Cognitive Dissonance = Coping Mechanism

Stuart Sorenson, featured in the second part of this interview, had some interesting things to say about cognitive dissonance.

The host interviewer asked questions trying to get Stuart to give a difference between those of us who did not believe the world was coming to an end and those who did.  It seemed the host was looking for a simple answer that would prove he and his friends were immune to grand delusions.  Ironic, since that feeling of invulnerability would also have been a form of cognitive dissonance and delusion.

Mr. Sorenson explained, to the audible disappointment of the host, that the difference between the two groups was not cognitive capability, but of having different unmet needs.  He explained that those who belong in extreme religious groups are just trying to meet a need.  The need is so great that they feel they must lie to themselves to meet it.

Mr. Sorenson went on to show how we all use cognitive dissonance as a coping mechanism.  We need it.  He also explained how it is dangerous to take away one coping mechanism without first replacing it. 

Instead of allowing the host to create a divide between the duped and savvy, Mr. Sorenson kept bringing the conversation back our similarities, bringing us to empathy instead of distancing.

It was helpful for me to realize that I held onto young earth beliefs as a teen, not because I was stupid, but because the community that met my need for belonging required that belief.  I held onto my belief of male superiority because I needed the stability that family tradition offered in exchange.

I was able to leave because I left that community and discovered that I could get social support in other forms.  I worked with atheists and Buddhists that had left Christianity because of their commitment to compassion and ethics.  I discovered, by accident, the freedom of facing fears with searching for evidence instead of myth.  (And to critique where different “evidence” came from.)

It helps me have more patience and compassion for those who stubbornly cling to beliefs that harm them and others around them.  I know that showing them how they are wrong isn’t enough and will increase the stakes for them holding their belief.  I have to provide a safe place. 

Like the woman who is told that her cleaning products are harming her son’s health, we have to choose between admitting that we were wrong and that we caused harm and defending our past decisions.  The last one allows us to cling to the belief that we are not stupid and/or hurtful to those we love the most. 

We can face the painful journey of dealing with the truth that we caused harm or were harmed, or we can keep the rosy picture of ourselves or our authorities by ignoring and demonizing the evidence.  It takes strength and resources to go through that journey. 

My mom clings harder to her belief in a God who says mental illness is caused by demons.  This belief is entrenching her illnesses and making them worse.  Her negative self-talk about being worthless and a wretched sinner does not help.   (understatement) 

And yet, does she have the resources to admit that her parents, her church leaders, and all those she trusted were wrong?  That they were inadvertently hurtful?  That she hurt us by propagating those lies? 

I don’t know.

But by being a safe person, by continuing to grow, maybe I can be an example.  I have not become psychotic or abusive since leaving Christianity.  It is a relief that, unlike when I was told to be a good Christian example, I do not have to hide my defects.  Or what really is my humanity.  I am allowed to doubt.  To question.  To experience a range of emotion.  I’m allowed to be wrong.

I don’t have to prove that my form of atheism is right, therefore I don’t have to lie to myself or others like I did before.

Rant done.

14 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance = Coping Mechanism

  1. Macha says:

    Very good points. Making fun of people who subscribe to irrational beliefs only helps to uphold the status quo that caused them to seek refuge in that system in the first place.

  2. Some day I am going to post about all the irrational beliefs held by the (Loony) Left which loves to write and feel superior about all the irrational beliefs held by the (Religious) Right. A plague on both their houses!

  3. Jen says:

    This is a very powerful post.
    After Osama was killed I talked about wanting to find a better way… Not that I believe killing him was wrong, but that for the future… I want to know it is possible to find a way that we don’t have to live in an “us vs. them” world.

    You’re on the track to finding the better way I was hoping for. We are all so much more alike. When we can accept that people are who they are, and they’re doing the best they can… If everyone could accept that, there would be no need for wars, fighting, killing…

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. ... Zoe ~ says:

    A great post prairienymph. Wonderful insights and spot-on.

    The worthless wrestless worm message all but did me in. I actually thought if I heard that one more time, I couldn’t take another breath. In a last ditch effort to reach an abusive pastor and the chairman of the board, I tried to appeal to the fact that we Christians were clothed in the righteousness of Christ. They looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. When I look back on it, they themselves were victims of a belief-system that could not embrace liberty in Christ. The only thing that fit was bondage…that in a word-picture looked like a hyper-vortex of spiritual warfare between Christ and Satan.

    It’s my opinion this kind of belief does make one sick, but they aren’t really aware that it makes them sick. Actually, this type of belief I think is an addiction. At first, our addictions save us. Later, they kill us. 😦

  5. Jen says:

    Zoe – I agree this type of belief is an addiction. I once had this addiction, and your final line, “At first, our addictions save us. Later, they kill us.” is SO true.

  6. Ahab says:

    (First post failed to appear. Attempt #2.)

    All very true — for many people, fundamentalism is alluring because it provides community and imagined stability. Once our need for community and safety is fulfilled elsewhere, however, we are free to explore ourselves and the world.

    Also, Prairie Nymph — I can’t find your e-mail, so I’ll just post this here. The Florida Independent and Ms. Magazine are looking for stories from people who have worked or volunteered at CPCs, and I immediately thought of you.

  7. Chris says:

    I would also like to just point out what a great post this is and thoughtful insights on your part! I truly enjoyed it!

  8. Excellent post! I have always felt similar to Mr. Sorenson’s perspective, but I all too often get caught up in the fight to act from that perspective.

    Becoming a safe person, and staying a safe person, can be very challenging. At least it is for me. :-/

  9. D'Ma says:

    I didn’t take this as a rant at all. These are wonderful insights that help us to have empathy for those still caught up in their delusions.

    Mr. Sorenson went on to show how we all use cognitive dissonance as a coping mechanism. We need it. He also explained how it is dangerous to take away one coping mechanism without first replacing it.

    I resonate with this comment just based on personal experience. My beliefs changed so rapidly before I had replaced them with anything else that it left me reeling. As much as we’d like to see other people give up their delusions because we now believe them to be dangerous and harmful, it’s probably better for them to replace those beliefs slowly with encouragement instead of us trying to be like a magician snatching the table cloth out from under the set table. Rarely can we do it without pulling everything else off the table with it. 🙂

    • prairienymph says:

      I know this stuff in my head, but it takes so much work and patience to be safe.
      I love your insights about addiction, Jen & Zoe. It is hard to break! My lover seemed to replace evangelicalism easily with the things he loves: gardening, biking, music.
      I find that part of my addiction to religion was the fight. I still want to be part of a team attacking a dragon. Maybe I should get back into sports instead of arguing with my mom…

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