When Does Rationalizing Become Self Deception?

Belief: Jesus (Christ) was a real historical figure, and I believe he existed. He is also my Lord and Savior, the redeemer of all humanity. I know it in my heart that he loves me.

Evidence: There is little in the way of trustworthy or reliable evidence to show that Jesus (Christ) existed apart from a character in a story, therefore it is not rational to believe he existed minus any evidence to support that belief. He is no more real than the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood. I am willing to change my mind, as long as the evidence supports that consideration.

As human beings with thinking minds, we prescribe to a variety of sets of beliefs. Some of these beliefs are good beliefs (by good I mean justifiable) and some of these beliefs are bad ones (meaning probably invalid).

My brother in blog Mike D. over at the A-Unicornist once informed me that the reason Christians often make really bad arguments is because they believe things for bad reasons. When these reasons spark a modicum of cognitive dissonance they retreat to the acrobatics of rationalizing ways to keep believing despite their growing discomfort with the very beliefs they profess to hold as revealed truths.

Psychological studies have shown that the more our core beliefs are threatened the more likely we are to hold onto them even more vigorously. This is just a mental safety mechanism innate to all humans, because we cannot constantly readjust our worldviews every two seconds because it would be too taxing on our already limited mental energy and resources. Thus we create sets of biases. And this allows us to hold both good and bad beliefs simultaneously.

One of the things I have struggled with after my lapse of faith is the amount of time and energy it takes to cultivate good critical thinking skills. Critical thinking, and being skeptical, doesn't come easily. In fact, it's a very unnatural process because, in essence, we are working against our own psychology by trying to overcome the limitations of the mind-architecture evolution has dealt us. 

But the question that keeps coming to my mind is, when does a rationalization simply become little more than a lie?

In a way, all rationalizations are a type of lie. When something doesn't quite make sense, but our intuition tells us it should, we often find ourselves rationalizing things away to feel comfortable with the beliefs we currently hold.

He couldn't possibly have cheated on me. After all, he tells me he loves me every day and gives me a kiss before he heads off work. The perfume I smelled on his clothes must simply be a fluke. My birthday is coming up, maybe he went to the department store to buy me perfume and some sexy lingerie and accidentally got spritzed?

Such a rationalization seems normal. After all, even though we all assume the worst, it would be irrational to act on assumptions minus any additional evidence. Indeed, the rationalization may even be accurate. As in the example, the husband may have simply been in the department store picking out a gift for his wife, and tried on a new cologne or accidentally got spritzed as he passed through a haze of lingering perfume.

But what if a week later...

The lipstick I found on his collar makes me suspicious, sure. But he took me out to a very romantic dinner for my birthday and we had the best discussion we've ever had. He obviously still loves me. 

Now it's harder to tell what is going on, as the new information seems to start to paint a picture of a secret, behind the scenes, love affair. Still, it could simply be a mistake. But now there is a little bit more "damning evidence" as they say. 

Now the wife could do one of two things. She could continue to rationalize away her growing cognitive dissonance with the belief that her husband's fidelity, or she could investigate the incident and interrogate her husband. If she caught him telling a bald faced lie, or if she found further damning evidence, my question comes to bare. At what point is the wife simply lying to herself to salvage an already failed marriage?

In the past religious believes had every excuse to rationalize. There simply wasn't any reliable wealth of information to fall back on to search for answers. Nowadays this excuse doesn't hold. In the age of the Internet it is nearly impossible to believe in things for bad reasons. If your reasons are bad, surely someone will point it out to you, after which it is only a matter of fact checking. Go online, Google it, and see what the controversy is, and more importantly, see if your rationalization continues to hold up against the available evidence.

I would argue that in most cases the evidence for things like the existence of the Christian God, of Jesus Christ's historicity, and on the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God simply do not match up with the facts. 

But what I see happening is that many believers find themselves in the position of having to rationalize away the ever growing cognitive dissonance. It also accounts for why non-belief, and atheism, also known as "the nones" is the fastest growing "religious" demographic.

People have easy access to the Internet, Wiki resources, and online libraries. There simply are less excuses to rationalize away the discomfort when a little fact checking will go such a long way.

It boils down to this. How long will the religious continue to base their beliefs on bad reasons when the information to adjust those beliefs is readily available, and like the woman in the infidelity example, at what point does the person of faith come to terms with the fact that they are simply lying to themselves?

Of course, I can't come down too hard on religious people as a whole, because I used to be one. Asking the hard questions and going out and fact checking isn't easy. It's harder still to become good at critical thinking. But that said, I am a perfect example of the very thing I am talking about. I used to belief, unquestioningly, the tenets of Christianity. But then I went to college. Learned to critically assess information. I took this skill and honed it. Now I apply critical thinking to every aspect of my life (or at least I try too, sometimes with success). 

Over time I grew so uncomfortable with my quaint rationalizations and how the facts never quite seemed to line up exactly with my prescribed to beliefs (even though they should have if my beliefs were in anyway sound) that I eventually had to change my mind about what I thought I knew. Once my rationalizations that, like scaffolding, supported my beliefs collapsed, my beliefs collapsed alone with it. At least, the bad ones fell away. Which, although traumatic, left me with a better set of core beliefs to start building a sturdier belief system upon.

As I gained new sets of beliefs, I was able to avoid the mistakes I made the first time around, and feel that I have found a way to comfortable evaluate my beliefs so that I won't be in danger of a massive collapse as before. Yet believe me when I say the process is far from over. I continually find myself re-evaluating my beliefs because I am continually in the process of assessing them in light of better, more up to date, information.

I think it is fair to assume most people are equally as capable. I certainly want to give others the benefit of the doubt, but I still have to wonder, if you are faced with the realization that your very rationalizations don't seem to be strengthening your confidence in your deepest felt convictions, then shouldn't it be time you paused to look and see whether or not you're simply engaged in an intricate act of rationalization and self-deception?

Rationalizations are simply sophisticated forms of excuses. If you find yourself making excuses for why you believe something instead of relying upon well drafted *arguments, then perhaps your beliefs are unsupported. Now I can't speak for anyone else, but for me that would be a strong indicator that it was time to re-evaluate my beliefs.

*[Note: I realize arguments can be used to rationalize away cognitive dissonance as well. What I am referring to here is the process of formulating an argument, verses simply parroting one. It seems to me that those who attempt to argue a case by constructing a formal argument themselves are often more apt to try and find evidence to support their arguments. Those who simply parrot rehearsed arguments are, in fact, practicing a form of apologetics that allows them to dismiss the responsibility of identifying and evaluating the evidence for themselves. Apologetics is, for this reason, a masturbatory practice of rationalization without critical evaluation.

It goes without saying, good critical thinking requires one to be capable of constructing a defensible argument, which consequently puts the burden on them to defend and support their premise(s), instead of just repeating what someone else has said because it already comports to their preconceived conceptualizations and beliefs. Understandably, however, many people simply have not had the luxury of learning how to construct a formal argument. If you would like to learn to defend your position and beliefs via sound argumentation, there is an excellent section on how to write formal arguments in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. It also has a good chapter on how to identify fallacies and avoid using them in your own writing/thinking. The second edition also has a grammar/composition guide in the back indexes to assist you when writing--something I find highly valuable as a quick reference guide for my own writing.]


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