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11 December 2009

Jaco Gericke on "The Collapse of Realism, Cognitive Dissonance and the 'Died-Again' Christian Syndrome"

Not a lot of time to blog today, but I did run across this entry on someone else's blog, and had to share. I'll just give you a taste, you'll have to go to his actual blog to read the whole thing. And in relation to the subject of deconverting, I guess these guys have a bit more expertise in the subject, since I never adhered to childish superstitions or primitive mythologies. ;)

Jaco Gericke on "The Collapse of Realism, Cognitive Dissonance and the 'Died-Again' Christian Syndrome"

Previously I posted an amazing deconversion story written by Dr. Gericke right here. Then I posted something from him on how he got over his angst at leaving the Christian faith right here. In what follows he writes on the issue of cognitive dissonance (used with permission):

Since most Old Testament scholars are also Christians it is to be expected that they think of themselves as realists or at least semi-realists when it comes to the ontological status of Yahweh-as-depicted in the text. As a result, when confronted with the case against realism they will encounter arguments that might seem to run counter to all that they believe regarding the nature of reality.

When it comes to the reaction of people when they are confronted with rational discourse that seems to disprove their most sincere and cherished beliefs, a lot would depend on how convincing the counter arguments are. Or so one would think.

In the 1950's, social and cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger did extensive research on scenarios where people are forced to react on being confronted with what appears to be incontrovertible proof that their beliefs about certain issues were mistaken. To the surprise of many, it was discovered that, in most cases, the more irrefutable the proof, the more stubbornly the subjects clinged to their initial cognitions (cf. Festinger 1956, 1957).

The end result of the research by Festinger was his theory of "cognitive dissonance". This theory predicts that people who are confronted with evidence contrary to what they believe and want to believe will not only refuse to revise their beliefs, they will actually irrationally seek to promote them more zealously that ever before (cf. also Batson 1982:50; Carroll 1979:86-109).

The theory of cognitive dissonance shows that people in general have a strong need to maintain cognitive consistency. When it comes to the deepest and most meaningful beliefs people have regarding the nature of reality there exists an aversion for discrepancies in the framework of cognitions. In order to ensure the survival of their own constructs of reality there must be sufficient harmony between the various beliefs one holds pertaining to what is perceived to be the facts.
Cognitive dissonance ensues when a person entertains two equally convmcmg cognitionslbeliefs/facts that nevertheless seem to contradict each other. In order to decrease the psychic tension produced by the discrepant beliefs dissonance needs to be lessened. This can happen in one of two ways:

1. One of the cognitions must be rejected and considered to be false.
2. Additional cognitions (ad hoc hypotheses/rationalisations) must be added to the cognitive matrix so that the discrepancy is harmonised on another level or its maintenance temporarily justified to a satisfactory extent.

Opting for the latter strategy may lessen the dissonance but cannot ultimately banish it from the psyche altogether. This strategy is one of psychological survival where the additional cognitions allow the subject to relativise the problem and to dampen the effect of the dissonance. According to Festinger, human creativity and the need for psychological survival override the need for a rational justification of beliefs in the face of cognitive challenges.

Consider the following scenario in which a person:

• believes something with his whole heart;
• made a public commitment to that belief;
• made crucial choices dependent on the veracity of that belief, which in turn decided the course of his life;
• construed personal identity and self-image on the assumption that the belief is true;
• created a personal and satisfying worldview and understanding of reality as a whole in such a way that the particular belief constitutes an essential and foundational element therein;
• answers his existential questions from a frame of reference provided by that belief to the extent that holding on to the belief provides meaning and purpose to life;
• could cope with severe personal crisis and suffering because the particular belief was assumed to be true.

If this person is confronted with seemingly irrefutable proof that his most cherished belief is erroneous, chances are that not only will he emerge from the encounter unscathed but that he will appear to hold more zealously to his belief than ever before. Despite the inability to refute the counter evidence he will be convinced that somehow, in ways presently unknown to him, he is right after all. He may even seek to engage in special pleading or ad hominem rhetoric in order to convince the other party of the veracity and merits of believing in what he does.
The way in which possible cognitive dissonance is lessened in such scenarios is thus not via an in-depth analysis of the counter arguments and an honest unbiased willingness to be open to change opinions in the interest of what may be true. Instead, the discourse containing the apparent refutation of the cherished belief will be approached with brewing conspiracy theories.

The need for creating a straw man for the purposes of refutation, suspicions about the other person's intentions, and constant fideistic rationalisation of why personal beliefs are in reality not really problematic at all will be great. Yet the person experiencing the dissonance may not even realise how irrational his strategies of evasion may be. Introspection is only allowed insofar as faltering personal loyalty to the cherished beliefs can be detected. This is also only done in order to postulate possible personal intellectual shortcomings to justify the discontinuation of considering the counterarguments with an open mind (cf. also James 1902:27; Berger 1967:93).

Festinger demonstrates that deep-seated convictions and cherished beliefs, especially religious beliefs, prove to be extremely resistant to revision and reformulation or rejection for several possible reasons:

1. Holding on to the particular belief carries personal benefits, e.g.:
• it answers the existential and other deep questions of life;
• it provides a feeling of self-worth and also gives a sense of personal identity;
• it provides cognitive security and harmony in aid of psychological survival.

2. It exists in relation to a public commitment, e.g.:
• it is presupposed in family relations;
• friendships originated because of it;
• social standing and status are possible because of it;
• social identity and image are construed by it;
• satisfaction in one's profession and in life in general depends on it.

3. The belief does not exist in isolation, e.g.:
• society or peer groups condones it, expects it and rewards it;
• the survival of the group sharing the particular belief is dependent on it;
• the group in which the belief is maintained provides support, identity, security and the perception of self-worth since it caters for the need to belong;
• others who share the same beliefs provide company, motivation, legitimisation and friendship.

Consider, for example, the case of a conservative believer like myself who was exposed to the findings of critical scholarship. At first I ignored it and dismissed it as satanic heresy. As dissonance theory predicted, I refused to accept the results of research not because I could point to clear-cut fallacies in the particular arguments but merely because I did not like what it implied for the credibility of the beliefs I had come to cherish.

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