“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.