“Cognitive dissonance” is a common buzzword these days for disgruntled Mormons, ex-Mormons, and anti-Mormons. It’s a fancy way of saying that there are lingering doubts, puzzles, and intellectual irritants for those who are LDS. Of course, this is true for those of any faith, including atheism, and it’s true for any field of knowledge: all the apparent facts, all the stories and allegations, all the experiences and observations cannot be assembled into one smooth, coherent whole. There are always pieces that don’t fit or seem to challenge the assumptions that hold other pieces together. The fact that the details of our religion, our scriptures, Church history (in its many forms and with its diverse sources), world history, science, and knowledge in general results in many puzzles and conflicts is somehow supposed to be an intolerable burden that should make intellectually honest Mormons crack and leave the Church.
For those who say they left the Church after suffering with “cognitive dissonance” for years and finally found intellectual satisfaction by rejecting the LDS faith, in many cases they say that their objections are based on taking offense at the actions or statements of modern prophets. They are often offended by polygamy, for example. The idea that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young should have multiple wives is something that puzzles me and even bothers me. It’s not how I would do things. But as offensive as that practice may be, what basis do we have to reject the Church because of it?
I have the same level of cognitive dissonance over the behavior of Abraham, for example. Good grief, even the biased pro-Abraham record of the Jews reports that Abraham was a polygamist who cast out his concubine Hagar and her son, sending them into the wilderness with just a bottle of water where they may well have died had it not been for a miracle. That offends me. And one could easily be sorely offended over Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son – can you imagine how the antis would sneer if that experience had been Joseph’s and not Abraham’s? And then there was the lying to kings about his wife and other incidents. Based on the information we have, I can honestly say that God and Abraham did not do everything the way I would do if I were in change, and the discrepancies bother me. But Christ Himself referred to Abraham as His friend, and often referred to the God of Abraham. Abraham was a prophet of God. I can choose to be offended over his marital practices and child rearing traits and the honesty of some public statements based on my understanding of the story, but my offended sensibilities give me no just grounds for abandoning God and rejecting his messengers.
One ex-Mormon recently wrote that all my info on Book of Mormon evidences really strengthened him for a while, but then he finally cracked under the burden of “cognitive dissonance” from the problem of polygamy. He said all the cool stuff about Book of Mormon evidences doesn’t mean a thing now because he is convinced that Joseph Smith was acting poorly regarding polygamy. Now the dissonance is gone. To me, this is a sign of a less active brain rather than a more vigorous one. If the Book of Mormon is not an obvious fraud, then there is a real possibility that Joseph Smith was a prophet – at least for a moment or two – and a possibility that our offense at his doctrines, statements, or practices might not be a reflection of some absolute standard of truth, but our own subjective viewpoint. Regardless of one’s beliefs, if one finds that dissonance is gone, some part of the brain has shut down.
Sure, there are Mormons who accept things way too readily and don’t think carefully about their religion, the scriptures, and so forth. We need to ask questions and not run from truth. If science says something that contradicts our beliefs, we don’t need to run from science – we can explore and question and understand where the conflicts may be. Don’t be surprised that there will be puzzles that we can’t resolve – everything from the age of the earth, the nature of Creation, former priesthood exclusions, polygamy, etc. We do not have all the answers – we only “see through a glass darkly” and have access to only a tiny piece of what God will yet reveal. The anti-Mormons are appalled that we don’t crumple at the impact of the first tough anti-Mormon attack that comes our way, and blame it all on sheepish stupidity. But those who honestly seek the truth and have obtained solid testimonies of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ know that there are problems and contradictions that must be dealt with in faith and patience for now, just as early Christians did who faced the cognitive dissonance of many “eye-witnesses” who testified that Jesus was a sinner, a corrupt and immoral man, and who testified that the Resurrection was all a fraud. The learned, the educated, the religious leaders of the day, the politicians and popular masses all spoke against Christ – cognitive dissonance thundered and echoed across the valleys – yet there were men and women who KNEW through the power of revelation that Jesus was the Christ, and some blessed witnesses who saw and touched and bore witness that they had seen the glorified Savior, just as we have been blessed to have such witnesses in our era, including those who saw and touched the plates of gold.
I don’t fully know why we had to have polygamy or even if it was truly necessary. I don’t know why Brigham Young did not share all my enlightened views and why he gave some opinions that bother me. I don’t know why Gordon B. Hinckley doesn’t share my views on many issues. And I still can’t figure out why the Lord has not elected to do things my way in general – what a great world this would be then! But all that dissonance is not enough to make me deny what I do know: that the Book of Mormon is a sacred and authentic ancient record translated in our day by a very real but human Prophet of God. The Church is imperfect, as all its members and mortal leaders are, but I know Who the source of this Church is: Jesus Christ. That knowledge gives me the strength to put up with a lot of cognitive dissonance on things where I don’t know enough to answer my questions or yours. It’s not that I’m brain dead – I believe my brain is active and seeking further light and knowledge daily, but the dissonance would get even worse if I were to abandon God or the Gospel over my offended sensibilities. I have seen too much, experienced too much, learned too much, received too much and (gasp) felt too much to maintain any intellectual honesty in denying the Book of Mormon, the reality of the Priesthood, the existence of God and Jesus Christ, the power of the Atonement, the power of prayer, and the sacredness of the Temple. We don’t have all the answers, and it may be that some things we Mormons take for granted are wrong and will need correction some day – but there are at least some things that are right and wonderful and truly from God.
16 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance”
im curious as to what views of the prophet you disagree with?
Do you really think that all or most people who leave the church, are also giving up God and the gospel? This belief held by many members of our church is the one that I find most troubling. I applaud people that take initiative, sometimes at great personal pain and sacrifice, to find a spiritual path that works better for them. Should we not sustain them in their efforts instead of degrading and demeaning them. I personally know of several people who believe most of the doctrines of the church, and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, but feel absolutely stifled and burdened by the culture and arrogance found amonst members and leaders. I honestly hope that you and I continue to find fulfilment in this church, but can we do it with a little more respect for those who may need to find a different way?
Clark Goble and Bob McCue had an interesting exchange on this a few weeks ago on Clark’s blog, http://libertypages.com/clark/10378.html
Also, if you haven’t seen it, Bruce Hafen has a chapter in a book on dealing with ambiguity and contradiction. It’s a fairly good discussion, though he uses softball examples.
ahhh… a hot topic for me right now. I have had a really hard time reconciling the fact that I truly believe this is Christ’s church. I believe in the Book of Mormon. I have had many profound experiences that I can never deny. And yet, I have been struggling because I have come face to face with the fact that we are all human. We are not perfect. Our Bishops are not perfect. Our Relief Society Presidents are not perfect. They have the callings and the stewardship but their own personal flaws still come to play whether or not they are called of God. So what do you do when you cannot sustain your leaders? When your leaders’ pride leads them to manipulate and hurt people?? I’m not really asking for an answer… I guess I’m just saying that I can now understand what it’s like to believe something is true with your whole heart and mind and still have a difficult time going to church and listen to the wards biggest gossip talk about the importance of not gossiping… It’s difficult for the spirit to teach in that environment.
“Cognitive dissonance” is a common buzzword these days for disgruntled Mormons, ex-Mormons, and anti-Mormons. It’s a fancy way of saying that there are lingering doubts, puzzles, and intellectual irritants for those who are LDS.
Not quite. It instead is a word used to describe how the Mormon institution influences people into behaving a certain way, until beliefs fall in line with those behaviors. The concept is that if the person’s beliefs do not align with his behaviors, he will be unhappy and will seek to remedy that situation (hence, the dissonance). Two things can happen at this point: either the beliefs and change, or the behavior can change. As long as a person chooses to behave in a certain way (for example, if he feels compelled to keep his word since he promised to behave in a certain way when he was baptized or took out his endowment), then his beliefs will fall into line.
Of course, this is true for those of any faith,
Atheism, by definition, is disbelief, or lack of belief. It is unfortunate that it has obtained almost sectarian connotations of late. It is also strange that we should have a name for the phenomenon of not believing in something. After all, we don’t have a name for people who disbelieve in gnomes or unicorns, do we? Then why should we have a name for people who do not believe in mythological deities like Krishna or Buddha or Elohim?
and it’s true for any field of knowledge: all the apparent facts, all the stories and allegations, all the experiences and observations cannot be assembled into one smooth, coherent
whole. There are always pieces that don’t fit or seem to challenge the assumptions that hold other pieces together. The fact that the details of our religion, our scriptures, Church history (in its many forms and with its diverse sources), world history, science, and knowledge in general results in many puzzles and conflicts is somehow supposed to be an intolerable burden that should make intellectually honest Mormons crack and leave the Church.
The real trouble here is that the desperate lack of scientific and historical evidence to support the Mormon institution’s claims place it at the same level of every other system of religious belief. You really can give me no legitimate reason why I should choose to invoke cognitive dissonance with respect to the Mormon faith, when I could go through the same process of altering my diet, my expenditures, my clothing, and so on, with regard to another faith. Reading religious
texts, fasting, cultural integration, prayer and meditation, etc. are all steps that one can take with any religion to instill religious belief with respect to that system. I could take these steps to convince myself to adopt your system of belief, but what makes your system of belief any more worthy of this than any other?
The anti-Mormons are appalled that we don’t crumple at the impact of the first tough anti-Mormon attack that comes our way, and blame it all on sheepish stupidity.
No, many skeptics don’t blame it on stupidity at all. We understand just how hard it is to let go of cherished beliefs. At the root of it all is a core survival mechanism of the brain. Discarding beliefs at the drop of a hat is a very dangerous thing to do, from an evolutionary psychology standpoint. This
href=”http://www.csicop.org/si/2000-11/beliefs.html”> article from Dr. Lester is something I recommend you read sometime. It might help explain what compels you to keep writing these essays in your blog.
Stamp Til Dawn said…
I really think that the imperfections of the modern saints is one reason we have the Old Testament — to have a reminder and a reference that helps us to appreciate that imperfection in the gospel is nothing new, but that God struggles with us, and with what he has, the best that can be done, and yet preserve free will.
While my views and beliefs lead me to “cling to the rod” of faith as I walk through the mists of uncertainty and doubt, this will not be the case for many others, and we do need to be more sympathetic for those who choose a different direction. I apologize if my comments sound harsh against those who feel compelled to leave the Church or who just can’t find a good reason to stay. I may disagree with that decision, but I can certainly understand that there are many reasons why one might be bothered by the Gospel, the members, the leaders, the practices, and so forth, to the point of not wishing to participate.
While I admit that I don’t have much respect for those who become anti-Mormons and wish to mock the faith of others, I can respect the decision to leave, and urge that we maintain our kindness and friendship with those who just don’t feel they belong. Some great people have left the Church – and some have come back (Oliver Cowdery, for example). They are entitled to their own decisions and should not be disparaged for that difficult choice – but we hope that they will come back some day.
As for imperfect leaders, well, there are a thousand challenges they can present. I have had some painful struggles of my own, but these struggles were aided by the perspective I obtained when I was bishop and saw how easy it was to offend people and be misunderstodd, and also how easy it was to make human mistakes in my judgment – in spite of the many times when divine guidance and miracles were observed. A leader makes dozens of decisions each day, and many of those have not been carefully pondered in an outpouring of revelation. Leaders are fallible, and we all need to deal with that as best we can.
Use “define:cognitive dissoance” on Google to obtain some useful definitions.
im curious as to what views of the prophet you disagree with?
You said: “While I admit that I don’t have much respect for those who become anti-Mormons and wish to mock the faith of others, I can respect the decision to leave, and urge that we maintain our kindness and friendship with those who just don’t feel they belong.”
As a missionary, I was taught and subsequently taught others that if you had the truth then it would naturally follow that you would have a desire to share it with others. As a mormon, I loved the church and devoted my life to it. But as I became aware of the innumerable problems and overwhelming evidences against its veracity, I struggled with the cognitive dissonance that you describe here. My belief in the church finally collapsed under the mountain of data against it and I finally found a degree of peace. As an exmormon, I feel the same desire to share the truth that I have now found with others. I have also become aware of the great lengths the church has gone to so that I would stay in the dark and not be exposed to the issues that lead to my leaving the church. I am naturally upset at the deception. All of this has occurred as I have honestly sought the truth and have striven to maintain a sense of personal integrity.
You want me to leave the church alone. At the same time, you have no hesitation convincing as many as possible to think like you do. You say you don’t have much respect for people like me. Don’t you see the apparent contradiction in your position? Why should I have much respect for you?
One the most frustrating things to observe is the tendency of some otherwise stable and respectable folks to throw out the baby with the bathwater…or in cases like the Book of Mormon and polygamy we might be dealing with Joseph’s baby and Brigham’s bathwater.
Whoever the baby, whereever the bathwater, I think a lot of the cognitive dissonance could be abated somewhat by getting rid of the static snapshots we have retained in our mind concerning Joseph Smith Jr. These snapshots freeze Joseph in time and make claims about Joseph that he didn’t make for himself! Joseph was an active dynamic person whose mind contemplated ultimate things, timeless things. I one hundred pro-cent…thatsa right folks…one hundred PRO!-cent guarantee y’all that the serious contemplation of such things will lead to one constantly updating ones model of reality.
The Lord never revealed all truth to Joseph Smith Jr. in one fell swoop. The good Lord placed Joseph’s feet on a search and discover mission, and Joseph invited us all to join him on the journey. Hopefully in our journey we will cross over the narrow road to Zion as often as we can.
As for me…lemme go on record…I suffer very little from cognitive dissonance….I’ll argue till the cows come home that the Book of Mormon is truly an ancient document and that Joseph was not a polygamist. But what if I’m wrong about Joseph not being a polygamist? It won’t make one iota of a difference in my testimony of the Book of Mormon.
Feeling of Freedom,
“But as I became aware of the innumerable problems and overwhelming evidences against its veracity, I struggled with the cognitive dissonance that you describe here. My belief in the church finally collapsed under the mountain of data against it …” …did you stuggle with, or become obsessed with these evidences? As a convert, as part of my investigation and also after my joining of the church (and even today) I view peoples complaints and disagreements with the church. However, I always do so while allowing myself to hear the rebuttles and counter-arguments. I have found very VERY few (if any) individuals who dislike, disagree with or otherwise reject the LDS church without a personal emotional attatchment to some issue or another. Sometimes an indivdual has been mistreated by a person of status or a member of the church, if this has happened to you I apologize. I remind you that we are all imperfect and simply striving to become more Christ-like. Not all members of the Church are good people. If everybody was, we would have no need for the proceedings of excommunication. However, I maintain that most of these are good people that made bad choices. I ask you, do you dislike the church for intellectual reasons or if you dislike it for emotional reasons? Furthermore, I have yet to discover the “mountain of data” you claim disproves the church. It is my view that the opposition the church faces is just is additional evidence of Satan’s opposition to the True church. You go on to say,
“You want me to leave the church alone. At the same time, you have no hesitation convincing as many as possible to think like you do…” I think that while you are within your rights to disagree with the LDS Church there are appropriate ways and inappropriate ways to express that. If you are seeking out happy people and trying to upset their lives, that really isn’t appropriate. It also is not fair to disrupt church services and temple openings. If you feel these actions bring validity to your arguments and views, you are wrong. If you wish to engage me in a personal debate, that can be held in an appropriate setting that is fine. Lastly, the goal of missionary efforts is not to convince people to “think like you do” but is to open their hearts to Christ and to show them what we believe as true. If you really were a missionary, I don’t think that you were trained well in the MTC or that you may have missed one too many General Conferences… I know this and have never even served a full time mission, however my part time missionary efforts will continue as long as my heart beats. God Bless you and may you find a happy road in life.
Anonymous wrote: No, many skeptics don’t blame it [people staying in the Church despite anti-Mormon attacks] on stupidity at all.
Five minutes on the “Recovery from Mormonism” web board is enough to dispel this claim. [rolling eyes]
What the anti-Mormon ignores is that an explanatory theory only has the “scientific” power of which he is often so enamored when it can be falsified.
Mormons are no more subject to such dissonance than anyone else—the anti-Mormon just doesn’t agree with how some Mormons undertake the reconciliation of new data. He likes to label their “faulty” conclusions the result of “cognitive dissonance,” and this does have a scientific, learned air about it. But, it really explains nothing, nor does it guide us in deciding whether a given resolution of the “dissonance” is appropriate.
[I had cognitive dissonance when I encountered the fact that light can be both particle and a wave. I’ve reconciled the dissonance via quantum mechanics—does this make me wrong?]
Put bluntly, what matters is not whether the anti-Mormon’s version of “cognitive dissonance theory” can be massaged to explain the behavior of most Mormons (and, Catholics, Muslims, as well those who persist in the belief that they can spend more money than they earn, and any other non-universally accepted thought). Of course it can. This proves nothing. This explains nothing. The key question is whether there are instances in which we can rule out so-called cognitive dissonance as a factor, increasing our confidence in the anti-Mormon’s “positive hits.”
Said Karl Popper, in a quintessential expression of this aspect of the philosophy of science:
The criterion of falsifiability … says that statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable, observations. [Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, London: Routledge and Keagan Paul , p. 33.]
The hallmark of pseudoscience is its inability to be falsified. That is why neither religion or any other philosophical system can ever be called science, or tested by science. “God made it all out of nothing in seven days, and faked the evidence,” says the young earth creationist. “Any Mormon who doesn’t interpret the evidence as I do must be suffering cognitive dissonance,” sniffs the anti-Mormon.
What observations about a faithful Mormon’s behavior or attitude toward the evidence might conceivably prove that the poor soul is not subject to cognitive dissonance? I suppose the Mormon might point out that this system of belief and life has made him happy; but the anti-Mormon won’t allow even that. For the anti-Mormon, the Mormon only thinks he is happy because of “cognitive dissonance,” which misuses the term. A person who is happy and content with their world-view is not, by definition, experiencing cognitive dissonance. The anti-Mormon may think his LDS friend has no right to be happy, but that’s a separate issue.
Anyone who can’t see why the anti-Mormon’s flavor of cognitive dissonance is not a theory worth using does indeed suffer from it. I can think of nothing which the anti-Mormon could not shoe-horn into his theory—cognitive dissonance is thus little but a handy club to beat anyone who does not share his interpretation. “Of course you see it differently,“ the anti-Mormon can kindly—but oh-so-condescendingly—assure his Mormon friend. “You’re still in the grip of cognitive dissonance.”
[The attentive reader will note this spares the anti-Mormon any need to address the issues which the Mormon just might sincerely find compelling; it can all be brushed away with an airy wave. Handy theory, this cognitive dissonance, since it can explain away ANY data!]
Thus, for all the anti-Mormon’s exertions regarding cognitive dissonance, it serves here merely as a convenient “just-so” story—“How the Mormon Got His Delusions.”
I am always amazed that ex- and anti-Mormons who have never met me, read anything I’ve written, or talked to me seem to become instant experts on what goes on in my brain.
All this is not to say that cognitive dissonance cannot play a role in religious belief. It may well play a role, for example, in the anti-Mormon’s experience, in which his expectations and beliefs did not meet his perceptions of reality—he is the only one able to make that assessment.
[And, if we wanted a cheap shot, we could argue that the anti-Mormon’s inability to address the idea that thinking, believing, informed members choose to remain committed Latter-day Saints leads them (via cognitive dissonance) to invoke….cognitive dissonance. Go ahead, prove me wrong!]
Therefore, lacking access to others’ reasoning and spiritual experiences, our anti-Mormon cannot objectively judge the influence (if any) of cognitive dissonance in others’ decisions. He can worry about the dissonant beams in his own eye; others’ motes are out of the reach of his (often self-justifying) inquiry.
The psychology literature on cognitive dissonance subjects _groups_ of people to similar situations, and then explains the differences between groups via cognitive dissonance. This seems more rigorous than the enormous several leaps taken by the anti-Mormon crowd, who point to Person A (whom they often don’t know at all well) and decide that their lack of excitement over whatever has put a bee in the anti-Mormon’s bonet is best (and only) explained via “cognitive dissonance.”
It’s a “never miss” theory, which is (one suspects) its attraction.
So, anti-Mormon folks, prove to me YOU’RE not cognitively dissonant. (You don’t really expect me to believe you have no status, ego, or anything invested in their anti- or ex-Mormon stance, which has often been trumpted loudly, do you?) 🙂
And, if they manage that, then tell me what I’d have to do to prove that I’m not suffering from cog dis…
Or, is being charged sufficient to find me guilty?
In regards to people leaving the church due to negative experiences with other members, I empathize.
But let me tell you what I’ve done to get past all that junk.
First, I’ve been around a lot of people with varying degrees of activity in my life. They run the full spectrum. My brother believes 100% in the doctrine, and if someone were to insult Jesus Christ or any of the prophets he’d be the first to defend them, but he rarely goes to church and is very conflicted about the social/cultural aspect of the church.
There’s a good friend of mine who I baptized ten years ago who fell back into his bad crowd (drugs, particularly), and just last month refused to open the door for my mother who he was once extremely close to – he was essentially another son. He sent his wife to tell my mom he didn’t want to see her. My mom went with no agenda other than to let him know he was always welcome in our home, no matter what he thought about her, me, my brother, sister, religion, God, Mormons, whatever. He had reached the point of rejecting those he once considered family, putting all the blame on us and our religion, and religion in general. He just had his name removed from the records of the church, and I say that’s good; my hope is that it’s a step towards him overcoming his problems outside the church. The church right now only feeds his bitterness, so let him get away.
I’ve seen great people who have left the church and they’ll mention their disagreements when the topic comes up, but they are curteous, clear, and nothing but respectful to those who remain in the belief they felt was no longer something they could endorse without falsifying their appearance.
So, what does this have to do with tossing aside the social/cultural conflicts with other church members? Well, through my mission, through my 2-year experience at BYU, through all my 26-year life, I’ve learned this one thing that let’s me see most plainly: I’m in it for me. Not for my Bishop; not for my Mother; not for my future wife; for me. My redemption, my self-worth, etc. No matter who says what, their misbehavior will not drive me away from my duty to myself. Rude to me this Sunday? I’ll be back, because your tactlessness isn’t gonna feed my unrighteous pride. Use a scripture to justify a political viewpoint I disagree with in Sunday School? Your imperfection is no worse than my own.
I’m in the motion picture industry, and I’m passionate about it. I’m particularly opinionated when it comes to films as art/statements/reflections of society/culture, you name it. I own films on DVD that would shock many Mormons. (You can see for yourself here: http://www.dvdaficionado.com/dvds.html?cat=1&sub=All&id=captveg). I have my reasons which I consider worthwhile and moral. At BYU film school, we watched R-rated films, and it was a program that was in complete knowledge of the Apostles over education. The times I was considered a sinner by other LDS students not in the film program when they learned we watched some R-rated films in class was astoundingly high. They didn’t get it; they couldn’t see through the eyes I was looking through.
I could have been turned off by contradictions and hypocrisy in the culture, but I reason: what does it have to do with Jesus redeeming my soul? Sure, it’s hypocritical that I was able to buy the novel of The Godfather at the BYU bookstore without any questions, while it would be likely the biggest story on campus if they started selling the DVD of the film. And the novel is much more salacious and contains very heavy sexual content not in the film. But the culture doesn’t look at novels as entertainment, and so it goes unnoticed and is assumed to be for learning. So getting getting hung up on that is fruitless to my salvation. I’m much better off dismissing it as a lack of having the appreciation for film that I have as art. Situation over and done with.
I could go on with thousands of examples, but I’ve likely said enough. The point is: I look out for my relationship with Christ, and if I stay focused on that, everything else will work towards my eternal reward, and the bumps along the way that may annoy will not hinder me.
Just like if I shocked or offended you here, you should blow it off and work out your own salvation in spite of me. 🙂