What is "Cognitive Dissonance"?



On the first episode of The Mentionables Podcast, the phrase "Cognitive Dissonance" came up. What were we talking about? Here's what:

In 2011, radio preacher Harold Camping predicted Christ would return on May 21st. When this did not happen, Camping said that Christ came invisibly, and that he would come physically on October 21st. 

In 1956, psychologist Leon Festinger published When Prophecy Fails, a book about a UFO cult that had predicted an impending apocalypse. The time they had predicted that the world would end came and went without incident. Rather than abandoning their beliefs, the cult began frantically revising them to explain how their worldview was true even when their prediction was wrong. 

What Festinger observed in his book was that it is human nature for people to absorb or deflect facts that don’t seem to accommodate their existing worldview, rather than changing their worldview to fit the facts. Festinger labeled this phenomenon “Cognitive Dissonance.” 

While no worldview is immune to this human tendency, as Festinger observed in his book, this is especially prevalent in religious communities. In many, if not most, cases, when a person embraces a religious idea, they do so as a result of indoctrination. Children naturally adopt the views their parents teach them, for instance. A person might be pressured by a peer group to adopt a view because everyone else holds that view. Or a person might be taking the word of an authority figure, such as a pastor, without researching the reasons behind what that authority is saying. 

Once the person has adopted their belief, they will naturally tend to interpret any future information they may receive through the lens of that belief structure. 

In small measure, this tendency is not entirely unhealthy. The scientific method involves four basic steps: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and reconciliation. A scientist observes the facts concerning their subject matter, then they form a hypothesis about how those facts fit their subject matter, they form an experiment to test the truth or falsity of their hypothesis, and then they reconcile the results of the experiment with the hypothesis, altering it as necessary. Rarely does this process result in the scientist discarding all of the theories within their field and starting over from scratch; throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. 

The reason scientists don’t abandon an entire belief structure every time they are wrong is that it is assumed that much of the work that went into forming that belief structure in the first place – the experiments that succeeded, and the theories that were upheld by the evidence – were, in fact, correct. 

At the other extreme of cognitive dissonance lies Postmodernism: the belief that there is no overarching truth that governs all of reality. This belief conveniently allows the subscriber to hold any number of conflicting beliefs without discomfort, as each separate belief is true “in its own way.” 

While the religious in general and Christians in particular are often criticized (and rightly so) for their over-reliance on “confirmation bias” - the tendency to only consider ideas that already conform to one’s preconceptions – they are by no means the only ones guilty of this crime. 

In debate, there is a mistake called “the genetic fallacy.” This is when a person dismisses wholesale any idea that comes from a source they consider to be disreputable. “You can’t say the earth is round. Adolf Hitler believed the earth was round.” The problem with doing this, of course, is that it doesn't consider the idea itself, only the source of the idea. 

As modern day Atheism and Skepticism continue to gain ground, they become increasingly guilty of the same crime that Christians have committed for years: dismissing wholesale any statement or argument that comes from a religious source. Whether or not Christianity – the belief that Jesus was God incarnate, and that he gave everyone the opportunity for a relationship with God through his voluntary death – is mistaken, this does not necessarily make every idea Christians have about history, politics, morality, and science wrong as well. The reverse is also true, if Christians are largely mistaken in these other fields, it does not necessarily discredit their foundational belief. 

Moreover, Naturalist indoctrination is more and more mirroring what religious indoctrination has done in the past. Scientists who have Intelligent Design leanings are being pressured to keep their ideas to themselves, change their stance, or leave the scientific community. As religious authority figures are less and less respected in western culture, people are more and more adopting any view a scientist will express without researching the reasons behind what the scientist is saying. 

It would be a double standard to insist that the religious judge arguments and ideas without bias, and then refuse to consider any evidence for what the religious people have to say. Cognitive Dissonance is a two-way street.