I've always enjoyed watching how a person can adapt, and even sometimes evolve, belief to fit the not just certain time frames in life, but even moment to moment. The give and take between believer and belief system has always fascinated me because many times it seems the believer is unaware of the relationship that is actually occurring. Especially so when confronted with situations or reasoning that directly confronts and contradicts said belief relationship. Much like poor Beni Gabor (The Mummy, 1999), one starts flipping through all the angles of belief in order to find a ledge to maintain standing on. To teeter wildly on the edge of rational thought and desperately avoid it has always been something I could sympathize with. How many times have we had to look in the mirror, and finally we admitted we are tired and committed to an important change?
This constant flipping about belief rules to fit situations isn't an uncommon problem in many religiously oriented life styles. A wife promises to keep her spending under control so as to not run up the credit bills too high, but turns around five minutes later to pledge $85 a month on that same credit card to Joel Osteen ministries. It's for God, so she isn't breaking her promise. Pope Francis condemns gender pay inequality, but I'll be damned if they are willing to ordain women anytime soon despite how flimsy the basis of doctrine is to support the church's patriarchal employment structure (Jesus only chose male apostles, so there's your proof?) If one does not follow the same structured belief rules as another, each one dismisses the other's belief as misguided instead of understanding why they ended up serving the same deity differently. A child is sick and dies despite the prayers and pleading by the parents for the child to be healed by their god. Instead of accepting that the illness took the child, the parents reason that their god had a plan in their lives for allowing their child to die so young, instead of accepting it was a disease that decided the entire event that was unpreventable and out of their control. Many believe the End Times are here, are saving food and ammunition, yet aren't they supposed to go in the Rapture and not have to need any of these things anyway? When you bring up this example, things get very defensive don't they? That's the fear, the feeling of vulnerability, and nervousness of having to reevaluate one's pool of answers.
The examples can go on forever, but this type of thinking doesn't have to. Let's start with one of the first exercises in dealing with cognitive dissonance:
A Question Is Not A Judgement.
Have you ever been in conversation with someone and you tell them some fantastic epiphany you had about becoming rich, doing good for humanity, and maybe you could die with an awesome legacy? And then that person points out how your method of becoming rich might actually not be good for humanity and suddenly you go blank, feel super awkward, and then scan your memory banks for a more solid position that supports your plan.
Hello being defensive, goodbye having a conversation.
Anytime we are confronted with errors in our reasoning, we instinctively hold onto our original reasoning. We can't help it. Our brains need time to rewire our understanding and application of logic when we get new information or realize we have an error in our data set. This is a common issue many atheists run into when trying to get family members to understand that because we don't believe in a god doesn't mean we automatically believe in the devil. After all, why believe in the devil if we don't even believe in a god? But this logical concept is actually difficult to understand for many religious family members because they are programmed with an "either or" scenario when it comes to belief and practicing it. Either you go to church or you aren't a true believer. Either you believe in the holy spirit or you aren't a true believer. Either you are pro-life or you support murder, which is a sin. It's always extremes, which is the mode of thinking you have to get out of.
To combat this, one has to remember a question is not a judgement. It's just a question. A question helps one explore concepts, avenues, solutions, application, and understanding of held belief. You can't call it a question if you are looking to only reinforce your own side of the argument either. This is an exploration into thought process, so it is an experience of mutual understanding for both parties. You have to be patient when doing this because unease will undoubtedly strike. I've often hear phrases like,"I don't like this line of conversation" or "You can't change my mind", and my favorite "I'm not going to let you misconstrue what I say and attack me with my own words". All of these are defensive positions, are the red flags you need to be aware of so you don't allow the tension to escalate enough to allow for a complete avoidance of the subject.
There is another part to questioning though, and it's a tough one sometimes.
This is difficult enough to do with just one's own cognitive processes, but trying to help someone else to do the same? Do not count on knocking it out in one conversation, or even ten. I've found demonstrated consistency and interaction is the only way you can start to break down some of the resolute self-denial that just won't budge when trying to convince Aunt Mary that you really are happy with your life without jeebus. Again, it's not about being right, it's about understanding, which leads to discussion and tolerance, which can sometimes lead to even greater things in helping someone grow into a more rational mind set when trying to understand the world we live in. The old saying about more than one right way to skin a cat? Very true, and opening your mind to the methods available are important. Having an open mind is about learning and education, not argument and debate.
"You're trying to change who I am!"
I think this is probably the most important piece to cognitive dissonance's grip on the way a person approaches life. Pretty much says it all in that picture above doesn't it? Identity is hands down the biggest part of confronting and changing one's patterns of logic. Mostly because when you start questioning small things, they add up, and the next thing you know your entire identity is on the dissection table. How much of it was your own to begin with? Who am I? Who was I? Who will I be? And more importantly, will my community still accept me or am I willing to lose some of them? This loss of identity is probably the most scary thing to face because when you grow up and have so much of your world manufactured and programmed by others around you when you are young, you have to begin an entirely new journey of self discovery, and not all of those programmers are going to want to be in your life in anymore, or they are going to want to get you back on the right track. You feel like you are an aberration in the land of Camazotz.
Even worse, you will find a lot of self-doubt rumbling up to the surface, and this is true for many who do take the plunge into exploring fact and fiction, and what is reasonably acceptable in life. Cultural programming and human nature contribute to this most primal of defensive mechanisms. No matter how much stark facts are thrown at us, we will grip even tighter to the error ridden logic that has helped us get through life. It turns out that the best way to help people get past cultural barriers, ideological barriers, and even class barriers are the kind of tactics I absolutely hate to use: emotional appeal.
Fear is the word to know, but do not always say it out loud.
Yes, that's right. Showing the stark numbers of dogs abused every year in black and white will yield little change of heart in donations. You bring out a woman singing "In The Arms Of The Angels" while showing slides of mangled, dirty dogs that are in shelter cages? The compassion starts to flow and the urge to take action is nearly impossible to ignore. This is why churches and families have such a solid control on the thought processes of young children and adults in the world, usually reinforced with fear and shame. Fear being the more popular so long as it leads towards a pre constructed solution. You can't just set someone's mental world on fire and expect any productive results without a clear cut path of action you want them to take in order to avoid the fire. Keep it simple, and to the point. Don't want to go to hell and be tortured and burned and cut into pieces everyday and reassembled over and over again? Don't kill people! Bad situation + easy rule to avoid bad situation = Controlled line of thought. Yeah, you have to really work on the convincing part of the bad stuff actually being real, and that is where shame comes in. Point out all the flaw and beat down someone's self-worth is usually a good start. Or, just start filling their heads with these frightening concepts before they are even mature enough to know better.
And all of this is what you are up against when dealing with someone who lives in a world of conflicting ideas. You can't make the change happen overnight, and honestly, it's an ongoing process for everyone no matter how freed one might think s/he actually are.
Patience is not a virtue. It's a life hack.
The only final thing I have learned is that patience is the best tool in my shed when dealing with folks that are making my life a living hell because they do not agree with my lifestyle, listen to bullshit lies passed around by an ex-husband, or think my direct nature is a personal issue with them and not just me being a socially awkward gadderblast, and act upon those preconceived notions. Years ago I'd read a few memoirs by Benjamin Franklin, and one quote in particular stuck out in my mind:
"He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged. "
It's called the Ben Franklin effect, and I have to say, it does wonders with those you have tense relationships with. It can help you get the conversation started, but you have to be patient, and essentially kill them with kindness.
That's all I've got this week! Got any additional tips for dealing with compartmentalized religious people? Share in the comments below! I will be discussing this on next week's podcast.