Friday, July 29, 2011

A Study in Cognitive Dissonance

The church in the 1950s; the lull before the storm.

I want to wind up my recent theme of the Christian YEC phenomenon with some thoughts on “Why it’s where it’s at”.

1. Cognitive dissonance theory has an important bearing here I feel: Utter failure is difficult to face fairly and squarely. Therefore, if a failed notion has been backed to the hilt then it will not be easily relinquished; so rather than admit to a futile conceptual investment, auxiliary adjustments are made and ad hoc hypothesis are constructed in order to account for the apparent failure and save the investment. In fact rather than bin a cherished idea quite farfetched and fanciful ideas may be entertained: For example in order to save YEC fundamentalists postulate that the world wide science community is working to a common set of false assumptions that colours their view to such an the extent that something tantamount to conspiracy theory has to posited. Some of the responses to cognitive dissonance remind me of that fable where the Sun and the Wind tried in turn to get a man to remove his coat. The Wind blew hard but the man wrapped his coat round himself all the more tightly. The Wind, nevertheless, was so convinced of his power to remove coats that he was sure that his failure was because he was simply not blowing hard enough; so he redoubled his efforts in order to get the result he expected. I have seen this “must blow harder” effect right across the conceptual spectrum; from left and right wing political parties who think they are not getting enough votes because people need more political extremism, to fundamentalists who, dismayed by their reception, put it down to them not being holy or vehement enough in their faith. The result: Failure only reinforces the very reason for failure and in face of this failure vociferousness, outlandishness and separation only intensifies. Marginalized groups derive self validation from the strength and contrariness of their promulgation of the irrational.

2. YEC History: The following is my digest of YEC history as depicted in the book “The Biblical Flood” by Christian geologist Davis A. Young (BTW: Young believes in an old Earth): With the discovery of the New World in the 16th century, a fresh understanding of the distribution of flora and fauna started to put strains on the belief that Noah’s Ark received and housed samples of organisms from all parts of the globe. In consequence some scholars mooted the idea that the flood in the book of Genesis was not global. The difficulties in relating an increasing understanding of biology and geology to a universal flood intensified until by the mid nineteenth century large numbers of scholars, both conservative Christians and otherwise, no longer advocated the notion of a global flood; in particular, it became clear that the great thickness of rock found on the surface of the Earth, with their very complex histories of deposition, intrusion, uplift, folding, erosion and re-deposition, could not be explained as a product of a yearlong global flood, but would require a lot more time than a mere 6000 years to form. Hence, by the mid nineteenth century few serious scholars entertained a Young Earth. This situation persisted up until the 1960s, although throughout this period a small number of advocates of global flood theory and a young Earth did exist, but they were either Sola Scriptura ("scripture alone") ultras that ignored geological and biological data or were those who used this data very selectively. One example of the latter is the seventh day Adventist George McCready Price (1873-1963) who, prompted by prophetess Ellen G White, wrote several books on geology. His works were a foundation stone for what was to eventually become modern flood geology. By the early 20th century conservative Christian scholars had been pushed to the margins of academia and had lost much of their “cultural prestige” (as Davis eloquently puts it). They reacted to this marginalization by disconnecting themselves from mainstream academia. Thus, evangelical and conservative Christians were well placed to give a sympathetic reception to Whitcomb and Morris’ 1961 book “The Genesis Flood”, a book that resurrected Price’s flood geology. Up until the 1960s flood geology and Young Earth had bumped along the bottom, but since the 60s flood geology and its dubious accompanying motif of “mature creation” has all but become the de-facto point of view amongst fundamentalist Christians ever since and many evangelicals have followed suit.

3. My reading of the situation is as follows: The remarkable recrudescence of YEC since the 1960s is in part caused by the marginalization of conservative Christianity as an intellectual force at the beginning of the 20th century. However, this marginalization in and of itself is not enough to explain the relative success of YEC amongst evangelicals because YEC remained a minority conservative view until the 1960s; something happened in the 60s to tip the balance. Up until the 1960s Western nations at least nominally identified themselves as Christian, but during the 1960 there were very open cultural challenges to the dominating Christian social gloss. Prior to the 1960s conservative Christians could at least feel they identified with the overall social ethos and rationale of their societies and this made it much easier for them to identify with the established science of their society. For example, see this blog post on my church blog where it is apparent that the prewar minister of my church took for granted the science of the day. Since the 1960s, however, conservative Christians have not only been academically marginalized but also culturally marginalized. A subculture can perhaps live with academic marginalization, but cultural marginalization has such strong overtones of devaluation and loss of social status that it creates fertile ground for an extreme fundamentalist reaction amongst conservative Christians. YEC is, I submit, one of those extreme responses. Alienated from many aspects of society the average conservative Christian uses YEC to protest against the slighting of his cherished values by defecting to a very vocal counter culture.

4. At the bottom of fundamentalist contrariness is cognitive dissonance. The fundamentalist reaffirms his dignity by engaging in proactive responses, the very vehemence and outrageousness of which are taken as evidence of vitality and authenticity. Weird gnostic practices (Like the Toronto Blessing) and weird beliefs (like YEC) are, in fundamentalist eyes, de-facto signs of spiritual life. My recent interest in Ken Ham is because he is a fine example of an extremism that is a product of a faith under stress. He is so extreme that even an outspoken evangelical like William Dembski becomes a target for strong accusations of spiritual compromise and sin (see my last blog post). In a blog post dated July 19th 2011 Ham displays the classic response to cognitive dissonance: In his view the reason for failure is because YEC isn’t being pushed hard enough:

Actually, the real scientific research conducted for our book Already Gone clearly illustrates that generations of young people brought up in the church are leaving the church, and one of the main reasons is the hypocrisy of being told to believe the Bible but also told to reinterpret the Bible particularly in Genesis because of millions of years.

Very significantly, geocentrist Gerardus Bouw expresses a very similar reaction to cognitive dissonance, except, of course, that in Bouw’s view the reason for failure is down to the hypocrisy of people like Ken Ham in not pushing a geocentric reading of scripture! Viz:

One of the arguments that creationists (i.e. YECs) use against geocentrists is that geocentricity destroys the credibility of the creationist in the eyes of unbelievers like these two men. What makes them hard to win to the creationist cause is that they clearly see the hypocrisy. ..... Indeed, on a personal note, it was people like Danny Faulkner and Hugh Ross who converted me to atheism in my teen years. ……Evolutionists, atheists, and agnostics in the know can easily shame creationists on the issue of geocentricity by simply pointing out the hypocrisy of their insistence that the days in Genesis 1 are literal while the rising and setting of the sun is not. Likewise, to insist that the rising of the sun is figurative while the rising of the Son is literal is also hypocrisy. Given that the geocentric model is pure physics, mathematically tractable, and realistic, and consistent with Scripture, we conclude that the creationist’s desire to reject it can only be for the sole purpose of appearing intellectual and acceptable to the world, which desire is enmity with God (James 4:4)

For Bouw and Ham respectively geocentricity and YEC are not part of the problem but part of the solution and therefore they are both going to blow all the more hard.

5. The day I walked into Norwich Central Baptist church’s building I was fascinated by the stained glass windows on the back wall (As pictured above) and I wondered what they were trying to tell me: For today’s culturally alienated church these windows are meaningless, so why would Christians of the early 1950s create such windows? It has since become clear to me that these windows celebrate the civic connections of a church that was yet to be culturally marginalized; these were Christians at ease with themselves and who by and large felt at one with the ethos of their society. They didn’t know cognitive dissonance and the strength of the cultural stresses faced by the church today. But nevertheless there was a hint of disquiet amongst them; there was that sense of tension one gets just before a storm. (see

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