I’ve just finished reading Rob Bell’s new(ish) book Love Wins.
I found it an interesting and thought provoking read, but I believe for many it will be discarded (or possibly burned) because of issues with cognitive dissonance.
OK, if you’re still with me, haven’t set fire to your computer at the very mention of Rob Bell or fallen asleep through my use of strange and academic sounding words, congratulations. I shall now attempt to enlighten you in order that your life may be complete. Or something else.
Cognitive Dissonance is the feeling of discomfort experienced when two conflicting thoughts are held simultaneously.
For example if I perceive myself as a good person, but do something that is bad, I have to hold in my mind simultaneously a perception of being good alongside one of being bad. This leads to discomfort – guilt, shame, embarrassment and so on.
Cognitive dissonance is often used as a tool for persuading people of a particular point of view. Some of my work is in the field of Environmental Interpretation, which involves helping people understand environmental issues but also encouraging a change in behaviour and/or attitudes. Effective interpretation often aims for a balanced approach to cognitive dissonance, giving a slight feeling of discomfort caused by taking on new ideas which challenge existing views and behaviours. An interesting thing happens if the difference between pre-existing beliefs and new concepts is too great. Rather than adjusting their beliefs many people will find rationalisations for dismissing the new information as false, irrelevant or misunderstood, or will simply re-interpret the new information to fit their existing beliefs. No matter how convincing the proof, the easiest resolution to such massive cognitive dissonance is often to rationalise the retention of our existing position.
This all leads me to wonder whether a lot of the negative reaction to Rob Bell’s book is a result of too much cognitive dissonance. People with deeply-held beliefs are confronted with an alternative view, not from someone they would expect to espouse such ideas, not a lefty-liberal-believe-anything-you-like sort or a hippy yoghurt-knitter, but the Nooma-ministering mega-church leader. The cognitive dissonance meter explodes. The instant reaction? Justify your position, marginalise the “opposing” view, rebalance the dissonance by removing the aberrant thought. Peace can reign again in the brain once Rob Bell has been demonised, turned into some heretic who has stepped off the reservation. His ideas do not get weighed, tested, mulled-over. The reader’s views are not questioned and tested either. An opportunity is lost. An opportunity to improve understanding, deepen faith, explore belief.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone should agree with Rob Bell. He has, after all, just put forward his thoughts at this moment in time on a number of issues. Disagree with some of it, or even all of it. But don’t let the vagaries of the brain shut you off from considering new ideas. Strong faith can take challenges. That doesn’t mean our framework of understanding simply fends off all comers, but rather if faith is true and real it can accommodate challenge, exploration and new ideas. The other is just dogma.