Search This Blog

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why do people continue to believe in spite of the evidence?

I have often wondered how people can continue to believe something even though there is a mountain of evidence against the belief. I recently came across a psychological explanation of this called "Cognitive Dissonance." Leon Festinger (1919-1989), formerly a professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota developed the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. In a book entitled, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press; 1956), he investigated a religious cult which had predicted the end of the world on a particular date but when the date came nothing happened. Some of the followers acknowledged they had been duped and went back to their old lives. The very committed ones, however, could not admit to themselves that they had been fooled and thus they came up with an alternative explanation. Perhaps it was not the end of the physical world but the end of a spiritual world.

The particulars do not matter. The fact is that when someone is committed wholeheartedly to a belief system and his or her whole life is shaped by that belief, it becomes very difficult to assimilate any information which runs contrary to that belief.

What is my point? I think this explains why most people who are committed to their religion or belief system will NEVER change their beliefs NO MATTER how much evidence is presented to them.

When I was a Christian, I used to be amazed at how intelligent people could continue to believe Mormonism even though there was so much evidence against it. One day I realized that I was just as guilty of closed-mindedness as they were. I would listen to the evidence against evangelical Christianity but only to "refute it." In other words, my mind was already made up. To entertain the idea that you may actually be wrong and that your whole life, which has been built around this false belief, has been misguided is extremely painful.

How does one eliminate this cognitive dissonance? According to Festinger, there are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.

He gives a non-religious example of this phenomenon. Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.

Precisely because it would be traumatic and painful for one to give up their firmly held religous beliefs, people will rarely exercise option #3. So they tend to either minimize the importance of the dissonant beliefs or try to counterbalance those dissonant beliefs with more consonant beliefs.

For example, take an evangelical Christian who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible. When confronted with the strong evidence against inerrancy, the believer might respond: (1) "Well, inerrancy, does not really matter because the Bible is a spiritual book and in spiritual matters of sin and salvation, it faithfully accomplishes it purpose;" (2)"Well, there are many great things in the Bible and I will focus on those;" or (3) "I must give up a belief in inerrancy." Most heartily resist conclusion #3.

As pointed out in the previous post, it seems most people believe in their religion for emotional reasons not intellecutal reasons. Thus, the probablity of them rejecting their religion based on intellecutal concerns is remote. A few brave, honest souls will but most will not.


  1. Great post, thank you. In trying to think thru how I became agnostic, one factor is that, although I believed, Christianity never made me happy. Praying and trusting were comforting sometimes though.
    Also I was taught that the critics of the Bible were evil. They were on Satan's side. Once I read some of the critics' books, I saw them as intelligent people-not as evil people being controlled by Satan. Big difference. I saw that they weren't out to destroy, but simply to come to intelligent conclusions about the Bible.
    I realized that I had been lied to about that.
    I had the interest and TIME to read more and more. I became willing to say "maybe this is mostly myth, or maybe there is no God" Very scary, yet relaxing.

  2. You will see this in victims of email scam letters. Once they have invested some money, even only a hundred dollars or so, it is almost impossible to get them to see that they are being scammed. It is an investment that really causes the dissonance to become more permanent, whether that investment be physical (monetary, time, labor), emotional (love, friendship, community) or both (religion and love scammers rely on both).

    In a way, one has to want to be open to change. Being open-minded has to be a conscious decision. It cannot be forced upon people. I see many Christians that are at the same place where I was at before my deconversion but they don't want to challenge their ideas. I remember being at that point and being challenged by some friends, but it didn't matter what they said to me. I had to go out and open myself up to being wrong.

  3. One of the points that Michael Shermer makes in "Why People Believe Weird Things" is because they are smart. How can someone intelligent justify, lets say, astrology-because they are smart enough to 'make' arguments for said belief. In the end though, the apologetics explains away, and hopefully the individual realizes what they are doing-making excuses. Great work Ken, Thanks.


  4. **When confronted with the strong evidence against inerrancy, the believer might respond**

    I usually see a response along the lines of the fault lies with the believer and not the Bible. The believer simply doesn't get it at this juncture, but when they get to heaven, God can explain it then.

  5. HI Ken,

    You do realize that your point works in reverse for atheism. I have been studying atheism now for over three years and have not found one knock-out argument against Christianity. Atheists, not agnostics, are as guilty as believers for failing to acknowledge similar arguments?


  6. Reverend Brown, the argument doesn't quite work in reverse because atheism is not a belief _in_ anything. To put it another way, atheism holds not that there is compelling evidence _against_ god but simply that there is no compelling evidence _for_ god.

    Atheism and an atheistic position therefore does not require a knock-out, or any other kind of, argument against christianity. Christianity meanwhile, as a positive assertion does require a knock-out argument for its correctness.

    However, do some atheists fail to acknowledge or dismiss some difficult arguments? Absolutely they do. This is true of both theists and atheists, but that does not mean the situation is symmetric as you suggest.


  7. I was a lifetime part of the TRUTH. That is one of the nicknames, for wont of better term, that we attached to our faith. It was a con-game that promoted a burial of dissonance. After decades of telling everyone [we also went door to door like the Mormons - only we did it all our lives] with whom we made contact that we had the TRUTH it was very difficult to make a fair assessment of doctrines and practices. We have estimated that perhaps a million or so have left that false faith in the past decade. Most of us have made a very careful examination, though careful examination is verboten in this group.

    But as stated by Festinger, most will not do so. I assume this is likely true in other high control groups as well. Afterall, a large majority of Jim Jones' followers were not forced at gunpoint to drink the Koolaid, were they?

    Interesting points made. Thank you.


  8. I guess I'm a "brave honest soul" lol. Thanks for the article.