Before beginning, I would like to proffer an intuition about the act of thinking. All conscious thought, everything we ruminate on, analyze, try to comprehend, etc. is an act of cognitive dissonance, where we have two or more cognitions in tension with each other. Sometimes this is about contradictions between our actions and our values, where we seek to justify how our actions were right even though they might have been what we said we thought was wrong, and so we form new moral beliefs and values that we didn’t use to hold to justify our actions. Sometimes this entails having contradictory ideas that we seek to smooth out. For instance, if I believe God is real and someone makes an argument that God can not exist, then my act of actually thinking about the argument will lead me to argue why that person’s argument isn’t true. The same is also true in reverse. However, the cognitive dissonance may not be between competing perceptions about myself or contradictions in ideas that I see to resolve. The tension can be between our sense of what we believe to be true and what we want to be true, and so we either analyze our sense of what is true to be amenable to what we want or we rationalize what we want to be true cannot be true. In a variety of ways, all human thinking is cognitive dissonance at some level.
This doesn’t mean what you come to believe due to cognitive dissonance is automatically false, because I would suggest cognitive dissonance can be an actual tool for getting at the truth: if you believe all swans are white and then you come upon a black swan, then your cognitive dissonance may motivate you to recognize that either a) your definition of swans is wrong so that the black “swan” is not, in fact, a swan or b) to reject the belief that all swans are white. Cognitive dissonance can motivate you to resolve the difference by taking in more information and considering whether color is an essential feature of swan-ness or not (it really depends on what purposes you have in talking about “swans” whether color is an essential or non-essential feature). Cognitive dissonance can lead you to the truth and what is good IF if motivates you to analyze your beliefs or goals in a mindset that is appropriately attuned to the truth or goodness one is seeking.1 For instance, if someone has made a report about some bad events that took place, you do not believe them, and then they present evidence that what they said took place is true, the contradiction with your beliefs can motivate you to listen to the person in order to assess what happened is true or not.2
I make that point to make this point about religion: all theological and ethical systems of religion are acts of cognitive dissonance. What distinguishes the theological and ethical systems of religion is this pivotal question is: how do religious people seek to resolve this cognitive dissonance? Are they aligning their resolution of dissonance based upon the appropriate attunement to the source(s) of truth and goodness? Or are they presupposing certain concepts must be true and/or good and therefore that all critiques are false or bad?
The sad truth of the matter is that as humans, whether religious or not, we tend to be pretty stubborn about what we believe, being inclined to instinctively deny taking in new information that might challenge our beliefs without giving an actual listen to what the new information is and the various things it could possibly mean. Hence, we are prone to rationalize when it comes to cognitive dissonance, providing reasons why the new information is invalid or false without actually taking the time to listen to the new information. However, when it comes to religion, this human process can be ramped up a notch. It is harder to rationalize something is false when it is clearly right in front of you. The belief that all swans are white is pretty hard to maintain if a creature that looks like a swan in every way except being black is staring you in the face; it is hard to rationalize away why all swans are white and truly believe it. However, because much of religion, at least in the West, talks about what is unseen, particularly God, there is a stark diffference: it is easy to rationalize away when the evidence isn’t staring you right in the face. It is easy to construct all sort of explanations about God, God’s will, spiritual forces, etc. that will allow you to maintain your belief in the face of new, disconfirming information. Then, this only gets further complicated when two or more persons, groups, etc. are arguing about religious beliefs, each providing arguments that disconfirm the other, with each rationalizing away why the other’s arguments are false. Herein lies the sources of many a religious conflict.
Now, for many in the modern Western world, they would assume from this all too common of experience of religion that either a) you can’t know anything about God or b) that God just doesn’t exist. But there is a third option: God and His will can be known by those who do not assume they know God and His will and therefore are more concerned about paying attention and listening. Karl Barth suggests something similar about religion:
We need to see that in view of God all our activity is in vain even in the best life; i.e., that of ourselves we are not in a position to apprehend the truth, to let God be God and our Lord. We need to renounce all attempts even to try to apprehend this truth. We need to be ready and resolved simply to let the truth be told us and therefore to be apprehended by it. But that is the very thing for which we are not resolved and ready. The man to whom the truth has really come will concede that he was not at all ready and resolved to let it speak to him. The genuine believer will not say that he came to faith from faith, but—from unbelief, even though the attitude and activity with which he met revelation, and still meets it, is religion. For in faith, man’s religion as such is shown by revelation to be resistance to it. From the standpoint of revelation religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture.3
While I would not make the absolute stark separations that Barth so commonly does and I have multiple problems with Barth’s metaphysics of revelation, those problems aside, Barth makes the point that religion often times functions as a form of resistance to God’s revelation. Religion often times resists what God is making known, rationalizing it away. We Christians who believe the New Testament witnesses believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh, and yet the religious elite with their ability to read the Torah and know about God’s commandments, such as the Pharisees and Scribes along with the Sadducees and the chief priests, did not understand Him as God-in-the-flesh despite all He did and resisted Him; violently so. Or, consider how those of us Protestants who passionately hold to “justification by faith alone” can go through major gymnastics to explain away how James 2:14-26, or even Romans 2:13, does not suggest there is more to “justification” than faith, rather than either a) allowing a more complex view of justification or b) allowing that justification means different things at different times. My point in these examples are not to pin the problem with any group of people; these processes of cognitive dissonance can happen to literally anyone. My point is only to show the very human reality of religion can so easily and readily resolve cognitive dissonance by acts of rationalization.
The solution begins in humility, as Barth begins to suggest.4 In humility, one is more apt to judge to reject one’s own beliefs and desires and therefore resolve cognitive dissonance by listening, rather than rationalizing. As a consequence, rationalizing religion will tend to have a ever-burgeoning growth of doctrines and concepts, because listening entails a recognition of one’s own ignorance while rationalizing frequently adds multiple doctrines to keep one’s knowledge base from collapsing under new information.
This dynamic is expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul criticizes people who have knowledge that no idols really exist and thus freely eat meat that is sacrificed at pagan temples. Paul’s response is two-fold: firstly it is to challenge to knowledge that no other god’s exist. Instead, Paul directs people to pay attention to the God we worship rather than pay attention to the ontological ideas about other gods; the question of the existence of other gods is immaterial when it comes to the worship of the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then, having argued that questions of a divine ontology beyond the creative power of God, he proceeds to tell the Corinthians that no everyone has the same knowledge base. As a consequence, when people eat meat as commonly offered at the pagan temples, while they rationalize their own behavior they are causing harm to another person who does not share this knowledge. Paul’s response is to critique their ontological speculations and their rationalizations, and instead direct them to pay attention to the impact their actions are having on other people. Why? Because these people are under the influence of Christ’s death. Therefore, instead of paying attention to theological and metaphysical rationalizations that would justify eating at the temple, Paul encourages a religious knowledge that comes by paying attention to Christ and the significance of what He did, which thereby entails paying attention to the very people Christ considered significant.
In analyzing the situation, the Corinthians were tempted to add further wisdom and knowledge to wisdom and knowledge. But for Paul, the problem is that they are not properly putting their faith in God but rather in the ideas of human teachers,5 and one of the consequences is that people are rationalizing their behavior away by their knowledge, oblivious to the harm they are causing. Here, there are the goals that the people want to be true, so they rationalize away about ontological reality so that they can justify what they want to do. Thus, religion in the ontological and perceptual vacuum that it exists within can easily find rationalizations; this is what Paul decisively warns against.
But to be clear, the problem isn’t having beliefs. The problem is having knowledge one treats as certain, and therefore is insensitive to hearing or listening to anything different, particuarly when it comes to testimony of what has happened as matters of fact. It is a belief system that not only anticipates what God is doing, as Barth talks about, but goes further assumes what God must do and what must happen as a consequence. When new information comes in that things are not working according to one’s assumptions, people who think they have confident, surefire theological knowledge will be inclined to explain away the new information and rationalize the certainty of one’s belief. Instead of resolving cognitive dissonance by listening, cognitive dissonance is resolved by analyzing why every single mildly significant thing one believes must be true, being unwilling to risk even an inch to the voices crying out in the wilderness. It is possible to anticipate but be open to your expectations being wrong and thus keeping oneself moving towards the what is true and good, despiste mistakes, but when religious anticipations are assumptions, then one is engaging in form of religion that deals with the cognitive dissonance of thinking by rationalizing.
Religion can be a good thing, if it teaches us to deal with cognitive dissonance by seeking to listen to God and also seeking to listen to those whom God values when our anticipations and expectations fail us, but religion can indeed become a resistance to the will of God when it seeks to rationalize its beliefs about God and the world of people that God loves and died, invulenrable to new information that might have said they missed something important.
- The manner of analysis is argued based upon Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology of Proper Functionalism.
- So often times, in cases of victimization and abuse, people who do not want to hear there is a problem assume the person saying there is a problem is lying, mentally unstable, has ulterior motives, etc., all in an attempt to rationalize away why they should not listen. The cognitive dissonance is not resolved by listening well in context and then evaluating what happened, but by imagining some reason that delegitimizes victims based upon the slimmest pretense.
- Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2 (Vol. 1, pp. 301–302). London; New York: T&T Clark.
- However, I would suggest Barth’s humility also was an arrogance that restricted him from understanding the instrumental role that religion can have in receiving revelation; that religion can train the heart and mind of individual persons to receive a Word from God. Barth’s arrogance is to presume that those who did not have faith like him was entrenched in resisting God, as if they are wholle inferior and thus subtly dehumanizing religious people, as I have seen is a common tactic by many a Barthian. Meanwhile, Barth was engaged in a now well known sexual affair, only going to show that Barth himself was susceptible to rationalization.
- 1 Corinthians 2