Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cognitive dissonance and theism

As a former Pentecostal fundamentalist who has lived the life of a fanatic, I can say that the process of de=conversion is frightening and stressful. It is different for everyone but the deeper your commitment to God the harder it is to wean yourself from those deeply rooted beliefs.

In 1990 I was a Pentecostal evangelist who had an outreach ministry that consisted of preaching on the streets on the weekends and in churches during the week. My particular ministry was what is known as a deliverance ministry which basically meant that I specialized in exorcisms. I dealt often with the so called demon possessed and used the bible and my so called believed authority in Christ to overcome the powers of darkness.

During those years I believed that I had God’s spirit residing in me, guiding my every move and delivering the possessed, healing the sick, prophesying, etc. I thought I felt God’s presence constantly in and around me. I mentally talked to myself everyday and all day long believing I was having a conversation with God.

I was at a local atheist meeting recently and several of the guests were interested in hearing specifically about what made me turn my back on God and my religious beliefs. At the time as now I can’t quite pin it down to one motive but rather to a collection of experiences. One of the things I did as a fundie was that I did not listen to so called worldly music and I did not even watch television unless it was Christian programming. I did not read anti-Christian books but I read all books that I thought would strengthen my beliefs and inform me about my ministry and how I could perform my duties to the best of my abilities.

When I was in seminary there was one issue that really had my curiosity and it happened to be the theory of evolution. I remember how I eagerly awaited the day that we would reach the chapter in our textbook that dealt with alternative theories of origins. When the day had finally arrived I recall that the instructor of the course paused when he got to the theory of evolution and there was a silence of about a few seconds. He then looked up at the class with this silly grin on his face and said: “ if you believe that you came from a monkey go right ahead, as for me… I am a child of God and was created by him.” With this statement he closed the book and dismissed the class!

To say that I was upset was an understatement, but this was the reason why I personally took it upon myself to read everything I could get my hands on regarding the theory of evolution. This included reading all of the works of Darwin and some of the then popular books on the subject. Then next thing that happened to me was that I was challenged by my pastor to read the bible in its entirety at least once so that I could understand God’s plan better.

I took up this challenge and I ended up reading the bible four times and it seemed that the moe I read the more disgusted I became. The God of the O.T. did not seem anything at all like the god I worshiped. He was a tyrant and evil to the nth degree. The biblical God was racist, endorsed slavery, got angry often over the most petty offenses, etc. He was nothing like the God of love I believed in who took upon himself the ultimate burden of liberating us from sin to save us all from eternal damnation, a fate which in reality he created lol but that is another issue altogether.

The bible also led me to question my own practices and beliefs regarding the workings of the Holy Spirit its use in the ministry and in the church etc. brought a lot of questions and doubts to my mind regarding what I had experienced in my church and ministry. Then I read a book that changed my entire life, although I don’t think that it was the authors intent to lead me into atheism since he was a Christian himself. The book was called ‘Charismatic Chaos’ by John F. MacArthur. Since I was having issues with the use of the Holy Spirit and I was a charismatic myself of course when I saw the title of this book in a Christian bookstore I was stopped dead in my tracks and bought it on the spot.

The author basically stated that the gifts of the Spirit were no longer needed or active since their only purpose was to help the church during its infancy to establish itself. By the time I was reading this book I had already come to the same conclusions and was already doubtful regarding my own experiences with the Spirit. This was the hardest part of my de-conversion for me and I was very afraid where these ideas would lead me. I was so impressed with this book that I wrote the author for advice regarding which church affiliation I should seek out. He wrote back to me with a list of churches he was affiliated with in my area although I did not visit any of them or follow through with his advice.

By the time he wrote me back a couple of months later I was already starting to pull out of my church and only attending service on rare occasions. My heart was no longer in it and my beliefs were in serious question. Because of my deep seated beliefs my fear of God haunted me for about 6 years after I left the church and it took about as long before I openly admitted that I was an atheist.

As an atheist I love reading everything I can get my hands on regarding Christianity and religions in general but it is more for informational purposes. I refute what I believe now to be nothing more than superstitious lies and false beliefs. I don’t hate Christians but I do hate Christianity and religions in general. I personally feel that they do more harm than good and that the more fanatical that you are the more prone you are to doing and believing stupid things.

In closing my point here is that it’s not easy for some theists to abandon deep seated religious beliefs. John Loftus mentioned in his book that this is because of cognitive dissonance: "Cognitive dissonance is the mental conflict that people experience when they are presented with evidence that their beliefs or assumptions are wrong." Montier (2002)

It is because of cognitive dissonance that theists have such a hard time letting go of their beliefs despite the evidence presented against them. Apologetics is a perfect example of this and demonstrates that this is true not only of the less intelligent but even among the elite. There are theists that despite their religious beliefs demonstrate a higher than average intelligence in other areas of knowledge. It is not about intelligence or lack thereof as some assume but rather about culture and upbringing.

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