Cognitive Dissonance: (Not) Answering the Big Question

Cognitive Dissonance: (Not) Answering the Big Question February 12, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about cognitive dissonance — that uncomfortable state people get into when they realize they hold contradictory beliefs. The people who take Christianity the most seriously seem to be the most afflicted by it. We’ve seen how Christians respond (poorly) to cognitive dissonance in general and also regarding prayer. Today, we’ll see how they respond (also poorly) to cognitive dissonance regarding the biggest question they could possibly ask: Does their god really exist at all? 

it just drowns Christians sometimes
(Earl Richardson.)

(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. Also: Archiving doesn’t capture responses on Reddit posts. If you want to see those responses, you’ll need to hit their original pages.)

The Cognitive Dissonance of God-Belief.

Unfortunately for them, Christians hold a vast number of beliefs that are not corroborated by reality. The Christians who believe the hardest that their beliefs are thus corroborated are the ones who suffer most from cognitive dissonance. I’m talking here about the mental tension they experience from these two contradictory beliefs:

  • A very real god controls this world, works miracles, and answers prayer. His mythology book offers readers accurate history and science in addition to a reliable account of what this god wants from humans, and what he offers humans who worship him — or reject him.
  • Reality reflects Christians’ beliefs consistently and reliably.

Of course, no beliefs in Christianity are monolithic. There are oodles of Christians who don’t buy into one or both of these beliefs. I’m talking here about a subset of Christians — not a small one, but not all of them by any means.

If Christians can argue themselves into a totally real god who just never leaves tangible evidence of his actions, and they accept that this world doesn’t reflect their beliefs in a god, they’ll probably be okay.

For the ones who do buy into both beliefs, though, reality presents them with a problem. And it makes that presentation constantly, every minute those Christians are awake to perceive it.

Our Sources for Today.

Man alive, it is not hard at all to find Christians wondering aloud/in text if their god even exists. I’ve selected a few that explicitly ask what I’ve come to call The Big Question: Are their beliefs even true?

  • r/TrueChristian: “I don’t know what to believe anymore.” [original source]
  • Zacharias Trust: “Why isn’t God more obvious?” [I liked their photo: a lion hiding in tall golden grass. I’m not sure a predator relaxing in plain sight is the image they want to project. Or maybe it is. This is a Ravi Zacharias-based group, after all.]
  • r/Christianity: “Either God doesn’t care or He isn’t real.” [original source]
  • Quora 1: “Why do I feel like God isn’t real? I really don’t want to feel this way. I’ve been feeling out of sorts lately and I’ve been praying every night for the past couple of months to strengthen my relationship with God.”
  • Quora 2: “Sometimes I feel like I’m losing faith, what if god isn’t real? I try to be A good believer but I’m just losing faith.”

There are so, so many more I could list, but these are great representations of cognitive dissonance in action. All of these Christians are under enormous tension because they need to believe in only that-which-is-true. However, they’re becoming more and more aware of the painful fact that reality constantly contradicts their beliefs. That is a really rough place to be, as I can testify!

But all too often that pain is necessary, if we’re to escape false beliefs into something more true.

Cognitive dissonance warns us that we’re involved in something that isn’t right for us. It tells us to pay special attention to our beliefs — and tells us that something’s gotta give. If we don’t listen, then that tension will only get worse. Eventually, something will give — whether we like it or not.

That’s where these Christians find themselves.

Cognitive Dissonance: “I Don’t Know What to Believe Anymore.”

I recently ran across a Christian on the subreddit r/TrueChristian talking about this dissonance. They really, really, rillyrilly want to be a faithful Christian. But their god isn’t telling them which interpretation of the Bible is the most correct one. Their beliefs tell them that this god absolutely should be cluing them in, but that’s not happening. Gosh, y’all, they even became politically conservative so they “can be more aligned with Jesus,” because obviously Jesus is a Republican. In their post, this Christian ends up lamenting:

So much paganism(?) , and so much misinformation and conspiracies getting thrown around as truth. That even if i knew something is true, im beginning to doubt if what i believe is factual to begin with.

And they should wonder. The vast number of differing interpretations of the same exact Bible verses really should be a major red flag.

Since Christianity’s creation by anonymous men a little less than 2000 years ago, the number of interpretations of key verses has only proliferated rather than whittling down. When a lot of competing key ideas in reality-based disciplines (like biology) start jostling each other, we can test them using reality-based means. We slowly eliminate explanations that don’t fit the observations and measurements we get from reality. Eventually, we end up with one explanation that fits the data completely and isn’t refuted by any data. One example of such an explanation is descent with modification.

But we can’t use reality-based means to test anything Christians claim. They use very subjective means to test their ideas, if they ever test them at all. So yes, all these competing ideas in Christianity represent a serious issue.

So now they’re at a crisis moment. Their beliefs tell them they stand at a dangerous ledge. Their beliefs tell them to fear this precipice. All of our source Christians are at this point.

Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance — Unconstructively.

Remember, there are three basic ways people can deal constructively with cognitive dissonance:

  • Change or drop one or both beliefs.
  • Seek out accurate new information to effectively remove the tension one way or another.
  • Reduce the importance of one or both beliefs, with a shift in behavior that reflects that reduction.

If someone deals with cognitive dissonance in a way that seeks to keep both beliefs intact and at the same level of importance they were at pre-crisis, that is not constructive. That person’s still left with contradictory beliefs, and more importantly they’re left with reality still contradicting their beliefs.

Let’s get into some of those unconstructive methods now.

Stopping Thought.

Thought stoppers include reciting Bible verses and throwing around meaningless aphorisms that effectively stop all questioning. We find these all over our sources.

In the r/TrueChristian post, a number of Christians recited various Bible verses at Original Poster (OP). TexMex9725 went with a quote from Paul’s letters. thrown4loops1 reminded OP that paradoxes and contradictions in the Bible “are there for a reason,” that reason apparently being to remind Christians, “we are not saved by perfect doctrine but, simple faith in Jesus Christ.”

The post at r/Christianity got a whole lot of responses. The Christians there got right to work trying to push the OP back to firm belief. Alias_Fakename4110 wrote an extensive essay about 1 Kings 19:11-13, which is a story about Elijah — then told OP to “just listen for the small things too, for sometimes God is present in them as well.” Many advised the OP (like Electric_Smoke did) that their god allows doubt for Jesus Reasons. Many suggested more church attendance, with phil701 advising OP to talk to a priest and “if able, partake in the Eucharist.”

The writer for Zacharias Trust trotted out the old canard about Jesus being coy precisely because it weeds out poseurs who can’t believe on faith. So the doubters just need to have more faith! Somehow. He also completely (and dishonestly) redefines “clearly visible” in a way that allows his god to not be clearly visible — and uses a false comparison to boot.

Our Quora respondents offer similar thought stoppers. Many suggest prayer or Bible study as a way to recover one’s belief.

I guess none of these folks realize that for a lot of ex-Christians, those tactics led us right out of the religion. But we will coming back around to that problem very soon.

Blaming the Doubter.

Plenty of Christians like to shoot the messenger — meaning, they attack the person expressing doubts.

Our Ravi Zacharias dude asks if the OP even knows Jesus. Ouch, talk about so-called “Christian love!”

A reply on Quora 1 from Aaron Anderson sums up this approach:

If you are a Christian, then you need to examine your life and how you are living it. Sin is what separates us Christians from God and makes us feel distant. if you are a Christian then you should know what is sin and what is Grace (that which pleases God). That is why I asked you to examine yourself and look at your actions recently to see if there is anything you are doing which is a sin because that will make you spiritually distant from God.

When I have sinned, I find it difficult to pray. Think about that! If there is sin on you, or I , we have separated ourselves from God . It isn’t easy to humbly confess our sins and repent. It isn’t for me at least.

Bob Woods, on Quora 2, offers a similar hot take:

Many times when we are struggling with our faith, it is because of a circumstance in our lives, whether that is our sin, the sin we have seen in another, or just a symptom of the brokenness of our world (and man, there seems like a lot of that this year). I encourage you to really take time, pray to God, and ask Him where the barriers are in your life.

And I know what they mean, too. Totally.

See, every time I commit thoughtcrimes against Isaac Newton, I totally stop experiencing gravity and calculus literally stops working. Seriously! Reality stops being real the moment we offend real people. Yeppers! See, that’s how you know if someone’s real. (/s)

If Christians can hand-wave away doubts by attacking doubters, that makes them feel better. It doesn’t do much for the doubter, though.

Declaring Coyness a Feature, Not a Bug.

Every single post in our source list has someone in it trying to declare that coyness is a feature, not a bug of Christianity, meaning that their god totally set up the system to look just like it does.

The Ravi Zacharias dude declares that his god is “plainly” obvious — to those who are meant to believe. I’m sure that makes doubters feel great. He also declares this hilarious lie:

Faith isn’t a blind faith, but a response to the evidence. It’s based on real events that can be investigated.

Sure, Jan. That’s exactly what leads people out of Christianity. There’s no credible, objective evidence in Christianity. The fact of the matter is this: a real god operating in the real world to any extent at all will inevitably leave footprints of his passing. We see no such footprints in this world.

Christians can’t have it both ways: a god who meddles constantly with this world, and yet who leaves no footprints. But they keep trying to have it both ways, and it’s not hard to understand why. If they had any real evidence supporting their god’s existence, they’d offer that up instead of endless apologetics arguments that operate in the absence of evidence.

But at the end of these declarations, doubters are still left with a reality that does not reflect their beliefs. Turning their god’s existence into a conspiracy theory might work on some, but it won’t work on a lot of others.

Cognitive Dissonance in Action.

As with our OPs from yesterday, I feel bad for doubters in Christianity. The OP from r/Christianity mentioned many times in comments that their doubt was turning into a serious crisis of “identity,” even. The pain from cognitive dissonance can be absolutely crushing, especially for Christians who think that only their package of beliefs can keep them whole and safe in this world and/or the next.

And there is no street-legal, effective way for our doubters to address their cognitive dissonance. Atheists and ex-Christians leapt into our Quora and r/Christianity discussions to advise OPs that it was okay to address it more constructively. But Christians never did, because they really can’t.

In that vein, I saw only one commenter, Diana Lynne on Quora 1, state unequivocally that every Christian has doubts, sometimes very serious ones. Even then, she couldn’t state that these doubts can’t ever be effectively defused. Instead, she punted to thought-stopping and offered an anecdote about this totally working for her. And it might! Motivated reasoning is one helluva drug.

But if her solution worked for even a lot of Christians, they wouldn’t be hemorrhaging members for years generations now.

The Dealbreaker.

Cognitive dissonance proves to be the dealbreaker for a whole lot of Christians — and yet they have never come up with an effective, constructive way of dealing with it. I wish that bothered more Christians than it does.

Ultimately, Christians’ inability to deal well with cognitive dissonance helps people escape those false beliefs. When suffering doubters come to their fellow Christians with their emotional pain, they only get these responses instead.

That tells them what they need to know. And it should.

NEXT UP: The Ravi Zacharias report is out. And it is a stunner. Well, maybe it stuns the Christians who thought highly of Ravi Zacharias. Those who understand authoritarian leaders won’t be quite so stunned. We’ll talk about it tomorrow (and then we’ll continue with the worst part of cognitive dissonance — for Christians). See you then!


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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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