Jesus with a Gun (Dissonance Within the Cognitive Christian)


Gary Taubes talks about Cognitive Dissonance, which is, as he puts it:

…the tension that results from trying to hold two incompatible beliefs simultaneously……When the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn discussed cognitive dissonance in scientific research- “the awareness of an anomaly in the fit between theory and nature” – he suggested that scientists will typically do what they have invariably done in the past with such cases:  “They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict. (Taubes, “Good Calories, Bad Calories”)

Interested, I looked up Kuhn’s paper,   “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” .  In it, Kuhn suggests that this dissonance results in what often amounts to a crisis among those holding to the majority scientific opinion.

In responding to these crises, scientists generally do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis.

1. They may lose faith and consider alternatives, but

2. they generally do not treat anomalies as counter instances of expected outcomes.

3. They devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.

4. Some, unable to tolerate the crisis (and thus unable to live in a world out of joint), leave the profession.

5. As a rule, persistent and recognized anomaly does not induce crisis .

6. Failure to achieve the expected solution to a puzzle discredits only the scientist and not the theory (“it is a poor carpenter who blames his tools”).

7. Science is taught to ensure confirmation-theory.

8. Science students accept theories on the authority of teacher and text—what alternative do they have, or what competence?

Kuhn’s theory of scientific cognitive dissonance has a very familiar ring to it. It is almost precisely what I have observed with many Christians. In order to hold on to conflicting ideas of God ( such as possessing infinite grace, mercy and love yet as also wrathful, vengeful and capable of inflicting infinite torment upon his created beings) the Christian religion has come up with a myriad of  ad hoc doctrines and theories that end up confusing, not clarifying, their theology. ( In this instance, ad hoc means adding extraneous hypotheses to a theory to protect it from  falsifiability.)

Afterward, the religious authorities insist that all devotees accept these doctrines -even questioning the authorities can amount to heresy.  Dissenting dialogue is discouraged, slavish devotion to the established wisdom (often referred to as ‘the Truth’) is demanded and  the worrisome doubts of the struggling faithful are chalked up as evidence of  ‘weakness’, or a lack of faith.  This weakness is underscored when many of  these thinking (questioning) Christians, confronted with the evidence that challenges certain tenets of their religion, end up leaving the faith, often becoming ardent atheists.

Orthodoxy is the means by which the religious authorities attempt to quell this dissonance, thereby avoiding a mass crisis of faith. It is this unyielding platform upon which their theological house of cards has been built.


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  1. #1 by Steve B on May 7, 2009 - 5:00 am

    The same can easily be said of ardent Atheists. Regardless of how many different ways they may be exposed to evidence supporting scripture or a divine creator, the continually modify the context to be able to discredit this new evidence and maintain their carefully managed pradigms and worldviews.

    We are all guilty of it, to a certain extent. It’s likely just human nature.

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on May 7, 2009 - 5:54 am

    True. It is a ‘natural’ human response. The first step is to be aware of this tendency so that we can rise above it. The atheistic response is often linked to their view of ‘science’, a view that Kuhn describes very well, I think. Another good example of this would be the pseudo-science of the Creationist. But I am more interested here in how this tendency explains the ponderous layers upon layers of theology we have generated to justify our initial premises and does this in some way point out the initial flaws in our reasoning.

    As this pertains to science and theology (as well as other fields) it is very dangerous.

  3. #3 by zoecarnate on May 8, 2009 - 11:59 pm

    Profound, sir. Quite profound.

  4. #4 by seekhispurpose on May 9, 2009 - 9:56 am

    Your post is a very scientific explanation. For the layman’s version of the same theory, go here:

  5. #5 by vazabe on March 13, 2010 - 4:53 pm

    Fantastic post!

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