Friday, April 6, 2012

My testimony

Children of the earth! I would like to make bare my testimony to you of a knowledge that is very plain and precious which I recently gained. You see, there is a phenomena that I have only recently become aware of, among the humankind, that deserves further reflection for sure. It is this interesting state that occurs among people of religious organizations, or affiliations, that causes them to feel that their beliefs are only found to be strengthened by information they encounter that may cause that very same organization to be discredited or, at a minimum, severely questioned in their integrity. I have often pondered this question as I have encountered this sentiment on at least a few occasions. Well, my friends, I think I have finally discovered a key reason for this reaction. The term for this phenomena is "cognitive dissonance".

Since I was introduced to this fabulous phrase, I thought my understanding of it was somewhat complete. However, I have now come to realize that I do actually have a capacity for further learning. I was recently introduced to a book that began to summarize exactly what this state of mind means but, more importantly, exactly how its impact is manifest in the behavior of people. You see, and here is the most precious truth of all, we tend to defend most vehemently that which we perceive to have sacrificed the most for. Let me try to say that even more plainly if I can; If we give up something (our money, time, talents, labor, self-respect, friends or family) to be part of a group (church, club, fraternity, social group, cult) then, the greater we perceive our sacrifice to have been, the greater extent to which we work to build up the merits of that organization - to ourselves and to others. This can be demonstrated repeatedly by looking through history or by experiment, if desired.

First, a look at history. It seems hardly worth mentioning, but the most extreme cults are where this oddity of human nature is most heartily exploited. Countless thousands of lives have been lost because devout followers of charismatic leaders were more willing to give up their lives than admit that their faithful leader was a little bit nuts. Why is this so? Why is it that, when a group of cult members discover that their leaders' predictions did not come to fruition - or that their leader is really just a liar and a fornicator - do they find themselves adhering ever more closely to what that same leader tells them to do? It is literally mind boggling! It defies reason to a most ludicrous degree! Yet it continues to happen. The amazing thing is, these people are not dodo's, at least we wouldn't consider them such by reviewing their level of education or history of worldly credentials. They are reasonably intelligent people, but their intelligence seems to fall flat on its face when observing their behavior towards that which they have the most faith in.

When Susan Atkins, a follower of Charles Manson, was interviewed by a grand jury, deciding whether or not to pursue charges against Manson and his devoted followers on seven counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder, she gave a remarkable, bloodcurdling testimony of the events. What amazed the jurors most was her complete lack of any sense of remorse or shred of guilt for the actions she had participated in. So what could possibly have caused someone to act in such a way? Well, the peculiarity and confidence of Charles Manson as a charismatic leader is likely a big cause, but what is even more close to the root cause can be found in what his followers gave up to become one of his followers. They left their homes in San Francisco and rode on a bus around before settling north of Los Angeles. In leaving their homes, they were fully committed to that lifestyle. Even though that lifestyle meant living off of scraps of food pulled from dumpsters and living in a crowded and communal community lacking many conveniences of personal hygiene. This sacrifice led to what is known as "self justification". Since nobody wants to entertain the thought that they have given up so much for nothing, we deal with the cognitive dissonance that is created in our mind (by being told or reminded somehow that what we are doing, or the person or ideal we are following, is less ideal than we originally thought) by justifying our actions.

We humans are great at rationalization and self justification.

The thought that we might be doing something that is harmful or painful, boring or worthless is overcome by the build-up of justification for our participation in the group. We build up the positives in our mind, while successfully ignoring, or blacking out, the downsides. People can come to us with factual information that, on the whole, completely discredits our faith, and what do we do? We adhere more closely to its tenets. We ignore the information. We label it as not credible. We label the person who gave us the information as not credible in some way. And, if the information turns out to be confirmed, we immediately work to minimize the impact the information has on our belief. We say things like, "My beliefs are only stronger now because of this." or "You haven't shaken my faith one bit." We use absolutes to minimize the damage that has been done. We may say things like, "I know this is true, absolutely." or we may be a little less certain, albeit not willing to concede we may be wrong by saying things like, "Well, its still the best thing out there." or "Have you found anything better?"

This phenomena has also been conclusively shown to be the case by experiment. Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills performed just such an experiment. Their hypothesis was that the greater the level of sacrifice, or amount of personal discomfort, the initiation rite was to join a group, the greater the individual would work to find the good that the group provided or express positive things about the group. Even if the group turns out to be boring or worthless, rather than admit that, it seems it is easier to enhance the value of the group than admit that we might have made a mistake in joining the group. Since the mind doesn't like to hold simultaneously contradictory information (e.g. The church may be a farse, but I have paid in money and time to be a big part of it) we tend to move away from the least comfortable conclusion to justify our behavior. For many, it is easier to negate or discredit any information that might show the church to be a fraudulent organization, and admit they have given so much to something ultimately not true, than it is to admit they might be wrong and everything they have given wasn't worth what they believed it was. This is a painful decision many members of the church face and, therefore, it is not difficult to understand why so many make this choice in the face of discrediting information.

When I think about what I gave to the church over my life, it is a wonder that I was able to see what I now see. I was willing to give up 2 years of my life specifically devoted to church service on a mission. I gave up 10% of my income (or at least tried to) for so many years. I gave up time with my loved ones so I could go out and visit members or attend boring meetings. For crying out loud, I stripped down naked in the temple so some old guy could touch me on my stomach, knees, chest and shoulder and pronounce me clean from the blood and sins of this generation! However, the way I have dealt with all that I gave up to be a member of the church in good standing (the severity of the initiation) is that I now tend to discount what I really gave up to join and, instead, I have chosen to enhance the seriousness of my finding the untruth of it. I am human after all.

This is my testimony and I leave it with you, to do what you will with it, in the name of all that is good and true in reality. Amen.

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