Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a term given to people living in a state of mental conflict which is, often, a cause of deep unhappiness. The obese person opening crisps despite wanting to lose weight is a perfect example. On the one hand the brain tells them to eat the delicious crisps but on the other they know it is hindering the desired weight loss. Only when they choose to merrily embrace fatness or else give up crisps can inner harmony be found. Otherwise self loathing is likely.

Now this is an ecclesial blog so let us leave corpulent crisp eating clerics to one side and ask a more pertinent question. Are we living at a time of crisis within the church because too many of her leaders are living with spiritual cognitive dissonance? That is to say; have lost personal belief in the supernatural reality of the church but nevertheless continue as clergy because the institutional life of the church feeds their material need. Such clerics would be deeply conflicted souls and likely to exhibit unhealthy behaviour. To use the analogy of Christ they would be like whitewashed sepulchres. Externally appearing as Christian men of virtue but inside dead and given over to ways of thinking at odds with the Gospel of Christ.

I would argue that evidence for this theory is compelling- indeed it makes sense of what we witness today. It explains why certain clerics seem desperate to water down traditional faith in a quest to embrace the secular consensus. It explains why certain clerics seem more passionate about left wing politics or homosexual activism or ‘what yoof want’ than in living and preaching a life of authentic holiness.It explains why bishops seem silent when faith is attacked yet vocal on issues like the environment.

It also helps us understand the shameful double lives, the abuse and corruption that seem so widespread. Because the person who preaches a faith they no longer believe in is living a manifest lie. And, thus conflicted, will inevitably look outside of faith for something to fill that void of emptiness. To compound problems many will not even admit the lie, will not admit the loss of faith they experience. Such people will grow to be troubled and confused. And this might explain why they become so very hostile to those who still possess the thing they lost. We begin to understand the labelling of people who retain supernatural faith as nasty or rigid, etc..

Might modernism itself even be a manifestation of wholesale cognitive dissonance?  After all modernist worship is centred on downplaying supernatural aspects of faith for that which is entertaining and populist. The mystical realm denied- consider the bizarre hatred of the extraordinary form though it fed the saints throughout the ages. Consider the love of all things trendy – from the rave in the nave to those dire schmaltzy choruses. Consider the ripping out of altar rails and high altars- that encouraged us to kneel before God. Consider the erection of carpeted stage areas on which the community can gather in celebration of self.

Yes I believe cognitive dissonance is widespread and at the heart of most church problems in our day. Clearly what is needed is true faith in Jesus Christ and true worship centred on supernatural faith- to help reconnect a lost people back to the God who calls them. Pray for those whose faith has grown cold.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

35 thoughts on “Cognitive dissonance

  1. Cognitive Dissonance:

    “In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a belief of a person clashes with new evidence perceived by that person. When confronted with facts that contradict personal beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce their discomfort.”

    I think your post conflates cognitive dissonance with what psychologists term “poor impulse control”.

    Your crisp-eating priest is very much an example of the latter. He is not grappling with the horrible realisation that facts are launching an assault on his belief system. He is simply giving in to temptation – making a choice between instant gratification and the potential long-term damage to his health. It is the same choice faced by smokers, drinkers, gamblers and extreme sports devotees.
    All of these risky behaviours hinge on conscious, one-off choices. The recovering alcoholic knows that the next time he or she feels the urge to take a drink they must not do so. The duration of the problem behaviour is also an issue. If the imaginary priest, for example, develops Type 1 diabetes through decades of poor impulse control, the crisp indulgence morphs from loveable foible to a matter of life and death. In the end, the priest’s choices are his and his alone – however he chooses to spin the consequences.

    Cognitive dissonance is experienced by the faithful. When their deep-rooted faith in the institution and teachings of The Church is confronted by “the current situation” what are they to think, say or do? If they are not to abandon their faith altogether then, according to cognitive dissonance theory, they are forced to cobble together a narrative to sustain them.

    Since that narrative has to reconcile opposing facts and beliefs it is unsurprising that – to the neutral observer at least – it may at times look far-fetched or even absurd. Thus the fond mother of a manifestly obese child may say “He’s not fat he’s just big-boned.”

    This an entirely human reaction and – if it gives comfort – where is the harm? The answer, I would suggest, is the point at which narrative strays into the realms of conspiracy theory and/or the scapegoating of enemies or “isms” both real and imagined. True, every good narrative deserves a villain – but the real-life one has no shortage of them.

    Those responsible for the abuse of children make conscious decisions every time they offend. Those who know and choose to do nothing also make choices. This is poor impulse control taken to the nth degree of wickedness. “The Devil made me do it the first time. The second time I did it by myself” as one Country and Western song put it. The only example of cognitive dissonance on display here is the post itself.

  2. Modernisim, a ridiculous superstition if there ever were one – is even worse than child abuse. But it seems to empower abuse. Let’s look into the causation.

    1. Nothing is worse than child abuse which is facilitated by misuse of power.
      All factions in the church have been guilty, not just so-called modernists.

      1. The original Albrecht von Brandenburg was born 17 May 1490. Albrecht was the first German prince to convert to Lutheranism.

        Fake nuisance?

      2. Apostacy/various philosphical errors, heresy, treason, murder, unjust warfare, usury and witchcraft are certainly worse. And all, including child abuse (not to mention homosexual behaviour even between consenting adults) are mortally sinful and should be punished with death.

  3. Wasn’t he (I hate to disagree Steve) the Cardinal Elector of Brandenburg whose flogging of indulgences, inter alia, so infuriated Luther,

    1. Mary, I stand corrected. The name, like Quasimodo’s, rang a bell. I went to the search engine. The first article up was entirely in German. The second turns out to have been about his contemporary, Albrecht of Prussia. It transpires that the next umpteen entries confirm that the real Albrecht was exactly whom you described.

      Does this mean we should take “Albrecht” seriously? There are ISIS fanatics locked up in Belmarsh for preaching much the same thing.

      1. Steve, well, based on what he himself says about those who preach error and hate, rather than locking up, surely summary execution would be most appropriate?

    1. I would answer nothing. However many left wing groups today have clearly rejected Christianity and embraced a philosophy in conflict with it. They have grown deeply intolerant in the name of tolerance and need calling out. One sees a denial of natural law, a refusal to endorse marriage and the family. A refusal to uphold the dignity of life from conception to the grave and an adherence to economical theories that have only caused untold misery in the world. I could concoct a similar list for right leaning groups- but they seem less of a threat at present simply because the pendulum has swung so far in the liberal left direction over the course of the last century.

      1. The pendulum is swinging the other way to towards fascism in many parts of the world I think the observant would find. I think you don’t really understand what you mean by ‘left’ especially when you casually combine it with your favourite bete noir ‘liberal’. The term ‘neo-liberalism’ actually refers to a laissez faire ‘market knows best’ small state political agenda. The Tory party is liberal.

  4. What about Trump?– and that new guy in Brazil is like Trump on steroids.
    There are so many dangerous politicians about. Putin and the Saudi Crown Prince to name but 2.
    As for our own Jeremy Corbin, God forbid he should ever become P M.

    1. Why do you say that, Dave? He can hardly be compared to the others you have mentioned. We live in a very dangerous time with much of the western world drifting towards fascism – as even seen in parts of our own Tory party. It is the radical agenda of Corbyn and Saunders which can restore civilisation.

      You are aware that your Times, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph don’t really have the our nation’s interests at heart, aren’t you

      1. The threat of extreme left is far more threatening that extreme right which is, lets be honest, a fringe movement of nutters in this country.

      2. Corbyn has no sense of tradition, no respect for our institutions, he would tear apart the fabric of our country, he is merely a return to the era of Micheal Foot and Tony Benn.
        He has shared platforms with the IRA , supported Palestinian terrorism, he is anti- semitic and he would abolish our system of constitutional monarchy which is the envy of the world.
        He has always supported nichilistic and anarchical positions. He is demonstrably unpatriotic and would leave our country defenceless.
        He even lends credence to the ludicrous denials by Russia of state-sponsored murder and interference in our democratic processes.
        He is the antithesis of e erything our nation stands for.

        1. Note also that he and others like him are prepared to take the oath of allegiance in order to enter parliament. They clearly see it as meaningless which raises questions about what else has no meaning for them. At least the Irish people with republican sympathies refuse the oath and so are not allowed to speak for their people. Interesting situation methinks.

          1. On the subject of republicans (Irish and otherwise) and the oath of allegiance, Pat, it is probably worth remembering what Éamon de Valera wrote in 1927. And to relate this back to the subject of Father Ed’s original post, there is surely no better example of politically motivated cognitive dissonance than de Valera’s statement that:

            “the required declaration is not an oath; that the signing of it implies no contractual obligation, and that it has no binding significance in conscience or in law; that, in short, it is merely an empty political formula which deputies could conscientiously sign without becoming involved, or without involving the nation, in obligations of loyalty to the English crown… the Fianna Fáil deputies here give public notice in advance to the Irish people, and to all whom it may concern, they purpose [sic] to regard the declaration as an empty formality, and repeat that their only allegiance is to the Irish nation, and that it will be given to no other power or authority.”

        2. Reply to Terry Loane (there is no reply button)
          What de Valera may or may not have opined is irrelevant to the current situation. I take it that you have read the wording of the Oath/Affirmation of Alliegiance. Someone making that declaration (in oath or affirmation form it is a most solemn pledge of loyalty) while being opposed to a lot of what it stands raises questions about any other undertaking they may give.

          1. I have no idea, Pat, why there is no reply button below my 10 November message. I hope I didn’t do anything wrong. But thank you for your response. I perhaps should emphasise that I certainly was neither seeking to justify nor to condemn De Valera’s attitude to the oath of allegiance. I was simply quoting what he said about it as this is another very clear example of cognitive dissonance, I would say.

            I can’t really agree with you that “what de Valera may or may not have opined is irrelevant to the current situation”. On the contrary the fact that some Irish republicans were prepared to sign the declaration while others (including Sinn Féin) refuse to do so to this day could not be more relevant to contemporary politics on both sides of the Irish Sea. Just think how utterly different the current political situation would be if the seven elected Sinn Féin MPs had decided to come to Westminster last year and sign the declaration:-)


    You have a point. We’ve been out of touch for a time (a much needed holiday away from phones, computers etc.) – we don’t haunt the internet when on vacation.

    Cognitive dissonance affects the secular world just as much, if not more so than, in the religious environment. It often has its roots in persons rising to offices beyond their capability, knowing that and developing a defensive (blinkered) mind set. They are sometimes involved in bullying, or in other ways attacking, those who would dare to disagree with them. It results in a self perpetuating cadre which recruits and protects like minds and often sees to it that essential information does not reach the people who could and need to to take action. I’ve seen the same destructive individuals cycling through senior positions in the corporate world despite the trail of ruin they’ve left behind.

    In the church, we have the same situation compounded by some members of the episcopate simply unable (because of age or inclination?) to believe that consecrated persons could behave in such a depraved manner and that the rot could be so deep. It seems to be worse in the secular world but that is no excuse. I do wonder if we need smaller dioceses with more younger bishops appointed. Not only does the current situation damage the body of the church but it has a demoralising effect on the many honourable, hard working and dedicated (and some probably saintly) religious
    You are probably aware that, for several years, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has been beating what is essentially the same drum as your points and given some quite telling explanations for the ‘dissonance’ and slowness and/or lack of decisive action. His stand and action has made him unpopular in some quarters.

  6. First of all, my apologies Father Ed for responding so late to your post about cognitive dissonance – I have had a difficult and time-consuming family issue to deal with recently. But I did want to comment, and indeed to thank you for raising the issue, as I think that cognitive dissonance is very significant for many Catholics. Take for example the many Catholics who attend Mass regularly but also uses ‘artificial’ contraception with no sense at all they are doing anything wrong. Or think of the many people who identify as Catholics, perhaps send their children to Catholic schools, but hardly ever go to Mass – yet they do not seem to fear that this will result in their eternal damnation. Both of these example display dissonance between the traditional teaching of the Church and the lived belief system of the individuals concerned. As you recently said in a comment in another discussion on this page, Father Ed, “Many today want to cherry pick faith…”

    But for me the biggest example of all of cognitive dissonance within the Church is the complete mismatch between the humble “group of 12 apostles and a handful of disciples [who] converted the world” (to quote from another of your posts, Father Ed) and the present day Holy See, with its riches and diplomatic pretensions. You went to say in the same post “every church that ever sought to appease man not God, by going for broad and huge has failed epically.” But surely the Holy See/Vatican/top hierarchy is indeed broad and huge, and seeks to appease worldly expectations. Would St. Peter ever have imagined that his successor would regard himself as a worldly sovereign who would accept invitations from heads of state to make hugely expensive state visits to their countries? (Benedict’s state visit to the UK in 2010 is said to have cost £17 million.) And – on the subject of money – would St. Peter ever have imagined that the church he founded would one day devote some of its energies to minting its own coins? What possible relevance can the papal mint have to the job of saving souls? Surely having its own coinage is all about seeking to be ‘broad and huge’ and to ‘appease man’.

    And this is precisely why I have called for the Catholic Church to unilaterally revoke the (so-called) Lateran Treaty, renounce the pretence that the Vatican is a nation state, and adopt a more humble profile in the world. Such an act of humility, one might say of penance, would surely be a wonderful way for the Church to demonstrate that it really is intent on re-forming itself following the scandals of the last 80 or so years. Renouncing the pomp and luxury would show a real ‘firm purpose of amendment’, and of course one need look no further than the story of Marcial Maciel to see the close connection between cover-up of scandalous behaviour and the cosseted expectations of cardinals. Cognitive dissonance with the church would be reduced at a stroke.

    Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (including coins and state visits) and to God what is God’s.

      1. Thank you for your response, David, but I wonder how carefully you read my (9 November) post. I made no link between hell and contraception. My reference to “eternal damnation” was in relation to “the many people who identify as Catholics, perhaps send their children to Catholic schools, but hardly ever go to Mass”. And (perhaps more significantly) I expressed no view at all in my earlier message on the morality of those who use ‘artificial’ contraception or those who do not attend Mass every week. I was making an observation about cognitive dissonance, so I quite deliberately chose not to express a view on the moral choices bound up with the cognitive dissonance. Indeed to the best of my memory I have at no point in any of my contributions to Father Ed’s blog expressed a view on where I stand morally on contraception; but the Catholic Church does – at least officially – express a clear view. In section 2370 of the Catechism we read:

        … every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.

        That’s strong stuff. And there could be no better example of cognitive dissonance within the Church than the fact that the vast majority of Catholics, even including many priests, simply chose to ignore this section of the catechism.

    1. I recall that Pope Francis did say that he wished the church was a poor church again.
      To me, one reason for keeping an independent state is to avoid political interference by any host state that might contain the papacy. Avignon, Istanbul and China (and remember the CofE) are just some examples of what can happen. Then there is the so called wealth of the Vatican art. I read, years ago, the most of it cannot be sold because it is not actually Vatican property but items which have been placed there it trust, by their owners, to be protected for future generations. Perhaps someone could confirm that?
      The Church itself is holy and contains many good, even saintly, people but it is made up pf human beings and will inevitably contain those, who knowingly or unknowingly, serve the enemy. Satan will always attack by whatever vector he can use. We have to trust in The Lord’s promise to take the ship safely through the storms. He said nothing about numbers.

      1. Thank you for your response, Pat, but I can’t really accept your view that “one reason for keeping an independent [Vatican] state is to avoid political interference by any host state that might contain the papacy”. Be honest, if some extremist future Italian government wished to ‘interfere’ in some way with the Church in Rome, they would not be stopped from doing so by the existence of the Lateran Pacts – nor by 134 Swiss men in stripy costumes! And, of course, the setting up of the Vatican as a faux state under the Lateran Pacts was itself a huge act of political interference in the church by Mussolini (whom Pius XI described as a man “sent by providence”). And surely the best way to protect the Church from interference by a “host state” would be to decentralise it, to make it more federated. Indeed the value of such subsidiarity was recognised both in Leo XIII’s encyclical ‘Rerum Noavarum’ and later, more explicitly, by Pius XI himself in ‘Quadragesimo Anno’. But neither seemed to think through how subsidiarity might work in the church, as opposed to in the political/social sphere.

        1. I don’t disagree that there is much of what you suggest might be part of an ideal situation to be worked for. I for one am no politician and cannot see a present way forward. But, we have to deal with what we have got and make the best of a mangled situation and function as best we can while working to sort it out. There is one aspect of the independent state which carries clout above its size. It gives the church a Christian voice in the international fora which no other religious body has.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.