In the 1950s and 1960s, psychologists like Eliot Aronson began to suggest that behavior sometimes causes attitudes rather than vice versa. In the wake of this discussion, cognitive dissonance became a popular psychological theory. Put simply, it spoke to the issue of how beliefs sometimes emerge from a tension between certain cognitive elements.
For example, if a person is cognizant of the fact that smoking causes cancer, he will experience dissonance when he thinks about the fact that he is a smoker. He may be inclined to adopt other beliefs like “They will probably find a cure for cancer before I get it.” He may develop powerful, even silly, rationalizations like “I’ll quit next year” or “It does not matter because the world could end tomorrow in a nuclear holocaust” or “I could be hit by a car tomorrow so I might as well smoke today.”
Because Christianity is sometimes a demanding religion, it, too, may create a good deal of cognitive dissonance. For example, the declaration “I am a Christian” can sometimes clash with the awareness that “Christians are supposed to tithe” or “Christians are supposed to love their enemies.”
I have seen people who began tithing to the church and loving their enemies upon converting to Christianity. But that is not how it always ends for the converted Christian. Like me, many other Christians have resolved the tension by, at least temporarily, deciding to abandon the Way. Sometimes it is simply easier to say “I am not a Christian.”
Those who become agnostic or atheist often say that it was due to an intellectual journey or an intellectually honest re-appraisal of childhood faith. But, as my mentor David L. McMillen used to say, “People rarely understand their own motivations.”
I believe that cognitive dissonance theory helps people better understand their own motivations. I believe it has helped me to understand my fall from Christianity, which, thankfully ended with a return to the church.
But the theory might also explain why it took me so long to get back to church. I abandoned atheism on March 7th of 1996. But I did not return to the church until October of 2000. The reason for the delay was simple: I was ashamed.
As I imagined myself walking back into a church, I also imagined people thinking and, perhaps, even saying “What is Mike Adams doing here at church?” But I made it back and my life continues to be blessed as I walk further with Jesus every day.
I can understand the dissonance that is felt by the young woman who wrote to me last week telling of her multiple suicide attempts in the wake of a battle with manic depression. She says she cannot seem to get out of bed on Sundays because of the shame she feels for the harm she has tried to inflict upon herself. She needs to hear from confessing and humble Christians who say they desperately want her back regardless of what she’s done.
I often wonder why we speak of the atheists as if they are our enemies. And I wonder whether that should matter if we call ourselves Christians. I hope this column will inspire some cognitive dissonance, for the writer and the reader alike. And I hope the tension will be resolved with love, which the best cure for dissonance, or, for that matter, anything else.