“Believest thou…?”: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience by Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D

Another reprint from Mormon Matters.

Once upon a time there was a young man that grew up in a wonderful Mormon family. Though he had no regrets about growing up Mormon, he had to admit he was different in one way from his family and others; he was innately an intellectual. Now by this, I do not mean he had a better intellect that others, far from it. By this I only mean he was less spiritually intuitive and often found himself trying to use his intellect on things even if there weren’t enough facts to draw any realistic conclusions.

One day, after many years of finding this that and the other that he wasn’t sure he liked in his religion’s history, he came across an article on FAIR that made a real impact on him. It was called “‘Believest thou…?’: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience” by Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D 

Here is a teaser, but read the article for yourself.

What complicates this question of belief, of course, is that our belief choices are not black and white. Few of us would consciously choose to believe Satan over God evil over good, but choices are seldom that obvious. On any given issue, which is God’s point of view and which is Satan’s?

We wrestle with God over many issues that surround our faith. We wrestle with issues of whom to trust to represent God, how to discern spiritual truths, and what to expect if we follow God.People from many religious traditions have “spiritual” experiences–feelings, insights, premonitions, and encounters which they are left to their own conclusions to decipher. It is not unusual for people to conclude from such experiences that God is their God, that He is nearby, or that something associated with that experience is God’s will.

But it seems to me that disillusionment is a very good thing. I do not want to live a life based on illusions, and being disillusioned is very valuable to me. I suspect that I have many illusions, many expectations and beliefs that are not well-founded and that I am well-served to be rid of. My experience is that the hardest illusions for me to get rid of are illusions about control in a relatively dangerous world, and sometimes my religion is more like a set of superstitions to ward off the boogie man than a set of principles for coming to know God.

I have noticed that many of the people I have known who have left the Church did not do so because they believed too little, but because they believed too much. In their excessive idealism, they have held Church leaders or God to expectations which were inevitably disappointed, and they have felt betrayed. They have not believed God when He told them that ours is a lonely, dreary world where we will surely die, and they have chosen instead to believe another version of reality, one which claims that they can be protected from being molested, disappointed, or made afraid. They have been angry at God or other Church leaders for not keeping promises which God has not, in fact, made.

The fourth and final stage of committed relationships is about renewal. Not exactly a renewal of the honeymoon, but a more mature, realistic, and truly loving renewal. We come to accept our spouse or our parents or the Church, and we come to accept ourselves. We allow God to run the universe, and we become more content to let go of things we cannot change. A deeper, more mature love begins to emerge, with fewer power struggles and less disengagement. We do not need to see all the answers, and we do not need perfection by our standards in order to not be embarrassed or ashamed of our Church, our partner, or our God.

We recognize that we can be hurt by being betrayed or we can be hurt by not trusting, but we don’t get the no-hurt choice because there isn’t one, at least not until we simply choose not to read betrayal into every ecclesiastical failure, or abandonment into every unanswered prayer.

This article should be a Mormon (and for that matter, non-Mormon) classic. What are your favorite quotes?

3 thoughts on ““Believest thou…?”: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience by Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D

  1. “They have been angry at God or other Church leaders for not keeping promises which God has not, in fact, made.”

    But here’s the problem: What promises have, in fact, been made by God?

    Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like we aren’t playing a shell game of sorts: We look to see what’s been promises, look and see that the promises aren’t really being met, and then we are told that we’ve just been looking for the wrong ones over and over again.

  2. @Jeff G:
    “What promises have, in fact, been made by God?” Is possibly the most dangerous question one can ask. Especially since the answer inevitably seems involve the clause “in the next life” or “after the resurrection”.

  3. Craig and Jeff,
    There are hundreds of promises made by God in the scriptures. They just don’t bring the things of the world and men usually consider them of no worth and trample them underfoot, so to speak.

    Commandment:
    Charity toward all men and the household of the faith and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly

    Promised Blessing:
    -Thy confidence will wax strong in the presence of God (and clearly lessor men as well)
    -Doctrines of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul
    -The Holy Ghost will by thy constant companion
    -And then, as Craig points out, we get into the next promise of the blessings that come in the next life, if you continue reading in verse 46. (D&C 121:45-46)

    I have received these at least the first 3 blessings as a result of striving to do my part on the commandment aspect. But if the concern is a nice car,a high paying job, exotic vacations, instead of spiritual fulfillment I could see how these things could be esteemed as naught.

    The promises and blessings are there. They just usually aren’t what we think they are, but when you get right down to it, in my opinion and experience, they are the ones that really matter.

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