Existentially threatening situations like natural disasters and terrorist attacks can induce cognitive dissonance among the religious. But this cognitive dissonance appears to be reduced in those who view their religion as a central component of life, according to new research published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
“This research came out of a grant funded by The John Templeton Foundation on how people make meaning and relate to God following disasters. We thought that disasters often challenge what people believe about God, creating religious cognitive dissonance,” explained lead researcher Daryl R. Van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College.
“That is, many people likely view God as benevolent and protecting, but disasters can shatter that assumption; but not everyone experiences dissonance. We wanted to investigate who might be better able to integrate their experiences.”
In the study, 156 undergraduates were randomly assigned to watch either dashboard video of a person evacuating from a raging forest fire, news coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks, news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, or peaceful nature scenes (which was used as the control condition). All of the videos were about 3 minutes long.
The researchers then provided the students with a list of characteristics, such punishing and compassionate, and asked them how well each adjective described God. They were also asked how much they had experienced God to express each characteristic.
Van Tongeren and his colleagues assessed the student’s religious cognitive dissonance by “computing the mean difference between one’s doctrinal representations of God and one’s personal experience of God.”
The researchers found that students who watched the forest fire and 9/11 videos displayed increased cognitive dissonance compared to those who watched the peaceful nature scenes. However, this was only true among students who were relatively low in intrinsic religiousness, a measure of how strongly religion is integrated into one’s worldview. People with high intrinsic religiousness strongly agree with statements such as “My whole approach to life is based on my religion.”
“People who view religion as a central part of their life (i.e., intrinsically religious folks) are better able to integrate adversity into their views of God that doesn’t create as much psychological tension (i.e., cognitive dissonance). They can rely on their religious beliefs to make sense of adversity,” Van Tongeren told PsyPost.
“We still need to see how long these effects last. Are they short-lived, or does this religious dissonance last a long time? Future research should study this over time with longitudinal studies,” he added.
The study, “Existentially Threatening Stimuli Increase Religious Cognitive Dissonance Among the Less Intrinsically Religious“, was authored by Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Edward B. Davis, Joshua N. Hook, Don E. Davis, and Jamie D. Aten.
(Photo credit: Geoff Livingston)