Got Cognitive Dissonance? Consider This Before You Abandon Faith

“Cognitive dissonance” is a popular term to describe the tension that occurs when various components of knowledge and belief seem to contradict. Recognizing and dealing with cognitive dissonance ought to be a normal part of an intelligently lived life because it is a natural result of having limited, imperfect knowledge, and points to areas where we may benefit from further exploration and learning.

Advances in science occur in the realms of cognitive dissonance as scientists try to make sense of data that doesn’t seem to fit established views. Dissonance does not demand panic or complete abandonment of old paradigms or of science itself, but further study, an openness to revised understanding, and sometimes a little patience. A classic area for cognitive dissonance in science is the tension between the strange world of quantum mechanics at the atomic or subatomic level and the physical behavior of the macroscopic world we see and touch. Even Einstein struggled with it and found it too bizarre–and that was long before some of the really weird stuff was discovered. The apparent contradictions are being resolved, but it still demands a lot of patience and perhaps even faith to deal with the puzzles that are presented.

Sometimes the reason for cognitive dissonance is that a theory that once seemed to work no longer makes sense or needs major revisions. Facing the discrepancies can be healthy and lead to wiser actions (I am tempted to raise the issue of Climategate as an example, but that might cause too much cognitive dissonance for some). In science, cognitive dissonance is something to savor because it spells opportunity: opportunity to learn, to grow, to revise old assumptions, and to discover. Dealing with cognitive dissonance is the fuel for scientific advances (see Thomas Kuhn’s classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

The term “cognitive dissonance” in some religious or formerly religious circles is used to justify leaving the Church. In these circles, it is shorthand for finding things that didn’t make sense to someone. Yes, there are plenty of those in our faith, or any faith. However, many of those who leave or abandon faith because of cognitive dissonance may be missing the inherent opportunity to grow and learn.

Are you upset because modern LDS scholars are saying that the Book of Mormon took place in a small geographical area and that it does not describe the complete origins of all native Americans, when your Sunday School teacher thirty years ago said it did? Maybe there is soomething to be learned from a careful reading of the text and consideration of data regarding the ancient Americas.

Are you upset because a prophet made a mistake? Maybe it’s time to update your understanding of prophets and recognize that they are fallible mortals like all of us, but with authority and the ability to occasionally receive revelation when God wills it, not superheroes who instantly become omniscient.

Are you upset because past practices of polygamy, priesthood limitations, or whatever don’t agree with your view of how things should be? I’m bothered as well, but if Christ refused to condemn ancient prophets like the poygamist Abraham, and even called him the “friend of God,” maybe we, too, should learn to be cautious in how we judge, and maybe we have more to learn someday on these controversial topics. Living with cognitive dissoance can be healthy when we recognize that we are missing information and that there are reasons to at least for now withhold judgment in faith.

There are many good reasons to leave the Church, if you are looking for them, just as there are many good reasons to abandon science, especially medical science, where the views and decrees of its leaders in some areas shift and change over time. For example, when I was a teenager, I struggled with bad acne. I wondered if something in my diet, like lots of dairy products, might be related. A leading dermatologist told me absolutely not, that there was no relation, and instead I should just load up on tetracycline. After doing that for several years with little benefit, I finally realized through trial and error that acne was directly tied to my diet. In fact, to this day, if I eat too much ice cream, I will break out.

Today, medical science realizes there is a link between diet and acne. It is not necessarily the animal fat that I assumed and still suspect is part of the problem. Science today points to the bovine growth hormones that are often used in cows. These hormones can exacerbate acne. So my dermatologist was completely wrong about the role of diet, and was also wrong in giving me so much tetracycline. One medical practioner told me that heavy tetracycline for acne would be considered medical malpractice today because of the side effects it can have. That’s medical science for you. In fact, that’s science: it’s forever tentative and always subject to revision. Shouldn’t our religious understanding be equally open to updates and progress? Before we abandon faith, consider if there is a need for revision in our assumptions, or if others have resolved the conflict successfully, or if the problem is limited knowledge that may take time and a little faith to keep us on course. Don’t let our limited understanding stand in the way of worshipping and following the One Being who is the source of all truth. That’s not President Thomas S. Monson or Joseph Smith or any other mortal, but God the Father.

Suggested resource: Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt by Michael Ash.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

21 thoughts on “Got Cognitive Dissonance? Consider This Before You Abandon Faith

  1. Thanks for this Jeff.

    When I joined the church 11 years ago, your website was one of the ones I used to investigate. Glad you're still out here.

  2. Spelling error – ombniscient. Feel free to edit my comment after fixing it.

    Jeff, I so appreciate your thoughtful, faithful posts exploring sensitive subjects. You do a fantastic job and I appreciate the enormous amount of time you must put into your writing.

  3. Would love to hear more about the fraud of scientists in Climategate – a scandal far bigger and more harmful than Madoff's little scam.

  4. Excellent article. As a Mormon scientist, it really struck a chord with me. Thanks for all your wonderful posts.

  5. I love what Dr. Wendy Ulrich said a few years ago at the FAIR conference: "Most babies would not survive the first diaper change if parents did not learn how to cope with a little cognitive dissonance." It's not a question of whether we will experience cognitive dissonance: we will, in a variety of places and at different levels. I still experience it, at church as much as anywhere, but I have learned not to panic but to work through it in faith.

  6. I remember a talk long ago, where the speaker said as we built our house of faith, we may come across a brick that seems unsuited or out of place. Rather than throwing it away, he advised us to lay the brick aside and continue to build. At some point we would find that the brick would ultimately be critical to completing our house of faith…

  7. Very apropos, Jeff. The long timeline of human history on Earth is a strong indicator that we are expected to stumble along en masse, otherwise we could have found all the solutions long ago. Unfortunately, every era considers itself to have approached the pinnacle of knowledge, with the rest just being a formality.

    As you allude, the prophets aren't necessarily here to reveal all the mysteries of heaven to us, but to let us know what portion it is that we need to know at the time, and what we can handle.

    With other more efficient plans, sure, we could've had everything wrapped up within just a few generations. And yet efficiency doesn't equal wisdom. All things in good time.

  8. I have personally known dozens (probably hundreds) of people who have left the Church because of "cognitive dissonance". I personally have worked through a lot of issues using the the same reasoning prescribed by Jeff. For example, I reject several alleged statements made by Joseph Smith and other prophets, on the basis that they suffered from human emotions that led them to say irrational things. In fact, some of these errant statements were handed down and extrapolated to lead to further errors. This helps me "keep it together". When it's all said and done, you are left to harmonise spiritual experiences with the rational world. If there is tension there, then whatever wins out in your mind will detremine where you end up. A lot of people surrender the spiritual experience to a worldly explanation if the experience is weak. The ones who survive usually have have had strong spiritual experiences which they are convinced, or believe have come from a source not of this world. I fall into the latter.

  9. Why is leaving the LDS Church equated to abandoning faith?

    “Living with cognitive dissonance” appears to be a euphemism for compartmentalization. Some chose to compartmentalization, some chose not to. I say to each their own and more power to both of them. However, those that compartmentalize would be much more palatable if they would just be intellectual honest and admit that they are compartmentalizing.

  10. "Most babies would not survive the first diaper change if parents did not learn how to cope with a little cognitive dissonance."

    I am unable to understand this. What cognitive dissonance is there in a diaper change? A parent may not like doing it but in what way does it assault verifiable facts or practical understandings? And what threat is there to a baby — discomfort to be sure but "survival"? — in a poorly executed clean up?

    This makes zero sense to me as a literal or figurative contribution.

  11. Gonna have to agree about the reference to diaper changes not making any sense (and yes, I've changed plenty of 'em).

    ++ for the rest of the post tho!

    Off topic… sort of…

    I'd love to see a bit more cognitive dissonance about Climategate… I seriously doubt it's on the agenda in Copenhagen.

    My favorite forum post: "As an accountant, if I had even *thought* about sending emails like those I'd be in a federal prison right now."

  12. regarding Climategate (if there is any such thing…):

    One doesn't choose cognitive dissonance. It arises inexorably unbidden and often unwelcomed from conflict between verifiable facts and a preordained agenda. No actual conflict, no dissonance.

    You may not like the conclusions climatologists come to. Or you may feel overwhelmed or confused by them. You may not feel you have a course of action within your means and, so, want to suppress climatologists' concerns. Regardless of what discomforts you may personally feel, the fact is that there is near universal agreement about the body of scientific evidence among the community of professionals who study it.

    There are, of course, scientists who are in disagreement and you'll hear from them because they are the exceptions. And there is disagreement about how to present the information or what courses are open to people and governments to counteract the effects. But there is not a lot of cognitive dissonance that I'm acquainted with.

    The rest of us need to reflect on what climatologists have to advise us. We can, of course, consider opposition advice but, when we do, we should also consider how long it took the tobacco industry to stop propping up "experts" who spent 2 generations telling us to disregard the linkage between cancer and nicotine. We should also ask ourselves how we will deal with it in a decade when the effects are felt in our latitude as they already are farther north and in coastal regions of the world.

    "Declaring" cognitive dissonance will not immunize any of us from the long range effects of continuing the practices that have aggravated the effects to date.

  13. Wow, this is a pretty wonderful post. I really appreciate the time and effort that was obviously put into your ideas Jeff, as well as many of the comments that have been left.

    For me the last few years have been a struggle for many of the reasons you've posted here. Life can be frustrating to me as my truth finding toolset is limited at best.

    While I don't for a second believe the church to be infallible I do become agitated by the things that don't seem to add up in my mind. While I appreciate Jeff's acne analogy I find issues with it also. While science most definitely is full of flaws and needs constant correction it is still based off of these verifiable foundations. Your doctor may have been dead wrong but if he is it's only a matter of elbow grease to figure out where he went wrong. This is not an ability we have when it comes to religious understanding. I have no way of verifying in a repeatable confirmatory way any of the principles of the gospel. The answers are always going to be vague and never come in exactly the same form. One person will claim they know the gospel is true by a totally different standard then another person will. If the physical world has a truth that we find then generally we will be able to show people over and over again how it works. Lacking this the idea fades into the background as yet another (perhaps brilliant ) flawed explanation.

    another point of extreme frustration for me is that they type of discussion I see here is not something I will ever see in general conference or in sacrament meeting. The church clings tenaciously to many ideas and principles that are taught as firm and sure. Yet I experience much of this 'cognitive dissonance' just comparing them to other foundational points of the gospel.

    At the end of the day I may simply be looking at everything backwards. This however is why religion is so difficult for me. I never know if I'm experiencing what others are experiencing, or if I'm looking at it correctly and there's always an element on vagueness to it as all that I learn of the gospel comes through an imperfect human vessel and so anything that is said could at a later date or with a particular point of view be undone. How do I ever know when a prophet is speaking with 'prophecy' or when he is merely stating the opinions of his mortal mind? There doesn't seem to be a good tool for assessing such things.

    Sorry for the long post.

  14. I share Matthew's concerns expressed above. Jeff's comparison between cognitive dissonance in science and cognitive dissonance in religion breaks down for several reasons.

    1. Science is a human endeavor, while revelation is apparently partly human and partly divine. We expect humans to make mistakes, but we do not expect God to make mistakes. There should be some claims of Mormonism that we can rely upon to never be contradicted by evidence, in contrast to scientific claims which are all provisional and all subject to being overturned.

    2. Apologists can retrospectively designate specific Mormon claims as being human in order to accommodate contradictory evidence. There is no clear method for determining a priori which claims come from humans and which come from God. This makes the claim of divine revelation essentially unfalsifiable. In contrast, falsifiability is a key feature of science.

    3. Because they are human, scientists have beliefs, but the methodology of science doesn't require belief. Instead, data must be reproducible. Mormonism, on the other hand, requires a lot of belief, and much of the foundational evidence is not reproducible.

  15. @ anthony,
    Your points were put more succinctly then I was able to do, and you really get at the heart of what is so troubling to me about the argument that was laid down.

    The crux of my frustration in the church boils down to an inability to ever be able to point at a particular thing and say, "there, this is one of the 'sure' points of doctrine that will never be wavered upon."

    Typically in my experience there is not anything that could happen (or not happen) and upon this occurence one could validly say, "oh, okay that settles the matter, the church is definitely not true." No matter what the outcome it can still be explained away and could never be a sign that the gospel isn't true (even if that same thing before being shown to be incorrect was used as a strong evidence of the church's veracity.)

  16. Don't let our limited understanding stand in the way of worshipping and following the One Being who is the source of all truth.

    exactly. and this is why one should not be Mormon. Their understanding is profoundly, peculiarly limited, and they are unable to know, recognize or worship the one being who is the source of all truth.

  17. This post is a deceitful analogy. The scientific models never claimed to be the end all to be all, but always maintained that they were current models until better ones come along. The fact that better models came along does not represent cognitive dissonance in the slightest, but rather is what was expected.

    To truthfully understand the term cognitive dissonance is to look at how the term was coined.
    Religious groups predicted the end of the world, the end of the world did not happen, ergo the rational thing would have been for the group followers to concluded the religion was wrong. The term was coined to help understand why it was so common for a group’s followers to compartmentalize and embark on irrational conclusions. For example, the end of the world was indeed going to happen, but the group’s existence prevented it from happening and prior claims that the end was inevitable were never official doctrine. Sound extremely familiar?

    Cognitive dissonance was coined to help explain why the followers might embark on the obviously irrational. The term emphasizes the potential emotional pain that will occur if they do not. Therefore, cognitive dissonance avoidance is what is occurring for those who shun rational conclusions. Full cognitive dissonance is the accurate descriptor of those who have the courage to feel the pain. So when Mormanity waxes eloquent about how great cognitive dissonance is, he really saying how great avoiding cognitive dissonance is, the path of least resistance.

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