Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can be defined as the state of possessing two pieces of knowledge (ideas, beliefs, values, emotions) that are mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed, causing one to experience a hunger- or thirst-like desire for mental resolution. The greater the dissonance, the greater the desire for ideological reconciliation.

Or, according to midcentury psychologist Leon Festinger, it is “the distressing mental state in which people feel they find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.”

Suppose my mother believes that God controls everything and loves everyone – because the Bible says so, naturally. She is also aware of natural disasters, rapes, murders, of children growing up without parents or in unimaginably abusive situations. She does not believe in karma or reincarnation (because the Bible does not say so, natch).

Let’s talk about how mutually exclusive those things are. It’s a logical impossibility that an omnipotent and all-loving God would kill, torture, and unjustly punish innocent people.

Take it one step further: in the Old Testament, God was said to have destroyed two entire cities (men, women, children, and animals), sparing only one family. He sanctioned genocide; called a bisexual murderer “a man after his own heart”; demanded ritual sacrifice of animals; played a sick head game wherein he demanded a man kill his own son and held him to it until the very last minute, when he made him kill a ram instead; and came up with a law stating [paraphrasing], “If you rape a virgin, she has to marry you and there can be no possibility of divorce.”

All-loving and all-powerful? Try maniacal, mercurial, and dictatorial, at best; sadistic and terrifying at worst. Really, Zeus had nothing on this colossal jerk.

But we’re not here to talk about the fundamentalist, Protestant version of the Almighty. The point is that my mother, a highly intelligent, self-determining woman utterly and completely believes that God is omnipotent and all-loving. Simultaneously, she knows that (her) God is a killer, a hater, an implacable judge, and is calculating to the last drop of blood in demanding personal sacrifice.

That’s some powerful cognitive dissonance.

We have to come up with systems of thought to make these mutually exclusive principles work for us. We have to discard falsehood, change beliefs, add new knowledge as we find it, or make discrepancies seem insignificant (why do you think so much of the Bible gets overlooked from the pulpit? It’s too inconvenient, too difficult to justify, and needs to be considered unimportant),

If we cannot resolve the dissonance, we live in a constant state of unease, anxiety, and even depression. Our core beliefs, though often ignored by those who seem to be shallow, are still the foundation of our personality; and, ultimately, they define the sum total of our experience.

What are your cognitive dissonances?

When I was in my mother’s house, I believed that the stepfather who molested me was a good parent and was concerned with my best interests. I believed that my parents, both of whom were violently abusive (see above references to “the Bible says”), loved me and cared for me. I managed the dissonance by learning to disconnect, to think of myself as an unfeeling object rather than a physically and emotionally wounded little girl; later, in my teen years, I began to believe that I was possessed. They’d been telling me that for long enough; and eventually, I let it sink in. How else to explain the diametrically opposed facts that I loved God and believed in his forgiveness and redemption; yet month by month and week by week, I felt myself growing more restless in that theology, more doubtful, more tempted? Eventually, this developed into full-fledged schizophrenia, complete with an extended stay at the local looney bin. (I could go on and on about the sociological factors that cause “chemical imbalances,” but that’s another story for another day.)

I’m beginning to think that the only acceptable resolution to cognitive dissonance is not the construction of paradigms that, in convoluted, quasi-illogical ways, make two opposing beliefs possible. That kind of duality and uncertainty sounds too much like mental illness for my taste.

If two ideas are mutually exclusive, one of them has to be wrong.

I’m tired of justifying things that don’t make sense. I can no longer say that either my mother or my stepfather loved me or were good parents – or good people, for that matter. I can’t keep looking for faith in a belief system that is replete with contradiction, hypocrisy (not in its followers, but in and of itself), and malevolence.

It’s not very comforting to think that there will never be a safe-haven in my systems of thought; no external space of unconditional love and acceptance. The reason I have no religion or faith now is that in every faith, there is dissonance that requires considerable justification.

Having grown up in a world of absolutes and total (if false) certainty, the reality of the world is still a little unsettling. It’s full of questions and contradictions, of uncertainty at the atomic level. There will always be cognitive dissonance in each of us, whether or not we choose to acknowledge or process it.

Did you ever have that feeling that something wasn’t right, that tickle at the back of your mind that reminded you of an unfocused picture or an unfinished puzzle; and however peripheral, it just irritated the Pop Rocks out of you? Dissonance in my beliefs does that to me. I hunger and thirst for a spiritual and ideological reconciliation to allow my experience to resonate and harmonize with my body of knowledge, and I will be fundamentally unsettled until I find something that approximates that unity of theory and function.

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