Belief, Cognitive Dissonance and Darrel Ray

cognitive diskonanceLast 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.

  • exrelayman

    As an atheist, I would like the arguments in favor of atheism to be irrefutable. When atheists come up with poor arguments, it gives theists justification for thinking that their reasoning is just as good as ours. So I am having a little trouble with the God Virus. 'God is invisible and imperceptable. What is the difference between invisible and imperceptable and non-existent?' Fine. Now just substitute 'God Virus' for 'God' in the identical formulation. Are not both just constructs of language? As a person trying to be reasonable, I welcome corrections to my thought processes.

    Related to this is the popular atheist idea that Christians brought on the dark ages, largely by burning the library in Alexandria. Research this. It is not so clear cut, although it is often a tenet believed by atheists on insufficient evidence. Believing on insufficient evidence is what theists do. We have tons of good reasons for not subscribing to superstition. Let's refrain from weakening our position by using poor reasoning. We shouldn't go rah rah just because an idea supports the position we espouse. We should be as rigorous as we can. (I do not in any way deny that Christianity suppressed ancient learning and was instrumental in bringing about the dark ages.)

    • Adam

      Yes, as the atheist movement grows, the population in our movement won't be representative of all of us and may believe kooky things… but I assure that those at the heart of the movment are careful abotu what they put out there as researched arguments. Skeptics tend to do this to other's arguments and to their own.

  • JAFisher44

    Well, I think it takes a special kind of lying to yourself to ever end up at "God talks to me." I grew up LDS and regularly attended church till I was 19 years old. I never, ever, believed God talked to me. I wanted to. I waited for it to happen. It never did. Maybe my expectations were too high. I expected to literally hear a voice in my head.

    My brother is bat-shit crazy. God talks to him all the time. But usually not as a voice. He sees the word of god in everything around him. He prays about something and then sees an answer in some innocuous happening in the world around him. He also has dreams that answer his prayers. I try to explain to him that he is subconsciously searching for an answer and his brain just manufactures one, but he isn't open to that possibility. Oh well, what can you do?

    Anyway, my point is this. Not everyone will be able to bury cognitive dissonance so easily. In 19 years of trying I wasn't able to convince myself I had an imaginary friend.

  • Oceanus57


    Religion is a disease of the mind, and the truth is the cure.