Cognitive Dissonance: Christian Prayer Edition

Cognitive Dissonance: Christian Prayer Edition February 11, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Recently, we talked about cognitive dissonance — that unpleasant feeling of tension someone gets when they realize they hold two contradictory beliefs. Most Christians face that tension all the time and about every belief involved with the religion (supernatural and earthly). Unfortunately, they don’t deal with that tension very well. Today, I want to show you how Christians’ beliefs in prayer create cognitive dissonance — and how they deal (poorly) with it.

the flowers are drowning
(Marco Bianchetti.)

(All spelling and emphases in quoted material comes from the originals. I don’t use scare quotes without warning you, so all quotes indicate actual quoted material.)

The Cognitive Dissonance of Prayer.

Like every single belief and doctrine in Christianity, Christians’ beliefs about prayer aren’t monolithic or universal.

That means that some Christians are actually okay with prayer not doing anything magical. Prayer, for these Christians, becomes just this reflexive thing they (say they’ll) do in times of trouble or a ritual they (claim to) perform at various times. Thus, their beliefs about prayer do not generally conflict with the evidence of reality.

They may believe utterly that prayer represents communication with their god, but they don’t stress about this world operating in such a way that reveals that it’s not. It’s not important to them that prayers actually do anything in the real world. If they pray and don’t get what they asked for no matter how innocuous or simple it might be, they don’t go into a crisis of faith over it.

But a lot of other Christians (like I was) hold two very contradictory beliefs together in their heads:

  • Prayer totally accomplishes magical real-world results in and of itself
  • This world consistently reveals the power of prayer

These beliefs are not only false in and of themselves (as in, they’re completely unsupported by facts), they also completely contradict each other. They’re in friction, jostling up against each other like two tectonic plates.

The effect of that friction on our emotions looks a lot like an earthquake, too! When big beliefs crush up against each other, something’s got to give!

(As always, it sure seems like the only way to remain a happy lifelong Christian is to avoid caring what reality has to say about one’s faith.)

Not Dealing With Cognitive Dissonance Around Prayer.

As I said yesterday, Christians can deal constructively with cognitive dissonance by dropping one of the beliefs or assigning a lower importance to one of them. Such action would immediately pull them out of friction.

But doing that may feel challenging for the Christians involved. The ones who hold these two beliefs tend to hold them as part of an overall package of beliefs that they think is absolutely essential for their safety in both this life and their imagined next one.

Doubt is okay, as long as it doesn’t last too long or draw the believer down unapproved paths — and as long as it always resolves back into complete and total belief again. Ultimately, none of that package of beliefs can be questioned in unapproved ways, much less critically examined, much less ever modified or rejected. They must all be maintained at top fever-pitch fervor at all times in the tribe-approved form.

Even when anyone tries to rescue Christians from cognitive dissonance by redefining one of their beliefs, like Carey Nieuwhof tried a while ago, the flocks won’t have it.

These Christians can’t drop any of their beliefs or lessen their importance. Thus, they’ve got a problem on their hands.

Antiprocess to Their Rescue!

Thankfully for these Christians, their Dear Leaders long ago worked out a sorta-solution for this problem:

Antiprocess.

Antiprocess describes all the stuff people do to avoid uncomfortable thoughts or input. It’s a series of baffles they drop in their mental waters to keep their beliefs intact — as long as they don’t look too close at the challenging stuff swimming there.

As you’ll see, a lot of the antiprocess maneuvers Christians deploy around prayer actually do work for many of them — at least for a while, and as long as they don’t get hit too hard by way too many huge disappointments at once that reveal that all of their beliefs are just not true.

Ya know, like I was.

Antiprocess works very well on Christians who aren’t yet at that precipice of crisis. These exercises can pull them back into the sheepfold for at least a little while. Such Christians will then proudly testify about how Jesus totally saved their faith. And, of course, they’ll look down their noses at all the Christians Jesus apparently didn’t decide to rescue.

Antiprocess does not resolve cognitive dissonance at all. It just offers a few workarounds that work as long as the Christian’s overall network of belief-supports — the faith pool — is already robust. So I guess it’s like apologetics in that respect.

Cognitive Dissonance Around Prayer.

Bear in mind that the Bible 100% promises Christians that their god will absolutely, completely, totally answer their prayers by giving them whatever they ask for. (I examined those Bible verses here.) The Bible offers almost no asterisks to these promises, at least in the Gospels. Ask, and you shall receive. Period.

With that said, the Epistles added a few asterisks, clearly because Christian leaders needed a way to explain why their god wasn’t coming through on his clear promises. Still, they offer a definite set of parameters: ask with the right level of fervor, have no doubts, don’t have any secret sins on your conscience, and make sure you’re asking for something your god wants to do anyway, and you’ll get what you want. Hooray Team Jesus!

Christians who take those promises seriously get hit the hardest by cognitive dissonance. They’re the ones who will most notice and be bothered by the utter lack of real-world cooperation with their beliefs.

We find often find these Christians online discussing the cognitive dissonance they feel around prayer. I’ve chosen a few of these Christians for us to discuss today:

  • Quora: “Should I believe in God if he/she/it never answers my prayers?”
  • Carey Nieuwhof and his commenters: “Why Christians Should Stop Saying “Prayer Works” (And 2 Other Things)”
  • CARM by Matt Slick: “What if Jesus isn’t real? I always feel when I’m praying that I’m talking to myself.”
  • Bible Info: “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?”
  • Christian Index: “Why won’t God answer my cries for help?”

I’ll be drawing from all of these.

Cognitive Dissonance Tactic #1: Blaming Christians For Taking the Bible Seriously.

First and foremost and always, our sources tackle cognitive dissonance by blaming Christians for taking the Bible at its own word.

Christian Index, in describing a pair of writers who lost faith because of unanswered prayers, wrote this:

And as adults, they knew that the God as revealed in Christianity is not a genie in a lamp who will do exactly what we want if we have enough faith to rub the lamp via prayer.

Such a God would not be God, but our servant, our personal genie. [. . .]

Let us keep in mind that what we think we need must be balanced by God with what He knows we need.

Bear in mind, please, that one of those two writers was begging for an end to long-term sexual abuse. The sheer callousness and cruelty of this response just staggers me. He’s telling a victim of long-term sexual abuse, in effect, that she’s just mad she didn’t get a pony from her Jesus genie, and that she didn’t really “need” an end to that abuse. It’s just mind-boggling, even knowing Christians as I do.

However, this same blame, this same callousness can be found in every one of our sources. Carey Nieuwhof is nicer about it, but that’s where he lands as well: Christians just need to stop taking the Bible’s explicit promises seriously. And in a way, it isn’t a bad way to deal with that dissonance, but it requires a complete rewiring of beliefs to move from OMG LITERALLY TRUE to true only in a vaguely metaphorical sense.

If the Bible’s promises about prayer aren’t serious, then what else isn’t? It’s a challenging notion for a lot of Christians!

Cognitive Dissonance Tactic #2: Do More of That Stuff That Already Didn’t Work.

I noticed a few Christians insisting that prayer does too totally work, just the Christians praying hadn’t prayed long enough. As Lucha Tijuanera wrote on Quora,

See not all but some have waited for answears 6, 25, 38 years, but they never waver, because they knew God was listening and is Real,

38 years. There’s just no winning Christians’ game, and that’s part of its design. Craig Good on Quora gives a response that needs to be enshrined for the ages. I imagine it as the direct response to Lucha Tijuanera:

That silence was certainly part of my liberation from the shackles of faith. As someone put it, if you wait long enough and no bus comes by it’s time to admit that maybe this isn’t a bus stop.

But in reality, her note was probably a response to him. Countless Christians have advised me to pray “one more time” to see if Jesus will strong-arm me back to belief. I don’t bother. If my imaginary friend didn’t offer me anything tangible regarding his existence for 25 solid years, then I figure the ball’s in his court now — not mine.

It doesn’t matter how long someone’s prayed. Whatever length of time it is, stopping is never allowed in their game. If you stop, then they’ll look down on you. Period. Their culture celebrates those who never stop, and vilifies those who do.

It ain’t hard to understand why, either.

Cognitive Dissonance Tactic #3: Insist that Prayer Works Great — for THEM.

Some Christians offer responses to cognitive dissonance by insisting that prayer totally works for them, so it does work, so obviously the people complaining are Jesus-ing wrong somehow.

On Carey Nieuwhof’s post, Alice Holland writes (in what I imagine is a state of high dudgeon):

I’m sorry to say to you that prayer DOES work and I feel very sad that so many Christians of today have no Belief or understanding of God and His Promises. I have been to local churches where I wonder why they are there because Belief is just missing . In my day Christians Believed and had their prayers answered. I have been with Him for 53 years and in all that time He has never let me down and I certainly wouldn’t be alive without all His answers to prayers of healing and all my troubles

Oh, okay. Well, that’s nice. Alove offers something similar in her own testimony (which involves her getting a great job offer):

We should not approach hearing the voice of God with doubt and skepticism. We should pray for discernment because when God does speak we don’t want to miss it.

And Lem, of course, insists that miracles DO SO happen through prayer:

I come from a charismatic background. I’ve seen demons cast out tumors fall off depression leave. I’ve seen limbs grow back the blind see and the deaf hear again. There is power in prayer and it works!

But he concedes that some people don’t pray correctly: “However I do believe there is prayer and then there is PRAYER!!!” (One person told Lem flat-out that his claims weren’t true. That was funny.)

They seriously think that if prayer works for them, then nobody’s allowed to question the matter. But after I deconverted, my mind was blown when I realized just how many people in Christianity don’t present their experiences honestly and without confirmation bias. I suspect those questioning prayer are coming to that same awareness.

Cognitive Dissonance Tactic #4: Attack the Messenger.

When a Christian dares to mention the disconnect between beliefs and reality, other Christians deal with that blow to their beliefs by attacking the messenger and trying to fix them.

On Carey Nieuwhof’s post, one Christian commenter, Kenneth, went on at length about his troubles. They’re serious, too. He really needs a lot of professional help that he’s absolutely not getting. Instead, he’s been trying to Jesus his way out of his issues. That has worked about as well for him as you’d imagine.

Kenneth’s testimony represented a real challenge to the commenters. So he became their group project for a while.

Stephen set up a whole program for Kenneth. Seriously, the absolute state of this lad:

So in reality your blessed, do this next 30 days, pray, and give thanks only for what you have, don’t ask for anything just give thanks study and meditate on his word, give moments of silence, fasting helps, it shows God that your wanting his will to be done in your life, it shows God your determined to build that relationship with him, to comune,to give thanks, to seek him above all else not for yourself but to give him glory.

Kenneth replied quickly enough that he’d done that, and it hadn’t worked. Joy Perew came back with a suggestion:

Have you ever heard the concept of dying to self? If you pray for God to teach you about that, I guarantee He will answer that prayer.

Poor Kenneth. When he objected to her suggestion, Joy accused him of “whining.” Then, she flounced because “too many people with too small views of God and too much focus on the here and now.”

These are just two of the many responses Kenneth got. He’d clearly already tried all the suggestions they had in their toolboxes, and they all became, one by one, visibly frustrated that he kept shooting down their standard-issue fixes. Every one of them defaulted to him Jesus-ing incorrectly.

They could have saved themselves and Kenneth a lot of time if they’d only cut to that chase earlier.

The Enduring Friction of Cognitive Dissonance.

As I said yesterday, these strategies aren’t constructive because they all leave those suffering with cognitive dissonance with the untrue beliefs intact. If they can’t struggle to a new understanding of the Bible as being only vaguely metaphorically true (a point I’d argue vehemently), then they’re left with a bunch of suggestions they know already don’t work because I guarantee they’ve already tried them.

All the examples of Christians who’ve prayed — many for years — without receiving their answers? Christians have a whole host of antiprocess they can bring to bear on those living contradictions to their beliefs. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a single Christian who was even halfway fazed about my own testimony, which is thick with unanswered prayers.

Their leaders have indoctrinated them well. Their antiprocess shields deflect all input from all the people their system has failed.

But reality has a way of enduring even when someone doesn’t believe in it at all. It’s always poking, poking, poking at a reality-denier’s shields. One never knows exactly how much poking those antiprocess shields can withstand.

Eventually, Christians start imagining the unthinkable: the asking of the biggest question of all:

Does this god even exist? Or am I just wasting my time for nothing?

We’ll take up there next!

NEXT UP: The Big Question. 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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