Psychology of Theology – Why and how we hate different opinions

I have always found psychology to be a most fascinating subject. The fact that there is a science that studies human behavior and cognitive functions, in and of itself implies that the human minds works in observable and predictable ways. We often imagine that human behavior is a sacred exposition of the inner soul and is uncorrupted by the “dirty” realms of genetics, prejudice, and indoctrination. The reality is far different, science is the systemic study of that which is natural, predictable, recurring, testable, and observable. Psychology is a discipline of science, not without its quirks and failures, yet after hundreds of years, it is still going strong and building momentum. Books are being published, classes are being taught, experiments are conducted, and patters are being isolated and documented.

Three of these patterns and psychological ideas are very relevant to the interactions we human beings have as we discuss issues of faith and practice. These three concepts are things that most of us experience or do, perhaps even on a daily basis, albeit without knowing that we do. The first time I went to an archery range, I unknowingly adopted a shooting style fittingly called “instinctive archery.” Only later did I realize that what I was doing had a name. These three psychological concepts are likewise eagerly embraced by many people who are uninformed of the nomenclature.


1. Cognitive Dissonance Reduction

  • “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc. For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition)” (1)

Thus Cognitive Dissonance Reduction, is our attempt to reconcile or explain away these conflicting ideas, which can look like this:

When faced with the behavior of coming to work, and the opposing cognition that his boss doesn’t like him, Mr. Office Slave is quick to perform cognitive dissonance reduction.

Thus when it comes to a theological and biblical discourse, I have found that many Christians experience cognitive dissonance and engage in cognitive dissonance reduction. For example, when faced with the stark contrast between the very different types of religious ceremonies presented in the Old vs New testament, such as slaughtering goats vs praying in tongues, many Christians attempt cognitive dissonance reduction. Often this includes removing the Old Testament from its real historic context and mythologizing it’s narrative as abstract symbolic ideas and stories in an effort to avoid thinking about the vivid reality of an altar loaded with hundreds of pounds of bleeding sheep, or a Amalekite city with hundreds of slaughtered infants littering the burned ashes. Other approaches include simply pushing one idea from mind via the use of simple phrases or ideas, such as “everyone is a sinner and deserves death, so it was perfectly moral for the Israelites to slaughter them.” In reality, these Christians would never turn to a Texan and permit them to slaughter their Mexican neighbors, however, because of cognitive dissonance reduction they force the Ancient Near East context to be depersonalized and abstract.

2. Motivated Reasoning

  • motivated cognition refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal. Consider a classic example. In the 1950s, psychologists asked experimental subjects, students from two Ivy League colleges, to watch a film that featured a set of controversial officiating calls made during a football game between teams from their respective schools. The students from each school were more likely to see the referees’ calls as correct when it favored their school than when it favored their rival. The researchers concluded that the emotional stake the students had in affirming their loyalty to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on the tape.”(2)

There are a great deal of Calvinists who are really crazy. Some would and indeed have written and said many horrible things. For example Augustine, the great Early church father and theologian, explicitly taught that infants who die without being baptized would be sent to hell, albeit with less suffering than adults in hell. Many modern Calvinists would never ascribe to such an idea, and in fact, would consider one a very insensitive, untactful, brutish, heretic for even contemplating such a horrid idea. Yet, because Calvinists like Augustine and have an emotional attachment to his name, we are quick to overlook or ignore such atrocious doctrines. Were it Arminius who said these words, you can be assured, Calvinists worldwide would certainly make it known just how mean that Arminius was. This type of motivated reasoning probably occurs on every side, in every theological debate, towards every possible topic. It even occurs in our defense of people’s actions. If someone we like does something seemingly horrible, our motivated reasoning will cause us to explain away that horrible thing, or find reasons why it cannot possibly be true.

3. Confirmation Bias

  • “The confirmation bias refers to the tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms one’s beliefs.  There are a number of possible examples of the confirmation bias.  A student who is going to write a research paper may primarily search for information that would confirm his or her beliefs.  The student may fail to search for or fully consider information that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs. A reporter who is writing an article on an important issue may only interview experts that support her or his views on the issue. An employer who believes that a job applicant is highly intelligent may pay attention to only information that is consistent with the belief that the job applicant is highly intelligent.” (3)

The fringe groups of the charismatic movement can serve as a great illustration of this concept. In any given prayer/prophecy/healing meeting, the “believers” often reinforce their own faith in miracles through confirmation bias. I have observed many Word of Faith meetings, where the congregation believes and affirms that every person is able to possess healing and miracles. Often in a large group, many people receive prayer, and only tiny percentage claim to have received these miracles. Those in the audience, use confirmation bias by observing only the tiny minority of those “healed,” being subconsciously oblivious the majority that is unhealed, and believing even stronger that every person can be healed. Many of these healings themselves, are often witnessed to be confirmation bias, where the attendee first strongly believes he will be healed, and second, because of his belief, finds evidence within himself, for example from his adrenaline rush. There have been many documented cases where persons claimed to be healed, likely because of cognitive bias, later died or continued to suffer from the disease they claimed healed. (4)

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