Cognitive Dissonance and Christian Belief
By Merle Hertzler
Have you ever been in a room filled with discord? People are arguing loudly. Nobody is listening. The resulting dissonance can be most uncomfortable.
Dissonance can occur in the mind also. When an important decision must be made some ideas and beliefs in the mind will argue with other ideas and beliefs in the same mind. Ideas and beliefs, which are also known as cognitions, can be in discord. This leads us to experience cognitive dissonance . Cognitive dissonance is no fun. It is like a shouting match within one's own mind.
The mind does not like these squabbles, and so it automatically works to eliminate the dissonance. There are several strategies that the mind will use to minimize the discord. Sometimes it will convince itself that the difference is not important, and push the issue aside. Other times, the mind will refuse to listen to the newest beliefs. Sometimes the mind will seek additional support for the favored view, thus outshouting the unfavored beliefs, and lowering the cognitive competition. Such dissonance-reducing mechanisms free the mind from the discord that cripples it, and the mind finds relief. But there is a sense in which these mechanisms are very bad. The new ideas that are suppressed by these mechanisms may have actually been right. But the mind is not listening to them. The new thoughts are bounced out of the conscious mind. The mind fails to gain new knowledge that it could have gained. The dissonance has been reduced, and that is what the mind craves.
This may be why many people listen to certain talk-radio shows. Many of the listeners have a strong opinion on religion or politics. The listeners know of people that disagree with their views. The knowledge that there are different political views causes cognitive dissonance. Some cognitions in the mind say that the traditional beliefs are true. Other cognitions say intelligent people disagree with these ideas. The cognitions are in discord. Such folks come to the radio for relief from the dissonance. The talk-show host rattles off a string of opinions favoring the target audience's views. To appear open-minded, dissenters are allowed to call in to the show and present opposing arguments. But before the dissenter has had a chance to fully develop his argument, he is cut off. We are then informed that this person was an idiot, and that this is why he disagrees. The faithful have now "learned" additional reasons from the host for cherishing their favored belief, and they "learn" why they so often hear from folks who disagree. They "learn" that people disagree because they are idiots. With the views of dissenters explained, they now feel safe in ignoring them. (But I am not sure that all of the dissenters are idiots. Even if they are all idiots, I am not sure that this would be a good reason for ignoring their arguments, for stupid people are sometimes right.) The person who is suffering form cognitive dissonance, and is seeking relief, is often quite satisfied to swallow any argument that tells him he can safely ignore opposing views.
You and I each have a worldview, which is the sum of our ideas and beliefs. If our worldview is far from reality, we will experience much cognitive dissonance, for we will often hear and see things that do not fit well with our worldview. Our minds will become overloaded with cognitive dissonance, and will block out the new information. On the other hand, if our worldview is close to reality, most new information will fit into our existing understanding of the world with little modification. We will only need to make minor adjustments to accommodate the new information. We will experience little cognitive dissonance. We can then learn many new things.
If you and I want to have a healthy, happy, productive mind, we will need a worldview that is close to reality. Our incoming observations will need to cause little cognitive dissonance. This makes it important that we learn to make our worldview as close to reality as possible. We need to sort through the conflicting information we receive, and determine what is most likely true. We need to be able to analyze the data, and critique each idea we hear. This is known as critical thinking, and it is very important.
But before we discuss critical thinking, let us first look at some ineffective methods that people use to establish truth.
Now authorities are very often right. If we select good authorities, we will find good answers. But authorities are sometimes wrong. Authorities are especially unreliable when they speak outside of their field of expertise. Even when they speak as an expert, they are sometimes wrong. That is why science, as a discipline, does not accept an answer just because a leading scientist says it is so. Instead, the scientific community submits the proposed ideas--even those of leading scientists--to a process known as peer review, in which others who can understand the argument review it carefully to see if there are any fatal flaws in it. If many capable reviewers have reviewed the idea carefully, and find no serious flaw in the argument, and if they have tried to challenge it, and find that it still stands, we can be confident that the idea is probably true. We believe it, not because authority confirms it, but because rational thought confirms it.
Christianity is, for many, a religion of authority. How do Christians know that Jesus rose from the dead? They have authorities that tell them so. How do they know the Bible is true? They have authorities that tell them so. And since the authorities tell them the Bible is true, than the Bible becomes an authority in everything it says. What should they think about abortion, euthanasia, or homosexuality? They will look at what their authority says. And so many Christians find themselves bound to their authority, and this establishes their worldview.
Authority is not always correct. As I have shown elsewhere, the scripture is not always correct. In fact, we have seen that many of the Bible's recommendations are not good at all.  Sadly, the worldview of the scriptures is often far from reality; it is often what Arterburn and Felton refer to as Toxic Faith. Hence, Bible believers experience cognitive dissonance and it's associated problems when they try to believe that the things in the Bible are true, regardless of the evidence.
Examples of this can be found every day in debates on the web. Bible believers are shown errors in the Bible. It is difficult for many to admit that the Bible actually says what it does, and they struggle vainly to make it all fit together. 
What do you do when you are faced with a very important decision? If you are a Christian, you will most likely pray about it. And you will pray that God will show you the answer. How does God answer? Many Christians will look at the thoughts that come to their mind when they pray, and assume this must be God speaking to them.
Decision-making by way of prayer does not seem like a good idea to me. How do you know that the thought that comes to you during prayer--or immediately after praying--comes from God? Yet many people assume that God is leading through this time of prayer. But is there any real evidence that this leads to better decisions than would be obtained by careful review of the pertinent facts? If prayer causes people to make better decisions, why do we not find that Christians are way ahead of others in making the proper decisions? Both Christians and non-Christians alike appear to have their share of good decisions and bad decisions. If prayer is so effective at leading us to the correct decision, why has that effect not been demonstrated in controlled studies?
Unfortunately facts often take second place to the perceived leading of God.
Could it be that guidance through prayer is nothing more than intuition? Is it no better than just pulling an idea out of the air and going with it? I prefer reason. For unless someone can show me clear evidence--a few stories are not real evidence--I will remain skeptical about decisions that are made on a whim and a prayer.
There is another way in which intuition is favored over reason in some circles. Some teachers teach that men naturally use reason and logic, whereas women naturally use intuition and feelings to determine truth. This seems to be a most crippling view of women. Our society has arrived where it is because people have learned to use critical thinking skills involving observation, reason, and logic. I find no reason to believe that men are superior to women in these skills. And so people of both sexes should be taught to use their reasoning skills. It is an insult to tell women they are not as good at reasoning skills, and that they should rely instead on feelings and intuition as a means of finding truth. Sadly, many have listened to the concept that women are inferior at reasoning, and think that they can best develop their worldview by using their intuition instead of logical reasoning.
There is a way of thinking that is better than relying on authority, intuition, or prayer-induced thoughts. It is the process of critical thinking. This involves careful observation, and the use of reason to determine the truth. To think critically, one must ask questions and be open to all views. One must seek to understand different sides of an argument. One must be fair-minded in his appraisal of the facts. One must suspend judgement until he has time to look at the available facts. One can than make a conclusion based on the facts.
Critical thinking works. It is the method that has been used by scientists for centuries, and it has brought us out of the Dark Ages. It has led to the scientific revolution. (For more information, see the side bar.)
I conclude that, if you and I want to have a mind at peace, we will need to minimize cognitive dissonance by using critical thinking skills to develop an accurate worldview.
CopyrightÓMerle Hertzler 2004. All rights reserved.