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!"|
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.|
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!|
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.|
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:
...by 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.
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.