Cognitive Dissonance and Atheism

Soon on my reading list after Mistakes Were Made is likely going to be The God Virus, by Dr. Darrell Ray. In it, he discusses how many religions can be thought of as parasitic memes–literally viruses of the mind, which take advantage of cognitive dissonance in order to thrive and propagate.

Consider the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Pride, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. They fall into two categories: First, we have five flavors of thoughtcrime over which we have no conscious control. The last three are activities which not only are pleasurable but in some degree necessary to live. You have to eat when you’re hungry. You have to rest when you’re tired. You have to have offspring or you go extinct. Because you cannot help but sin, the cognitive dissonance between your concept of morality and your inevitable failure creates guilt, in what Ray calls “the Guilt Cycle.” The only way to relieve the guilt is to return mentally to the thoughts and devotions described by the religion, thus priming you for the next failure which simply being human will inflict. Fundamentally, Ray says, religion is not designed to make you behave well, but rather is about fomenting guilt when you don’t measure up. It’s a great racket, and you’ll notice how picayune and petty are the strictures in many religions, the better to inflict such.

I’m not going to delve into that much more than to say I’m sure it will be interesting reading, but in light of what I’ve already discussed in parts 1 and 2, it does raise concerns about just what I am doing with activism in the Skeptical and Atheist communities. If dissonance from self-concepts of general good sense meant I couldn’t fully succeed with my own family, about something as simple as a screwball diet plan, exactly what am I going to accomplish by telling people their beliefs about their immortal soul and hope for salvation are not justified?

I’m not the least angry atheist you’ll ever meet. I have days where I agree with Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z. Myers and I’m ready to hoist the Jolly Roger when I see Bibles being shipped to Haiti, bowdlerized science textbooks and blasphemous attacks on worldwide free speech. But Tavris did say one thing on the podcast which stuck with me: “The one sure and certain way that you will not get anyone else to change their minds is to put them in dissonance…If you threaten their fundamental beliefs or self-concept, they will cling to that belief more tenaciously and reduce the dissonance by attacking you.”

We need to ask ourselves, who’s listening, and who are we trying to influence? Ourselves, at least. We are rationalist members of an irrational species; we are atheists and agnostics in a very religious world: we imbibe more uncomfortable dissonance than it would appear just in our day-to-day lives, and we relieve it through socializing with the like-minded. That’s one level, and though I’m opposed to simply backslapping ourselves on how smart and insightful we all are, I have no easy answers to the broader questions.

I see one immediate problem: both pseudoscience and religion share a common trait. Both of them fundamentally take a conclusion first, and then self-select facts which support that preconception, whether it be homeopathy, UFOs, or creationism. Under the best of circumstances, dissonance makes it difficult for disconfirming arguments to be considered–so much the worse when the subject at hand is founded on that very process.

I don’t think we, as a community, do ourselves too many favors sometimes. I think we need to think long and hard about who we want to reach, how we can do that, and what compromises we might be able to live with. Human nature isn’t going to change, and we are fools if we don’t recognize that people don’t change their minds easily, quickly, or if they can’t save face even in their own minds. I’m not siding with the “concern trolls” who keep telling the freethought community how much better off we’d be if we would sit down, shut up, and yield to religion in all things. Suffice it to say, there are people we are not going to reach.

If there is a direction I’m sure of, I’m going to let Charles Darwin say it better for me: “I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science.”

I think skepticism has a better shot at changing our culture. Fundamentally, science and skepticism both relish the discovery of new information, the asking of new questions. The scientific method itself is a process by which ideas are proven wrong. I think this is the mindset we need to encourage, and the desire to follow the truth, wherever it may lead. That’s why we do have battles that we have to fight: the attempts of the opposition to corrupt the educational process is nothing less than an attempt to sow the ground with salt, to ensure that another generation of freethinkers does not take place. They are playing to win.

Our opposite numbers are not friendly pet box turtles, they are alligator snapping turtles who do not and never will tolerate us, the more so because we aim to drain the swamps of unreason that they live in. They must be opposed, because they are playing to win. We would do well, though, to consider our tactics.

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One Response to Cognitive Dissonance and Atheism

  1. Happy Skeptic says:

    I like the last paragraph the best in many ways. Too often it is hard to remember why we bother at all. Other times, trying to spread the idea that purity of ideology is not useful can be very difficult. While there are many things with which I agree and disagree, there are few truly important enough to be considered worth a fight. However, fighting does no good if you do not fight well and make the most of what you have. It’s like Judo, you don’t try to ‘fight’ the fact that your opponent is bigger and stronger, you use that strength against him.

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