Who can forget the menacingly repetitive theme from the film “Psycho.” Sonic dissonance creating tension and setting our teeth on edge. Extreme dissonance is useful for horror films and car horns, but it’s not the sort of thing you can listen to for long. Ideas can be dissonant as well. Ideas or thoughts in the mind that contradict or conflict in some way can cause mental and psychological irritation. We want to press ‘mute’ on them, as we do with disturbing music.
A frequent cause of this cognitive dissonance is disagreement with others—especially someone we consider to be an intellectual peer. A person is my ‘intellectual peer,’ roughly, when they are just as smart as me and have the same information I have. The other day, I read a story about a well-known atheist blogger who would be considered an intellectual peer by most atheists. The story explained how this blogger had recently converted from atheism to Christian theism. I’ve encountered stories like hers before, including my own, and when I talk to my atheist friends about these stories, they typically insist that the conversion must be due to some failure of reason. Why insist this? Often, it is a way to “mute” the cognitive dissonance that arises when you are faced with the following two ideas:
- There are no good reasons to believe in God.
- Fiona is an intellectual peer who believes in God for good reasons.
Understand, though, that this problem plagues humans indiscriminately. Religious believers as well as atheists are susceptible. We can generalize it to apply to anyone:
(1*) There are no good reasons to believe X.
(2*) Tom is an intellectual peer who believes X for good reasons.
“X” can be Christian theism, or atheism, or flat-earth theory. The point being that these two incompatible thoughts grate against each other like nails on a chalkboard in our mind. We need to resolve the tension, so what do we do? We can revise (2*) and simply “downgrade” the other person, saying to ourselves, “they just aren’t as smart or well-informed as I am.” This can alleviate the cognitive dissonance. But if we had trusted them as an intellectual peer in the past, it isn’t reasonable to downgrade them simply because they now disagree with you. After all, if you are peers (as you had every reason to believe), then you’re just as likely to get things wrong as they are. To downgrade due to disagreement is intellectual hubris.
Instead, consider withholding on or revising (1*). A more reasonable and stable position to hold would be
(1**) I have no good reasons to believe X.
Consider that there may be good reasons to believe X that you don’t know about. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your own worldview—it simply means you investigate further. You can justifiably maintain your theism or atheism (or agnosticism) and take some time to look into the reasons given for the person’s conversion. But one must be prepared to adjust one’s beliefs depending on the outcome of that investigation.
Cognitive dissonance is, ultimately, an inescapable part of being human. Instead of trying to instantly quash its unpleasantness, recognize it as a friend that pushes us toward the truth and keeps us from becoming intellectually stagnant. We should learn to appreciate it just as we appreciate musical dissonance (not necessarily the “Psycho” variety) and its capacity to create movement and beauty by elevating tension and releasing it into a (more) harmonious conclusion. When we respond patiently and thoughtfully to dissonance, we improve our ability to resolve it into something constructive and beautiful.