Henry Idema: Religion and Cognitive Dissonance


One of the great mysteries of religion and politics is why people continue to hold on to cherished beliefs with devotion despite evidence contrary to those beliefs. I will give some examples in religion and politics, and offer a theory that explains much of our behavior.

Many members of world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism hold their scriptures to be literally true, word for word, even in translation from Hebrew and Greek to English in the case of the Bible, for example. By the 19th century, biblical literalism was a commonly accepted belief in most pews in England and America. But when geology, biblical criticism, and evolutionary theory made a literal understanding of the Bible difficult to maintain in light of the evidence (for example, the Earth was proven to be millions of years old, and not a few thousand as thought, or the Earth of Noah Ark couldn’t have saved the animals of the Earth because he couldn’t have been big enough).

Henri Idema

Evolution created a spiritual crisis for some Christians if they believed the story of Adam and Eve to be an accurate historical account of the origin of mankind. Other Christians have interpreted the Biblical accounts of Noah and Adam and Eve as stories, although they are not literally true, but contain profound truths. The story of Adam and Eve illustrates our will to power and the story of Noah illustrates that sin has dramatic consequences.

Many readers of this article, no doubt, still read their Bibles as literally true, word for word. And they doubled down on their biblical literalism in the face of a doubting secular culture. Other readers use the methods of biblical criticism to sort out what is history, what stories contain truth, and what should be rejected, such as slavery and the treatment of women in biblical times. Unfortunately, many people who were once Christians have abandoned their faith because they are unable to adapt their beliefs in the light of science and history.

Before moving on to politics, let me offer a theory that explains a lot. Leon Festinger was a cognitive psychologist in the 1950s who taught at Michigan, Minnesota, and Stanford, among other career stops. In 1956, he published a book called “When Prophecy Fails”, in which he and his co-authors proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance. In a nutshell, the theory holds that people are driven to promote harmony and consistency in their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in the face of a breakdown in their beliefs. A breakdown of this harmony and coherence creates cognitive dissonance.

Former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt is sworn in as Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., President Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Vice President Liz Cheney, R-Wyo ., Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., watch from the dais as the House Select Committee investigates the attack on the January 6 against the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing, at the Capitol in Washington, June 13, 2022.

When such a breakdown occurs due to, for example, compelling evidence that threatens a person’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, one of two things happens. A person takes this evidence and makes adjustments to their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Or, a person reaffirms their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors with even more energy and emotional engagement. Thus, we have in our society biblical literalists who maintain their religious position with vehemence, and others who reject this position with the same enthusiasm.

What I mean is that most of us have cherished beliefs that are hard for us to let go of or even adapt to. These beliefs may very well be the glue that keeps our mental state from turning into chaos, anxiety, or depression. Thus, any threat to these beliefs is fought against because of our deep fears of the consequences of losing these beliefs and what it may mean for our lives.

The cognitive dissonance theory explains why religious cults that expect Jesus to return on such and such a date simply make adjustments to the date that Jesus did not come. Members of such a cult do not give up their belief that Jesus will soon return. They simply postpone the date, and if that date does not testify to the return of Jesus, another date is proposed by the cult. This theory can be applied to cults that hold prophecies of aliens from outer space coming to a certain place at a certain time. When these prophecies turn out to be false, the prophecies are not dropped but readjusted.

Now, in conclusion, let’s turn to the big lie that Trump and his supporters have maintained to this day. The big lie is that Trump actually won the 2020 election. The proof that he didn’t win was for many Trump supporters so heart-threatening they believed – that Trump couldn’t lose. against Biden – that instead of accepting the obvious truth that he was a loser, these Trump supporters simply adjusted their beliefs. . Trump did not lose but in fact he won! And the election was stolen from him. Whether Trump himself believes the Big Lie is still up for debate and could be at the heart of future lawsuits against him.

All of the evidence from 62 court appeals, all of the evidence given by Trump supporters in the Jan. 6 congressional hearings, and all of the state’s ballot recounts have not shaken beliefs, attitudes and the behaviors of millions of Trump supporters. These Holocaust deniers look like a quasi-religious/political cult.

In my experience, it has been impossible to lead a biblical literalist away from this view of the Bible by any reasoning. Same for the point of view of a Muslim on the Koran. Same with Trump supporters who believe with every fiber of their being that Trump won the election and that Biden is not a legitimate president. The fact that Trump – for 187 minutes on January 6 – watched the insurgency with apparent glee and did nothing to stop it, one would think that fact alone would loosen the grip Trump has on his supporters. But I haven’t seen any evidence of this.

Cognitive dissonance is such a horrible mental state for many people, that it’s psychologically understandable that so many people can’t let go of their beliefs. They have too much emotional and intellectual investment in these beliefs. And the threat of losing these beliefs makes the whole world feel like it’s collapsing on the soul. Thus, racist, religious and political beliefs continue to divide us, reinforced by the media and the Internet.

Psychotherapy and education (reading books instead of spending hours on the computer) are resources available to all of us. Unfortunately, the reason behind cognitive dissonance theory is that so many people either refuse to get advice or only watch TV channels and online blogs that don’t challenge their beliefs but simply reinforce them. This is the world we live in now.

“Henry Idema lives in Grand Haven. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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