Dealing with Dissonance

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As I was pondering Rick’s post on avoiding drugs/alcohol and other nouns members of the church don’t feel comfortable with, I began to wonder about the tradition of avoiding controversial topics in the church.

I’m not just talking about President Hinckley’s reluctance to talk about blacks and the priesthood or the church’s history of polygamy. His media wrangling has been both criticized and praised by a variety of people, but I think it’s safe to say that when the camera is rolling and millions of people are making opinions on the church based on his every word, it’s not prudent to get into a debate over the highest level of heaven achievable for members of the church that like the occasional can of Coke.

What I’m talking about though, is how members of the church deal with controversial topics when they are first made aware of them. It’s that feeling you get when a doctrine being taught in church causes your mind to go, “Wait just a gosh darn minute there brother! I have relatives from Utah and what you just said doesn’t jive with the gospel as I know it.”

Perhaps for you, it was the first time you heard that there is strong evidence that Joseph Smith DIDN’T translate the Book of Abraham, or perhaps it was the discovery that Emma Smith didn’t believe Brigham Young had the authority to take over leadership of the church and along with others started a new church!

The kind of topics I’m talking about are the ones that can create huge problems even for people who think they have a pretty strong grasp in the gospel.

Social psychologists call it cognitive dissonance. It’s a psychological phenomenon which refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already know or believe, and new information or interpretation.

Instead of getting wrapped up in the topics themselves, I’d like you, good reader, to discuss how members:

  1. should deal with dissonance
  2. how they do deal with dissonance
  3. what to do if one finds the new facts so compelling that old beliefs must be dropped.

I’m hoping we won’t get too bogged down on the specifics of the topics, just how one should go about dealing with dissonance.

Now I can already hear the wheels turning for many of you, typical answer I expect are deep faith based prayers and perhaps couple that with scripture study and a visit with the Bishop or Stake President. Let’s just say (for the sake of keeping this interesting) that you have prayed about your concern, you’ve done all the research you can stand, your religious leaders have left you high and dry and you still feel that your new knowledge is overriding the old. Go!

11 thoughts on “Dealing with Dissonance

  1. I think there are several reasons why members of the Church fall away when they come across this issues. For example:

    1. They consider the prophets to be infallible
    2. They do not differentiate between opinion and revelation
    3. They do not differentiate between tradition and doctrine
  2. This is a fascinating topic. Kim, there are plenty of things on Jeff’s list that can cause dissonance even if I don’t fall prey to any of your 3 reasons. Are you arguing that there is no problem that can’t be solved by those three?

  3. No, as I said above, those are examples of the several reasons why members fall away. It should be noted that there can be dissonance without a falling away.

  4. With respect to the lack of conversation on this topic, is dealing with dissonance not something that Mormons and religious people in general encounter very often?

    Perhaps just avoiding the issue often is how uncomfortable facts are dealt with.

  5. Honestly, I think there are two main resposnes to dissonance. Denial and abandonement. Most members who come across a difficult issue either deny it (and/or try to explain it away) or they end up considering everything else to be false and leave the church.

  6. Well, for myself, my testimony is based on Jesus Christ, modern revelation, the validity of the Book of Mormon and the reality of a Prophet of God. Now, I also realise that Church leaders are human and have personal opinions and that mistakes happen, etc etc. But this doesn’t change the fact that the Church has been restored and even if humans make mistakes, Heavenly Father does not. And besides that I don’t see or know everyone. So…controversial topics don’t really bother me. Mainly because I expect explanations to happen at some point, and I am not worried about it now. Now, this may seem like my head is in the sand, but it’s not really. I know there are controversial topics. For example, the priesthood and the Blacks issue; I know that Heavenly Father loves all His children and the fact they didn’t have the priesthood for a certain period of time will be addressed, or has been addressed and it doesn’t bother me now. The priesthood isn’t something that everyone is ENTITLED to, anyway, no matter the colour of their skin. Anyway, I digress.

    Next point, how should members deal with it? Well, I certainly don’t think they should base their testimonies on controversial topics. And I don’t think members should live in la-la land and think everything about the Church is perfection itself, or that traditions are doctrine (which they are not). Prophets are also human and were not born perfect (which some people seem to think) nor are they perfection when called as Prophets, and do hold personal opinions on subjects. If they are recieving revelation for the Church, they will let us know. Um…what else. Well we have often been told to think for ourselves. And I think this is important. Obedience and blindly following the Prophet (and thus the Lord) is NOT the same thing. We have brains, we should use them.

  7. “With respect to the lack of conversation on this topic, is dealing with dissonance not something that Mormons and religious people in general encounter very often?”


    Even avoid the appearance of dissonance. I mean, why even entertain the thought that something might be wrong with a church teaching or church history?

    Shelf it.
    Be content.
    Shut up.
    End of the line.

  8. I agree that many members who grew up in the church don’t encounter disconcerting information very often because they avoid anti-Mormon material and never study deep into church history or old sermons in the Journal of Discourses.

    But, it is not accurate to say that those who do encounter true dissonance simply deny one set of evidence in favor of the other.

    Many of us tolerate the ambiguity and honestly confront the data and evaluate why we believe what we believe. The bloggernacle is full of us.

    No one can constantly tolerate a state of dissonance. So, we either shelve the issue for a while, rationalize or deny the data away, find some legitimate explanation to incorporate the new data into our old paradigm, or undergo a paradigm shift (and that can be painful and liberating).

    I think it behooves us to be flexible in our thinking. And if we are true seekers of the truth, we must remember that we never really understand anything completely. Rigidity stunts our growth; it is in essence saying, “I will go this far and no farther”.

    I have undergone several paradigm shifts already and expect to go through many more. In general, I feel that it is best to be honest with yourself (don’t play mind games) and open to whatever the data is pointing to. We must also remember, remember all the data we have already acquired. We have a tendency to let new data have more weight than it deserves. That is why journal writing is so important; your writing can take you back to the power of other data.

    Caveat: If you cannot bring yourself to be open, it might be in your psychological interest to not be as honest with yourself. Because when you are honest, but not open, you get stuck in an awful lot of pain. To get out of the pain, you either have to start denying things (no longer be honest with yourself) or start being open to a new way of looking at things.

    Much of depression comes from a mismatch of honesty with self and openess.

  9. For me it has been a challenge. Since I have found fault in one area….. what does that do to the rest of the church teachings. For sure, I do NOT accept anything the church teaches simply because it comes from the church. If they are wrong on one topic……. they could be wrong on another. This has greatly damaged my faith, where as before I always had faith in what I now call “The Mormon Fantasy Land”. We are told if we just keep the commandments that all will be well in zion. You get married, have children go to church and everyone lives happily ever after….. simply because we are good and we are keeping the commandments. Isn’t that more or less what we are taught. If we are good….. Heavenly Father is bound!

    Unfortunately life is not that way. A temple marriage may end in a tragic divorce….. and may have nothing to do with your worthiness….. but just brutal facts that made it impossible for a couple to continue.

    We may dicover that Joseph Smith not only had more than one wife…. but that he took on wives without having permission from Emma! His first couciler was John Bennet, who later on proved to be a terrible man.

    So many things can destroy the child like beauty of our faith and send us scrambling to pick up the pieces. Many members simple walk away from contriversy….. they do not want to hear about it. Others make excusses.

    My own faith has been destroyed to the point that I am no longer certain of anything….. but I still hope. Somewhat of a hopeful agnostic I call myself. Still hopeful enough that I have the courage to say my prayers.
    However hard it may be….. I personally do not think it is wise to stick our heads in the sand. some day we may be forced to look at those challenges to our faith. If we are not willing to look at them with a willing heart, then one day… when the choice is taken away from us and we have no other alternative other than to face the reality of challanges….. we shall not be prepared for it.

  10. When it comes to Eternal Salvation, that is between you and God only. And the function of the church is to support people in their desire to be close to God. (I am writing in response to Jeff’s words, “Let’s just say you have prayed about your concern, you’ve done all the research you can stand and your religious leaders have left you high and dry and you still feel that your new knowledge is overriding the old.”) You have done everything in your power to get answers “the right way”. You have been hopeful of the things that are wrong getting sorted out and fixed somehow. And you are left in the dark and you see no reason why you would be abandonned. You’ve been “good”, even if you haven’t been perfect – but doesn’t God want to keep you close to Him? So why the silent treatment? That is one place of Ultimate Suffering I know. Has God forgotten about you? Does He enjoy hurting you? Is it a sick game that Omnipotent people play where you are led to expect and believe certain things and then He makes horrible things happen in your life and watches sadistically? Or is there no God and you’ve been fooling yourself all along? Hmmm, I have come to believe He is there, but we’ve been rebuilding trust and my life, very carefully. About Cognitive Dissonance,… try me Jeff. I don’t believe there is anything left in the church that I haven’t had issues with.

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