Jaco Gericke on "The Collapse of Realism, Cognitive Dissonance and the 'Died-Again' Christian Syndrome"

Previously I posted an amazing deconversion story written by Dr. Gericke right here. Then I posted something from him on how he got over his angst at leaving the Christian faith right here. In what follows he writes on the issue of cognitive dissonance (used with permission):

Since most Old Testament scholars are also Christians it is to be expected that they think of themselves as realists or at least semi-realists when it comes to the ontological status of Yahweh-as-depicted in the text. As a result, when confronted with the case against realism they will encounter arguments that might seem to run counter to all that they believe regarding the nature of reality.

When it comes to the reaction of people when they are confronted with rational discourse that seems to disprove their most sincere and cherished beliefs, a lot would depend on how convincing the counter arguments are. Or so one would think.

In the 1950's, social and cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger did extensive research on scenarios where people are forced to react on being confronted with what appears to be incontrovertible proof that their beliefs about certain issues were mistaken. To the surprise of many, it was discovered that, in most cases, the more irrefutable the proof, the more stubbornly the subjects clinged to their initial cognitions (cf. Festinger 1956, 1957).

The end result of the research by Festinger was his theory of "cognitive dissonance". This theory predicts that people who are confronted with evidence contrary to what they believe and want to believe will not only refuse to revise their beliefs, they will actually irrationally seek to promote them more zealously that ever before (cf. also Batson 1982:50; Carroll 1979:86-109).

The theory of cognitive dissonance shows that people in general have a strong need to maintain cognitive consistency. When it comes to the deepest and most meaningful beliefs people have regarding the nature of reality there exists an aversion for discrepancies in the framework of cognitions. In order to ensure the survival of their own constructs of reality there must be sufficient harmony between the various beliefs one holds pertaining to what is perceived to be the facts.
Cognitive dissonance ensues when a person entertains two equally convincing cognitions/beliefs/facts that nevertheless seem to contradict each other. In order to decrease the psychic tension produced by the discrepant beliefs dissonance needs to be lessened. This can happen in one of two ways:

1. One of the cognitions must be rejected and considered to be false.
2. Additional cognitions (ad hoc hypotheses/rationalisations) must be added to the cognitive matrix so that the discrepancy is harmonised on another level or its maintenance temporarily justified to a satisfactory extent.

Opting for the latter strategy may lessen the dissonance but cannot ultimately banish it from the psyche altogether. This strategy is one of psychological survival where the additional cognitions allow the subject to relativise the problem and to dampen the effect of the dissonance. According to Festinger, human creativity and the need for psychological survival override the need for a rational justification of beliefs in the face of cognitive challenges.

Consider the following scenario in which a person:

• believes something with his whole heart;
• made a public commitment to that belief;
• made crucial choices dependent on the veracity of that belief, which in turn decided the course of his life;
• construed personal identity and self-image on the assumption that the belief is true;
• created a personal and satisfying worldview and understanding of reality as a whole in such a way that the particular belief constitutes an essential and foundational element therein;
• answers his existential questions from a frame of reference provided by that belief to the extent that holding on to the belief provides meaning and purpose to life;
• could cope with severe personal crisis and suffering because the particular belief was assumed to be true.

If this person is confronted with seemingly irrefutable proof that his most cherished belief is erroneous, chances are that not only will he emerge from the encounter unscathed but that he will appear to hold more zealously to his belief than ever before. Despite the inability to refute the counter evidence he will be convinced that somehow, in ways presently unknown to him, he is right after all. He may even seek to engage in special pleading or ad hominem rhetoric in order to convince the other party of the veracity and merits of believing in what he does.

The way in which possible cognitive dissonance is lessened in such scenarios is thus not via an in-depth analysis of the counter arguments and an honest unbiased willingness to be open to change opinions in the interest of what may be true. Instead, the discourse containing the apparent refutation of the cherished belief will be approached with brewing conspiracy theories.

The need for creating a straw man for the purposes of refutation, suspicions about the other person's intentions, and constant fideistic rationalisation of why personal beliefs are in reality not really problematic at all will be great. Yet the person experiencing the dissonance may not even realise how irrational his strategies of evasion may be. Introspection is only allowed insofar as faltering personal loyalty to the cherished beliefs can be detected. This is also only done in order to postulate possible personal intellectual shortcomings to justify the discontinuation of considering the counterarguments with an open mind (cf. also James 1902:27; Berger 1967:93).

Festinger demonstrates that deep-seated convictions and cherished beliefs, especially religious beliefs, prove to be extremely resistant to revision and reformulation or rejection for several possible reasons:

1. Holding on to the particular belief carries personal benefits, e.g.:
• it answers the existential and other deep questions of life;
• it provides a feeling of self-worth and also gives a sense of personal identity;
• it provides cognitive security and harmony in aid of psychological survival.

2. It exists in relation to a public commitment, e.g.:
• it is presupposed in family relations;
• friendships originated because of it;
• social standing and status are possible because of it;
• social identity and image are construed by it;
• satisfaction in one's profession and in life in general depends on it.

3. The belief does not exist in isolation, e.g.:
• society or peer groups condones it, expects it and rewards it;
• the survival of the group sharing the particular belief is dependent on it;
• the group in which the belief is maintained provides support, identity, security and the perception of self-worth since it caters for the need to belong;
• others who share the same beliefs provide company, motivation, legitimisation and friendship.

Consider, for example, the case of a conservative believer like myself who was exposed to the findings of critical scholarship. At first I ignored it and dismissed it as satanic heresy. As dissonance theory predicted, I refused to accept the results of research not because I could point to clear-cut fallacies in the particular arguments but merely because I did not like what it implied for the credibility of the beliefs I had come to cherish.

Of course, the findings of Festinger have not escaped criticism (cf. Oates 1973:70-75; Abelson 1988:27-34). To be sure, the theory fails to account for many alternative possible strategies in dealing with cognitive dissonance. Festinger has subsequently modified his views to some extent and social and cognitive psychology have in the meantime witnessed the proliferation of more theories pertaining to the way people deal with challenges to their belief systems (cf. Ellis 1967:30-53).

Festinger, however, was not dogmatic and admitted that some people do indeed change their belief system when confronted with incontrovertible evidence against the truth of their ideologies (cf. Festinger 1957:11). In my own case, this took quite some time and eventually only happened because I discovered fatal flaws in my own ideology and not because alien critical theories seemed attractive or convincing.

Only after I realised that my own views were untenable could I even begin to try and take other views seriously. As long as I still believed my own ideas to be true and irrefutable I took cognisance only of the unacceptable conclusions of other views (instead of acquainting myself with the details of the arguments that led to those conclusions). As long as I knew the views of critical scholars and atheists only from stereotypes, straw men and secondary sources, there was no way I could even begin to consider modifying my own point of view.

It is arguably the case that, like me, most people who begin the critical study of the Old Testament do so as part of their general studies in theology. Like me, the vast majority of people who are interested in biblical theology are so because they are Christians committed to realism with regard to the ontological status of the God of the Bible.

Like me, the majority of students who have a background in Church theology will approach to the problems of realism in Old Testament scholarship with suspicion and concern. Like me, most will come from a background that can be classified epistemologically as naIve realism and theologically as fundamentalism. Like me, due to expectations generated in the context of the Church where the Old Testament is often neglected yet idealised as a fetish and as part of the precious "Word of God", most prospective theologians probably expect the study of the Old Testament to strengthen and enrich their faith.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that those who take their studies in biblical criticism seriously and come from a background in conservative or fundamentalist religion are given a rather rude wake up call from their dogmatic slumbers. A most extreme crisis of belief can be encountered by conservative students of Old Testament theology who, like me, conform to the following diagnostic profile.

A) The initial profile and belief system of the subject

• The subject comes from a religious tradition where the Bible is believed to be the inerrant or infallible word of God.
• The subject views the ideal belief system as one that can be designated as 'biblical'
• The subject believes that only "biblical" Christians are true Christians.
• The subject believes that the Bible is unique, special and quite different from the mythologies and superstitions of other pagan religions.
• The subject believes that the Bible is historically and scientifically inerrant.
• The subject believes that the Bible is essentially coherent and contains all the dogma that the church believes.
• The subject believes that the Bible is theologically and morally perfect and complete.
• The subject believes that the Old Testament is a Christian document pointing to Jesus Christ in the way the New Testament authors claimed.
• The subject believes that Bible study is essential for spiritual growth.
• The subject believes that his own religious tradition's dogma is the only accurate serious contemplation and complete version of what the Bible actually says.
• The subject's knowledge of the Bible is based not so much on serious study of the text but on occasional selective readings thereof in the company of devotional books distributed by the popular media.
• The subject believes that his beliefs about God and the Bible are based on and supported by the Bible.
• The subject believes that the veracity of his faith is dependent on the supposed inerrancy, truth, uniqueness and infallibility of the biblical texts.
• The subject is happy in his conservatism and proud of his fundamentalist identity.

B) Types of subjects involved

• The undergraduate student in a seminary, faculty of theology or divinity school where critical views are promoted.
• The post-graduate student who, for the purpose of doing research, has to read from a wider selection of viewpoints than those supporting his own or has to go abroad to study in a different ideological and cultural academic environment.
• The minister or priest who reads widely and consistently ponders the implications of critical research for his faith.
• The scholar who has to familiarise himself with all the viewpoints in his discipline in order to be able to engage meaningfully in academic debates.

C) Variables that prevent the occurrence of cognitive dissonance or a crisis
of belief

• The subject has an overcrowded social life that leaves little time for reading or
• The subject pursues a way of life in a context where challenges to his faith are avoided as these may put his career, personal happiness, finances and relationships in jeopardy.
• The subject has access to only conservative points of view and/or confines his reading to those materials which are considered spiritually uplifting or sound/orthodox.
• The subject deliberately avoids certain types of scholarly literature and is biased against other viewpoints which he knows only as stereotypes and without ever having made a genuine effort to understand why such views are considered to be convincing.
• The subject reads critical scholarship without actually becoming introspective or considering the possibility that personal views might need any revision whatsoever.
• The subject is unable to be critical of himself and has never analysed or relativised his own religious self from the viewpoint of critical theories of philosophy, theology, history, anthropology, psychology and sociology.
• The person takes pride and pleasure in his conservative ideologies and is nonnegotiably committed to fundamentalist views of biblical inspiration.
• The subject is naive when it comes to the dynamics of his own hermeneutical processes and approaches the text with an idealistic positivism.
• The subject is, for the most part, unaware of the epistemological and logical problems pertaining to his particular ideology as a reader of the biblical text and a realist in theistic metaphysics.

D) Variables conducive to the initiating of a crisis of belief

• The subject is exposed to the methodologies and findings of critical scholarship.
• The subject is introspective and open to change.
• The subject reads often, widely and contemplates what he reads.
• The subject contemplates the possible ontological implications of the results of critical biblical research.
• The subject is able to transcend himself and view his self as a construct relative to a particular historical context, theological tradition and socio-cultural matrix.
• The subject is aware of philosophical problems pertaining to matters of epistemology and hermeneutics.
• The subject is aware of his own psychological strategies of evasion when it comes to the acceptance of new beliefs and when dealing with cognitive dissonance.
• The subject is acutely aware of the tension between church theology and critical scholarship.
• The subject can be self-critical and does not believe everything he reads.
• The subject does not limit his reading to what is spiritually uplifting and merely those views that support his belief system or simply reiterates what he already believes to be the case but seeks to understand the viewpoints of others.

E) Types of literature initiating the crisis of belief

Critical theology (e.g. critical commentaries, history of religion, comparative religion, non-fundamentalist biblical theology, the problem of diversity in the texts, the problematic relation between Old and New Testaments, the history of Israel, the quest for the historical Jesus, the Synoptic problem, comparative mythology and myth in the bible, critical perspectives on the development of beliefs and history of dogma, ideological critique of biblical writings, problems in biblical ethics, critical perspectives on the origin, formation and history of the biblical books and canon, critical perspectives on one's own tradition, the bible and science, biblical archaeology, alien cultural phenomena, Bible contradictions, the history of interpretation (especially the nineteenth century), etc.)


• Philosophy (e.g. philosophy of religion (especially atheist perspectives), European philosophy since Descartes, post-modernism, logic (informal fallacies), etc.)
• Psychology (atheist theories in the psychology of religion, e.g. Freud, Ellis, etc.)
• Sociology (critical theories in the sociology of religion, e.g. Comte, Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, etc.)
• Other (anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, biology, etc.)

F) Variables that determine the extent of the crisis

• The status of cherished religious beliefs in the construction of personal identity.
• The possible effects and implications of the problem on personal spirituality.
• The amount of cognitive restructuring necessary to deal with the problem.
• The impact of the problem on social relations and social identity.
• The extent to which the problem affects the subject's ability to deal with life's existential questions.
• The extent to which the meaning and plot of the life story of the individual is thrown out of sync.

G) Typical strategies for relief from cognitive dissonance

• Ignoring and repressing the problem whilst deliberately or unconsciously refusing to entertain related thoughts so that the passage of time will eventually dull any awareness of cognitive dissonance.
• Quitting the study of theology and becoming more fideistic in order to limit exposure to critical theology and to move about in contexts where the problem does not surface.
• Becoming more conservative/fundamentalist and seek insight from conservative/fundamentalist scholarship and ideology on the matter.
• Becoming more liberal, semi-realist and siding oneself with critical theology.
• Becoming more radical, anti-realist and consider theology a game pursued for antiquarian purposes.
• Becoming agnostic and refusing to commit to any belief in particular whilst continuing in theological research yet living in denial that there is really anything to become unduly concerned about.
• Becoming atheist and practise theology simply for professional reasons as it is too late and too impractical to start all over again in life.
• Relativising the problem and the contradictory cognitions by viewing it from a synthesising perspective derived via meta-theological theory or a school of thought in philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, art, etc.
•Developing a schizophrenic personality or becoming prone to multiple personality disorders, reactive depression or insanity.
• Committing suicide.

H)Symptoms and diagnostic criteria of the crisis of belief

• General symptoms:
Cognitive dissonance, crisis of faith, identity crisis, reactive depression, posttraumatic stress, neuroticism, paranoia, anxiety, etc.

• Specific psychological symptoms:
An experience of profound existential anxiety (angst), temporary feelings of being strangely liberated, a deep sadness at irretrievable loss, disorientation and confusion, unexplainable loneliness, feelings of guilt, feelings of nostalgia, episodes of repression and forgetfulness, doubt, loss of selfconfidence, endless deconstruction and reconstruction of the self-image, irremovable psychic tension, lack of mental vitality, nihilism, relativism, shock, indecisiveness, obsessive compulsive thought patterns, pessimistic selftalk, tiredness, unmotivated, apathy, self-loathing, anti-social behaviour, introversion, ahedonia, indecisiveness, etc.

• Possible psychosomatic symptoms:
Passiveness or hyperactivity, restlessness, changes in appetite, chronic fatigue, insomnia, daydreaming, nightmares, a depressed immunity system, selfdestructive behaviour, etc.
• Popular self-talk strategies for survival and lessening of cognitive dissonance
Repression, denial, ad hoc reasoning, irrational fideism, fantasising, speculation, wishful thinking, self-hypnosis, mental role playing, circular reasoning, ad hominem reasoning, scapegoating, conspiracy theorising, etc.

Once again, the diagnostic profile given above is merely a rough guide and should not be understood as a blueprint for the way all Old Testament students from conservative backgrounds will always respond when confronted with the issues presented in the case against realism. Nevertheless, the profile constructed above as a supplementation to the perspective provided by dissonance theory on the possible reaction to the devil's advocate's case remains functional as a valid and personal perspective on what is no doubt a complex issue.