Faith, Attribution, and Cognitive Dissonance

illustration of hands in prayer

This post flows from a few different things that other bloggers have been talking about lately. I’ll refer specifically to a couple of posts about faith on Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning, but this also ties into what some other people have been talking about with regards to subjective vs. objective reality. This is more of a meander through some thoughts rather than anything particularly coherent.

Is there an objective reality?

I’ve written before about subjectivity and perception; everything that comes in through our senses is manipulated by our brains. What we then consciously perceive is several steps removed from whatever is actually out there.

Then there’s the sociological theory called social constructionism. It says that reality, as we experience, and understand it is socially constructed. While some would argue that there simply is no objective reality, I don’t think it’s reasonable to take it that far. However, the way we give meaning to those objectively real things is inextricably tied to our social understanding of our world.

Am I going somewhere with this? Possibly. I’ll mention a couple of other quick things first.

How we think

Attribution, as I’ve used it in this post’s title, refers to who/what we think is responsible for events that occur in our world. That attribution can be internal (i.e. we brought about what has happened to us by ourselves, at least mostly) or external. In this post, I’m considering external attribution in two ways: attributing events to the actions of other people, or attributing events to the action/inaction of a deity.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when there are two (or more) things that we believe to be true that also happen to be contradictory. The belief that there is a God who is loving, but that God allows horrible things to happen, might be a source of cognitive dissonance. I like to use the term mental gymnastics to describe the mental process of reconciling those contradictory beliefs.

Now we get to where the Tisha B’Av posts from a few weeks ago come in. They got me thinking about how a single objective event can be interpreted as evidence for multiple beliefs, even if those beliefs are completely different, depending on what subjective stance you’re considering the event from.

The Holocaust in the context of faith

Luftmentsch wrote about the Rabbi of Klausenburg, who lost absolutely everyone in the Holocaust. After all of that, the Rabbi said “The biggest miracle of all is the one that we, the survivors of the Holocaust, after all that we witnessed and lived through, still believe and have faith in the Almighty God, may His name be blessed. This, my friends, is the miracle of miracles, the greatest miracle ever to have taken place” (as quoted in The Washington Post). 

I found that really interesting. As a soft atheist, one of the reasons I find particularly compelling to doubt the existence of a divine being is that absolutely horrific atrocities like the Holocaust occur. The Holocaust is remarkable in scale, but human shittiness has been consistent throughout history. My beliefs that there is no God (that I’ve seen evidence of), that human beings suck (a substantial number of them, anyway), and that events like the Holocaust do sometimes occur all fit together quite snugly. There are no mental gymnastics required to reconcile those ideas. If, however, I was to accept as a given that there is a God who is loving, it would require a Simone Biles equivalent level of mental gymnastics to fit that in with Holocaust, and the entire history of human shittiness, at least for me. I simply can’t conceive of how I could manage to make that work, especially when it’s so much easier and simpler to reconcile without accepting on faith there is a god I have no objective proof of.

However, I can see the Rabbi of Klausenburg’s perspective as requiring less mental gymnastics, strangely enough, than my own detached perspective (in the sense that atrocities didn’t happen to me or the people I know and love). If every single thing that mattered to you was forcibly taken away in such an awful manner, what could possibly be left? When everything outside is gone, the only thing that could possibly remain under one’s own control is faith. If hanging onto faith is the only way to not lose absolutely everything, that’s a compelling reason to hang on, whether there’s objective truth to that faith or not. From my perspective, I would consider that a powerful coping mechanism rather than a miracle that provides evidence of God, but in a sense, that difference doesn’t matter. Whether that persistence in faith is attributed internally, or externally to God directly, it accomplishes the same thing.

Rescuer vs. irresponsible babysitter

Jewish Young Professional wrote about an accident her parents were in a few years ago, in which their vehicle caught fire. On that day, her parents had helped various other people, and maintained their devotion to their faith through it all by keeping up their fast for the holy day. When JYP wondered how God could do that to them, her husband responded that maybe God wasn’t the irresponsible babysitter who put them in that situation, but the one who rescued them from it.

Considering that objective situation, depending on what you believed, you could come up with arguments that it demonstrates that God is a rescuer, an irresponsible babysitter, or a human creation. The mental gymnastics required would depend on what you believed before you even knew about the event.

Coming from my soft atheist perspective, there would be a lot of mental gymnastics required to patch up what my loud left brain is telling me are the logical holes in the rescuer argument. But then again, faith isn’t about logic. Logic is for science and what we can learn about what’s objectively real. Faith is about the bigger picture that we can’t see in its entirety, not logic and proof. But my attachment to logic and proof creates a lot of cognitive dissonance and need for mental gymnastics with respect to faith itself, never mind specific instances like this vehicle accident.

It’s complicated

So, where am I going with all of this? Nowhere in particular. Mostly, I’m just fascinated that there are so many different ways of looking at the world—so many subjective realities when there is (or possibly isn’t) a single objective reality. To truly understand all of those subjective realities requires not just knowing what they are, but knowing that faiths, beliefs, attributions, etc. that shape them and act as foundations for them. The world is a complicated place.

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