Bad Advice: The Worst Part of Cognitive Dissonance

Bad Advice: The Worst Part of Cognitive Dissonance February 18, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Not long ago, we checked out cognitive dissonance. That’s the uncomfortable tension people feel when they realize they hold contradictory beliefs. As one might imagine, Christianity constantly presents its adherents with that kind of tension. And I don’t mean the sort Christians like to daydream about, either, that kind they mistakenly think makes no sense to outsiders and makes us all wonder: There’s just something, I dunno, DIFFERENT about them. No, this is the real deal. And out of all the contradictory beliefs assailing their peace, there might be one set of contradictions that qualifies as the worst. Today, let me show you what happens when a Christian suffering from doubts collides with the tribe’s collective wisdom about dealing with doubters.

don't wanna hit that going too fast
(Jon Tyson.) A wrecked brick wall.

(I selected today’s post topic because it was such a perfect illustration of Christians generally, not because I want to pick on anybody or wish anyone ill. Though I obviously hope Christians in general will learn one day to handle doubters better, these folks aren’t any different, for better or worse, than any other group of Christians anywhere. It’d be a mistake to assume otherwise — or in Christians’ case, to assume that their flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ would have totally made a huge positive difference in this discussion.)

The Worst Part of Cognitive Dissonance (for Christians).

Christianity’s sales promises implode on contact with reality. For every Christian who warbles that their faith sustained them during their darkest hours, I’m willing to bet there are many hundreds (if not thousands) more wretches in similar straits who screamed at the ceiling till their voices cracked — and received nothing for it but a sore throat the next day.

And the ceiling’s silence is not their fault.

They received nothing, and they received it through absolutely no fault of their own. There was nothing they could have done better or differently that would actually have gotten them an answer back from their ceilings.

What I describe here might be the dirtiest secret of Christianity:

Whatever benefits someone thinks they’re getting from the religion, they’re either working themselves up to that state or it’s simply people helping each other out, as they do everywhere. As for supernatural meddling, only natural forces affect us. Though they can affect us profoundly, these forces are nonetheless natural and not supernatural in any way. No demons, no angels, no gods meddle at all in our world.

But even the most liberal, progressive, emergent Christians tend to think there’s literally a supernatural god and various supernatural forces at the center of their beliefs. Perhaps only Deists escape this problem, but they’re a drop in the bucket of Christians.

Thus, every single belief in any religion that requires a real live god or a supernatural agent/force to make something happen inevitably smacks believers into the brick wall of reality.

So ultimately, there’s no way for Christians to escape cognitive dissonance.

Doubt in Times of Trouble.

Generally speaking, Christians do a decent job of silencing potential dissenters. When I was Christian, I certainly hesitated to talk about the doubts I faced. I knew what my tribemates would say. So the sheer depth of cognitive dissonance might well be far greater than anybody can guess, even those outside the religion.

Despite Christians’ deliberate attempts to chill such discussions, each god-requiring belief still collides with reality one after the next.

All Christians can do when someone raises their doubts is respond with their completely unconstructive non-solutions. These non-solutions all assume that the doubter is Jesus-ing incorrectly somehow. By setting the doubter onto the path of correct Jesus-ing, the doubt will be completely allayed. It’s like they think that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who are Jesus-ing properly are too busy basking in the glow of their imaginary friend for doubt ever to gain a “foothold” in their hearts. It’s just that simple.

Their leaders crafted these non-solutions to address doubters — not to resolve doubt. And they do definitely address doubters! They tell doubters loud and clear what the group’s expectations are.

In their doubts, at least a few Christians seek advice from other Christians. They haven’t learned yet what happens to doubters.

The Gauntlet of Cognitive Dissonance.

Christians have a lot of non-solutions to bring to bear in the case of doubt.

All of them are ineffective.

Y’all, I’ve never once run into any Christian doubter who replied, upon receiving one of these standard non-solutions, OMG! I’ve never once EVER thought of PRAYING NONSTOP and STUDYING THE BIBLE and CONFESSING *ALL* MY SECRET SINS! Thank you so much, Internet Stranger Christian! Whew! Disaster averted! You’ve cured my doubts forever!

Whenever doubters respond at all, it is to say that they’ve done this stuff already. They desperately want to emerge from this season of doubt with their faith fully intact. They want to believe. But none of this stuff is working!

In fact, by the time doubters dare to talk publicly about their cognitive dissonance, they have already run that gauntlet. They’ve already tried the usual suggestions. Those suggestions didn’t work. 

And Christians can never cope with that fact. This situation might represent one of the most tangible pieces of cognitive dissonance they encounter.

Coping Poorly With Pushback.

These doubters’ pleas for help reveal too much. They challenge too much. So when their OPs push back by saying they’ve already done all that, Christians react in some very telling ways.

In reading about Christians’ responses to cognitive dissonance, I ran across this post on the subreddit r/Christianity. The Original Poster (OP) said they weren’t sure if the Christian god doesn’t exist or just doesn’t care about humanity. (Unfortunately, archives don’t capture Reddit responses very well. So here’s the original link — just so you can see this stuff for yourself if you like. I’m linking screenshots of the replies I’m discussing here today. Also, I “name names” here only to keep this post halfway intelligible.)

Mainly, the OP’s big fears are that death might just be the end of their existence on Earth, and they have great difficulty conceptualizing life without god-belief. Those fears overcame the OP’s doubts for a long time. But as OP gets older, belief seems harder and harder to maintain. (See endnote.)

I’ll warn you right now: the good Christians of r/Christianity do not cope well with OP’s doubts. Oh sure, they faithfully, diligently trot out all the platitudes they’ve learned to deploy in these cases.

But these poor Christians don’t have any idea what to do once their rehearsed platitudes fail.

Responding to Pushback With Bad Advice.

User gordonjames62 thoughtfully advised the OP to “enjoy all the blessings of life,” ask their god to show himself, read the New Testament’s “stuff about Jesus,” and “find some Christian friends.” In fact, this user insisted that he had “never seen a person who is seeking God in these ways disappointed or feeling ignored for long.” When OP said they’d already done all that, gordonjames62 took a vow of silence.

Other users made the usual suggestions. OP didn’t answer them, but did answer a few others to say they’d done that stuff already. Nobody tried to overcome those objections. Not even once. That said, I loved how GreenCaviar phrased it: “Have you tried praying while fasting?” Like there’s some magical key combination that OP has to hit in order to encounter real-world support for their beliefs. Or another of GreenCaviar’s suggestions: “Have you asked for forgiveness for all of your Sin [sic]?” Like OP had somehow forgotten a few in there. (OP said they’d done everything as suggested.)

Digital_Machine wrote an absolute word-salad response that seems to boil down to the feature-not-bug argument. When OP and others said it made no sense, Digital_Machine made no effort whatsoever to write anything more clear — only laughed at how “English isn’t well equipped for out of box type ideation and contemplation.” Maybe. Or maybe Digital_Machine was just spewing word salad to feel superior to OP.

(You’ll notice right away, I’ve no doubt (SWIDT?), what this particular community of Christians never once did in response to this doubter’s questions. Don’t worry. We’re coming to that communal oversight.)

The Ones Who Didn’t Even TRY to Offer Even Bad Advice.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many Christians in that community who didn’t even try to offer bad advice. They just went for broke on silencing tactics.

FavoredBrother explicitly went with threats of Hell. When an agnostic-tagged user, SlavGael, pushed back against that threat and got OP’s agreement that it wasn’t loving at all, another user, syn0ri (with a zero), drilled down harder on the threat. Upon further pushback from SlavGael, syn0ri took a vow of silence by declaring they “have a train to catch.” (syn0ri’s own response to the OP was a diagnosis of sinfulness. I think this person has some issues to resolve that Christianity is not helping them with.)

One Christian-tagged user, WalkerMobile, asked: “What sort of proof do you need?” OP replied along the usual lines we’d expect of a doubter:

Something to make me feel like God is alive and real. I don’t know what I need but if God is here then there’s got to be something He can show me to help me.

And predictably, WalkerMobile vanished without another word. I don’t think WalkerMobile even showed up for the huge argument that erupted further down their very own thread about the debunked Miracle at Fatima.

The hilariously-misnamed WiseChoices only complained about how often their community received questions like these. “Does this one win the ‘One Millionth’ award?” They decided the best way to advise OP was to advise all the stuff everyone else had suggested that OP had already said hadn’t worked — but then told OP to Jesus on anyway because it’s not okay to expect their god to “send you a ‘proof’.”

Speaking of which:

How Dare OP Ask for Real-World Support for Their Beliefs!

A few Christians took OP to task for even expecting real-world support for their beliefs. arizona_ranger chastised him (relink):

That is not how prayer works. My sister is in the same mindset. You are trying to blackmail God. “Answer my prayer or I’ll stop believing.”

User kamoshidakun lamented:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (Matt 16:4)

And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Luke 4:12)

It was reading these verses that helped me realize how absurd it is to ask God of all creation for a sign, as if he were a magician here for my entertainment.

The audacity!

User ibrothers also took OP to task for being too demanding:

There are billions of people and imagine if every body who wants to believe in God asks for miracle 🙂 Have you thought about that?

When OP pointed out that other Christians claimed to have received validation of their beliefs, ibrothers got snippy and condescending and told OP to “rebuke Satan” and make sure to confess all their sins and it’d all work out. Totally.

Except OP had already said elsewhere that they’d done all that, and reality still refused to cooperate with their beliefs. That’s cognitive dissonance for ya: it keeps people from comprehending what OP communicates.

Cognitive Dissonance: Best Avoided, Apparently.

It’s just so comical, how poorly Christians in the wild respond to doubts. I know you’re wondering if a single Christian actually answered the actual question that OP actually posed. And yes, I saw a couple who tried. Most just suggested that OP try to learn to be okay with doubts, and reassured OP that doubts were acceptable and normal. They didn’t offer bad advice or demonize OP for feeling doubt. In turn, OP appreciated that support and thanked them.

And one user, Alias_Fakename4110, suggested that the OP “just listen for the small things too, for sometimes God is present in them as well.” It wasn’t a great suggestion, but it was one of the few that weren’t completely awful. (See endnotes for why it still wasn’t a good suggestion.)

All in all, the Christians who responded to OP were answering a whole other question than what OP was asking. Ultimately, OP wanted evidence for the claims made by adherents of Christianity — or solid advice about how to deal with the lack of evidence in it. None of the Christians who replied even tried to offer up that evidence except the “small things” guy.

When OP responded to say they’d already tried all that stuff, these Christians just had no idea how to deal. So they stepped away.

(This post and thread occurred two years ago. It was the very last post that this user made on Reddit at all. So, we don’t know how things worked out. I really hope OP is okay, and that they eventually got free and are happy.)

One Little Part of a Huge System.

I dove into this little thread on Reddit because it fascinated me to see how Christians replied to a visceral cry-from-the-heart from a Christian whose faith had finally collided with the brick wall of reality. These Christians could not possibly have botched this situation harder than they did (without, I guess, accidentally suggesting he take up Satanism).

But in their botch, they resemble every group of Christians I’ve ever encountered in real life or online. Their Dear Leaders have indoctrinated them with this-and-such responses to these-and-such situations. When a given situation crops up, they chirp out the response like a parrot programmed in BASIC — without even really understanding what it means or why they’re saying it. It’s just what one says, you see, at such times.

These chirped-out replies don’t actually solve the stated problem, but they do have the desired effect of silencing the doubters — eventually. That fixes their own cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t do much for the cognitive dissonance of the doubter, though.

Eventually, Christians begin to ignore the doubter — as they did here. Eventually, they get very sore at the doubter saying the programmed responses don’t actually work — as they did here. The moment they start feeling challenged, they step away — as they did here.

This exact scenario plays out all over the religion every day. These folks were just one little bitty part of a huge system, all shuddering through its decline in the same exact ways.

Why This Discussion Went Down the Way It Did.

Christianity is, at heart, an authoritarian belief system — yes, even the nicer flavors that try their very best to defang those bits (and bless their cotton socks for trying). Authoritarians will very happily take grudging compliance if they can’t get enthusiastic consent.

That’s how a religion so filled top-to-bottom with cognitive dissonance has lasted 2000 years. But it’s also why losing their coercive powers has cost Christians so much — and so quickly. Non-answers, blame, and confuse-em-and-lose-em word salads don’t play as well as they used to.

Every Christian like our OP today who completely fails to get the answers they need is another cog falling out of the massive machine of the religion. So to me, it’s worth examining how Christians deal with severe cognitive dissonance — or rather, don’t deal with it, or deal with it as poorly as possible.

As long as they refuse to handle doubters at least compassionately, Christians guarantee that cognitive dissonance will continue to wreak havoc in their ranks. It’s good news, yes. But I know how brutal this tension can be. So I’m just sorry it’s apparently got to happen this way and hope those suffering get free quickly.

NEXT UP: I noticed a Christian blogger has asked a question about the Ravi Zacharias scandal that has an answer. It’s just not the one she came up with, is all. We’ll check it out tomorrow — and see if we can’t find the real answer. See you then!


Endnotes.

About these fears of annihilation and loss of one’s meaning and purpose: In almost all cases, these are induced, ginned-up, manufactured fears. Christianity’s salespeople induce these fears and more quite intentionally. Once the mark feels those fears, the salesperson presents the only cure for them: their product, which is active membership in their own group. It’s absolutely insidious, and Christians rarely figure out the con game happening under their noses — until their Faith Pools start emptying. (Back to the post!)

Why that wasn’t a great suggestion: A real live god who really and truly meddles in the real world should be leaving footprints literally everywhere. This suggestion, by contrast, sounds like it came from someone who’s figured out that “small things” are a lot easier to warp and shoehorn through the magic of confirmation bias into PROOF YES PROOF for their beliefs. But the big things are still nonexistent, and it’s hard to say which size represents the worse bit of cognitive dissonance. If any of Christians’ claims about their god were true, they’d have enough “big things” to offer as evidence that they wouldn’t have to squint and cock their heads sideways at “small things” like Jack Russell terriers trying to figure out a Magic Eye picture.

The same Christian who made that suggestion went on to suggest OP read the horrible “Case for Christ” book. Worse, the OP said they’d read that book and thought it was “very good.” Ouch. This book is not, in fact, very good at all. I’m surprised Lee Strobel didn’t completely mercy-kill OP’s faith entirely with his hackneyed writing, obviously-biased arguments, and generally childish apologetics. (Back to the post!)


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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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