There has been a lot of discussion about “faith crises” or “faith transitions” during the last several years. These labels for individuals’ underlying experiences are problematic for two reasons. First, they can be exaggerated relative to what people are actually experiencing, making them seem uncommon and unwanted. Second, they have an unnecessarily negative connotation. I believe we would be better off to use a label that is both more accurate and positive to describe what we have been calling “faith crises” or “faith transitions.” Not only will this better help those wrestling with spiritual-related questions, but it will help us be more open to discussing tough spiritual-related questions and concerns within our wards and branches.
A Better Label
A better label that I recommend using is definitely not a sexy label, but it is an accurate label that does not have a negative connotation. It is: Cognitive Dissonance.
Dissonance means lack of harmony. So, cognitive dissonance means that there is a lack of harmony in our thinking. Or, more scientifically, it means: having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes.
A simple example of cognitive dissonance is when someone thinks smoking is bad, yet they smoke two packs a day.
Psychologists have studied cognitive dissonance for decades, and one thing is clear: Individuals hate to experience cognitive dissonance. It makes them feel confused and unsettled. Thus, they often urgently seek to find a way to reduce it. This can lead people to feel as though they are in a “crisis.”
Going back to the smoking example, the lack of harmony between their beliefs and their actions will drive them to either:
- Fix the behavior (i.e., stop smoking), or
- Alter their beliefs such that their actions become “acceptable” in their minds.
Altering their beliefs is usually some form of self-justification. In this instance dealing with smoking, it could include convincing themselves that smoking really is not harmful or that it has a number of other benefits that they cannot do without (e.g., reduce anxiety). This is also generally the most commonly taken route.
Spiritual Cognitive Dissonance
Let me walk you through how cognitive dissonance plays out in a spiritual context, using examples of a couple of my friends and a personal example.
I recently had a conversation with a close friend of mine (I’ll call him Chris) where he described some cognitive dissonance he is working through, and it relates to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stance on homosexuality.
Chris began by essentially stating that because the Church views homosexual behavior as being morally and spiritually wrong, for much of his life he has regarded those that are gay as “sinners,” and has viewed them unfavorably and has not been very warm and accepting to those he knows are gay.
But, Chris’s perspective on homosexuality, and even his spiritually, was shaken when his best friend of over two decades told him he was gay.
In this moment, Chris was caught in cognitive dissonance, or lack of harmony, thinking: How do I continue to believe that homosexuality is wrong, yet simultaneously continue to love and support my friend, who is such a great person.
Book of Abraham
In another conversation with a friend (I’ll call him Travis), Travis explained that he has always believed all books of scripture to be the word of God, and has had very little reason to question their veracity. That is until recently. He went on to explain how he had recently learned that many experts consider Joseph Smith’s translation of Egyptian papyri that is now the Book of Abraham is not an accurate translation.
By learning this information, Travis was caught in cognitive dissonance, or lack of harmony, thinking: If the Book of Abraham is not an accurate translation of what Joseph Smith said he translated, how can I continue to believe other things that Joseph Smith said he translated?
“Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies”
I believe it is fair to say that I have personally waded through my own fair share of cognitive dissonance. For much of my life up until I was about 28, I had been an unquestioning and very devoted member of the Church. One of the notions that I fully believed was the common phrase, “whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.” Then, I had an experience with cognitive dissonance.
My cognitive dissonance started when I was a ward clerk and I was invited to sit in on two disciplinary councils at the ward level and take minutes. These two experiences were the worst experiences that I have had in the Church. In each, I felt like the councils were held in a manner that unnecessarily belittled and shamed the individuals invited to the councils. It made me sick and uncomfortable to witness what I considered to be unnecessary questioning of the bishop and his councilors as they attempted to discern how severe the sin and the appropriate disciplinary actions to take.
In the bishoprics defense, it was the bishopric’s first experience with disciplinary councils and we had not received any training on how to engage in an effective disciplinary council. But, to me, it appeared that the Lord did not “qualify” these leaders in a moment that I felt like he should (at least according to how I understood that saying). Nonetheless, this left me with cognitive dissonance, or lack of harmony, thinking: If the Lord doesn’t always or doesn’t necessarily “qualify” those he calls, how can I continue to trust and follow my church leaders in the largely unquestionable manner I had up until then?
Responding to Cognitive Dissonance
When we experience cognitive dissonance, we typically believe that we have only two options, representing an either/or situation:
- Reject and ignore the new information provided
- Accept new information and disconnect from prior thinking and beliefs
Going back to the Book of Abraham example, this would play out as either:
- Rejecting what “experts” state about the inaccuracy of Joseph Smith’s translation and continue to believe that Joseph Smith’s translation is 100% accurate
- Accepting what experts state about the inaccuracy of Joseph Smith’s translation and believe that Joseph Smith is a fraud.
One of the reasons why we have a tendency to see our cognitive dissonance as an either/or situation is that we want to quickly resolve our disharmony, and seeing our options as being white/black, and taking a stand with one option is a quick way to resolve our disharmony.
But, from my experience with cognitive dissonance and from learning about others’ experiences, this is rarely the best approach.
I want to suggest a different and more effective option available to us. In doing so, I want to present four things we need to understand about cognitive dissonance when it comes to our spirituality.
Four Tips for Navigating Spiritual Cognitive Dissonance
1. Cognitive dissonance is not a bad thing
Surely, cognitive dissonance is not something that is comfortable, but we should see it as a step that is designed to help us mature spiritually and emotionally. More to come on this.
2. The best option for dealing with cognitive dissonance is to seek more information
As mentioned above, when we experience cognitive dissonance, we want to quickly resolve our disharmony, which makes us inclined to take a stand on one side or the other. But, we would do well to remember:
- We have incomplete and/or distorted perspectives
- The probability of us always having the best answer is small
- It is invaluable to understand where your perspective is limited and recognize what you don’t know
- You must not let your need to resolve cognitive dissonance be more important than your need to find truth
The reality is that handling cognitive dissonance effectively requires spiritual and emotional maturity. It requires us to be willing and able to sit with competing thoughts for a time without freaking out. But, in the end, learning more about the topics related to our dissonance will likely force us to wrestle with new perspectives that we have ignored or have been ignorant toward. This leads to our third tip.
3. If we allow ourselves to effectively engage in the wrestle to resolve our dissonance, we will end up in a better and wiser place spiritually
When we quickly accept one side and reject another, two things generally happen. First, we become limited, even biased, in our thinking. In other words, our thinking is likely inaccurate. Second, we prevent ourselves from learning and developing.
But, when we effectively engage in the wrestle to resolve our dissonance, which involves the process of diving into each side of the dissonance, the process of doing so will always lead us to a place where we are able to see a more complete and accurate picture. The consequence of this is that we become wiser and spiritually mature.
Thus, we should see cognitive dissonance as an invitation, even a call, for growth, development, and rising to a higher plane emotionally and spiritually.
4. We should not try to protect people from experiencing cognitive dissonance
If we see cognitive dissonance as an invitation for greater growth, development, and maturity, we should not try to protect people from experiencing cognitive dissonance. In saying this, I am also not saying that we force cognitive dissonance upon people.
A happy medium is that we should be more open to discussing common areas where people experience cognitive dissonance associated with our religion during our church meetings. Wrestling effective with cognitive dissonance requires hearing different perspectives, hashing out our thinking, and getting feedback. What better place or context to work through dissonance than a church setting? It should be an atmosphere with the Spirit, multiple perspectives, and loving friends.
My experience and that of others who have waded through cognitive dissonance is that too often, members of the Church are left to work through their cognitive dissonance in isolation. But, that is exactly the opposite of what is needed to effectively work through cognitive dissonance.
My personal experience with cognitive dissonance has not been easy. But, it has become easier and more enjoyable as I have come to see it, not as a “faith crisis,” but as an opportunity to learn, develop, and see more clearly.
If you are experiencing cognitive dissonance, I know it can be a heavy burden. But, that burden is compounded when you feel pressure to resolve the disharmony quickly. I hope this helps you to feel less pressure, and more open to taking the time to wrestle. I will say from personal experience that while your dissonance may not be resolved in the way you imagine it will, through your wrestling, you will come to greater peace and a better place than you were previously.
One source on this topic that I couldn’t recommend more strongly is this Ensign article by Bruce R. Hafen: On Dealing with Uncertainty
Ryan is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in success mindsets, leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. You can check out his leadership and personal success blog.
I agree with the need to change our outlook on faith crises. But the glaring insufficiency in your analysis is that you are assuming both sides of the cognitive dissonance are correct and can only be resolved by accepting the paradox. What about Truth with a capital T? If you find out there are doctrinal inconsistencies, outright contradictions, or cover ups within the Church, that leads to a faith crisis because it calls into the question the entire foundation of the faith and its claim of Divine legitimacy. I find the relabeling to cognitive dissonance and the appeal to embrace it very belittling to the depth of Dorie sorrow and grief many experience when their faith tradition is challenged.
Thank you for your comments. It is my perception that not all cognitive dissonance involves Truth with a capital T, and it often involves how we live the Truth. For example, the question “how do we take a stance that homosexuality is a significant sexual sin without ostracizing those that are gay?” deals more with how we live Truth and the gospel.
Also, your comment made me wonder, do people experience sorrow and grief because of the cognitive dissonance they experience, or do they experience sorrow and grief because they do not approach their cognitive dissonance with the right mindset?
“do people experience sorrow and grief because of the cognitive dissonance they experience, or do they experience sorrow and grief because they do not approach their cognitive dissonance with the right mindset?” Going through a faith crisis is like finding out your spouse may be cheating on you. The outcome of your marriage (or in this case, your faith crisis), depend on your relationship with God. This is between the member and God. And that’s all that matters.
When I read comments like Anon’s, it makes me wonder if we read the same article or not. Anon asks about Truth, but then when Ryan says we should seek out more information, well, wouldn’t more information be more likely to lead to Truth? How, then, is what Ryan wrote belittling?
My experience with most of these faith-challenging items is that more information, leading to the Truth is almost always what is needed. In any situation, you can always take what someone says or doesn’t say and flip it around to make it be more positive or more negative than intended. If you start with the exaggerated point of view of either side of the spectrum, there’s almost always a middle ground to come to.
On the papyri, for example, most of it was lost in a fire, so the experts today aren’t even looking at the same thing he translated from back then. Neither side can have much to say about what really happened when the original artifacts are gone.
On most of Brigham Young’s controversial quotes that have been published for years, the vast majority of them were incorrectly read from the difficult-to-understand shorthand that was used at the time. As historians today are going back through all that shorthand, they are finding he said things much differently than what has been purported for years.
The key to what Ryan wrote here is that as we discuss various issues, we should do so with love. More often than not, both sides get ultra-defensive or offended. Let’s talk about it with love before you assume you know everything and make drastic choices based on limited information and a bit of indigestion.
This person doesn’t understand cognitive dissonance. Comparing it to smoking when you know it’s bad is a horrible example. It would be more like growing up learning from the time you are 18months old that smoking lengthens your life and fights agains lung cancer, so you start smoking as a child along with everyone else in your family and community. Then one day as an adult you read a SCIENCE backed experiment published in the American journal of Medicine (which you’ve been told by your parents and community not to read) stating that smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema, stroke, hypertension, and heart disease. You would have a hard time accepting the science because you learned it a different way from people in authority whom you trusted. Your brain doesn’t know what to think. They contradict each other, yet somehow your brain wants to accept them both as truth. THAT is cognitive dissonance.
Probably one of the most important articles I’ve read on this topic. You’re right, the word “crisis” implies the need for immediate resolution and “transition” applies that the one having the experience is moving through a one-way door. We need to avoid both implications and apply the tips outlined here. The words we use matter. Thanks Ryan.
and I will now oversimplify. Being a convert to the church I have come away with the perspective that many Latterday Saints are converted to what I call “Corporate Christ”, the one in the manual, the one they “hear about” in sacrament meeting, Sunday school, Relied Society, Priesthood, etc.
They don’t necessarily have a strong relationship with the Savior of the World and thus receive answers through lessons and others. That’s not all bad but if you have or are developing a personal relationship with the Lord He will inspire, reveal, impress, lead, be silent, etc. These things happen that we may learn about ourselves and our reltionship woth Him.
He will speak peace or grant knowledge and understanding “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little”. One thimg I have learned is that He is the head of His Church. He jas answers and sends the Holy Ghost to testify of the truthfulness of all the element of His Gospel. He showed Joseph Smith the translation for the papayri and reveals these things to His prophets in His own way. I do not put my trust in “the arm of flesh”… scholars be they member or not. My trust is in Him. My spiritual experiences come FROM Him. My relationship is with Him and as such so is the revelation I strive to receive. Sometimes answers take a long time coming but they will come to each individually as we strive to have faith in Christ. He loves ALL His children despite the weaknesses that we ALL have. The answers are there in your relationship with the Living Christ.
“Rejecting what “experts” state”
I think you do a disservice to the conversation when you disparage the experts. They aren’t some weird anti-mormon crack pots. These are noted Egyptologists from many fine universities. Even our own Gospel Topic essay admits that the translation of the BOA papyri given by Joseph Smith does not match up with the translation of the facsimiles that we have in our possession. They have no relationship to Abraham. The very definition of cognitive dissonance.
I think the previous comment explaining that the experts aren’t looking at what Joseph had is important to know. Most of the book was lost in the fire, so what we have is limited anyway.
“do people experience sorrow and grief because of the cognitive dissonance they experience, or do they experience sorrow and grief because they do not approach their cognitive dissonance with the right mindset?“
Neither. As you asked in this very article, why does it have to be one of two options? Let me suggest a third possibility…
Maybe those people experience sorrow and grief because the loss/death of their old worldview? As such, they could be grieving the dead identity of themselves, their god, and their heroes. All three of those are very real losses and very real reasons to experience pain and grief, but have nothing to do with the cognitive dissonance in this article’s context.
I am concerned the approach in this article may cause some to become unempathtic to those who do go through a faith transition. People may ignore the fact their loved ones may be mournig death simply because they think the loved one should handle the “new information” differently.
If your friend’s mother passes away, it isn’t healthy to tell your friend they just need to “seek more information” until their mother isn’t dead anymore. Im afraid that is what some people may do as a result of this article. For people who are actually going through a faith transition, it is best to accept their situation and offer compassion and support. If you don’t, that person may end having to grieve the loss of your support on top of the things they are already grieving.
Thank you for your insightful comment. I think you third possibility is a great way to think about it. Experiencing cognitive dissonance often leads to a paradigm shift that is surely not easy to go through and I don’t think I ever said cognitive dissonance is not painful and does will not involve grieving. But, I do believe that our perspective towards it does significantly matter. For example, if one does not believe that families are forever or in the after life, I think losing a loved one can be much more painful than if we do believe that families are forever. At least that has been my experience when I lost my mother. The same thing goes for cognitive dissonance, while it can be difficult, it becomes more navigable if we view it with the proper perspective.
You seem to set up your concern about the article as an either/or. Either we view cognitive dissonance as a crisis and become more compassionate, or we view cognitive dissonance as not being a crisis and become less compassionate. I think we can both view cognitive dissonance as not being a crisis (and actually see it as a good thing) while still being compassionate. The article had two main purposes. First, to help those struggling with cognitive dissonance view their experience in a more positive way, allowing them to navigate their situation more effective. Second, to help church leaders and even family members better understand how to help a someone else effectively navigate cognitive dissonance. Once you experience cognitive dissonance, you can’t go back. There is no rewind button. You have to get through it and their are healthy ways to do that and there are unhealthy ways to do that. The healthy ways surely involve love and support, and as I articulate, perhaps especially during our church meetings.
Sounds like we are on the same page. Thanks again!
This is a great article and offers insight into the ongoing “Faith Crisis” issue. However, I’m not sure cognitive dissonance is a better label but rather perhaps part of the faith crisis process. My best friend left the church after struggling with various doctrines and policies that he originally found cognitive dissonance with. However as we discussed these together he would often use words like “it gutted him, he felt betrayed, hollow inside and hurt.” I learned through observing, listening and many conversations that while the initial stages of a faith crisis may ignite strains of doubt in the mind the real furnace of faith crisis burns brighter within. The scriptures teach us that in the last day’s men’s hearts will fail them not men’s minds. The fact is that like Christ and the church we are also in a relationship with Christ and his gospel. That’s why we often hear people at the pulpit exclaim. ” I feel, I believe, I know. This comments arent of a cognitive stance they run deeper firmer into our very beings our foundation of faith. Therefore when someone is going through this process as I observed my friend doing it was more than just reshuffling his cognitive thoughts or realigning some new way of processing information. There was a center that had been cracked. A nerve of the soul that seemed to be exposed. A heart that had failed, withered and eventually hardened. There was something a lot deeper than cognitive dissonance.
Great point and addition to this conversation.
Thanks for your thoughts in this article. From my experience, faith crisis contains cognitive dissonance, but cognitive dissonance is not faith crisis. You can experience cognitive dissonance, but still function, whereas I believe faith crisis (based on my experience and of those around me) involves a complete collapse of belief and thinking paradigms. It’s not something that apologetics can fix or explain away. While knowing more might help, as was alluded to in a comment, often we just don’t know and the mental gymnastics some apologetics works goes to seems more concerned about defending and justifying the existence of an institution than really seeking after truth. I think what is experienced and felt very acutely in faith crisis is loss—loss of something you held onto dearly that helped you see the world, but no longer works for you. With that lose comes no replacement. You feel rudderless.
Some of the things like Book of Abraham are easier to talk about in my opinion. But, harder things like polygamy look a lot like sin to many people. Or another example would be the recent publication of the Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood. Here we have an expert, who is also a faithful member, pointing out that Brigham Young made the call and it was in no way revelatory. That undoes 150 years of belief concerning things like “the prophet will never lead us astray” (something that book addresses) and other things. But these things were taught as doctrine (the Truth) for the longest time and now they are not doctrine.
These aren’t things that can be fixed by “knowing more.” We have a large focusing on “knowing” things with certainty and I think that position plays into faith crisis whereas I think a more humble position about what we think we “know” would maybe ease disruption a little. In the end, we lost something we thought we “knew” and all other sources we go to for comfort or solace fail. It now becomes a waiting game where we wait for God to give us a new paradigm. And that often doesn’t not come quickly. It is in this spot where having someone mourn with us our loss becomes critical to survival. It’s not about fixing anything as no one can fix it at this point except for God. This is not just cognitive dissonance, but an endless lone and dreary waste.