A Tragic Example of Christian Cognitive Dissonance

This post will be more or less a recap of a (sad) conversation I’ve been mildly involved in. The topic everyone was discussing is how literally to take the Creation story in Genesis. That’s not the purpose of this post, and hopefully that subject won’t distract you from the real message I want to convey regardless of your personal stance.

That message is this: please don’t fall victim to cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance? Aside from being one of the best and most researched principles in psychology, it’s a major human failing that will at times befall the best of us. Unfortunately, we must all overcome this (as best we can), but it’s essential that we do so if we are to be able to listen and understand others, and if we are to grow individually as we encounter positions contrary to our own.

So, more specifically, what is cognitive dissonance? In short, it’s the disconnect between what we believe in our minds and what we experience in reality. The theory behind this idea suggests that the more committed we are to believing that something is true, the less likely we are to believe that the opposite is true, even in the face of clear evidence that shows we are mistaken.

I encountered a man who I think was experiencing cognitive dissonance. He kept repeating  the phrase “I’ll side with Jesus, I’ll side with Jesus” (for some reason, in my head he has a southern accent) without realizing that no one was suggesting we go contrary to the Savior. He simply did not want to accept that his view was not the Savior’s view, and thus continued with his cadence.

(You might think that if you’re going to have a cadence, there are far worse to have than “I’ll side with Jesus, I’ll side with Jesus,” but I’m not so sure. In the words of Malcolm Reynolds, one of my favorite fictional heroes, “Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he’s right with God.”)

I’ll let you read below. It’s sad that this happens, even in a text conversation when you have time to consider and reread the responses of others before you reply. What makes it worse is that our friend likely thinks that he’s either making a difference, or at least acting as an appropriate witness for his beliefs. The fact is that he’s doing neither.

How can we all be better?

The Background

The original piece was posted on the blog Tired Road Warrior, and entitled “Genesis 1-3 as Myth“. I had studied this very topic myself, and the post caught my attention. I read and commented.

I’ll include the post and comment thread below. I’ll post updates if there are any – I would not be surprised if our dissonant friend decided to continue his cadence.

Genesis 1-3 as Myth

According to David Williams writing on resurrectingraleigh.com,

Is Genesis a myth?  Ever since George Smith discovered and published the ancient Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, theologians, biblical scholars and informed lay people have been aware of the fact that the book of Genesis was not written in a literary or cultural vacuum.  As other ancient Near Eastern creation stories have been brough to light we have come to know a lot more about the intellectual, cultural, theological, and literary milieu with which Genesis was written, giving us an unprecidented opportunity to assess just what sort of text Genesis is.  What is Genesis’s genre and how ought we to read it if we are to do so responsibly?

The majority report among mainline biblical scholars is that the ancient texts which Genesis 1-3 resembles most are ancient Eastern creation myths, an observation which suggests that that is probably the best way to read Genesis, as well. . .

Williams goes on to explain how Christian apologist (and Mormon literary hero) C. S. Lewis dealt with the issue:

For Lewis, “myth” is not a bad word.  It does not necessarily carry connotations of falsehood or contrivance or deception or muddleheadedness.  For Lewis myth is a highly imaginative way of speaking about the world that can speak truth at least as well as history or science can.  For Lewis, “myth” does not automatically mean false.

. . . [Lewis] was a professor of literature, a man trained in the reading, understanding, and appreciation of texts, and his literary instincts, given the available evidence, led him to the conclusion not only that Genesis was myth but also that that was perfectly fine.

Comments

Trevor: 

I believe CS Lewis’s usage of “myth” is the common academic usage as well. Check out this interview with religious scholar Karen Armstrong, for instance:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4992705

While I’d quickly describe much of the Old Testament, the BoM, etc. as “myth”, it’s certainly not a term I’d drop in Sunday School because I would be misinterpreted by probably everyone.

Eugene Adkins:

Jesus didn’t treat Genesis as if it were a myth – Matthew 19:4-6 (Adam and Eve); 24:37-39 (Noah); Luke 17:32 (Lot and his wife); John 8:56 (Abraham); Matthew 8:11 (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and on and on. Genesis a myth? I’ll stick with Jesus.

Roger D Hansen:

I don’t know exactly how to respond. The early chapters of Genesis don’t track well with science, history, archaeology, geology, etc. I would hope that, if you have children or grandchildren, you encourage them to make up there own minds. That way, if they choose to believe in evolution and other scientific truths, they won’t necessarily lose their religious convictions. I’m very worried that the anti-science statements by religious leaders are causing a “crisis of faith” in our youth. Science and religion don’t need to be at odds.

Eugene Adkins:

I don’t worry too much with Genesis not “tracking well” with the faithless. I will stick with Jesus. If you can’t believe His words about the individuals I quoted above, the you can’t believe His words about anything else. It’s that simple.

I think you’re correct in saying that science and religion don’t need to be at odds. It’s the way certain people teach science that makes it come to odds with Christianity and the Bible and not the other way around. Nothing about the creation process of Genesis contradicts science. Science contradicts the Bible when it tries to teach we came “from monkeys” instead of being created complete and whole in one day in the image of God.

The science book or the Bible? I’ll take the Bible.

Me:

During a philosophy class, we looked at Genesis as a “myth”, which, as Trevor (and Williams) says, does not necessarily mean a false or untrue story (more traditionally, it actually means a *true* story!).

Regardless of the Creation story’s historicity, I gained some great insights about God from looking at this account as a traditional myth. I blogged about it on my own site – it’s part of an apologetic series I did about the corporeality of God. I’m not sure if you’re interested, but if you are, you can find more about the “myth of Genesis” here: https://religiousreason.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/god-has-no-body-part-4-1/

Adkins is a little off. It’s great to side with Jesus and the scriptures, but, in the words of Hank Hanigraff, we need to “read the Bible for all it’s worth”. Injecting our own perspective into an account meant to be understood differently can easily lead us from the path the Savior would have us walk. We can think we’re siding with him all the way to spiritual blindness.

Eugene Adkins:

“And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the BEGINNING ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”” (Matthew 19:4-6) Hmmm…I think I’ve read those exact words somewhere in the Bible before.

Wow, Jesus saying that Adam and Eve were actually created by God in the beginning. Boy, that sure does sound like I’m injecting my own perspective into the scriptures doesn’t it. “Adkins” is a little off in that “Adkins” believes the scriptures in the midst of a group of people who like to talk about God being real but they don’t like to believe His word really means what it says.

Were Adam and Eve real people? If you say “no” then you’re saying “no” to the Bible – that simple. Sounds like a lot of people are confused about something that God’s word is very clear on – http://wp.me/p20YNR-1b

Me:

I’m sure our host will act as moderator if our exchange devolves into mindless patter, though I myself don’t plan to to reply more than this once.

You see, no one is debating the “exact words” found in the Bible. *Perspective* refers to how people understand those exact words, and certainly you will concede that people from different Christian sects can understand the same scripture in much different ways. You say that you believe the scriptures, and I have no doubt you mean that, but what you really mean is that you believe *your* interpretation of the scriptures. And when you add that you’re amongst those who don’t believe the scriptures, what you really mean is that you’re amongst those who don’t believe them as *you* think they should.

You’re entitled to believe what you wish, including that I’m some sort of heretic, but let’s not misunderstand – I believe, just as much as you believe, in the scriptures and what they teach (also, for what it’s worth, I don’t think I’m a heretic). I’ll let Roger and Trevor speak for themselves if they’re so inclined.

I believe that God created Adam and Eve, that they were real people, and that they were separate and distinct from all other animals, just as you do. I don’t, though, necessarily believe that the world was created in six 24 hour periods, just like I don’t necessarily believe the dragons of Revelation literally exist even though I believe in the reality of Jesus Christ taught in that book.

Again, you’re welcome to believe what you want, but don’t mistake *your* perspective for *the* perspective, particularly when all you have behind you is your lay experience. Engage in the discussion, but do so by doing more than just repeating yourself or tossing around veiled insults about being confused or heretical.

Roger D Hansen:

My only point in posting this discussion was to make the case that religion need not be anti-science. If we assume that God created the Earth in his own good time (after all he had an eternity) and that Genesis was never intended to be a science or history book, then Genesis 1-3 makes sense if not taken literally. There is no discussion in OT about how God made the Earth and man.

I personally don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve. If my ancient ancestors were monkeys/apes, that is fine with me. Adam and Eve are symbolic for when the human species reached a certain level of sentience. There was no flood that covered the whole Earth, there is not enough water to do that. And there are also historical issues with a universal flood. And I can go on and on.

The important document for Christians is the NT and there is no need to get hung up on the OT.

Eugene Adkins:

You said, “If we assume that God created the Earth in his own good time (after all he had an eternity) and that Genesis was never intended to be a science or history book, then Genesis 1-3 makes sense if not taken literally.”

The problem is that you’re assuming where God’s word is telling.

You said, “There is no discussion in OT about how God made the Earth and man.”

Um, how about Genesis 1-3??? You must not read the Psalms very much, or very much of the rest of the Old Testament either for that matter.

You said, “I personally don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve. If my ancient ancestors were monkeys/apes, that is fine with me.”

It’s not fine with me because it’s not what the scriptures teach. Adam was a type of Jesus according the New Testament. A monkey is not a type for the Savior of the world. You may not personally believe that Adam and Eve were real people but Moses believed in Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26,27); Ezra believed in Adam and Eve (1st Chronicles 1:1); Job believed in Adam and Eve (Job 31:33); Luke believed in Adam and Eve (Luke 3:38); Paul believed in Adam and Eve (1st Corinthians 15:45, 1st Timothy 2:13); Jude believed in Adam and Eve (Jude 14); and Jesus not only believed in Adam and Eve, He created them (Matthew 19:4,5; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17). You cannot believe in the second Adam without believing in the first (1 Corinthians 15:45; Romans 5:14).

You said, “There was no flood that covered the whole Earth, there is not enough water to do that.”

You may not believe it, but Jesus did (Matthew 24:38-39). Your comments are exactly why I said what I said in my first reply and I’ll say it again – I’ll stick with Jesus; He didn’t teach that any of Genesis was a myth, plain and simple.

Roger D Hansen:

Robert A. Rees in the Mar 2012 “Sunstone” (p. 56) writes:

” . . . it is important to remember that much of scripture is an admixture of fact and fancy, a deliberate arrangement of history so as to make it more persuasive, and an artful telling–even invention–of human events to make them more dramatic. That sixty percent of the Old Testament is poetry suggests that we can give ourselves to the poetic (that is, imaginative) fabrications of sacred literature. . .”

Eugene Adkins:

Who are you going to place your faith in? The word’s of Robert A. Ress, or the word’s of Jesus the Christ? I know who I’m going to believe when it comes to interpreting the scripture of Genesis 1-3.

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5 thoughts on “A Tragic Example of Christian Cognitive Dissonance”

  1. Awesome. Though I had flashbacks to conversations I’ve had on the subject. I say “myth” and the room goes balistic. I’ve written a few posts on the beginng of Genesis myself. People either like it or fume something like the “I’ll stick with Jesus” comment….

    Of course, I lay Chapter One on top of Chapter Two and come up with some rather unorthodox conclusions.

    God Bless,

    Christopher

    1. Your post made me smile.

      I read your “Genesis Controversy” series. Thanks for directing me there! Tough times to flashback to 🙂

      But, as Batman (another of my favorite fictional heroes) says to Gordon in the movie Batman Begins, “Now we’re two.”

  2. Unless I am misunderstanding, I read this and see the myth perspective as simply a more subtle/nuanced way, or maybe even simply a different way, of resolving cognitive dissonance. Putting away any need to resolve the dissonance at all by realizing the whole thing could be false is simultaneously a more simple and a more difficult path. It is certainly more honest than picking and choosing multiple levels of myth and reality understandings in order to cling to some semblance of truth in a sea of untruth.

    1. The post itself could probably stand to be revised a little bit. Here’s an summary of what I took away from the comment thread above.

      One of the ideas within the realm of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (and I hope you’ll excuse my barely-Wikipedia-level knowledge of the subject) is ‘belief disconfirmation’ – essentially, when folks encounter information that is inconsistent with their own views, they’ll just reject or refute it outright. As a Latter-day Saint, I see this quite a lot in my interactions with mainstream Christians – they’ll quickly discount my views or perspectives because they don’t jive with their own beliefs, and we end up talking in circles, or past each other, and no one learns anything. It’s a bummer.

      I feel like I saw that to some degree here. There are varying degrees to which people (even Christians) take the story of Adam and Eve literally, and yet Adkins couldn’t accept that any other view aside from *his* view could be valid, even if he himself found it unacceptable. He couldn’t even accept the idea that his interpretation of the scriptures was just that – a single man’s interpretation. That’s what I found tragic.

      Now, it’s entirely possible that I’m cutting and pasting terms where they don’t really fit, and that’s my mistake. But that’s generally the idea that I wanted to demonstrate by posting this thread.

      As for using the myth-perspective to assuage concern over, say, scientific contradiction of the Biblical creation story… I’m not sure I see it that way. It sounds like you’re not Christian (“the whole thing could be false” or “sea of untruth,” for example), and probably not terribly religious – maybe you even think religion is (at best) a joke, or (at worst) a crutch that people use to justify bigotry and discrimination. From that standpoint, I can appreciate how you might think that the only way for simple-minded religionists to even get up in the morning would be to invent an “out” like this – ‘the creation story is allegorical, so my whole life *isn’t* a sham after all!’

      But that’s not what this is about. If you want to talk more, then I’d love to, but I’m going to expect more from you than a trite, dismissive response. Check out the two links below, and that will give some foundation my perspective on religion, myth, and modern science.

      https://religiousreason.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/god-has-no-body-part-4-1/

  3. No trite response from me. I had to deal with a very hard case of cognitive dissonance after half a lifetime of Christianity. That is why I think I understand. But I couldn’t handle my own dissonance in this, in my opinion inauthentic, way.

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