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human nature, Religion, science

Cognitive Distortion and Religious Belief

I’ve been thinking aloud with a social worker friend of mine about specific dysfunctions in problem solving skills that accompany specific religious beliefs, and I’d like to share some of these thoughts with you.

One of the most common psychotherapy methods employed by therapists today is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  It’s deceptively powerful as a tool for improving many psychological dysfunctions, from anxiety disorder to problem gambling.   It’s also simple enough that patients can often perform it on themselves after they’ve learned the basic procedure.

One of the main approaches in CBT is to identify cognitive distortion in the patient.   Simply put, cognitive distortion is logical fallacy in action.  Here are some of the most commonly seen ones, straight from good old wikipedia:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking (splitting) – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every”, “never”, and “there is no alternative”. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. (See false dilemma.) All-or-nothing-thinking can contribute to depression. (See depression).
  2. Overgeneralization – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations. (See hasty generalization.)
  3. Mental filter – Focusing almost exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of an event while ignoring other positive aspects. For example, focusing on a tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing. (See misleading vividness.)
  4. Disqualifying the positive – Continually reemphasizing or “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons. (See special pleading.)
  5. Jumping to conclusions– Drawing conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
    • Mind reading – Assuming special knowledge of the intentions or thoughts of others.
    • Fortune telling – Exaggerating how things will turn out before they happen. (See slippery slope.)
  6. Magnification and minimization – Distorting aspects of a memory or situation through magnifying or minimizing them such that they no longer correspond to objective reality. In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other peopleare exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
    • Catastrophizing – Focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable.
  7. Emotional reasoning – Making decisions and arguments based on intuitions or personal feeling rather than an objective rationale and evidence. (See appeal to consequences.)
  8. Should statements – Patterns of thought which imply the way things “should” or “ought to be” rather than the actual situation the patient is faced with, or having rigid rules which the patient believes will “always apply” no matter what the circumstances are. Albert Ellis termed this “Musturbation”. (See wishful thinking.)
  9. Labeling and mislabeling – Explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, a patient assigns a label to someone of themself that implies absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. Personalization – Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role) for events over which the patient has no control. This pattern is also applied to other in the attribution of blame.

Generally speaking, when someone is behaving irrationally, they are committing one of these fallacies as a logical extension of a core belief.  (See “Belief as a psychological theory.) Of course, cognitive distortion is not limited to these ten fallacies.  Any logical fallacy committed in ordinary cognition counts generally counts.

Ok.  Enough with the preamble.  Here’s an example of a specific kind of cognitive distortion caused by a specific religious belief.

BELIEF:  Morality is a set of specific rules, created by God, and not subject to interpretation.

Now, before you start yelling at me that all Christians don’t believe this… I KNOW.  However, some do.  (Incidentally, one of the most common cognitive distortions is all-or-nothing.  Give it a quick look, then come back and continue from here.)

Ordinarily, clear reasoning will tell us that an action’s moral value is tied to the consequences of the action.  For instance, is it wrong to lie?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  If you lie to your disheartened child who’s struck out four times in four at bats, and say, “Come on, Billy!  I just know you’re going to get a hit this time —  I believe in you,”  most people would agree that you’ve committed a better moral act than telling the truth:  “Well, Billy, it looks like that pitcher’s got your number.  You’re probably going to strike out again.  Go get it over with!”*

Of course, this applies to more substantial actions as well.  A man who shoots another man to defend his wife and children from an armed intruder has acted bravely and served the cause of justice.  A man who breaks into a house and shoots a man’s wife and children is the worst kind of villain.

Ordinary, clear reasoning sees this relativity intuitively.  However, when we apply the religious belief I mentioned earlier, a new kind of reasoning can develop:

“God is in control of the universe, and will work things out for good, if only I do what he has commanded, even if it seems like a bad idea at the time.”

This is a distortion of cost-benefit analysis, and a dangerous one at that.  From this simple core belief, we can reasonably justify a large number of atrocious and stupefyingly  ill-advised behaviors.  When we pair it with other beliefs, we can see how an otherwise simple decision can go disastrously wrong:

  1. God commands that we trust in him to heal us of our infirmities.
  2. I have hurt my ankle.  My friends are urging me to go to the doctor, but He has commanded that I have faith and trust Him for healing.  I should please God instead of  my own judgment.
  3. I am dead after sitting in a chair waiting for healing for eight months.

(For those of you that just thought, “We don’t know for sure that’s what he was thinking,” please refer back to all-or-nothing and then return here, content in the knowledge that one could reasonably reach this conclusion as stated above, and it doesn’t particularly matter if this particular person did or not.)

Perhaps this is a far-fetched example, but let’s take something a little more common:

  1. God has commanded that we are not to tolerate homosexuality.  It is an abomination.
  2. My child tells me that he is gay.
  3. I cannot tolerate my child.   He is an abomination.

Let’s not be glib about this.  The correlation between suicide among gays and parental disapproval is extraordinary.  Ask any social worker.  It is perhaps only a minor stretch to say that many parents have killed their gay children with the strength of their disapproval.

There is little doubt that many irrational behaviors stem from irrational beliefs.  The proof is in the therapy.   Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seeks to identify cognitive distortion, trace it to false core beliefs, and then, through a variety of therapeutic techniques, re-condition the brain to accept accurate core beliefs.  When this happens, the resulting behavioral changes speak for themselves.    CBT is one of the more effective therapeutic methods known to psychology.

This, then, is the silver lining to the dark cloud.  Even deeply rooted false core beliefs do have the capacity for being uprooted and replaced with more realistic beliefs.   Still, the issue is not admitting that religious belief can cause irrational behavior.  (This much should be obvious.)  The issue is examining the practical application of this knowledge to those around us, and asking ourselves:  Can we affect change with this knowledge?  Do you believe that we can use this knowledge to increase the amount of rationality in the world?

I do.

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*If you’re unclear about how morality works, please read these articles before continuing:

Morality, Should, and Murder

Morality:  Absolute and Subjective

Where Do Christians Get Their Morality?

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “Cognitive Distortion and Religious Belief

  1. (For those of you that just thought, “We don’t know for sure that’s what he was thinking,” please refer back to all-or-nothing and then return here, content in the knowledge that one could reasonably reach this conclusion as stated above, and it doesn’t particularly matter if this particular person did or not.)

    Please refer back to “mind reading”

    Posted by Alison | December 19, 2009, 6:27 pm
  2. Good article.
    Do you have a good book on cognitive distortion and therapy for it?
    Although screw worrying about theists – I’m not ready to start looking at the splinter in my brother’s eye just yet! 😉

    Posted by Strafio | December 21, 2009, 9:53 am
  3. I’m on vacation right now, but I’ll send you a couple of recommendations when I get home.

    Posted by hambydammit | December 21, 2009, 8:07 pm
  4. Please refer back to “mind reading”

    You’re so vain… you probably think this song is about you.

    Posted by hambydammit | December 21, 2009, 8:08 pm

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