Denial, Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias
Let me start with this statement.
When a person who already believes strongly about something is presented with evidence that is contrary to their belief, they can tend to react in one of, or a combination of three ways; ignore the information (citing that it is irrelevant or blatantly wrong), rationalise the information or belief (citing that their view allows for this information or that the view is correct still by citing other unrelated information, or that they’ve always believed what they believe so it must be true) or react strongly against the information (stating that their already held beliefs and information like it are the only truth, anything to the contrary is false).
Obviously there are other ways that people can react to information or news that goes against their beliefs, but these are three common ways people can tend to react. And the deeper the conviction to the belief, the stronger the reaction to contrary evidence. The other problem is that sometimes strong beliefs can be deeply rooted in a person’s world view, and to attack any part of it is to threaten the very core.
I know that I am not above this, and I have been accused (and rightly so at times) of being dogmatic in my approach to what I understand to be the facts. We are all guilty of this, but some of us are more guilty than others. The deeper the belief the harder it is to debate.
This makes for very difficult headway when trying to debate people with very strongly held beliefs, because engine of denial is three-pronged. These are denial, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. What do these mean? A simple web search reveals this:
- denial is “an assertion that something said, believed, alleged, etc., is false”.
- cognitive dissonance is “A condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistency between one’s beliefs and one’s actions”.
- confirmation bias is “a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true”.
For example, for a person to truly believe a statement such as “The world was created 6000 years ago by God” one must make several core assumptions; that the world was created, that the world is very young, that all things on earth are less than 6000 years old, that God is the creator, that there IS a God, that God has the power to create such things, that the words of the Bible’s Old Testament are literally true etc.
And down the rabbit hole we go, because each of these given assumptions give rise to other assumptions, for instance;
- if the Bible’s Old Testament is literally true, then literally all life on earth, except for 2 of each kind of beast on Noah’s Ark, was destroyed some time in the past 6000 years,
- if the Bible’s Old Testament is literally true, then all of mankind are the descendants of Adam and Eve,
- if the Bible’s Old Testament is literally true, then Jonah really lives in the belly of a whale for several days,
And so it goes on and on. And this is true of any beliefs that are held deeply enough.
That one simple statement “The world was created 6000 years ago by God” is backed up by so many other beliefs that it is no wonder when presented with contrary evidence, the person will tend to retreat into one of these three forms of defense of belief as I have listed above.
When giving information to a person who claims “The world was created 6000 years ago by God” such as fossil records, carbon dating, genetics, written histories etc the answers will invariably be like this:
- “That is not true, all you are saying is lies.”
- “The fossils are quite old, but the Bible says the earth was created in 6 days, and the theologians can estimate the age of the earth, given the Biblical citations of generations etc., somewhere between 6000 and 10,000 years.”
- “The Bible says it happened this way, and I read an article in Creation Magazine that said this is truth, so I believe that.”
The Young Earth Creation argument is just one of many examples of a deeply held belief that is counter to all the information from the sciences, so I won’t harp on about it anymore. I don’t need to give you other counter examples, I’m sure you can come up with many yourselves.
And to be completely fair, not all deeply held beliefs are religious in nature. Some deeply held beliefs that many would consider to be “wrong” or “immoral” are cultural in nature. True, many of these cultural beliefs have their core in religious dogma or doctrine, but the culture that these beliefs are enacted in is the real culprit behind their perpetuation. Often these beliefs are backed up with the argument of “We have always done this, it is our way,” and will justify it as a cultural need of the people. These beliefs are often the most difficult to counter in an argument, because denial of the given problem, and any form of cognitive dissonance will back up the cultural position. Cultures are especially difficult to criticise, because the culture is what shapes each of us as an individual, shapes our decisions and our beliefs. And of course this is not to say that all cultures apart from my own are wrong, or even that my culture is any good at all. Simply that there are some practices that many, even some of those in the culture, find to be worthy of criticism. And because the practices are ingrained in cultures, any attempt to change them will fall on the deaf ears of denial.
Beliefs are not unnatural
And I think what we should attempt to understand is that people don’t just hold deep beliefs because it’s easy, or because they heard it once in a conversation at a bus-stop. These beliefs can be the result of a lifetime’s learning, or can be generations old, or can be the apparent basis for a community or culture. These beliefs can be the core of how they live day-to-day . These beliefs can, for some people, be their entire understanding of the universe and everything in it. And some will claim that without their core beliefs that their world would either not be worth living, would be like living in Hell, or that they would not even exist.
This is not to say that deeply held beliefs cannot be ignorant, intolerant or just plain wrong. They often are all three. But it might just paint you a picture of why an atheist debating a New-Earth or Apocalyptic Christian can be so difficult and infuriating, and sometimes seemingly pointless. Coming up against these forms of denial can be frustrating and often fruitless. But it shouldn’t stop those among us who are willing to try to rid the world of ignorance and intolerance from making our voices heard.
And it is also a big mistake to think that just because someone holds beliefs that the apocalypse is coming, that the earth is 6000 years old, or that The Old Testament or the Qur’an is the literal and unadulterated word of God, does not make them all unintelligent. There are people of varying degrees of intelligence in all walks of life. Likewise, climate change skeptics, conspiracy theorists, etc., can be very intelligent people. Also, you don’t have to have an IQ of 140 to see that a belief is wrong.
Dan Barker who spoke this year at The Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne earlier this year said as much in his talk. He was a traveling Christian preacher for 19 years, and is a very intelligent man. He said that for years he literally thought the end of the world was going to happen in a biblical firestorm, that The Rapture was coming, and that each and every day he was going to wake up to see it that very day! But he did have the advantage of intelligence on his side, and eventually he “grew out of his faith”. And in his case I think it was his intelligence that allowed him to see outside of his beliefs and preconceptions rather than holding him inside them.
Being a person who likes to find out information before holding it as a “truth”, I find it interesting that despite the fact that modern science and historical studies show that many of the claims held by believers are at minimum exaggerations and can go so far as to be outright fallacies, and still people can hold on to them as “factual” accounts or “actual” events. Michael Specter talks about “truth” and “facts in his TED talk from 2010 like this:
“People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you cannot set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And listen, everyone is entitled to their opinion, they are even entitled to their opinion on progress [...], but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
In future generations I hope we can teach the world’s children in environments that don’t wrap themselves in beliefs and dogma, but instead be presented with all sides and opinions to discussions of a religious and cultural nature, and given this, the world’s children can grow up to make the right decisions about their lives, their truths and the facts about our universe. The actual facts.