Thursday, 28 June 2012

How Fundamentalists Cope With Unwanted Facts

In this blog I'm going to discuss the psychological process called 'cognitive dissonance' and how it can explain the often frankly bizarre reactions and 'reasoning' you get when trying to debate with religious fundamentalist.

Plenty has been written about cognitive dissonance so I won't go into too much detail. Briefly, humans try to maintain a coherent and consistent view of the world, so anything which conflicts with pre-existing beliefs sets up a conflict, often almost unconsciously. In modern parlance, the term 'getting my head round it' sums it up fairly well. A simple example is Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes. The fox wants the grapes which are out of its reach, so after making an effort to get them and failing, he rationalises this by saying the grapes probably weren't ripe anyway and would have been too sour (sour grapes). In this way he is able to pass failure off as a success and so retain his pride. He could have got the grapes if he had really wanted to.

I remember an occasion in the 1960's when you could buy a (very) used car for as little as £50, a friend bought just such as car - a Standard 8 (no wing mirrors, no indicators, rusty wings and door sills, top speed about 60 mph and 25 miles to the gallon on a good day and often started first time in dry weather in summer). Of course, he'd make the 'perfect' decision to buy it, having spent his last penny. He became quite indignant when someone said they thought the E-type Jaguar was the best car on the road. "How can it be when mine is?" he shouted.

How we all laughed. We were very young in those days.

"The best car on the road!"
How many time in a debate with fundamentalists have you been told that they have evidence which proves their god exists yet, when challenged to produce it, they announce they could produce it but it would be wasted on you; that they have no desire to convert anyone, and anyway you don't need evidence when you have 'faith'? Then they break off the conversation, often with a departing insult, or they try to change the subject.

So convinced are they that there must actually be some evidence somewhere that they cannot admit they don't have any, yet they are able to rationalize their failure to provide any by convincing themselves it's somehow your failing. For an illustration of this see the comments by Sacerdotus on my blog Do You Want To Convert An Atheist where he brags that he can easily provide the evidence required, then proceeds to make excuse for not doing so and abuses me for pointing out this failure. There is absolutely no way that Sacerdotus is ever going to admit that he has no evidence for his god and so could not meet the challenge posed in that blog. Clearly, that's someone else's failure, not his.

Just because you can't see any rhinos doesn't mean they aren't there.
And of course, the cognitive dissonance caused by this lack of evidence means they have an inability to admit they don't have any. Once that genie is out of the bottle it will be impossible to get back in again and all will be lost. So they either rationalise that by claiming 'everything' is evidence, or by refusing to look for any, and especially refusing to consider evidence which suggest there is no god, or that there is no need for one to explain anything.

If you are religious, that last sentence will have set up cognitive dissonance in you. You'll probably be feeling angry and wondering how you're going to tell me I'm wrong whilst not confirming that you actually don't have any evidence. You'll probably want to tell me that absence of evidence is not proof of absence, and so you'll have resolved your cognitive dissonance by inventing a straw man argument to attack. In fact, I never made any claim about what absence of evidence does or does not prove. You invented that because you want to retain the belief that there must be a god or gods despite the fact that you have no evidence for any.

Wow! Look at all those elephants!
However, absence of evidence is evidence (not proof, but evidence) of absence where evidence is to be expected. For example, the absence of evidence for any wild elephants in England is normally taken by sane people as evidence of the absence of wild elephants in England. No sane individual would behave as though there are wild elephants in England despite this lack of evidence for them.

If you're religious, cognitive dissonance will now require you to make up reasons why gods should not be subjected to the same test of existence as wild elephants. (See later)

In The Cherry-Picker's Bible I showed how even a respected scientist can rationalise the cognitive dissonance between a religious belief in the Bible and a scientific belief in an old earth and genetic evolution. The fact that this process also makes a good book to sell to Christians who need help with their cognitive dissonance is merely a bonus. The technique is simple: the parts of the Bible which are clearly at odds with the science are re-classified as 'allegorical' whilst the parts like original sin, Heaven and Hell and a creator god, etc are retained as literal truths. And yet the only way to distinguish between the literal and the allegorical is whether they are overwhelmingly refuted by the science or not, or the logic is absurdly wrong. If not, they must be true.

Somehow, the scientific evidence that the Bible is factually wrong about so much is not regarded as a reason to doubt the rest. Basically, if you agree with it, it's true; if you disagree with it, it's allegorical. It's never actually 'wrong' no matter that that could be the only logical conclusion from dispassionately reading much of it, because admitting that the Bible can be wrong would force you to admit that so then could a religion based on it be wrong and no way can it be regarded as the ultimate authority because it was written by an infallible god. Clearly, 'wrong' is a conclusion which must be excluded from the equation, no matter how strongly that conclusion is supported by the evidence. The conclusion is sacred so the evidence must be ignored.

(Yep! If you're Christian, that's cognitive dissonance you're feeling again. How can the Bible be factually wrong when your 'faith' is based on it? Surely, there must be a failure on my part, or at least of science!)

Harold Camping. False Prophet.
A spectacular instance of cognitive dissonance in relation to religion occurred in 1844 - the so-called Great Disappointment. A Baptist preacher, William Miller had predicted yet another second coming of Jesus on 22 October 1844. Some of his followers even sold all their possessions. Needless to say, the second coming of Jesus never happened as usual, but curiously, Miller and his followers managed to convince themselves that this wasn't a problem. Jesus had decided to give them longer to convert more people, so their 'faith', rather than being harmed by this humiliating failure, was actually strengthened by it. Jesus was so impressed by them that he had postponed the end of the world! And so the wacky Seventh Day Adventists were born. Cognitive dissonance to the rescue.

I wonder how many of the followers of Harold Camping had their 'faith' strengthened by falling for his lucrative scam.

I wonder how many Internet creationists and evangelical fundamentalists have had their 'faith' strengthened by yet another Atheist pointing out that they have not provided a single scrap of evidence, logical argument, or sound reason to justify their belief in their god, or their version of a religion based around a belief in it, or by having their arguments against science and for biblical creationism refuted with facts? No doubt it's all our fault for refusing to see the (absent) evidence or for believing mere facts and the opinions of those who study biology, geology, cosmology, physics, etc.

(That's cognitive dissonance now making you try to think of some biologists, geologists, cosmologists, physicists, etc who agree with you. They will be few in number compared to those who don't, many of them will be charlatans with phoney degrees or degrees in non-science subjects and some will not have held the beliefs they are claimed to have held. No. Answers In Genesis will not provide you with a convincing list. Answers In Genesis, and related creationist websites exist to help you cope with cognitive dissonance, not to help you learn the truth. And that's also cognitive dissonance making you feel affronted by that statement.)

You even get fundamentalists who see no irony in using a computer over the internet to tell the world that science is false. In fact, what seems to happen is that the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflict between the science they see around them every day and their fundamentalist beliefs, is so difficult to deal with that their particular coping strategy is to try to shout it down and desperately try to convince others to agree with them, as though that would confirm it. In doing so, many of them behave in a way almost diametrically opposed to the way their 'faith' tells them to behave. Lies, deceptions, judgmentalism, intellectual dishonesty and passive aggression are common currency, indeed the norm. The 'faith' is trampled under foot in the eagerness to defend it. As Francis Collins said: any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology.

To that I would add moral bankruptcy. To knowingly lie or to use tactics over substance to defend a position or in an attempt to deceive someone into believing it, is not the act of someone with any regard to truth or moral behaviour.

Here is a nice illustration of cognitive dissonance by a creationist 'crusader' on Twitter. @Discern_ca who has now bravely protected his/her account so the tweets are no longer accessible, so I am having to rely on memory here. It started with:

@Discern_ca: Give me a single feasible way abiogenesis could have occurred.

Me: 1. Silicate crystals in fine clay. 2. Spontaneous assembly of auto-catalytic RNA in a 'soup' of organic molecules.

@Discern_ca: That doesn't explain how life started.

(Got an unexpected answer which wasn't wanted. Rationalise it by pretending a different question had been asked. The moving goal-post strategy. Anyway, the grapes were probably sour).

After many requests to both define life and to say what was infeasible in the two answers I had suggested, @Discern_ca eventually said it wasn't worth talking to me and courageously blocked me. 'Head in the sand', 'look the other way' and 'hands over the ears going la la la!' are also coping strategies. There is nothing quite like having the brilliant killer argument you've just found on a creationist apologetics website blown out of the water to set up painful dissonance.

Perhaps the most obvious way that religious people cope with cognitive dissonance is by compartmentalising their thinking, which they seem to rationalise by adopting the strategy of assuming a different set of logic or standards of evidence should apply to their god than to everything else. A type of special pleading for gods, as one would with a handicapped child. This allows them to live quite comfortably holding two diametrically opposite views simultaneously. For example:

  • God exists outside time and space and so outside nature, and so is undetectable.
  • God influences thing and directs the affairs of the universe and can be influence by humans, and so must be inside nature and exerting a detectable effect on it.

Watch that cognitive dissonance there... it may be showing.

I've used this example before but I think it's a good one so I'll use it again here. No one in their right mind would look at an empty road and conclude that it's still not safe to cross because the lack of evidence for a car is not proof of absence. They would happily bet their life on it without a moment's hesitation. Yet no religious person would conclude that the lack of evidence for a god is even evidence of absence, let alone proof. Why the difference? Compartmentalised thinking.

Cottingley Fairies
No sane adult believes in fairies, and when asked why not outside a discussion about the existence of gods, they would have no hesitation in giving the complete absence of evidence for them as the main reason for disbelief. They may even express amazement and disbelief that an adult would even think fairies were real.

Pop them that question in the middle of a discussion about their belief in a god just when they've asked you to prove there isn't one and told you that lack of evidence isn't proof of absence, and you will get evasion and wriggling, but they will never invoke the 'no evidence' argument. They may well insult you for posing the question, though, and try to divert the conversation, accusing you of believing the absurd.

Again, compartmentalised thinking. They actually feel more comfortable believing that their god requires a lower standard of evidence than do fairies than with admitting that absence of evidence for their god is at least as good as is absence of evidence for fairies. Or for the absence of cars before crossing the road.

And, if you're religious and cognitive dissonance hasn't prevented you reading this far, that feeling you're now experiencing is... cognitive dissonance. How dare I make that outrageous suggestion that you believe your god requires lower standards than fairies for you to believe in it.

Shooting the messenger is another strategy for coping with cognitive dissonance.

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  1. Interesting.
    Now wait while the fundamentalists try to use van Til's presuppositionalism to prove that you are the one with the inconsistent and therefore cognitively dissonant world view.
    That should be fun.

  2. The fox's tactic is very similar to yours. You see my words on my blog, my challenges to your ideas and rationalize to offer ad hominem instead of working to counter argue my arguments. :)

    Moreover, you write:

    "Sacerdotus on my blog Do You Want To Convert An Atheist where he brags that he can easily provide the evidence required, then proceeds to make excuse for not doing so and abuses me for pointing out this failure. There is absolutely no way that Sacerdotus is ever going to admit that he has no evidence for his god and so could not meet the challenge posed in that blog. Clearly, that's someone else's failure, not his."

    This is far from the truth and is a Straw Man fallacy. A careful reading of my words will show that I never offered to do anything other than to tear apart your arguments.

    I commented on your blog:

    "Sacerdotus23 June 2012 09:50

    This is too easy to debunk. Stay tuned to my blog. I will debunk this post and the 2 links Rosa provided. :)"

    Notice that I wrote that I will debunk your post. I do not understand how you equate this with providing evidence for God. This is a lack of reading comprehension on your part not a failure on my part to provide evidence for God because no such offer was made.

    Also see my blog, it clearly shows my intention of destroying your arguments:

    Moreover, you write:

    "However, absence of evidence is evidence (not proof but evidence) of absence where evidence is to be expected. For example, the absence of evidence for any wild elephants in England is normally taken by sane people as evidence of the absence of wild elephants in England. No sane individual would behave as though there are wild elephants in England despite this lack of evidence for them."

    This is an appeal to ignorance and false cause. You are not in every part of England and at every moment in time to make such a claim. Your "evidence" is based on a particular present moment where there were no wild elephants roaming. You therefore concluded that there are no wild elephants based on that spatial and temporal point of your observance.

    "Post hoc ergo propter hoc" is what you're describing here with the elephant.

    A- There is an absence of wild elephants in England (supposed evidence).

    "After this, and therefore because of this," (Post hoc ergo propter hoc)

    B -therefore it must be true that no wild elephants exist in England.

    It is interesting to note your use of "normally." This indicates that you are aware that there is a probable factor to the contrary of the non existence of wild elephants.

    1. No there isn't its called logic something all you religious types are lacking in!

  3. Thank you for a long-winded, rambling example of how you're handing the cognitive dissonance my blog set up in your mind, as did my blog telling you how you could convert an atheist, if only you had any evidence for you god. You've probably convinced yourself you've dismissed the points which are obviously embarrassing you.

    Readers can read your excuses for not being able to produce any evidence whilst insisting you have some, by following the link I provided in the above blog. It's a very good example of how superstitious people rationalise their need to believe their superstition is evidence-based and rational, with the fact that they haven't any evidence. So they are needing to be dishonest and tell lies even to themselves to defend their 'faith', showing us they know it's a lie. It is, of course, all the other person's fault.

    In fact, the inability to admit you could be wrong, even though you manifestly are, shows a lack of emotional maturity, and a lack of intellectual and moral integrity, as does the willingness to tell lies and employ other forms of deception, in complete contrast to the morals which you try to tell us your superstition gives you. As I said, you willingly ride rough-shot over the very 'faith you purport to defend in order to defend yourself, showing the world that your 'faith' is merely an excuse for your otherwise anti-social opinions, behaviour and attitudes, and not something you value for itself. It also gives you opportunities and access to vulnerable people which you would not otherwise have. Your faith has a mere utility value for what it excuse and facilitates.

    This explains the superficial paradox of so many priests and clerics being amongst the least moral of people and readily abusing the power their position gives them over credulous, gullible and vulnerable people, and why so many other clerics in high places see it as something which has to be covered up rather than exposed.

    Of course, cognitive dissonance will now force you into defending your co-religionists even though what they do is indefensible.

    1. Rosa, I know you cannot be serious with this comment. It is angry, childish and comes across as the infamous "I am rubber, you are glue" counter argument said among children. Most of the content on your blog IS Cognitive Dissonance to say the least; and I have demonstrated this time after time - granted if you did not delete my comments.

      Regarding evidence for God: Have you read my reply to your comment and as well as "No sky friend's" comment on my blog? I wrote:

      Sacerdotus June 25, 2012 12:35 AM
      This blog posting is not meant to provide evidence of anything but to comment on Rosa's blog. Evidence for God is in the works and is rather lengthy, stay tuned. :)

      Why are you being dishonest about your own blog posting? The blog I critiqued does not request evidence for God but states what YOU constitute as evidence. Anyone with competent reading comprehension skills would see that is the case. Readers here can see your literacy dilemma publicly. I fail to see why you would want your online persona to appear as delusional and illiterate. These are the opposites of what constitutes being rational. Nevertheless, suum cuique.

      Your accusations are false and quite frankly ridiculous. Any rational person would see that you are angry. You are angry because I took you to task and was victorious. The deletion of my comments which destroy your arguments demonstrates your attempt to save face.

      Moreover, I thank you for showing that you prefer relying on ad hominem defense mechanisms instead of attacking my points directly. Calling me names, acting with condescension and falsely accusing me of not providing evidence when your blog has no such request shows lack of integrity and intellectual confidence. The aforementioned does not give validity to your points nor make you correct. This behavior just shows that you do not have the intellectual skills to properly refute any counter arguments in a rational manner. That is indeed unfortunate.

      If you are going to comment on my comments here or even on my blog, please provide intelligible critiques, not insults or pseudo-psychological analyses. Do you honestly think you can psychoanalyze a person miles away, over the internet and without holding proper psychology credentials? You should be ashamed of yourself. Stop embarrassing yourself.

    2. Deleted my comment again? shame shame shame...

    3. I'm sorry to disappoint you. You must have been delighted to think I wouldn't be using your comment to illustrate the dishonesty you need to employ to trick vulnerable simpletons and how you cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by neeeding to believe your superstition is evidence-based whilst not having any evidence.

      But I'm afraid Blogger identified your messages as spam. I have now released them from the prison Blogger put them in.

      I'm more than happy to supply a screen shot of them in the Spam folder, if you so wish.

      I wonder if you'll find the honesty and personal integrity to apologise for this bout of personal abuse and unfounded attacks which you normally use as a smokescreen for your other failures.

      Past experience tells me this is unlikely as I have never seen evidence of any personal integrity in your posts.

    4. BTW, I urge readers to read your comments as examples of coping strategies and the intellectual dishonesty that are an essential parts of religious fundamentalism.

      They will see how, once again, you fail miserably to deal with the subject of the blog, just as you did with the challenge to produce evidence for your god in Do You Want To Convert An Atheist where you did anything but produce some evidence, but instead try a diversionary tactic, and so illustrate exactly what the blog is about - the dishonesty fundamentalist need to employ to cope with the cognitive dissonance they daily encounter. Have you managed to convince yourself that you've refuted this well-established principle of psychology or proved that it doesn't apply to you?

    5. BTW, you might want to rein in your tendency to condescending bigotry and a pretence of moral superiority. It gives the game away and shows the world what you are using 'faith' as an excuse for.

  4. Back when I was in dental college twenty years ago, I had a Baptist classmate who claimed to believe in the Bible as literally true. I asked him to explain the contradictions between it and the science he'd had to learn in order to qualify for his place in the dental college. His response, which he thought was an argument-killer: "As a Christian I believe in the Bible, and as a scientist I believe in science."

    I can't better that as an illustration of your point.

    1. The Bible's only purpose is to show the Salvific plan of God. Baptists who rely on Sola Scriptura will see the Bible as the sole infallible source of Truth. This is expected of them.

    2. The Bibles only purpose is to control the minds of man for power and control.

  5. However, absence of evidence is evidence (not proof but evidence) of absence where evidence is to be expected.

    Good point and good examples. If anything like the Biblical Jehovah really existed, there's a ton of evidence we'd expect to see, and none of it is there.

    Similarly, if the "history" in the Old Testament (the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the great kingdom of David and Solomon, etc.) had really happened, there would be plenty of evidence. The Middle East is the most thoroughly-researched area in the world archaeologically, and no such evidence has been found. It didn't happen. I think we can safely dismiss the stuff about the talking snake and the big flood.

    1. I think gods are as real as the evidence their supporters claim to have but never seem to be able to produce when asked.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. Thank you.

      I think many people will have enjoyed your display of coping with the cognitive dissonance caused by believing you have some evidence for your god whilst not actually having any. It reminded me of a child coping with not having a friend by having an imaginary one - which is basically all religion is, really.

    4. Well done Rosa keep up the good work there are many of us who are sick and tired of these religious nutters trying to control our lives with there childish beliefs.We need to free our minds from this nonsense and move on to a more enlightened era without a make believe God!!!

  6. One additional point of interest, from Festinger's seminal text on the matter, "When Prophecy Fails".

    Behaviour in a state of cognitive dissonance is not only rationalisation through fabrication of less dissonant mythology, but increased proselytisation.

    Faced with conclusive evidence of the falsehood of their beliefs, Festinger's subjects sought to bolster their delusion by extending their social group. Believers seem to seek social validation for their counterintuitive belief system, such that the process of convincing others seems to provide comforting "evidence" of the truth of the belief.

    Through uncertain, we may see this kind of effect in interaction with religionists, when their recruitment-focused activity suddenly increases; they're seeking confirmation because their belief is rattled.

    (Festinger's book is fascinating, by the way - I highly recommend to anyone seeking insight into the religionist mindset.)

  7. An interesting read - but there are a few things I would like to pick up on.

    1) I am not convinced that your story of "the best car on the road" is an example of cognitive dissonance. It is merely an example of a difference of opinion, which is perfectly normal.

    2) "The technique is simple: the parts of the Bible which are clearly at odds with the science are re-classified as 'allegorical' whilst the parts like original sin, Heaven and Hell and a creator god, etc are retained as literal truths. And yet the only way to distinguish between the literal and the allegorical is whether they are overwhelmingly refuted by the science or not, or the logic is absurdly wrong. If not, they must be true. Somehow, the scientific evidence that the Bible is factually wrong about so much is not regarded as a reason to doubt the rest. Basically, if you agree with it, it's true; if you disagree with it, it's allegorical."

    You talk about the Bible being separable in to the "literal" and the "allegorical" as though it is one text, written by one person. You're not the only one to do this - even some Christians give the same impression - but if you want to be taken seriously you must embrace the fact that it is actually a collection of (66) books written by different authors, at different times, and with different purposes. Some books are poetry (Psalms, Song of Songs, for example) - and poetry (any poetry) is rarely taken literally or used to state bald fact. Some books are personal letters, for which an understanding of the context is always helpful (as with any such personal letter). Some books are written for the purpose of conveying historical records (the Gospels, Chronicles etc.). Some books may be allegorical (Jonah, for example) but that doesn't mean that they don't convey a real point or literal truth - in fact, that is often the point of an allegory, and in this case is why such allegories reinforce certain doctrines or theological viewpoints.

    You refer to an allegory of sorts when you talk about Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes. I am sure that you don't think that there was a literal fox, but you clearly think that the story has a relevant and useful point to make.

    3) Contrary to your claim, theists generally have much more reason for belief in God than for belief in fairies. I don't doubt that there are theists who have a blind and unquestioning faith, but in the main people generally have reasons for their belief in God. Usually it is a combination of things, including the historicity of the Bible and the claims made therein, answered prayer - and other "spiritual" experiences - and the fact that the Christian world-view is not at odds with life's experiences.

    1. > I am not convinced that your story of "the best car on the road" is an example of cognitive dissonance.<

      Well done for showing how you coped with cognitive dissonance by trying to divert the conversation. An example of the 'look the other way' strategy, if I'm nor mistaken.

      >You talk about the Bible being separable in to the "literal" and the "allegorical" as though it is one text, written by one person.<

      The number of authors is of course, of total irrelevance here, as was your description of the Bible.

      >Contrary to your claim, theists generally have much more reason for belief in God than for belief in fairies. <

      If you have no definitive evidence for your god, the evidence for it is no better than that for fairies, or for any other imaginary supernatural entity.

      Perhaps, if the cognitive dissonance isn't too painful, you could tell readers why you don't believe in fairies.

      >Contrary to your claim, theists generally have much more reason for belief in God than for belief in fairies... Usually it is a combination of things, including the historicity of the Bible and the claims made therein, answered prayer - and other "spiritual" experiences - and the fact that the Christian world-view is not at odds with life's experiences.<

      In other words, retrospective rationalisations and false claims which satisfy your need to believe you have definitive evidence when you have none. You could, of course, attribute all those things to fairies, or any other imaginary natural or supernatural entity you wish and simply challenge people to prove the claim to be false.

      I'll resist the temptation to ask you to substantiate them to avoid falling for your ploy of diverting the conversation. Readers will no doubt judge the quality of your claimed evidence on its merits.

    2. Muhammad Dubaddisar (born 731AD-died 794AD) never had the opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ throughout the span of his life. Having found this out, Bobbi Juhaddywaddy, a Christian Fundamentalist has become convinced that God therefore has the almighty right to judge and therefore send Muhammad to the everlasting fires of a burning Hell, since Muhammad did not choose to accept Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior. Having allowed the use of cognitive dissonance (the repression of reasonable "common sense") to mar his mind, Bobbi Bobbi Juhaddywaddy will therefore be allowed to travel through life never having realized that his intelectual processes have been dulled to the point that he has become nearly retarded in his ability to think in a logical manner!

  8. Nice article. Unfortunately you'll find religitards will always offer excuses, and whimsical evidence to refute anything you write. I've given up on them all.

    I empathise with your religitroll problem and hope it clears up soon!

    Much love,

    Dr Chris Welch DSc MSc

  9. Your article is interesting, but flawed.

    Where you're correct is that Creationists and theists have to deal with facts that are highly inconvenient. What I believe your article misses is the role of childhood indoctrination. The vast majority of Christians have been programmed with a bad set of logical rules for evaluating evidence of their religion. This bad programming usually comes at an early age of development and is often instilled with the best of intentions. It's not unlike a virus passed on from parent to offspring.

    What does a virus do? It corrupts the body's normal functionality to produce additional virus cells. Religions like Christianity function in much the same way. Parents use guilt (and guilt avoidance) to take a child's healthy rationality and turn it inside out. Children are taught that it's a badge of great honor to believe certain phenomenon are evidence, but ONLY where their religion is concerned. They're likewise taught that normal healthy rationality applied to their religious beliefs is guilt-worthy & shameful. It's no accident that the vast majority of Christians feel deeply insulted whenever rational arguments are made against their faith. Because there is no motivating emotion stronger than guilt/guilt avoidance. It has the potential to be stronger than our survival instinct. Human beings will sometimes end their own lives rather than suffer guilt.

    So Creationists are not people who lack evidence. They're people who have been emotionally blackmailed into thinking that certain piece of non-evidence are evidence... and that regular rational evidence that counters their worldview is to be avoided for fear of feeling guilty. This is a subtle, but important difference from what' proposed in the article and by most non-theists.

    The line of reasoning that leads theists to atheism isn't, "The evidence proves you wrong" nor is it "How you deal with real world facts is wrong". The line of reasoning has to start with, "What can be done to help theists realize that they've been given a bad set of logical rules?" This is the cause of the problem. Truly, it's the heart of what religion is. The set of guilt-induced rules that cause people to think that god is rational and non-belief is irrational. Attacking anything else is treating a symptom and usually destined to fail.

    I've done my share of arguing with Christians. My favorite debate was with a Catholic where we were discussing the resurrection myth. To this Catholic, the idea that Jesus could magically vanish from a tomb was perfectly rational... but Roman guards being distracted from their work of was (somehow) "impossible". This is the cognitive dissonance you're talking about in your article and no amount of information about guards, guard duty, trickery, etc. could convince this Catholic the guards were in any way duped or distracted. The story said they kept watch and believing the story is a sign of character / doubting the story is guilt-worthy and thus to be avoided. So challenging an element of the story is useless.

    The only way to get through to people like that is to get them to examine WHY they believe and HOW they came to believe it. This is very hard to do, but it's the only thing that stands a chance. But any discussion of this nature that doesn't examine the role of guilt is missing the root cause.

  10. So really, the question is "how do we overcome people's cognitive dissonance?"

    Having personally experienced it, I must admit it's one of the worst feelings in the world when you're cornered with no way out. Even worse when you corner yourself with it. The way I managed to get out (and let me tell anyone experiencing it - it's way better on the outside) involved lots of beer and a rationalist friend. As far as I can tell, it's not really possible to break through someone else's cognitive dissonance, or at least, not openly. They have to break through it themselves.

    If I had to lay it out in procedural steps, they might look something like this:

    Step 1: Get drunk. You're much more honest with yourself when you're drunk, possibly because you've lost all kinds of fears about what will happen if you admit you've been wrong your whole life.

    Step 2: Get a friend, preferably a rationalist who you can bounce ideas off of and confide in, someone who has no reason to want you to keep any delusions you might have.

    Step 3: Get your friend drunk. Otherwise this will be painfully boring for them, and, if all goes well, you'll owe them big time.

    Step 4: Begin by admitting that it's perfectly okay to be wrong about things. People are wrong all the time. It's not the end of the universe. It doesn't make you a bad person or require uncomfortable changes in your life. We're creating a safe space here where it's not shameful to be wrong or to have been wrong, no matter how strident you've been before. Here, the only values being applied to you are the brownie points you get for admitting you were wrong. Rack up those points.

    Step 5: Take an honest snapshot of your beliefs as you would describe them to someone else without even thinking about it. The beliefs that you put into practice every day. Use your friend to verify this and ensure you haven't left anything out.


  11. (cont'd)

    Step 6: Take those beliefs and reach in and sort out which specific "truths" you believe in are consequential (i.e. you feel you are required to believe because of other things you believe) and which are not. Set aside for this exercise those beliefs which you are required to believe as a consequence of more fundamental beliefs.

    Step 7: Using your friend as a sounding board, repeat this process, taking each belief and looking for the honest reason "why" you believe it. Again, remember there's no shame in admitting it if you discover some beliefs which it turns out you only believe for shaky reasons. Set these beliefs aside and keep going.

    Step 8: Strip away all the superficial beliefs until you get down to the axioms - those things you believe in which are not consequential - you believe in them because they just feel right. Those beliefs which many people have in common, considered "self-evident truths". These might include the belief that reality exists and is not just an illusion, that human life has some undefinable value, or perhaps that there must be some sort of meaning to the universe, or perhaps that you yourself are a good person. These beliefs don't need to be provable, but you'll know you've reached them when you can no longer answer the question "why do you believe this?".

    Step 9: Look for contradictions in your axioms. The goal here is to eliminate cognitive dissonance and this can be created at the foundation level by having axioms that sometimes are mutually exclusive. For example, discovering that you happen to believe both that human life has value while at the same time that nothing has any inherent value, could be causing some cognitive dissonance. If you discover contradicting axioms, try to figure out which one is more important to you - you may discover one of them is just a consequential (and unnecessary) belief arising from a much deeper and simpler axiom, and can be discarded. Also, you may discover some meaningless axioms which are unnecessary or redundant. Discard these axioms - the fewer the better. For example, you may enjoy eating peanut butter, but it may not be necessary to hold "peanut butter is inherently good" as a fundamental axiom.

    Step 10: Make sure you're comfortable with your core axioms. If they don't feel right, you may have too many or you may be missing one. If you're not sure, imagine a simple moral or ethical situation in your head - now try to use only your core axioms to resolve it. If you can and there's only one solution, you're set. If you can't, you may have contradicting axioms or simply be missing one (or you came up with a terrible moral situation - ask your friend).

    Step 11: Slowly begin reconstructing your consequential beliefs, allowing yourself to discard any which no longer have an axiomatic foundation to stand on. Be wary of consequential beliefs acting as new axioms - don't pick up any belief from the pile of beliefs you made earlier if you can't justify it with one of your existing core axioms. Once you finish, you'll discover a wonderful sensation of having a completely internally consistent world view, free from cognitive dissonance. You may find you've lost several superficial beliefs (hey, maybe even religion) but you'll be more embarrassed than agonized (I promise... unless you're clergy). The feeling that your everyday beliefs are now justifiable (to you) in a consistent way, is a very nice feeling.

    Step 12: Write that stuff down. Nobody's internal dialogue is perfect and there may come a time when you've picked up new beliefs without thinking about it, or picked up old beliefs again without realizing it. Remember that you are not required to believe anything that does not agree with your core axioms - it will only cause you pain. Thank your friend, he's a good sport too.

    1. Wow! You did all of this drunk? I am truely amazed. I let my inhabitions go when I am drinking but find that the next day, that was probably a mistake. All joking aside, it's a 12 step program that might actually help people free themselves from some very miserable, guilt ridden conflicts. My internal dialogue is very over analytical. A lot of second guessing. I'm even doing that as I write this. I will take your advise and once I have conquered, I will try to help a friend do the same. Great advise.

  12. Maybe this was your intention, or maybe this is an indicator that I do not believe in god after all (Whew!) but by the time I got to the end of this blog, my brain hurt from the all the illogical arguments religious people spew out. Seriously. Thank you.


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