Belief, Cognitive Dissonance and Darrel Ray
Last year, against all kinds of odds, I became good friends with a very conservative Christian engineering student from the middle of Kansas. (I like to think that if he ever talks about me he says something like, Yeah, I was friends with this far left feminist atheist, isn’t that crazy!) We shared a similar sense of humor and ways of thinking and got on well while our friendship lasted, but occasionally, and always against our better judgment, we engaged in conversation on religion or politics. Sometimes it ended well, sometimes it didn’t—needless to say, neither ever convinced the other of anything.
My friend and I, let’s call him Fritz, would try to remain respectful in our talks, and we mostly did, at least on the outside. Sometimes it was truly a test. I had/have respect for Fritz’s intellect, for he is truly a brilliant man, but then he would say things like, “Yes, I have a personal relationship with God that I am trying to improve all the time. I haven’t been reaching out to him often enough lately, which I will change.” Raised secular, inoculated against religion by wise parents, the temptation to ask the obvious questions about schizophrenia was sometimes too much for me. I tried to play it off as joking sometimes to avoid a bubbling up of tension… but at that kind of statement, how unreasonable is a question about schizophrenia? The only reason it sounds harsh is because of the unfortunate fact that we are so used to fanciful, silly beliefs.
We atheists talk and hear a lot about cognitive dissonance on the part of believers. What of the cognitive dissonance we ourselves experience when we hear otherwise highly intelligent people say something absolutely, undeniably, laughably, improbably ridiculous? That too is a kind of pain. One of my defense mechanisms against it is, you don’t really believe that. You can’t. I know your cognitive abilities; you can’t honestly think you converse with someone who isn’t there. Talk to, yeah, okay. Believe that they talk back? You can’t. No. Let me respect you for coherency of thought.
But he did. They do, some of them. This is something I’m constantly working on accepting, much less understanding, being by my upbringing unable to empathize with religious faith. I don’t get it. Sometimes I understand the desire for faith and other issues relating to it, but not the actual feeling itself. For the record, I apologize to anyone, particularly any deconvert, who is offended by any lack of sensitivity that stems from having never had religious faith.
I know it isn’t always a choice, faith. I had the privilege tonight of attending a lecture put on by KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics by Dr. Darrel Ray, author of The God Virus. He theorizes that religion is very much like a virus and that children get religion when they are between the ages five and seven, when they are old enough to begin understanding religious concepts but their “rational immune system” is still undeveloped. If you get it, it infects your mind and forces you to behave abnormally. It infects you. I love how he phrases that. Like a real virus, it is designed to propagate itself and will thus change your behavior to defend irrational thoughts and keep itself alive. Isn’t that an interesting idea?
To keep itself alive, then, it would have to isolate religious faith from the other parts of your brain, to an extent at least, though Ray emphasized that the infection affects general cognitive functioning and perception. Logic, so infused in the rest of Fritz’s life, his way of thinking, and his academic passions, couldn’t penetrate his religious beliefs. He must have been so accustomed to the cognitive dissonance that it was buried deep, because of course he didn’t really show any and instead talked of his god and beliefs as if they were incontrovertible facts. I can’t imagine what unidentifiable stress that must cause, then. He carries around all this weight and he doesn’t even know. He was infected as a child. The virus changed his brain.
By the way, I haven’t read Darrel Ray’s book but after seeing him speak I am absolutely going to. He was highly articulate, charming, and funny. His material was highly interesting and his next project is going to be about sex and religion, which happens to coincide with a lot of my interests. He’s definitely on my radar and should be on yours too, if you aren’t already on the ball. Thanks, SOMA. Thanks, Darrel Ray.