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.

41 thoughts on “Faith, Attribution, and Cognitive Dissonance”

  1. Your thoughts remind me of a quote, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Faith provides psychological security. No doubt about it.

  2. I think the psychological security that faith provides is what I’ve been trying to center in on. I also think my brand of “faith” is highly offensive to the vast majority of Christians. I reject most of the Bible, and at the end of the day, I just want to have a safe space to recharge, regroup, and face the shittiness of the world and it’s people.

  3. Trying to parse subjective and objective realities is going to hurt the brain 😉 It’s fascinating though, as are thoughts about God. It leads to a lot of mental chewing, which is always fun. I good read – I especially liked the idea as God as a bad babysitter.

  4. Thank you for the feature and for a fascinating post!

    I see my own belief in G-d (and in a G-d who is overall good) as a choice independent of the evidence, which quite honestly, is not conclusive and in some cases, the evidence, and lack of evidence in some cases, is extremely damning. It’s a belief that overall enhances my life, which is why I choose to believe that G-d created the world, humanity, and plays some role in affecting the course of events, though I haven’t really figured out quite what that role is. I will also say that while I believe that G-d is overall good, I think G-d is at times, both the rescuer and the irresponsible babysitter. In other words, that there are times when G-d does not do good / allows evil. I do not have a satisfactory answer for why this is the case.

    I will readily admit that the mental gymnastics required to reconcile belief that G-d is good with the fact that bad things happen is made markedly easier by the fact that nothing really bad has happened to me. My parents walked away from the accident totally fine. If they had been, G-d forbid injured or worse, or if I had faced some other sort of adversity, I don’t know that I could maintain this belief.

    I don’t know how I missed your soft atheism post – I’ll have to check it out!

    1. I find this whole subject area so fascinating. I can absolutely see why people would want to believe in a higher power, and how their lives could be enhanced by such a belief.

      I suspect it’s true for most people that the core of their belief is faith without proof rather than faith based on proof. Or, when their is proof involved, it rests on fundamental assumptions that either aren’t proven or are simply unprovable.

      What I have a harder time grasping in my own head making that initial dive into faith without proof, which probably has a lot to do with my parents being even more hard-core atheist than I am.

      1. I know a lot of people, atheists and believers*, who feel that they have based their faith on proof. It’s interesting to see what each side* views as proof / disproof.
        I feel like more of the oddball in that I don’t have a personal need for a core of proof!
        *I’m doing a lot of simplifying and I don’t really believe that atheism/theism are two sides – I think there is a wide range of viewpoints!

        1. Hard atheism, i.e. there is 0% chance there’s no good, seems a little strange to me. Even if I think the chances of a higher power are minimal, 0% chance seems just as unknowable as 100% chance.

  5. Interesting. Personally, I’ve struggled with the concept of ‘faith’ versus “spiritualism” versus “religion” for a long time. The three things can be mutually exclusive and for some of us, they are. I’ve come to believe that faith is something inside that provides them with hope when they’re hopeless, courage when they’re scared, and the impetus to go on when they want to just stop. It’s not deity driven, although it can be. For me it is. I could not continue to function in a world where there is no hope and no ‘magic’ (for lack of a better word). I asked a question a while back in Share Your World where I asked about what people thought of the idea of a higher power. There are hard core (and soft) atheists in my crowd, as well as hard and soft core believers. We don’t all believe in the same God either, some just rely on that higher power (benevolent) idea. To see them through. Is that subjective? I guess so. I have a lot of respect for science and the laws of the universe according to science. But I read a book quite some time back where the setting was an alternate reality where magic ruled instead of science. It’s stuck with me all this time. Can we change reality by what we believe? Maybe that’s off topic for this discussion, but it brings a lot of the subjective versus objective into it in my opinion.

    1. That question of whether or not we can change reality by what we believe is such an interesting one. I’m inclined to believe that we can change our subjective reality and our relationship with any sort of objective reality, but I tend to steer clear of magical thinking in the sense of thinking what’s going on inside me can change objective reality simply by me thinking about it.

  6. The world really is a complicated place. I do believe our perspective and experiences shape our reality. There are so many ways to think about a single happening.

  7. I’ve always been fascinated with different spiritual beliefs or non beliefs. I firmly believe how and where you were raised decided your social constructs of religion. To say that. … i have almost died once and my reality is i spoke to God and he existed in this space. I can never not believe in God. I was raised in faith and it holds strong. My children who i always allowed our encouraged to have own beliefs are all atheists. Two went to Sunday school religiously as a child the third by that time he was old enough to understand i had Gaiden out of concrete religion and more into a spiritual believe that for me is God. I do not read the Bible as i think it’s been re written too many times over centuries but i have started to ask God to show me things through tarot. It’s been interesting as a tool that i interpret just like you would the Bible. Sacrilegious maybe but it’s my faith construct and so far other than learning it is now part of my spirituality… once again thanks for a great post to make me think

  8. “Cognitive dissonance occurs when there are two (or more) things that we believe to be true that also happen to be contradictory”

    Our me’s live this dissonant way. It is excruciatingly painful to have such a jagged path. That makes us sad. Unmet need: self-understanding, shared reality

    We gave up Judaism not from one thing but the last straw was a Bat Mitzvah whose Torah portion was about how God smote some dude for praying wrong. We think holy books are actually written by people, which doesn’t meet our need for trust. And the notion of vengeful God doesn’t meet our need for peace, or our value of non-violence. No religion will meet those needs for us that we know of. And we aren’t looking for one. If we can train our mind to think in terms of feelings and needs, we will have a blueprint for living a life of more peace and less suffering. That is our chosen path based on our life experiences. It is a lonely life since so few people share our reality. But it feels authentic, which we value above following crowds.

    Love you, Ashley 💕❤️

    1. There seems to be a lot of smiting in the Torah, and in the Old Testament more broadly. I agree around holy books being written by humans. Even if there is a God who’s the original source of some of it, humans make mistakes all the time.

      It’s interesting that no one seems to have nailed down peace and non-suffering. Even if one considers Buddhism to be a religion, in practice it falls short. All things considered, I think it would be hard to achieve peace without taking a very personal path on the way there.

      Love you all lots! ❤️❤️❤️

      1. Are all religions based on right/wrong and good/evil? We are so far away from those concepts in our own belief system that religions based on them don’t resonate with us. Right and wrong seem so entirely subjective in the context of religious rules and politics and conflict that we have no interest in the paradigm.

        Buddhist religion is currently run by people (men?) so it will have much in common with other world religions wethinks, but we don’t know much

        1. I don’t know enough about how Buddhism is organized to know if there’s a central group of people running the show.

          The arbitrariness of rightness and wrongness is strange. Like the people who are anti-abortion but pro-death penalty…

  9. I want to share a type of story that I’ve been through more than once, one that goes deeper into what it means to believe from a religious point of view.

    There was this person that came to me asking a number of questions about Islam, to which I’d respond to each as best as I could. If for some of them I don’t know, then I don’t know. In his case, I seemed to have been able to respond sufficiently to his concerns, but regardless, he concluded that he couldn’t believe in God because he didn’t believe in God’s view of life.

    The nuances that lead to the differences in our beliefs are a fascinating study for me. I treat atheism as a belief in the absence of God in order to put it on equal footing with every other religion, so that it could be accounted for as much as every other. In doing so, I found a level of cognitive dissonance in atheism that’s at least similar to the level that could be observed in the followers of a religion. In the case of my story, the disagreement was not with my reasoning of religion, it was with his view of good versus God’s, to which he took his to be more reasonable. It may not be mental gymnastics, but it could be certainly labelled as denial because subjectively speaking, he had nothing against the reasoning I’d given, but everything against the view itself.

    It’s one of the reasons behind why I feel it’s necessary to be able to respectfully discuss our beliefs, to root out those cognitive dissonances we all have and see who’s willing to reason. Not going to lie though, this seems to provoke as many Muslims as it does with people outside of Islam. When you ask people to sift through their own reasoning to look for flaws and strengths, the former tends to get extremely uncomfortable.

    1. Not believing in God’s view of life is an odd reason to not believe in God, especially since it requires believing that God’s view of life is an actual thing.

      Within the broad category of atheism, there seems go be two different camps. One is sometimes called hard atheism, which insists there is no God. And I agree, that kind of absolute belief puts it on par with any religion. I fall into the camp of what’s sometimes called soft atheism or weak agnosticism. I don’t believe the fully agnostic slant that the existence of a deity is not knowable, and I also don’t believe there is no God, full stop, because I have no way of knowing that. I believe it’s unlikely that there is, but I’m not going to argue for something that’s impossible to prove. My stance is that I would not believe the presence of something so huge without some kind of evidence, which I haven’t come across yet. If I were to come across such evidence, I would have no problem accepting that there is a deity. I think it’s the part about accepting on faith rather than on some form of objective evidence that feels foreign to me, and it fascinates me to hear how other people have arrived at their faith.

      1. From a logical perspective on how I arrived at my faith, the general sense is that although I don’t have all the information at hand that we’d prefer, what I do have is more than sufficient for me to consider the irrational decision to be disbelief. Rather than seeking the proof I’d like, it’s more about weighing what I’ve come to understand until neglect isn’t an option.

        I figured maybe you’d like a sense of where my faith might come from.

        1. It seems like that really is a core element of faith—a belief that’s based o a different kind of evaluation than logics. It reminds me of the is–ought distinction described by philosopher David Hume. Wikipedia describes the “Hume’s guillotine” as the belief that “if a reasoner only has access to non-moral and non-evaluative factual premises, the reasoner cannot logically infer the truth of moral statements.” What appears illogical and irrational depends on where one is looking from, and if faith and non-belief don’t relate to one another in terms of the same evaluative process, it would seem almost inevitable that the opposite position to one’s own would appear illogical and irrational.

          1. I think there might be a misunderstanding in what I meant. When I said that I tend to weigh my decisions based on what I’ve come to understand, the concept I had in mind was of Bayesian inference, whereby the probability of something becomes more or less likely based on updated information. As I gain more knowledge, I can update what I know with regards to each religion. If the information turns out to be insufficient to act on any of them, then I can be neutral.

            With this in mind, Islam eventually made the most sense to me, surpassing what I would beyond a fair threshold for neutrality, so disbelief became the irrational choice because it would mean that I decided to deny something I had now considered significant.

            I’d say that this was logical and didn’t have anything to suggest that I was being one-sided.

            1. Sorry, I wasn’t clear; that wasn’t how I interpreted your comment at all. I was just trying to say more generally that this is the type of issue where no perspective is likely to appear logical when looking from any other perspective, simply because faith and logic are separate mental processes.

              Thanks for your input into this. It’s so fascinating to hear different people’s perspectives.

  10. Thanks for these ramblings. It’s interesting to read your perspective on all of this God stuff.

    I identify as a Christian and believe in a God. But not the sort of God that I think a lot of Christians believe in. I do not believe that God is both all-loving and all-powerful–otherwise then I, like you, can’t see how something like the Holocaust would happen or how God would let that happen. I choose to believe in an all-loving God instead–a God who loves immensely and tries to push us as human beings to do the same. Sometimes we listen, a lot of times we don’t. I’m not going anywhere in particular, other than just having a musing.

  11. Hi Ashley. I read this late last night but did not form a useful comment. What you’re discussing, as you probably know, is the so-called “problem of evil.” Again, theologians and others who have decided that they believe in God have argued about this for centuries. Because I have made that decision — to believe in God — you might want to know why the problem of evil, and related theological problems, do not interfere with my faith. I’ll send you an email.

  12. PrEdIcTaBlY UNpreDicTaBLe

    Ashley… as you know I have faith.

    As you also state at the end…”the world is indeed a complicated place”…. and there are also reasons why this is the case.

    Because of my mental illness, its a little screwy at times, 🙃 however, my faith still remains there and consistent underneath everything else. It is like an anchor. And everything else in life like the sea. And this is what helps me more than anything else to keep going even though things get tough mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically or otherwise.

    I didn’t want to get into too much on here, in order not to impose on others or what they do or don’t believe in. As each has their views, and opinions.

    There are also reasons why I feel the way I do, and only if someone were searching for answers to questions would I share that with somebody.

    I hope to do a post at some point about things. But it has to be well thought out. And therefore will need time… so my head has to be in the right place for that…

    My brain is a bit squishy right now. 😖

    My hubby decided to follow you, BTW, as I told him what a lovely person you are and you always blog interesting posts… he likes to read more than I do. He is:

    Anyway you’ll see him come up…no doubt.

    Sending you love 🥰 from me to you…

  13. Hi Ashley. Superb article, mate, very balanced, despite its depth. You know your subject well, and write clearly – even when you think you’re rambling 😁

    The Bible (from what I’ve learned) teaches that we’re in the middle of a 6,000+ year investigation; we’re still in the evidence-gathering stage atm.

    None of this evil we see around us was supposed to happen, but because of free will, (and the use of that to question God’s rule), time had to be allowed for enough bad stuff to happen to prove that we do actually need God to rule us.

    I’ve heard the illustration given of a classroom, where God is the teacher. He’s writing some equation on the whiteboard when a kid pipes up and says “That’s wrong, sir.”

    Now the teacher has options on how to deal with this: tell the kid to shut up and listen? Kick him out for troublemaking? Try to reassure the class that he knows what he’s doing and they should just trust him?

    What he does instead is step back from the whiteboard, and ask the kid to come forward. He gives him the pen and says: “Show me how you’d do it.”

    The rest of the class, watching, will be able to clearly see who’s right, by whether the equation works or not – but enough time must be allowed to give the kid ample opportunity to try.

    However, there’ll come a point when the teacher will step back in and reassert control of the lesson, once his point has been proven.

    In a glib nutshell, that’s why bad things happen now.

    So no cognitive dissonance necessary for me, just an awful lot of patience 😐

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