me and the golden rule is - in fact - a rule.  As much as we could attribute these beliefs to religion, I think any appreciation of individual freedom instills the same values, and I find it hard to believe than humans aren’t born with a desire for freedom (history tends to back this up).  But in Catholicism, “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t just mean “don’t kill people”; it comes with a host of qualifiers that I was taught and agree with.  For example: you may kill in self-defense or in defense of another if there is no other way to resolve the situation.  Well, that makes sense… or does it?

What about when you’re a soldier in an unjustified war and the “other” you’re defending is a voluntarily-participating combatant in your platoon?  If the war is unjustified, isn’t his presence there unjustified and likewise your murder in his defense unjustified?  Or how about commandment eight: the one about lying?  I hold the truth in high regard, and I could write a dissertation on why I believe blunt honesty is the only just conduct in the all but a few circumstances.  How can I be sure my dissertation of reasons is not a dissertation of dissonance?  How can I be sure of… well… any of my morals, really?  And what about the beatitudes?  I agree with them as well, but blessed are the meek and woe unto the rich?  Where’s your data?

Nobody bailed out Coach when he was on food stamps and welfare.
No matter who you are, you’ll have a moral code impressed on you by some authority or another - parents, teachers, or society as a whole - but religion is the one class of institution that exists strictly to do this… strictly to forever confound the means by dictating the ends.  And yet when it comes to life’s unanswerables, it’s scary to imagine a world where a warm and fuzzy ideology isn’t being injected into youth en masse.  What conclusions would we reach in a vacuum of outside influence?  Do I want my kids to grow up actually able to decide right and wrong for themselves?  Would I laud them for walking their own road, or would I disavow them for their selfish, dishonest, greedy ways, all the while knowing that deep down I have doubts that I reached my own conclusions by myself?

Point is: I’ll forever resent that an organized religion stole from me the peace of mind of knowing that I reasoned my way forward instead of backward.  It doesn’t matter how rational you are, at some point cognitive dissonance will be something you experience, and the ensuing denial it often causes even in the most rational of people should scare the shit out of you.  Always question your assumptions.

Tl;dr – Rant on how religion kills brain cells.  Also, masturbatory pseudo-intellectualism.



  1. I had something else I wanted to say, but I forgot it.

    The thing that I wanted to say that I remembered I wanted to say is this: This phenomenon, which I've never heard named until now, is essentially what allows government to stay in power.

    Regardless of public or private, schools will brand one axiom upon your soul which will be unquestioned by the many. Entertainment and the media also help to imprint it. You're taught "America is perfect."

    This is what keeps the illusion of a respectable government.

    American settlers slaughtered and exploited thousands of indigenous peoples. But America is perfect. Slaughtering them wasn't that bad. They brought them technology and culture. Plus they had to defend themselves. The natives fought each other all the time. They were a brutal people. They would have done the same thing.

    America enslaved another race for the benefit of white culture. But America is perfect. Let's not forget, America also ended slavery! Plus, black people are better off now for being taken to a richer more developed country. Plus, tribes in Africa were enslaving these people themselves. They would have been slaves anyway.

    America nuked two cities largely filled with non-combatants. But they needed to save American lives! Plus, they didn't know exactly how bad the bomb was!

    America tortures people who have never been proved guilty of any crime But you can't risk having terrorists in court! Plus, they have information which could save thousands of innocent people.

    It's amazing.


    Stompin' heads & kickin' mother fuckin' ass now!