Cognitive Dissonance: Why It Matters

Cognitive Dissonance: Why It Matters February 7, 2021

Hi and welcome back! In recent days, I’ve brought up the concept of cognitive dissonance. Christianity inspires all manner of uncomfortable mental states in humans, and one of the biggest of them is cognitive dissonance. Today, let me show you what cognitive dissonance is, why it’s such a big part of Christianity, and how to deal constructively with it when it shows up to the party.

an ancient wall, long ago ruined
(Ilenia F.) A ruined, ancient stone wall in Arpino, Italy.

Everyone, Meet Cognitive Dissonance.

This entry refers to the mental state of cognitive dissonance. For the most-excellent podcast, see Cognitive Dissonance (disambiguation).

Cognitive dissonance is a mental state in humans that happens when people hold contradictory beliefs. Those contradictory beliefs manifest when reality doesn’t line up with their beliefs about it, or when their behavior reflects those contradictions.

Examples (more here; also, here are some interesting experiments about it):

  • TRUE CHRISTIANS™ tend to believe the Bible is inerrant and literally true. But they have rewritten vast swathes of the Bible — and ignore everything left in it that they don’t want to obey. And reality keeps contradicting their beliefs.
  • A far-right American Christian man believes that following the sex rules of his sect is very important. However, he constantly violates those same rules in the worst and most egregious ways.
  • Logical Christians” think they hold their beliefs for valid intellectual and factual reasons. But they turn out to have fallen for the usual emotional manipulation and conspiracy-theory level of reasoning that most of their tribe has.

People naturally want to live in ways that are in harmony with both their beliefs and reality. They want to be authentic to themselves. So cognitive dissonance describes a state of deep and unpleasant mental conflict

The more important the belief is to the person involved and the greater the contradiction offered by reality, the worse the conflict feels — and the more important it becomes for sufferers to resolve that conflict somehow.

Cognitive Dissonance Isn’t Inherently Bad.

Of course, cognitive dissonance is not, in and of itself, bad. That stress can bring us to a place where we’re able to recognize that contradiction exists and then to do something about it. Cognitive dissonance is a big bright red warning light indicating that something’s not quite right in our package of beliefs.

If someone becomes aware of holding contradictory beliefs, then cognitive dissonance can inspire them to consider those beliefs in a very direct way, where they can ask themselves how they can bring their beliefs into alignment again.

When functional people become aware of holding contradictory beliefs, ideally they respond by amending/changing one of the beliefs. Perhaps they’ll realize that they were wrong about one or both beliefs. Maybe they’ll change how they discuss or display their beliefs to more accurately reflect their own behavior as a believer. Or maybe they’ll come a better understanding of the overall importance of one or both beliefs.

For example, consider a Logical Christian who somehow isn’t utterly dysfunctional. This person values the holding of only objectively-factual beliefs. When they discover that their beliefs aren’t based in reality, they might adopt a flavor of Christianity that plays more nicely with reality, or maybe they’ll drop the beliefs that turn out to be anything but that. The goal of actually holding only factual beliefs overrides their desire to feel correct in their beliefs.

But dysfunctional people operate very differently.

NOT Resolving Cognitive Dissonance.

Instead of amending beliefs so that everything lines up, dysfunctional people try to sorta-kinda reconcile their contradictory beliefs. The goal for them becomes keeping both beliefs intact.

  • TRUE CHRISTIANS™ have written entire libraries of pseudoscience and apologetics to demonstrate that their approach to Christianity is the one truest to the Bible.
  • The far-right Christian piously cries about how everyone’s a sinner, so the sex rules need to be legislated even more in light of his hypocritical behavior.
  • And, of course, Logical Christians have already adopted a system of belief that’s nearly impervious to reason and rationality. They just drill down harder!

In effect, these folks stagnate and drill down on error to avoid embracing necessary changes.

But remember, cognitive dissonance is stressful for those experiencing it. The more important the beliefs involved and the harder they jostle up against each other, the more stress believers feel.

In Christianity, the beliefs are marketed as being of utmost importance, and they jostle hard against each other and reality on a nearly-constant basis. So the leaders of dysfunctional Christian groups must find ways to resolve that stress — or their members will simply leave.

(I mean, imagine a church pastor who tells his own flock that it’s totally fine for them to chase their inevitable doubts right out of Christianity! I’ve sure never seen that myself. I doubt it happens often.)

The Techniques Involved.

A dysfunctional group cultivates many, many methods of helping members avoid changing their beliefs. Here are just a few I’ve noticed off the top of my head:

  • Creating and forwarding pseudoscience and apologetics that validates the group’s beliefs
  • Minimizing the risks involved in holding the beliefs — and maximizing the risks of rejecting or even questioning them
  • Pushing the imagined good benefits of holding the beliefs and the imagined superiority of those holding them
  • Using thought stoppers and compartmentalization to keep the jostling of false beliefs to a minimum
  • Denigrating and dehumanizing those who criticize or question their beliefs
  • Denigrating any critical-thinking skills or processes that could lead to questioning belief
  • Encouraging sacrifice for the group and/or its beliefs, which reinforces belief and discourages questions
  • As a last-ditch Hail Mary, declaring that cognitive dissonance is actually a desirable feature of belief, rather than a dealbreaking bug

All of these techniques and probably many more help the flocks hold contradictory beliefs together. In groups that believe nothing that is actually objectively true, these techniques become essential. Leaders in these groups must work overtime to keep the flocks focused on everything imaginable except on the actual truth value of their beliefs.

Mindfulness: Busting Cognitive Dissonance.

I was pleased to see one psychology site focus on mindfulness as a way to constructively respond to cognitive dissonance. That’d be my first recommendation to anybody seeking to work more constructively with their own cognitive dissonance.

Mindfulness, at its core, means being completely focused and present in our current situations. It means being very aware of ourselves, our minds, our bodies, our movement, in whatever situation we’re in right now. Exercises in mindfulness, like meditation, can help us become aware of what we think and feel — and how we express that stuff, and why we think and feel it in the first place. Mindfulness rituals like five-senses grounding (vaguely described here, with the “red folder”) can pull us out of harmful thought cycling as well so we can better focus on our here-and-now.

As such, mindfulness brings about self-awareness, perspective, and clarity of thought. Most of all, it encourages skepticism and critical thinking about everything, even — maybe particularly — toward the stuff we think is true already.

None of that can happen in groups dedicated to believing in stuff that isn’t actually true (about the supernatural, about their own group, and even about themselves).

So I wasn’t surprised at all to see that people in the most toxic flavors of Christianity came down with both feet on the whole idea of mindfulness. Well, yes. Of course.

Getting to the Goal of Truthful Beliefs.

It’s natural to want to believe only that which is true. I reckon almost every person who’s ever lived wants that. 

It’s a lot harder to get to a place where that’s actually the case. To get there, we have to be willing to be wrong — and to amend our beliefs bit by bit till we’re as close to that ideal as we can get.

That process necessarily involves change: inevitable, inexorable, impossible-to-deny change.

Dysfunctional people despise change and fight against it with all their might. To them, change occurs only in the wake of a very powerful threat and only after they have been defeated utterly by their enemies. So their minds tend to be focused on defending themselves 24/7 from anybody or anything that could possibly disprove any of their claims. To them, feeling right becomes more important than actually being right.

But change is a part of life. It’s as much a part of life as dying is. Maybe that’s ultimately why so many Christians fear change and fight it so hard. Christianity becomes not only their get-out-of-annihilation-free card, but also their get-out-of-being-wrong card and their get-out-of-changing-forever card.

A Telling Response.

Ultimately, I consider Christians’ own responses to cognitive dissonance as yet another mark against the validity of their claims.

If what they had was true and real, they wouldn’t need to use all those song-and-dance techniques to keep the flocks from focusing too hard on their actual claims. That’s the last thing they want, and it shows in every interaction they have with criticism of any kind.

NEXT UP: LSP! Tuesday: Todd Bentley is back, just as we predicted. We’ll check out how this utter charlatan and liar-for-Jesus used his good ole boy network connections in toxic Christianity to keep his own egregious scandals from permanently sinking his career. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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