Evangelical Christianity and Cognitive Dissonance

The Pew Forum posted a portrait of evangelical Christian churches that includes the following pie chart:


Bearing in mind that we are well into the 21st century CE, this finding is astonishing. It’s so astonishing, in fact, that the deacon didn’t believe me when I told him about it. He suggested that the respondents may have misunderstood the question. I, citing the fact that I personally heard a sermon within the past decade in which the preacher referred to the biblical Noah’s Ark story as an actual historical account, told him that I find it entirely believable. Sad, yes, but entirely too believable. Wanting to persuade him to adopt my point of view, I found this pie chart, which includes the polling script. Upon reviewing it, he agreed with me that this is an amazing, and utterly pathetic, finding.

Scrolling a bit farther down Pew’s page, I found this pie chart:

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that one cannot hold both of these beliefs coherently. If one believes the Bible is god’s literal word, then one cannot ignore its repeated admonitions that Christianity is the only religion that reconciles one with god and leads to eternal life. That being the case, many religions cannot lead to eternal life. If evangelical Christians compare these charts thoughtfully, they should experience cognitive dissonance of the kind that leads people to reconsider whether their religious beliefs can withstand serious scrutiny. For those who are ready to undertake such examinations, the very least they should do, if they’re honest, is end up revising some of their beliefs. Once they’ve begun the thought-revision cycle in earnest, and repeated it a few (or a few hundred) times, it should only be a matter of time before they jettison their entire religious cargo. Unfortunately, there will always be others who aren’t ready for such exercises. Some of them will remain happily unaware of findings like these; others will shrug their shoulders and accept cognitive dissonance as a normal state of being. If the alternatives to intellectual honesty re: religious beliefs are a) being ignorant and happy, or b) being informed and miserable, this may be a case in which ignorance really is bliss.

— the chaplain


Easter Irony

I just came across this cartoon on the Internet:
good friday2

Let me explain why I think this cartoon is ironic. Most of the fundogelicals I know are conservative in both religion and politics. When they wear their political hats, they invariably tell me that, unlike “nanny state” liberals, conservatives believe in “personal responsibility.” They oppose the Affordable Care Act because they believe it undermines personal responsibility to adequately care for oneself and one’s family. They oppose gun safety laws because, in addition to allegedly infringing on their right to own firearms, such laws – they say – are symptomatic of big, intrusive “nanny state” government. People who own firearms can take care of themselves, their weapons, and their homes and families just fine without any stinking government telling them how to do so, thank you very much. Mind you, many of these people who don’t want government to regulate what types of weapons and accessories can be owned and used by citizens, and don’t want government regulating their health care options any more than it does now, have no difficulty expecting the government to regulate citizens’ most intimate reproductive and marital options. Government that does those things is not too big at all.

What I find immensely ironic is that these people (the ones I know, anyway) who allegedly embrace “personal responsibility” in all things political, have absolutely no difficulty fleeing personal responsibility when it comes to their religious lives. They’ve sinned and deserve to burn in hell? Fine – surely they’ll admit their guilt and accept their just desserts, right?

Uhh, not quite. Their religion not only encourages these “personal responsibility” proponents not to accept their punishments like adults, it actually requires them to push their guilt onto someone else – ideally someone who was perfect and therefore didn’t have to atone for his own sins – and let him serve a sentence in their place. They have absolutely no difficulty accepting the idea that their “salvation” comes at the expense of an innocent man, an idea that I find abhorrent. The irony astonishes me. Godless liberal that I am, if it happens that I am wrong about the existence of any gods, I will accept responsibility for my error and endure whatever consequences that may entail. As far as I’m concerned, that is the only morally acceptable option available.

— the chaplain


When Imagination Fails

When asked about Senator Rob Portman’s recent change of position regarding gay marriage, John Boehner responded that he “can’t imagine ever supporting gay marriage” himself. The fact that he can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it can’t happen; it just means he doesn’t have any idea what could prompt such a change in his thinking. Let me make it clear that I don’t expect John Boehner to change his mind about gay marriage or anything else any time soon, if ever. I’m just saying that a failure of imagination is simply that, a failure to perceive circumstances that could prompt changes in one’s thinking. It doesn’t mean that changes are impossible.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two things that I never imagined – in fact, they were things that I was certain never would happen – that later transpired. The first was my decision to resign from the ministry. I have a distinct memory of a moment that occurred many years ago as I walked into the chapel at a Salvation Army officer’s training college. As I entered the chapel, I was overwhelmed by the idea that I was wearing a uniform with blue epaulets on my shoulders, each adorned with a single red bar that designated my status as a first-year cadet. I thought,”I struggled against coming here, but now that I’m here, I’m in for life. Nothing will shake my commitment to being an officer (pastor) until I retire.” Eleven years later, circumstances I’d never imagined had indeed led me to resign my officership. Just before I exited my quarters (manse) for the last time, I glanced into my nearly empty bedroom closet. All that remained were my Salvation Army uniforms, these ones adorned with red epaulets bearing two stars each (designating my status as a captain). I deliberately left them there as a symbol that my decision was irrevocable; I would never again wear a Salvation Army uniform. That was 17 years ago, and, indeed, I haven’t worn a uniform of any kind since.

The other thing I never imagined happening was not believing in god. Through most of my adolescent and adult life, I wrestled, off and on, with the doubts that plague many religious believers. For most of those years, I accepted living in a state of what I called “intellectual tension” about those doubts. I now know that the proper term for my “intellectual tension” was cognitive dissonance. Terms like “intellectual tension” are terms believers employ when they decide to just shrug their shoulders and say, “God knows better than I do; it will all make sense one day.” There was a time in my first ministry appointment when, as I pondered god’s existence, I distinctly thought, “my belief is firm; nothing will ever dissuade me from it.” We all know how that turned out.

The thing I can’t imagine happening now is ever believing in a deity again. It would take extraordinary events and circumstances for that to happen. I suspect that, if it ever happened, that deity (or deities) would turn out to be unlike anything ever imagined. By now I’ve learned “never to say never.” Having said that, though, I’m not wasting time or energy searching for either gods or goddesses. If such beings exist, and if they care at all about me and want to communicate with me, they know where to find me. And if they never call on me, I’ll never miss them; I’m content living my life without them.

— the chaplain


A Book The Nonbelieving Literati Would Have Loved Hating

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoy-book-cover-artOnce upon a time, several atheist bloggers formed a reading group called the Nonbelieving Literati. As I recall, the idea was that we would read and discuss one work of fiction each month, since many of us spent a lot of time reading non-fiction works about science, history, philosophy, etc. (Of course, when my first turn to choose a book rolled around, I broke the non-fiction rule and selected Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; big surprise, I know.) The thing that got me thinking about the literati was a recent post by ubi dubium, in which she shared her thoughts about Madame Bovary. I found it intriguing that she had just finished reading (or, rather, listening to) that book at approximately the same time I finished reading Anna Karenina. Based on what ubi dubium said in her review, my impression is that both books, which were written in the mid-19th century, explored many similar themes.

If the literati could have made their way through Tolstoy’s lengthy Karenina tome in one month, I suspect they may have found both much to love, and much to hate, in the book. One thing I love is Tolstoy’s striking depiction of life in 19th century Russia. Since the bulk of his narrative occurs in the Russian countryside, Moscow and St. Petersburg, he is able to portray social, physical, economic and political conditions as experienced by many members of rural and urban societies. To take one example, his description of the annual harvest process is thoroughly engrossing. Another thing I love about the book is its no-holds-barred portrayal of the hypocrisy that permeates patriarchal societies. Anna’s lover, Alexey Vronsky, suffers no social penalties for his – let’s say, breach of etiquette – in stealing another man’s wife. On the other hand, Anna, who leaves her husband and son to be with Vronsky, is  ostracized and condemned as a whore by the very same people who continue accepting Vronsky as their equal. One final thing I love about the book is Tolstoy’s intense examination of the psychology of his characters. His portrayal of Anna’s descent into despair, madness and seemingly inevitable suicide is particularly riveting.

The thing I hated about the book, and which I think would have annoyed my fellow literati, was Tolstoy’s use of an avatar, in the character of Konstantin Levin, to explore his own spiritual journey from doubt to Christian faith. The final section of the book dealt almost entirely with Levin’s spiritual renewal. Blech! It read as if Tolstoy couldn’t figure out how to close the story once he had dramatically crushed the title character under the wheels of a train. I think he should have ended it at the point when Anna’s lover led a group of volunteers to war. Sending the grief-stricken Vronsky, who had already attempted suicide earlier in the book, to die on a battlefield in a foreign land would have been plausible, and perhaps even fitting. Instead, Tolstoy moved to the fringe of fiction and entered the realms of quasi-autobiographical and philosophical rumination, and totally – I mean absolutely, positively, thoroughly – fucked up the end of his book. It’s a shame that he did so, because up until that point, it was a damn good read. If you ever read Anna Karenina, feel free to stop when she jumps off the platform. If you don’t, and you continue reading to the end, I guarantee you’ll find yourself wishing you had jumped with her.

— the chaplain


Recent Reads

I haven’t been around the chapel much lately, partly because I’ve been reading some good books. You may find the following items interesting.

The book I finished last night was Nate Silver’s, The Signal and the Noise. Citing examples from such diverse fields as climate science, baseball, Texas Hold ‘Em and elections forecasting, Silver explains statistical analysis in an interesting, informative, and even entertaining way. The book is a bit long (500+ pages), so you probably won’t read it in one sitting. But, if you’re willing to take a bit of time each night over several nights, you’re likely to learn quite a lot about gambling, earthquakes, and – yes – statistics.

Another book I finished a couple of weeks ago was, Damned Good Company, by Luis Granados. The author selected twenty pairs of contemporaneous historical figures – one secular versus one religious (i.e., Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan) – and contrasted ways in which their views intersected, clashed, and influenced the world around them. I’m somewhat surprised this book hasn’t gotten wider circulation because it is very well researched (over 1,100 endnotes) and is quite a good read. Granted, Granados doesn’t write like Hitchens, but he’s more readable than many other better-known authors. Perhaps the lack of publicity is a consequence of being published by The Humanist Press rather than Harper & Row.

The final book I’ll mention, which I read after Granados’ and before Silver’s, is J.K. Rowling’s debut in the world of adult fiction, The Casual Vacancy. Having read and enjoyed the entire Harry Potter series with my sons, I had to see how Rowling would handle adult literature. She did quite well, but don’t take that to mean that The Casual Vacancy is anything like Harry Potter for grown-ups. Unlike the world of Hogwarts, most, if not all, of the characters in this book are not likable people, so it’s likely that readers won’t readily align themselves with any of them. It’s not even easy to choose one to hate more than the others because they’re all equally loathsome. Nevertheless, the story is engaging, especially for anyone who is intrigued by politics, and one can’t help wondering how the issue of the unexpectedly open seat on a small town’s council will be resolved. I enjoyed the book, and I’ll admit that the ending makes a tragic sort of sense; nevertheless, I wasn’t satisfied with the way the final scene played out. If you want to know any more about that, you’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself whether I’ve got that right or missed some profound meaning and symmetry. In my mind, the meaning and symmetry are almost, but not quite, there.

And that, dear friends, is some of what I’ve been doing lately. Have you read any of these books? If so, let me know what you think in the comments. Do you have any other books to recommend? Write a comment. I’m always open to suggestions.

– – the chaplain


What Would Jesus Carry?

I have a friend who recently moved to an island in the South Pacific to be a Christian missionary. When he’s not busy proselytizing Jesus to the heathen natives, he uses the Internet to push the Second Amendment on the unenlightened back in the USA. He belligerently promotes the NRA recommendation to have armed personnel in every school in the country and constantly writes disparaging items about liberals and gun control advocates. To be fair, he’s not the only conservative Christian who engages in such activities. One guy wrote that Christians should carry guns because Jesus’ disciples carried swords (conveniently overlooking the fact that Jesus reprimanded Peter when he actually used a sword to wound someone (after which he allegedly healed the wound)). That post mysteriously disappeared after the deacon commented that the same rationale could be applied to public nudity, since King David reportedly celebrated a military victory by dancing nude in the streets (behavior for which one of his several wives rebuked him). All of this fundogelical verbosity on behalf of gun rights prompts me to wonder: what would Jesus carry? Confining the discussion to firearms (we’ll leave nuclear, chemical, biological and other such possibilities out of the mix for now), what do you think Jesus’ firearm of choice would be? Explain your answer in a comment.

– – the chaplain


Posted by on January 6, 2013 in friends, politics, rationalism, religion, society


More Facebook Bullshit

Like many of you who have Facebook pages, I see a lot of bullshit posted by Christians. Here’s an item that appeared on my wall some time ago:


Philip Yancey is a well-known author in evangelical Christian circles, a favorite of many. The part of this quote that caught my attention was the final sentence, “We must believe in something-the instinct is as strong as thirst or hunger….”

First, I don’t agree that people must believe in something. Second, I don’t agree that people have an instinct to “believe.” Third, I don’t agree that thirst and hunger are instincts in themselves; rather, they are manifestations of the instinct to survive.

The crux of Yancey’s error is the second idea he states, that people have an instinct to believe. The drive that people have to learn and know is tied to our survival instinct: we must learn to control ourselves and our environment in order to survive. The best way to gain such control is to know what the facts of the matter are, not just to believe that we know what they are. The danger in simply believing in “something,” of course, is that mistaken beliefs often lead to costly, even deadly, errors.

The failure to distinguish between “belief” and “knowledge” is common among fundogelicals. Erasing the distinction makes it easier to settle for accepting simple belief rather than having knowledge about matters of faith. If “belief” and “knowledge” are simply points on the same continuum, it doesn’t matter too much where on the continuum their beliefs/knowledge lie. But, if belief and knowledge do not lie on the same continuum (which they don’t), then religious believers have a serious problem. Regardless of all their prattle about the beauty and value of simple faith (a term often used interchangeably with belief), and despite their many attempts to designate their belief claims as knowledge claims, and notwithstanding their attempts to pretend that belief and knowledge are two different points on one continuum, many believers seem to realize that mere belief really is inferior to actual knowledge. After all, there is nothing inherent in “belief” that makes one belief superior to another. This is why many believers search desperately for historical or scientific evidence that appears to bolster their beliefs and seemingly transform them from the realm of fantasy (which is where all those other wrong beliefs belong) to that of knowledge (where they hope their beliefs belong). Unfortunately for believers in superstition, woo, religions, etc., any and all beliefs not genuinely rooted in reality are false. Any apparent evidence to the contrary, any bit of uncorroborated or unconfirmed evidence that seemingly justifies fantastical beliefs, is either mistaken, or worse, manufactured.

I think Philip Yancey is actually a pretty intelligent guy (this is a statement of what I believe, not what I actually claim to know – I may well be wrong) who just happens to be wrong about this matter. Humans don’t have an instinct to believe; rather, we have an instinct to survive. One of the manifestations of that instinct is a drive to know – not believe – stuff about ourselves and our world, because it is knowledge, not mere belief, that will enable us to survive and, if we use our knowledge wisely, thrive well into the future.

— the chaplain


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