|Michael:||I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.|
|Sam:||Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.|
|Michael:||Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?|
|~ Dialogue from the movie The Big Chill (1983)|
Rationalization, commonly known as “making excuses” or “self-justification” is a psychological defense mechanism triggered by conflicting desires, feelings, or beliefs which evoke a painful state of mind called cognitive dissonance. No one is exempt. If there is one guarantee in life, it is that our amazing and complex world will repeatedly contradict our personal desires, limited knowledge, and cherished beliefs. But this is not a bad thing. On the contrary, the pain of cognitive dissonance is the pain of birth, of growing, of moving into the light of reality. It is the pain that shows the way to break free from the prison of our ignorance and selfishness.
MRI of the anterior cingulate
cortex which signals conflict.
As suggested by Michael’s comment that rationalization is “more important than sex,” there is a compelling evolutionary explanation for cognitive dissonance. It is to the mind as pain is to the body. Without it, our minds would quickly fall into delusion and disintegrate like the bodies of children born with congenital insensitivity to pain who repeatedly injure themselves. The biological basis of cognitive dissonance is found in the anterior cingulate cortex which is involved in error control, conflict management, and motivation. There is evidence “suggesting that the more it signals conflict, the more dissonance a person experiences and the more their attitudes may change.” Cognitive dissonance is a critical evolutionary adaptation that makes us what we are; Homo Sapiens, that is, the rational species of the great ape genus Homo. The healthy response to cognitive dissonance is to change our beliefs and behavior to better accord with reality. Unfortunately, not all responses are healthy.
Irrational rationalization is a pathological reaction to cognitive dissonance. The healthy response is to investigate the reason for the conflict and to adjust oneself accordingly. People unwilling or unable to give up their false beliefs or irrational behaviors are compelled to make excuses to justify themselves. Leon Festinger coined the term and developed the theory of cognitive dissonance in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails. It has since become one of the most influential and widely studied psychological theories. His book chronicled the response of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse. Here is a description of what ensued:
Marian Keech was the leader of a UFO cult in the 1950s. She claimed to get messages from extraterrestrials, known as The Guardians, through automatic writing. Like the Heaven’s Gate folks forty years later, Keech and her followers, known as The Seekers or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, were waiting to be picked up by flying saucers. In Keech’s prophecy, her group of eleven was to be saved just before the earth was to be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. When it became evident that there would be no flood and the Guardians weren’t stopping by to pick them up, Keech
became elated. She said she’d just received a telepathic message from the Guardians saying that her group of believers had spread so much light with their unflagging faith that God had spared the world from the cataclysm (Levine 2003: 206).
More important, the Seekers didn’t abandon her. Most became more devoted after the failed prophecy. (Only two left the cult when the world didn’t end.) “Most disciples not only stayed but, having made that decision, were now even more convinced than before that Keech had been right all along….Being wrong turned them into true believers (ibid.).” Some people will go to bizarre lengths to avoid inconsistency between their cherished beliefs and the facts.
It is no coincidence that analysis of a religious cult gave rise to the theory of cognitive dissonance. Though no one is exempt from it because it is a fundamental neurological function, the pathological reaction is most prominently displayed in religious believers because they have an articulated set of false beliefs to defend. This is the value of this study – by examining the extreme forms of rationalization we gain insight insight into our own behavior so we can avoid these mistakes and grow to become happy, healthy, well-integrated bright-minded people.
The techniques of false rationalization are legion. They are known as cognitive biases and have been defined and categorized in great detail. The effect of inveterate rationalization is literal disintegration. It disintegrates the mind and the morals of those who habitually practice it, and the logical coherence of any topic it touches.
The Subject of our Study: Rich Deem
Rich Deem is a prolific Christian apologist who publishes a defense of his faith on his website godandscience.org which has over 1300 pages as of 2012. He says he began his site in 1994 when serving as a volunteer apologist for astrophysicist Hugh Ross’ Reasons To Believe ministry. Deem’s site is aptly named; he is a research biologist with 26 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Here is how he describes himself:
Richard Deem earned his bachelor of science degree in biological sciences at the University of Southern California. He received his master of science degree in microbiology from California State University, Los Angeles, and has been working in basic science research since 1976. He has authored and co-authored a number of studies, included several areas of molecular biology and genetics, immunology, inflammatory bowel disease (1-17), natural killer cells (18-22), and infectious diseases (23-24). In addition, he has presented his work at a number of national and international scientific meetings.
Mr. Deem has been working for Dr. Stephan Targan since 1983 and is employed as a Researcher / Specialist in the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He is currently collaborating with Dr. Rivkah Gonsky on the role of T-cells in inflammatory bowel disease, specifically on transactivating nuclear factors involved in activation pathways of lamina propria (gut-associated) T-cells.
Rich Deem is also a Biblical fundamentalist who believes the “Bible is the inspired word of God given through the writing styles of men led by the Holy Spirit. It is inerrant as originally written.” He is the perfect storm of cognitive dissonance: bound as a scientist by the laws of logic and facts while simultaneously committed to the fundamentally irrational belief that the Bible is (or at least was in the originals) the “inerrant Word of God.” As such, he provides a rich body of insights into the psychological dysfunction caused by commitment to demonstrable error. This study documents the intellectual distortions required to rationalize the contradictions between his beliefs and reality.
Evolution: Rich Deem disintegrates Science
The Phylogenetic Tree of Life is sup- ported by many independent lines of evidence such as the fossil record, morphology, and DNA. Denial of this evidence disintegrates the unity of science.
The Phylogenetic Tree of Life is supported by many independent lines of evidence such as the fossil record, morphology, and DNA. Denial of this evidence disintegrates the unity of science. Imagine what it must feel like to be a 21st century research biologist who denies that evolution explains the origin of species, the very title of Darwin’s groundbreaking book (1859). Talk about cognitive dissonance! As a biologist he cannot deny evolution; as a Biblical fundamentalist he must. So he cut this Gordian knot by creating a false distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolution. Here are the definitions he gives in his General Rebuttal of the Theory of Evolution:
- Microevolution – Unequivocally proven through numerous scientific studies. Includes concepts such as mutation, recombination, natural selection, etc.
- Macroevolution – Extrapolation of microevolution to account for all changes in body designs, speciation, appearance of new phyla, etc.
He says that microevolution “describes the intelligent design with which organisms were endowed by their Designer” whereas macroevolution “is not supported by the record of nature or current scientific research.” Though the two terms are used in the scientific literature, no such disjunction is ever suggested. On the contrary, the prefixes “micro” and “macro” refer to one thing – evolution – viewed on different scales. Wikipedia lists this error under “Misuse” of the terms and gives many supporting links. There is a vast body of scientific evidence contradicting his false distinction, including evidence of speciation that has been observed in nature and in the laboratory. His denial is blatantly inconsistent because elsewhere he admits that “evolution could explain the diversity we observe” in “bacteria, viruses, and other rapidly growing organisms” but not among “higher organisms.” Does he suggest any scientific principle that would distinguish when macroevolution could or could not result in new species? No. His entire “rebuttal” of evolution is based on a false distinction supported by incoherent ad hoc assertions. Most of his articles contain nothing but random attacks at perceived problems with existing theories for which he offers no solution other than the anti-scientific “God did it.”
His rationalizations attack the very heart of science. His destroys its unity and integrity. To deny macroevolution, he must challenge the implications of the phylogenetic tree of life which rests upon the undeniable fact that life changed over time (evolved, by whatever means) from simpler to more complex forms. It is prima facie evidence of the fact of macroevolution regardless of the theoretical explanation. He admits the standard scientific time sequence of the fossil record, but denies the implications of the unified theory derived from the mutually confirming evidence of morphology and DNA. He invents the ludicrous ad hoc assertion that “it is obvious that God used a previously existing genetic template from which to create humans (which is why we share similarity to the apes).” And why is it “obvious” that God use the apes as a “genetic template” for humans? Because the DNA sequencing proves common descent! And what about similar genetic evidence for transitions in all the other species? He offers only “God did it” to explain the combined evidence supporting the phylogenetic tree. His rationalizations are anything but science. He admits only what he must and explains away or ignores everything else. His rationalizations literally disintegrate science by compartmentalizing it into incoherent disconnected fragments with no unifying theory. It is the opposite of the primary aim and success of true science, which E. O. Wilson described in his book Consilience – The Unity of Knowledge. It is the unity of science that proves him wrong, so it is the unity of science he must destroy. Fundamentalists apply the same strategy to the Bible when they atomize the text to rationalize contradictions. They disintegrate the Bible in their effort to prove it is true. Nothing could be more ironic.
Denial is a normal coping mechanism triggered by trauma like a death, or in this case death of a cherished belief system. Kubler-Ross listed four stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – culminating in acceptance of reality. Deem’s sustained pseudo-intellectual denial of the evidence – denialism – is a pathological form of this common defense mechanism. He is stuck in the first stage.
Sexism: Rich Deem disintegrates the Bible
Sexism saturates the Bible from beginning to end. It is inextricable because it is entwined with the fundamental theological understanding of God himself who is not only male but a Trinity of males consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This male God stands at the head of a hierarchy of male authority that puts women at the bottom:
1 Corinthians 11:3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
The sexism of the Bible cannot be denied without denying its fundamental theological view of God:
- Male Ruler: God
- Male Ruler: Christ
- Male Ruler: Man
- Female Subject: Woman
The Bible begins with sexism. The creation myth blames the woman for all the sin in the world and says God himself placed two curses upon her: 1) the pain of childbirth and 2) male domination:
Genesis 3:16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
This verse cannot be explained away because its plain meaning is confirmed and applied in the New Testament where it is used as a justification for why women are not allowed to teach or have authority over men in Christian churches:
1 Timothy 2:11 Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Women are not allowed to teach because 1) males have primacy because Adam was created first and 2) women are not reliable teachers because they are easily deceived, like Eve. And it completes the picture of the creation myth when it says “woman will be saved through childbearing.” Space prohibits reviewing more of the evidence here. I give an extensive analysis in my article called The Inextricable Sexism of the Bible where I show that the sexism is entwined with fundamental Biblical theology. See also my wife’s article The Male Bias of the Bible.
The sexism of the Bible forms an integrated self-confirming network. It is impossible to retain any intellectual integrity while denying or ignoring these facts. The only way an apologist can deal with them is to not deal with them, and that is exactly the path chosen by Rich Deem. In his article Sexism in the Bible: Is Christianity Sexist? Deem did not deem any of the above verses worthy of mention! Let this fact sink in – Rich Deem’s article contains a total of 5,937 words: 2,334 of his own and 3,603 contained in over a hundred quotations from the Bible. Yet he did not cite even one of the verses above! This is the grossest form of rationalization – pretending the elephant doesn’t exist even as you spend your days shoveling its shit. It is extremely common amongst Christian apologists who try to bury truth with many words designed to misdirect the reader away from the facts. But apparently Deem knew he could not totally ignore the problems so he briefly addressed them without actually quoting the damned evidence. Here is his attempt to deal with the “headship” issue:
On “headship” – This was probably more of a concession to culture than anything else. In first century Israel, women didn’t have many rights or much opportunity for independence, so the husband was a sort of “covering” for her.
This is why Deem did not quote the verse that established male headship (1 Cor. 11:3). The Bible explicitly establishes the male hierarchy of authority on the fundamental theological view that sets God at the top and women at the bottom. This directly contradicts his assertion that it was a “concession to culture.” His attempt to justify the silencing of women is even more absurd because he offers sexist stereotypes as an explanation of the sexism of the Bible:
On “keeping silent in church” – Women are more verbal than men, and when they get together, they tend to move from subject to subject. In the synagogues, the women were segregated from the men. If they had any questions on the worship or the teachings, they would have had to shout them over to the men, or discuss them among themselves, which would have resulted in an inability to maintain order.
Women “tend to move from subject to subject”? Where did he get that idea? And how does it relate to the reasons stated in the text? The Bible says women should be silent and not have authority over men because of the creation myth! Yet he didn’t mention it and made up an entirely irrelevant and unsupported ad hoc assertion designed for no purpose but to cover up the facts and so give the illusion of having “explained” the problematic verse. His entire article is filled with similarly blatant and ridiculous rationalizations.
Slavery in the Bible: Rich Deem disintegrates Morality
The Bible has many verses that institute and regulate the moral abomination known as slavery. All Christian apologists apply the art of rationalization to the full extent to cover up this damning fact. As with the sexism of the Bible, they often are forced to simply omit the facts because they are impossible to explain away. Here are a few of the facts:
- Male Hebrew slaves were to be released after serving six years. This rule does not apply to female Hebrew slaves or slaves bought from foreigners which can be kept for life. (Exodus 21:2-6)
- Female Hebrew slaves are kept for life. If they do not please their master they can be sold, but not to foreigners. (Exodus 21:7-8)
- If a Hebrew slave is given a wife by his master and they have children, the slave can go free after six years, but the wife and children remain the master’s property forever. (Exodus 21:2-6)
- A slave may be beaten to the point of death, but if he recovers after a couple days there is no punishment because the slave is the master’s “property.” (Exodus 21:20-21)
- Gentile slaves, including their children and grandchildren, can be kept in perpetuity and handed down as an inheritance from generation to generation. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
The slavery laws given in the Bible are also sexist and racist. Different rules apply depending on whether the slave is a male or female, Hebrew or Gentile. The laws are grossly immoral. There is no greater tragedy than watching Christian apologists twist and pervert words in their efforts to deny the plain and obvious meaning of these passages. But there is one that no apologist can answer – the divine institution of perpetual slavery. It is explicit:
Leviticus 25:44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.
As with his article on sexism, Rich Deem completely ignores this passage in his article Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible?. He followed his standard procedure of writing many words and quoting a massive number of verses that suit his purpose such as Leviticus 25:39-43 which speaks of treating Hebrew slaves well, but then he deliberately stopped short of verses 44-46 which speak of perpetual slavery! This is the most blatant form of deception possible. He ends his article with the assertion that the “idea that God or Christianity encourages or approves of slavery is shown to be false.” Unfortunately, the only thing he really showed was that inveterate rationalization corrupts both the minds and the morals of those who practice it. It is a disintegrating force. It disintegrates the mind, the morals, and whatever topic it touches.
Skeptics vs. Believers: Rich Deem disintegrates Logic
This is where the analysis gets really interesting. It is more subtle than the bald denial of established scientific facts and inconvenient Bible verses. Here we can watch how his logic becomes distorted and the meaning of his words mutate in the most extraordinary ways. I begin with the first article on his Answers for Atheists page called General Introduction for Non-Believers: Part 1, Are Your Beliefs Consistent with Your Worldview?. He opens his article with the seemingly admirable aim:
This is the first part of a three part introduction to the evidence for belief in the God of Christianity. This first part considers what people believe and why. The main point is that we must consider the possibility that our beliefs are wrong, in order to realistically examine the evidence that contradicts our beliefs. This principle applies to both believers and skeptics alike.
As a scientist, Deem knows that he must at least pretend to “realistically examine the evidence.” So he admits that believers must be skeptical about their own beliefs. But as with his disjunction of “micro” and “macro” evolution, he makes a fundamentally irrational disjunction between “believers” and “skeptics.” He has devoted his life to producing a website with over 1300 articles that exhibit the most extreme skepticism towards any evidence contrary to his own beliefs. He is every bit as skeptical as the most ardent atheist. What then does he mean when he distinguishes between believers and skeptics? Here is what he says next:
Most skeptics take pride in their intellectual ability and like to think that they have no “beliefs.” However, modern science has shown us that everyone has beliefs, since this is how our brains work. A good introduction to this field can be found in Andrew Newberg’s book, Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth. Although we would like to think that everything we believe is based upon evidence and logic, this is simply not true. In fact, we become emotionally bound to our worldview, so much so that worldview changes occur rarely, if at all. Since I am asking you to consider a worldview change, I am going to ask you to dump your emotional attachment to your worldview and consider the evidence apart from your emotional attachments.
Here he doubles down on his confusion. First, both believers and skeptics are supposed to be skeptical and now he sets out to prove that skeptics are really believers! So what exactly does he mean by a skeptic? Here is our next clue:
Before we can get started, we need to agree on some principles that govern (or should govern) a skeptical worldview. The first and foremost principle is that all beliefs should be based upon observational evidence. Unlike theists, who base some of their beliefs on religious writings, skeptics must rely completely upon physical evidence. The second principle is that skeptics must be logically consistent at all times. In other words, a skeptic may not believe something to be true if it is contradicted by observational evidence. Most skeptics who are atheists believe that all phenomena have naturalistic causes.
Now he is becoming quite explicit. A “skeptic” is a person for whom “all beliefs” must be based upon “observational” or “physical” evidence which he defines as that which is “based upon physical measurement of some kind.” By his definition, anyone who disagrees with his religious dogmas must be not only a skeptic, but also a materialist! And what about logic? It is not based on “observable evidence.” So what is he proposing now, a disjunction between logic and skeptics? That certainly would make his work a lot easier. But what about atheistic Platonists who believe logic is founded in non-material ideas rather than material observation? Does he know nothing of epistemology? Does he know nothing of the broad spectrum of possible worldviews? What does he think he is saying? The word “skeptic” mutates every time he uses it. And worst above all, he simply declares that “believers” are allowed to appeal to an arbitrary set of “religious writings” and yet remain “consistent” with their worldview. So what happens when a skeptic says that his copy of Logic for Dummies is his religious writing? Deem’s article is a monument to inconsistency and incoherence. That’s why his title “Are Your Beliefs Consistent With Your Worldview?” is so freaking hilarious. His beliefs aren’t consistent with anything, even themselves!
His next move is to carefully build and gleefully ignite a very clumsy strawman:
Let me point out one major problem with the skeptical worldview in order to get you to the point of recognizing that not all the data really fits your worldview. The data we are going to examine is the origin of the universe.
Of course, by “skeptical worldview” he means the worldview of a reductionist materialist atheist. He makes this explicit when he recites basic facts about the Big Bang:
So, we have come to realize that the universe first began to exist 13.7 billion years ago. Atheists are left with a dilemma, since their worldview requires that all things that begin to exist must have a cause. So, logic requires the admission that the universe had a cause. Virtually all atheists say that this cause was some natural phenomenon. It is also possible that the cause of the universe was a supernatural intelligence (i.e., God). However, there is no direct observational evidence for either belief. Those who are “strong atheists” (not working out in the gym, but having a belief that no god exists) have just violated one of the main rules of atheism – that all beliefs are based upon observational evidence. So, any atheist who denies the possible existence of God violates his own worldview.
The error, of course, is that an atheist, skeptic, or any believer in something other than Rich Deemism need not have any belief about how the universe arose because it is obviously beyond the current limits of science. There is no “dilemma” for anyone because any rational person knows that it would be foolish in the extreme to make any firm assertion about something that can’t be known. And this brings us to the core of Rich Deem’s delusion. He believes the Bible – a primitive pre-scientific religious text filled with errors in logic and fact – is a legitimate, indeed inerrant, source of knowledge. Look at what it has done to his mind.
Conclusion: The Lessons Learned
Cognitive dissonance is to the mind as pain is to the body. Ignoring it leads to disintegration of the mind just as insensitivity to pain leads to disintegration of the body. Sensitivity to it is an essential key to mental health and the human quest for freedom, truth, and reality.
This topic is of keen interest to me because I was a fundamentalist Christian for about 15 years. I explain the cognitive dissonance that drove me out of the faith in my article called Why I Quit Christianity. I have left a very long trail spanning more than a decade on this site and many posts in other forums defending my work on the Bible Wheel. My next project is to apply the insights I gained by writing this article to myself. Most arguments raised against my work claimed that the Bible Wheel had no objective validity and that all my evidence was nothing but the product of cognitive biases like cherry picking, confirmation bias, pareidolia, and so forth. So now I will review those arguments and put my old responses to them through the same fire I have used to test Rich Deem’s arguments. It should prove enlightening.