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Today we’re going to talk about cognitive dissonance, that feeling of discomfort humans get when we hold two very conflicting ideas in our heads at once. People do all kinds of stuff to soothe that discomfort, even make up lies out of whole cloth, and we’re seeing it happen more and more blatantly nowadays. I think it’s important to talk about it and figure out what’s going on so we can stop it and hold those doing it accountable.

I’ve been mulling this over for a while. I saw a piece somewhere–wish I could remember where now, but it was on my phone (which I treat like a tiny laptop that I play games on and read news on and occasionally–when I absolutely must–make phone calls on) and I didn’t note the site like I normally do–but this piece really got me to thinking. It was about how Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, that disgraced politician who saw his aspirations vanish with one really poorly-thought-out statement he made about how women who are “legitimately raped” can’t possibly get pregnant so they don’t need abortion-care access (which he followed up with another equally poorly-thought-out statement clarifying that what he meant is that women are silly bitches who lie about being raped all the damned time and that’s certainly no reason to trust them enough to let them make their own medical decisions about their very own bodies, a clarification that backfired even worse than the initial statement did), and how his delusions about female biology made his ideology easier to bear.

Soviet poster circa 1925. Title translation: &...
Soviet poster circa 1925. Title translation: “Abortions performed by either trained or self-taught midwives not only maim the woman, they also often lead to death.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Mr. Akin’s delusion was caused by his ideology (abortion = bad murdering slutty sluts prancing off to clinics to murder their sweet little bumblebee-costumed babies because Satan himself made up women’s rights). His ideology was making for a very uncomfortable and unpopular position. Most folks don’t like the idea of a ban on abortion even for rape victims. So Mr. Akin’s forced-birther side came up with this wonderful new idea that rape victims who’ve really for realsies been really raped can’t actually get pregnant at all! Hooray! Problem solved! Now we can ban all abortion everywhere, even for rape victims (who can’t get pregnant, remember)! Except of course folks freaked out, as well they should have, and the comment is credited with losing him an election that would likely have been his to win if he hadn’t said something in his out-loud voice that his party secretly believes but would rather not see said out loud.

, member of the United States House of Represe...
Todd Akin, member of the United States House of Representatives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Look at this smarmy, paternalistic Jesus smile, and imagine its owner telling an impregnated rape victim that obviously she was just lying about her rape and she’s stuck now bearing a rapist’s baby.

Now, does Mr. Akin have any sort of backing in biology of any kind? Of course not; he’s got a Master of Divinity from an outfit called “Covenant Theological Seminary” that according to its website teaches Biblical inerrancy, but nothing science-related beyond a form of creationism. But what he does have is a worldview, an ideology, that depends upon abortion being withdrawn as a human right from women. He has a dogma that demands absolute adherence, and he has bought into that dogma with every bit of his might. But then here come along all these people who are upset about bans on abortion for rape victims. What do we do? How do we handle it? Why, forced-birthers just erase and negate those women! Impregnated rape victims don’t even exist anymore. If some women are saying they were impregnated via a rape, they’re just lying about something or other–or else their situations are so vanishingly rare that it’s perfectly fine to ban the procedure for those few times (because rarity of occurrence is a perfectly fine reason to refuse someone the right to make her own healthcare decisions). Whew. Well, glad we got that all worked out.

The problem is that people whose minds are enslaved to dogma say this stuff out loud, like Mr. Akin did, at which point they discover that not everybody is as invested in that dogma as they are. The rest of us have no reason to accept their attempt to whitewash the truth. We are not their choir to be preached at. And so we reject it–loudly and with great mockery and disdain. Not that Mr. Akin likely has learned anything from our rejection of his factual inaccuracy, but at least we know a little more now about Republicans than we did before he said what he did.

The GOP didn’t learn anything from people’s stunning rejection of Todd Akin’s junk science either. If anything, the false claims and flat-out delusions are only coming faster. A couple weeks ago, another politician, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), came out with the idea that a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, no exceptions (ie, no medical exceptions and forget about the health of the mother), would be fine because “nothing bad is going to happen.” Using the debunked red herring junk-science idea that fetuses feel pain after that point, he got the bill past the House in June, though thankfully nobody thinks it’ll pass the Senate, much less the President. The fact that late-term abortions are crazy rare (1.5% of abortions), that they happen for very valid medical reasons (namely that a lot of fetal health conditions are only discovered late in the pregnancy) and that they are usually done to save someone’s life or spare enormous suffering doesn’t matter. Mr. Graham’s ideology is that all abortions are bad and that women’s bodies are public property, and simple facts don’t really enter into something driven by zealotry. The ideology matters more than reality ever could. When the ideology conflicts with reality, then some way must be found to warp reality itself to fit the ideology. And warp it they do–by insisting that people pay attention to how they feel about abortion and manipulating or ignoring facts about the women seeking late-term abortions in particular.

Ah, but you know how people can get sometimes. We keep wanting facts to support our positions. So in comes the soothing delusion. By declaring that nobody should ever need an abortion after 20 weeks because fetuses=babies and babies feel pain (with the corollary that women seeking late-term abortions are obviously just frivolous, baby-slaughtering murderesses who must be stopped for their own good), and yes, I’m aware that this argument doesn’t in the least even start to address the issue of women’s lives, self-ownership issues, and health put at risk, Mr. Graham neatly plugs all the holes in his ideology–largely by insisting that the holes have indeed been plugged than through any actual plugging–and confidently moves forward to ban life-saving abortions from women who will desperately need them. I’m sure Savita’s ghost is turning over in her grave.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter if fetuses feel pain or not. The problem is that their host’s needs do and should take precedence over the fetus’ own needs and that nobody has an expectation of care that involves violating another human being’s personal body. If a fully-grown 20-year-old college student needed my organs or fluids to sustain himself, or if he needed to have sex with me to save his own life, I’d have the right to refuse him access to my body. I’ve actually had guys use the excuse that not having sex with me would cause them enormous physical pain–and I still told them to take a long walk off a short pier. And I certainly have that same right if the entity making the demand is a fetus. The presence of pain is not an adequate reason to force someone else to give of their own body. Relieving pain certainly is not either, any more than “saving lives” is. If that were true, we’d be forcing folks to donate organs, right? I bet a lot more lives would be saved by forcing organ donation than by forcing gestation.

The idea that a fetus gets more rights than a real person, a real live standing-right-here-in-front-of-a-potential-host person (much less the very real standing-right-here host that this fetus is leeching off of, as if the woman gestating the fetus is less of a person than the fetus itself, but more like a sort of carriage the fetus rides around in), is part and parcel of the ideology that Mr. Graham believes. The whole idea of personhood and “fetal pain” is a total distraction, in fact it’s beyond irrelevant to the overarching issue of consent and bodily sovereignty, but to Mr. Graham, it soothes the cognitive dissonance that comes of denying life-saving abortions to women who may well die otherwise. By pushing discredited science at people, Mr. Graham hopes to distract voters and his peers enough to destroy women’s bodily rights. He thinks “fetal pain” makes it totally okay to set up more restrictions on abortion. And nothing factual will stand in his way. The worst part? Plenty of folks are ready to ban late-term abortions because of similar ideology. Even atheists sometimes prefer the idea of making their point clear about disapproving of late-term abortions at the expense of women’s lives. But dammit, they have to make their point! Sure, it won’t lower abortion rates. Sure, it won’t stop women from seeking abortions if they think they really need them, because deep down, people know they own their own bodies and have the right to make their own personal healthcare decisions about those bodies. Sure, it won’t help the situation in a single meaningful way. And sure, there are lots of other methods that actually will. But dammit, their point! Look at it! It’s very pointy!

The third abortion-related soothing delusion we’ll talk about here involves Hobby Lobby’s infamous move to deny women covered by insurance plans access to the morning-after pill. Now, the morning-after pill is simply not and absolutely not an abortifacient. Let’s restate that more simply: it does not cause abortion. It has nothing to do with abortion. It prevents pregnancy. Nothing more. But Hobby Lobby, which is run by uber-fundies, thinks it’s an abortion pill. The simple science involved here doesn’t matter. That not a single study has ever shown the morning-after pill to be abortifacient doesn’t matter. Their ideology says that the morning-after pill causes abortion, and that makes it totally okay for them to deny their workers and workers’ families access to a drug that helps them avoid unwanted pregnancies. (I wrote to them once to advise them why I was never setting foot in their stores again, since it does nobody any good to boycott a store without telling the store why the action is being taken, and I very thoughtfully linked them to the studies involving this medication; they never wrote back. I wonder why.) Their belief has nothing to do with reality; it is merely their belief, and it is not even halfway right. Like the other delusions, it’s not a subjective matter up to interpretation or a mere difference in opinion, like which flavor of ice cream is best or which Batman is worst. Hobby Lobby’s position is flat-out, totally wrong on every conceivable level, not even sort-of wrong but totally and absolutely wrong. It is factually not correct. It is not based on facts. But they insist that it is true, and because they are convinced it is true, they have gone to tremendous lengths to deny this drug to women who may not even follow their same religion.

(That’s a lot of abortion talk lately, I know, but again, I’m doing it for a reason. Abortion is a really touchy subject, and a lot of our feelings about it are, well, feelings*. It’s very hard to sift facts from feelings in such a loaded debate. To me, the matter is quite simple: people always own their bodies and always have the right to consent over their bodies’ use. But it’s not that simple to everybody else. I know that. That’s why I’m talking about it. Abortion may seem like a very emotional topic, but there are facts involved here that I think should be informing our emotions and our positions rather than the other way around, as often seems to be the case with topics like this one. When we talk about facts, we can start solving problems and moving ahead. Also, abortion and hard-line Christianity go hand in hand–sorry, non-Christian forced-birthers, but them’s the facts, and as I’ve mentioned, they use the exact same tactics, and extremist Christians blatantly employ the abortion fight as part of their overarching goal to force America to accept Christian dominance again, so you really can’t consider any limits on women’s right to access abortion care without also considering the Christian overreach that has authored and leads the fight against abortion, that rightfully regards each victory as a victory for their overreach, that considers such limits part and parcel of their overall fight against women’s rights, and that gleefully sets the tone for the entire forced-birth conversation**. And too, I know a lot about abortion, so while I recognize that I could go down similar roads for emotionally-laden topics like gun control, I don’t know a lot about gun control. Write about what you know, they said, so here we are. For what it’s worth, I’m done with that topic a bit, I reckon.)

Now, I’ve known for a good long time about this habit of trusting comforting delusions over facts. I mean, most skeptics and freethinkers are well aware of the zealot’s habit of preferring lies to reality. But all this got me to thinking (“a dangerous pastime, I know” and don’t tell me you aren’t right now humming that song) about the various fact-based inaccuracies in a lot of extreme positions, among them extreme religious positions, and start putting these inaccuracies into context. When confronted with simple science and simple facts, evangelicals and hard-line Catholics especially will retreat into demands that we “agree to disagree” or an attempt to discredit those facts somehow. At all costs, the junk science and lies must be maintained or else the dogma goes out the window.

Only constant vigilance guards against falling into dogma. I follow pertinent news and I listen to arguments that try to refute my position. I know what a powerful thing confirmation bias is–that tendency we have to only listen to things that seem to confirm our positions. So yes: I know exactly what would falsify my belief that people’s personal self-sovereignty trumps the needs of other beings: a well-demonstrated argument that effectively argues that slavery is totally fine when routinely inflicted on women if it’s for a good cause, that anybody has an expectation to care that trumps another person’s bodily autonomy, and that routinely infringing on someone’s bodily self-ownership is acceptable behavior for a civilized society. I’d also need a clear and compelling link between limits on abortion access and a lowering of abortion rates (which is decidedly not the case), as well as evidence that laws limiting abortion access will not cause unnecessary deaths among pregnant women (which, at 219 women per day dying from unsafe abortions and evidence that loosening restrictions on abortion dramatically lowers the risks of such deaths while not impacting abortion rates, is also decidedly not the case). As you might suspect, I haven’t heard an argument yet that effectively makes any of these cases. I’m willing to at least listen, though. That’s a lot more than I see from forced-birthers or Christians. Especially with late-term abortion bans, it’s so much more important to both groups to make their opinion known via restricting women’s rights, even if such a ban would only doom women and not impact abortion rates, than it is to actually do anything that actually would lower abortion rates. Dogma is swept along in a sea of delusion.

Similarly, when I see Christians insisting that their god obviously made the whole universe, or insist that everybody is secretly inculcated with their god’s “morality” even if they reject his religion outright, or that there really was a huge boat with all the animals on it safe from the Great Flood, or any of the other flat-out delusions they push at me every day, I see this same need for comforting lies at work. It’s like there’s this flowchart that goes through a zealot’s head:

Ideological dogma: The Bible is totally tooooootally inerrant.

Disquieting facts: Plenty of stuff in it couldn’t possibly have happened. I’ve talked about this before, so I’ll gloss over links here, but it isn’t hard to pull up multiple problems with the idea of Biblical inerrancy–contradictions, lack of evidence for the major events fundies point to as real, tons of evidence refuting the major events, etc.

Soothing delusions: Look at this guy who thinks he found archaeological evidence for, well, anything in the Old Testament! Look at this group that has all these sciency-sounding claims about Creationism/Intelligent Design! Look at all these honest-to-goodness miracles–for realsies, guys, this guy’s leg grew longer (BTW, the links are refutations of these factually incorrect ideas). Whew! Glad we got that sorted out!


Ideological dogma: Following the Bible makes society better.

Disquieting facts: More secular states in the United States, as well as more secular countries in the world, have way higher social functionality–less crime, better records with women’s rights, lower incarceration rate, lower teen birth rates, lower rates of obesity, better education levels, higher family incomes, and higher life expectancies, among other benefits. It’s hard to come away from papers like the one I’ve linked to and think that religiosity is any good at all for any society or culture.

Soothing delusions: If America turns its back on Christianity, then Muslims will take over. America will die–or at least not flourish. And of course natural disasters and terrorist attacks await a country that refuses to bend knee to its loving savior. So we better not ditch Christianity or we’ll be in such big trouble!


Ideological dogma: The world is getting much worse.

Disquieting facts: There are a lot of cognitive biases operating in our heads to make us think things are worse when they aren’t. Across a number of parameters, such as “health, education, war, gender, air pollution, climate change, and biodiversity”, the world’s doing better now than it has in 150 years. And a billion fewer people live in poverty now than were stuck there 20 years ago. It seems like the only factor that Christians are considering when claiming the world is “worse” is how much influence and cultural dominance Christianity has anymore–it’s losing dominance and privilege, yes, definitely we could say that. But that by itself doesn’t make the world “worse”–except maybe to religious zealots who are rapidly losing privilege when 20 years ago they took that same privilege totally for granted. Ever since people figured out how to live in groups, they’ve complained about how society seems to be going straight downhill. But it isn’t.

Soothing delusions: By concentrating on events many decades ago, some prominent Christians have made things sound very dire indeed. If all else fails, they can just repeat the lie over and over again in the hopes that it’ll magically become true. Yep, it’s totally getting worse–any fool could see that!


See what I mean? When we deal with zealots, we’re dealing with a mindset that not only doesn’t care about little details like facts, but also will go to any lengths, even making up facts and distorting real ones, to get its way. But more than that, we’re dealing with people who need to feel like they’re in the factual right, like their positions are based on knowledge, reality, and truth.

When people’s ideology turns out to have a troubling, disquieting facet to it, people want to smooth that over the best they can. A freethinking person will look for facts to consider, and if the facts contradict the opinion, then the freethinker will adjust the opinion if need be. A zealot will only look to “facts” that confirm the ideology, though. And even if those “facts” are totally untrue and easily debunked with a very minimum of effort, the zealot will cling to the soothing delusion rather than challenge the over-arching ideology with real facts.

Part of the problem is that by now, religious figures and zealots have so muddied the waters that it’s hard for believers to adequately weigh reality and tell it from delusion. There are people out there who make their entire living just making up new inept arguments for Christianity (like Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s laughable I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, which the link neatly tears apart); such people call their inept arguments undeniable and definitive, which makes their audience think that they are indeed those things when they aren’t. Not that the target audience could tell either way; they’ve lost their ability to judge the information presented, but surely such well-educated and learned people wouldn’t lie, so obviously these arguments are the magic bullets they’re claimed to be. Naturally, when non-believers have the boorish bad grace to not immediately convert upon hearing these terribly non-compelling arguments, the non-believers get blamed–rather than the terribly non-compelling arguments, which are undeniable and definitive–weren’t you listening? Undeniable! Definitive! Immutable!

And, too, Christian apologetics authors and leaders heap an incredible amount of distrust upon not only the educational institutions that might teach people critical thinking skills, but also upon those critical thinking skills themselves. It’s as accepted a concept in right-wing Christianity as the idea that people must breathe air to live. One can see why; colleges are well-known for introducing innocent little evangelicals to facts that can easily demolish the careful indoctrination their parents have forced onto their vulnerable little minds. And, too, there is the typical fundamentalist distrust of experts and learned people; this is the mindset from which springs all manner of homegrown quackery like homeopathy and faith healing, which regards “book-learning” as completely inferior to the school of hard knocks. The animosity between extremist Christianity and education runs very deep, consequently, and this is something we’ll talk about a little more soon. For now, we’ll just say that by the time most folks get through the wringer that is the careful Christian removal of each and every tool they might use to break free of delusions, they’re well-defended against the onslaught of demonic facts. It is really hard to break free at that point. That so many people are in fact breaking free is a testament to the power of the human spirit (and another sign that things are actually getting better!)

I don’t know about y’all, but I’m starting to see these comforting, soothing delusions a lot lately when I look at right-wing positions like Todd Akin’s and Billy Graham’s. I’m starting to recognize when a troubling facet to a bit of dogma is getting smoothed over by a delusion that fixes everything, that plugs the holes, that mends the boat so it can’t sink. It’s like the final piece in a puzzle that I’ve been turning over and over in my head for ages, trying to make sense of, a piece that was lost for a long time but which I just found wedged deep in the sofa cushions.

Maybe you folks already had it worked out, but I feel like I just arrived at something important, and I wanted to share what I’ve been thinking about lately.

And I think that as more and more people identify the false “facts” and completely shameless lies that make up the majority of the weapons in a zealot’s arsenal, Christianity itself is going to find itself hard-pressed to maintain even a shred of relevance in society. People are starting to wonder–as I did, many years ago–why a true position would need lies to bolster itself. And people are starting to hold their leaders accountable for basing their positions on junk science, pandering, fearmongering, deceptions, and discredited ideas. The more people hold zealots accountable for using debunked falsehoods to bolster their positions, the faster those positions will fall.

That said, though, we also have to recognize that the reason zealots use such untruths is because they are soothing. Falsehoods smooth over disquieting rough edges to someone’s ideology. Those falsehoods form a thick wall against a troubling reality. It is hard to punch through a wall so thick–whether it’s the skeptic punching in, or the Christian punching through. There’s an emotional component there. When someone’s position is not based on facts, then facts may not be enough to break through such an emotional wall. Reality can be really scary, and challenging one’s ideology can be even more scary. I know. I’ve been there.

I’m not sure what the answer is at this point. Maybe just keep hammering at the facts? Maybe just keep presenting reality in all its glory to people who are blinkering their eyes away from it? Whatever we do, it must be with gentleness as much as possible. Nobody likes the idea that some dearly-held ideology is factually wrong. Ego defenses can be so strong in such cases. I’ll keep thinking about that end of it. But at least I’m starting to see the problem. And again, it’s hard to fix a problem if someone can’t even see the problem.

Sorry for talking your ears off lately. Maybe I ought to get in the habit of breaking these into pieces. Anyway, next time, we’re going to be talking some more about one of those soothing delusions–as touching women’s ordination into the clergy. I hope to see you there!

* REMINDER: If you personally don’t like abortion or would ever choose one for yourself, but aren’t trying to limit women’s access to it, you’re okay. That’s what choice is all about. You’re allowed to make your own healthcare decisions, and I’m allowed to make mine.

** Not to go all ad hominem on anybody here, but as a rule of thumb, whatever the Tea Party or the fundies think we should do is the dead opposite of what we actually should do. Just knowing that I held a position in common with either of those groups would make me seriously re-think that position– and has, in a number of cases.

Got all this way through that big long piece? Have a frowsy, dubious-looking kitten! See you soon.

Kittens 4
Kittens 4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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