This topic has kind of been beaten to death over the years, but I think Mo’s and Exmo’s are talking past each other (most recently in blogs at Millenial Mormon and Zelph on a Shelf). I want to share more of a middle way perspective and my experience of how I have dealt with cognitive dissonance in a way that might provide insight to both Mormons and Ex-Mormons.
Cognitive Dissonance Definition
Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological concept describing the discomfort one experiences with conflicting beliefs, ideas, behaviors, or desires.
Cognitive dissonance is normal and part of the human experience. For example, eating that donut would taste really good and eating that donut would ruin my diet. We’re constantly dealing with thousands of data points of beliefs, attitudes, and actions that intersect and sometimes conflict.
We deal with cognitive dissonance in many ways: acquire more information, change our beliefs, change our behaviors, rank or prioritize one belief over another, rationalize or justify or lie to ourselves, ignore information that challenges us, suppress desires, and even create emotional experiences to validate preconceived notions. These actions serve to rebalance our intellectual and emotional framework to help us feel more internally consistent, given the new information.
Application to Mormonism
Cognitive Dissonance can come in many ways as it relates to Mormonism.
- Discovering information that leads you to question your belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon
- Balancing belief in evolution with the Adam and Eve Garden of Eden belief
- Seeing a priesthood leader behave in a hypocritical way
- Believing in a commandment and not obeying it, causing guilt and internal conflict
- Believing if you were faithful, your life would work out well, and feeling frustrated it’s not working out like you want
Leon Festinger was the psychologist who pioneered the research and understanding on this subject. He used the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain why people in fringe religions held on to beliefs despite the claims of these religions being obviously falsified. He showed that when people encounter information that challenge their existing beliefs they will feel tension which will motivate them to reduce by changing their beliefs or behavior to be more internally consistent. Some of the things people did in this religious study to make themselves feel better were to double down on their efforts requiring sacrifice and investment to the religion. Their internal, subconscious logic was that if they were that invested, then it must be a sign of truth, and allowed them to ignore the facts they were facing.
Compare this to the common message members are told concerning doubts and questions. Elder M. Russell Ballard on 9/13/2015 addressing 235 stakes from the Utah South Area in regional conference said when members have doubts or questions they should keep good habits: “These habits include daily prayer, fasting, studying the scriptures and the words of the living prophets, keeping the Sabbath day holy, partaking of the sacrament, worshiping in the temple often and reaching out to the needy, poor and lonely. When someone stops doing these simple but essential things, they cut themselves from the ‘well of living water’ and allow Satan to muddle their thinking.”
I’m not disagreeing with the brethren’s counsel. Daily scripture study and prayer is not a bad thing. But we need to be careful we are not using these things to “check out” of life and our problems. We should be very careful we are using them to “plug in” to our lives and use them as a tool to help increase our self awareness.
Natasha Helfer Parker and Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, active LDS therapists had soom good insight into this subject in a very informative podcast, I highly recommend.
They talked about two extremes of dealing with cognitive dissonance. We sometimes want to reduce the dissonance in a simple minded way, reactively but maladaptively. Either we take an extreme view that our initial beliefs are always right no matter what information we face, and we suppress and ignore new information. Or we place too much value on the new information and immediately dump our existing beliefs and frameworks. Both are unhealthy and dishonest. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to sit with and grapple with our cognitive dissonance and understand the answers for us are usually found in the grays and not the black and whites.
Within Mormonism, people with different personality types and backgrounds react differently to new information. We should take people’s narratives at face value and not place our own beliefs and motivations on them.
It’s really tempting for Mo’s to tell Exmo’s they left the church just because they want to sin, but just don’t do it. It’s probably not true, and it’s just going to piss people off. There are difficult things to accept about LDS church history, and many of those that have rejected it have done so following God in a way they felt was the most honest and pure in heart they could be.
It’s really tempting for Exmo’s to tell Mo’s they’re full of cog diz every time they defend a truth, but just don’t do it. You don’t understand all the thousands of data points they are processing. You might be completely shocked to look at it through their perspective and see they are experiencing no more cognitive dissonance on the subject than you are. Accusing Mo’s of being intellectually dishonest is not usually fair.
Challenge to Literal Mormons
Reading “anti-Mormon” material is sometimes described like this by a believer: “I felt a horrible feeling immediately, and I knew it was from Satan.” That’s possible. But it’s also possible it could be a normal, internal reaction which is a built in human function to deal with severe levels of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance is a part of human experience and leads to growth. We shouldn’t suppress information out of fear or be afraid to look into a subject to gain more knowledge. If we believe in a God that is all knowing, and we want to be like him, we should be true knowledge seekers.
Wendy Ulrich at a FairMormon conference in 2005 quoted C.S. Lewis on this topic: “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellant; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellant which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know….the truth we need most is hidden precisely in the doctrines you least like and least understand. Scientists make progress because scientists instead of running away from such troublesome phenomena or hushing them up, are constantly seeking them out. In the same way, there will be progress in Christian knowledge only as long as we accept the challenge of the difficult or repellant doctrines. A ‘liberal’ Christianity which considers itself free to alter the Faith whenever the Faith looks perplexing or repellent MUST be completely stagnant. Progress is made only into resisting material.”
The message here is that struggling with difficult questions is not to be avoided, it’s actually the course of action that will lead us into a deeper, more meaningful faith. There are options to move from a literal view to a metaphorical view of Mormonism, which can help you keep what you know and love while letting go of some of the cognitive dissonance you experience from conflicting information about LDS historical details.
Challenge to Ex-Mormons
Cognitive Dissonance can be experienced not just from conflicting facts but also conflicting desires and yearnings. Ex-Mormons who left for intellectual reasons, usually describe a huge relief when they finally let go of the beliefs that were causing so much intellectual cognitive dissonance. However, many of them realized cognitive dissonance related to other conflicts:
- desire for religion and not able to find one that resonates better than Mormonism
- yearning for God and experiencing hampered ability to connect with the divine outside of Mormonism
- missing the sociality aspects of Mormonism
- inability to escape the feeling that generally “something was missing”
Consider this possibility. An ex-Mormon feels the church is “wrong” but in many ways “good”, but also believes in a binary view of religion all right/good or all wrong/bad. Might that ex-Mormon subconsciously look for confirming behaviors of his exMormonism? Some Ex-Mormons get really mean towards their Mormon brethren after the de-conversion phase. This is understandable, because so many are judged and criticized by family and friends. But perhaps (LDS please ignore this–you don’t need more ammo to find fault in Exmo’s) their actions to attack believing Mormons are their form of Elder Ballard’s list above.
Just like the literal Mormon, the root cause for this dissonance is a binary view of Mormonism. There are ways to recontextualize LDS church history and scripture in a way that preserves the things you miss about Mormonism.
Challenge to all
When dealing with our cognitive dissonance, we should understand it’s part of a normal, human experience. We should take the time to address it maturely. We should challenge black or white thinking.
Moving out of literal, warm and fuzzy view of religion (for both Mo’s and ExMo’s) and into a gray area full of doubt and questions is difficult. Terryl Givens talks about this place in his book The Crucible of Doubt. “True religion is inseparable from suffering. It tells us the truth about the human condition without flinching, offers no cheap solutions, and conceals none of the costly price. We feel unmoored if our religion fails to answer all our questions, if it does not resolve our anxious fears, if it does not tie up all loose ends. We want a script, and we find we stand before a blank canvas . . . Perhaps we would do better if we came to understand the fundamental incompleteness of the blueprint as something other than a defect, a failure. It is the way it must be, and the way it should be.”
Dealing with cognitive dissonance with courage, patience, maturity, and self awareness leads to growth, overall happiness, and the deepest rewards that are to be found in faith.
My Personal Experience
I experienced tremendous cognitive dissonance for many years. I was losing faith in the literal view of Mormonism, due to the difficult historical facts. But whenever I felt tempted to reject Mormonism completely, I had just as much internal conflict at the thought of missing out on all that I loved and believed about the LDS church. Moving to a metaphorical/sacramental paradigm was what finally helped me resolve that internal conflict.