Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

One of the book's many examples of bad behavior is Oprah Winfrey's public support of A Million Little Pieces, which was a literary fraud. It was a mistake any talk show host could make, but Oprah tried to justify her mistake on the Larry King show and made a number of irrational statements, such as "truth isn't important." Tavris and Aronson say there is a "pyramid of choice" that King and Winfrey were on top of because they had similar moral values. After Winfrey made her mistake, however, she descended into a position of moral inferiority. Her subsequent public apology drew much praise because it is so unusual for people to admit they made a mistake.

The authors analyze this kind of behavior with the theory of cognitive dissonance, which has "inspired more than 3,000 experiments that, taken together, have transformed psychologists' understanding of how the human mind works"(location 226). The theory is that Oprah suffered mentally and emotionally because her idea that the book was good was inconsistent with reality, and she diminished her suffering (at first) by making self-justifying statements. The following quote from a famous psychoanalyst shows that anxiety or stress can inhibit a person from thinking intelligently and rationally:

Let us consider for example, a person listening to a paper and having critical thoughts about it. A minor inhibition would consist in a timidity about expressing the criticism; a strong inhibition would prevent him from organizing his thoughts, with the result that they would occur to him only after the discussion was over, or the next morning. But the inhibition may go so far as not to permit the critical thoughts to come up at all, and in this case, assuming that he really feels critical, he will be inclined to accept blindly what has been said or even to admire it; and he will be quite unaware of having any inhibitions. In other words, if an inhibition goes so far as to check wished or impulses there can be no awareness of its existence. (The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, Karen Horney, M.D., New York: Norton, 1937, p. 55 )

In religion, there are three fundamental truths that cause anxiety or cognitive dissonance: 1) The existence of God. 2) The Resurrection of Jesus. 3) The non-authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

Existence of God

We know that God exists because of the arguments of Thomas Aquinas and √ątienne Gilson: Finite beings (humans) exist. Finite beings need a cause. Ergo, an infinite being (God) exists. You can see that this argument is actually a proof by considering the question of whether or not humans have free will.

Evidence for free will is that slavery is illegal, but it is not illegal to own animals and breed them for food. This might suggest that people who think humans do not have free will have bad judgment. However, there is no need to make a decision about this question. No one is arguing that slavery should be legalized because humans are no better than animals. It does not show poor judgment to speculate about whether or not humans have free will and to play the devil's advocate by promoting the philosophy called positivism. However, concerning the question of God's existence, there is a decision that has to be made: Is there life after death? Will we pay for our sins after we die? It is because of the need to make this decision that one's statements and thoughts about God's existence can reflect poorly on one's character.

The following four statements are knowledgeable, intelligent, rational, and honest ways to justify deciding that life ends in the grave:

  1. 1. God has not given me the gift of faith.
  2. 2. The concept of God is contradictory.
  3. 3. If God cared about our welfare, He would not cause so much suffering.
  4. 4. The argument for God's existence is not persuasive.

It is irrational to say, "I don't believe in life after death, because God does not exist." When a person says this they are going down the "pyramid of choice" for the sake of self-justification. The statement is absurd because it makes no sense to consider whether there is life after death if God does not exist and to consider whether or not God exists if you are not trying to decide if there is life after death.

Resurrection of Jesus

The Resurrection of Jesus is an historical event. The followers of Jesus dispersed in fear and disappointment after the crucifixion but renewed their fellowship within a few years and swore up and down that Jesus appeared to them after he died.

The faith of Christians is that Jesus is alive in a new life with God and if you follow Jesus the same good thing can happen to you. There is a gap between this belief and the historical event. This gap is widened because there are many presumably knowledgeable, intelligent, rational, and honest people who do not believe in life after death.

This does not cause me any stress because I understand that most non-believers are not knowledgeable because they don't know the argument for God's existence. They are not intelligent because they don't understand why humans are embodied spirits. With the exception of Jean-Paul Sartre, who said "man is a useless passion," they are not rational about the meaning of life. They are not honest because they use the spurious refutation: "Who made God?"

Many Christians alleviate the stress by asking what caused the Resurrection of Jesus. This question can't be answered because the gospels were written many years after the Resurrection. But if you assume the question is a good one, it justifies inventing hypotheses to answer the question. The two most common hypotheses are: 1) The followers of Jesus were hallucinating. 2) There occurred a bodily coming-to-life of Jesus, that is, a video camera could have recorded the event. The next step is to assume a high probability for the resurrection theory and low probability for hallucination theory. These probability assumptions are accompanied with the explanation that those who don't agree are materialists, agnostics, or atheists. This reasoning transforms faith in Jesus into an historical event, albeit only a probable event. The gap between this highly probable event and faith is closed with the idea of a "leap of faith." The net result, however, is self-justification and putting non-believers on a low level of the "pyramid of choice."

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin contains a blood-stained image of the front of Jesus and the back of Jesus. It is clearly the work of craftsmen or artists who used a crucified victim or volunteer and methods that have been lost to history to tell the gospel stories about the crucifixion of Jesus. The evidence the Holy Shroud never touched Jesus is the unusual dimensions of the linen cloth, the non-speared blood stains, and the existence of a detailed image. The Holy Shroud is a sign or reason to believe in Jesus, but many Christians prefer to think it is evidence supporting the theory of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus.