By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam
14 May 2022
The Role of Cognitive Dissonance
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said in his 1925 book, Science and the Modern World: “It is easy enough to find a [self-consistent] theory . . . , provided that you are content to disregard half your evidence. The moral temper required for the pursuit of truth, includes an unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account.”
When it comes to those who reject Islam, you will notice that these rejecters show an unflinching determination to disregard all of the relevant evidence!
For example, if you are looking for evidence whether the Quran is truly Allah’s word, you will find it easily in many of the verses of the Quran. In my article, t, I have covered a few of them. What could be more clinching than the evidence that the Quran talks of creation of the universe in terms discovered by science only in the 20th century?
It was beyond anyone’s imagination that the Universe at one time was squeezed tightly together (to a size less than that of an atomic sub-particle) before the expansion, or the idea that our universe is forever expanding, or of the property of Time that it is relative to the frame of reference of the observer, and, therefore, a cosmic day that the Quran talks about, is not our 24 hour day, but could be one thousand, fifty thousand or even hundreds of thousands of years, that the predominant component of all living beings is water? These are the Ayats or the astonishing signs of Allah for the people of today. Such Ayats are not to be found in any previous scriptures. These Ayats not only provide evidence that the Quran is the word of Allah but that Muhammad (pbuh) was a true prophet and not an impostor plagiarising the previous Books as alleged by the enemies of Islam. Do we need any more evidence than this? Is it not enough? Can a mountain of lies heaped against it be of any consequence?
Will such Ayats make all those who read them, accept the Message? The Quran informs us that while a few may, many of those who are wilful rejecters will not. The Quran provides several examples, the most graphic being that of the pharaoh of Moses times, to whom were sent about a dozen signs but remained a rejecter which made Moses pray for his destruction.
(10:88) Moses prayed: "Our Lord! Thou hast indeed bestowed on Pharaoh and his chiefs splendour and wealth in the life of the present, and so, Our Lord, they mislead (men) from Thy Path. Deface, our Lord, the features of their wealth, and send hardness to their hearts, so they will not believe until they see the grievous penalty."(89) Allah said: "Accepted is your prayer (O Moses and Aaron)! So stand ye straight, and follow not the path of those who know not."(90) We took the Children of Israel across the sea: Pharaoh and his hosts followed them in insolence and spite. At length, when overwhelmed with the flood, he said: "I believe that there is no god except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of those who submit (to Allah in Islam)."(91) (It was said to him): "Ah now! - But a little while before, wast thou in rebellion!- and thou didst mischief (and violence)!(92) "This day shall We save thee in the body, that thou mayest be a sign to those who come after thee! but verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our Signs!"
How do people manage to reject such clear evidence? In Psychology this is called cognitive bias where people pay attention only to facts that support their prejudices and passions. Uncomfortable evidence that contradicts their passionately held position causes what is called cognitive dissonance. An honest way of dealing with cognitive dissonance is to revise their opinion/theory taking the full facts of the case into consideration. Dishonest ways are by way of discounting, falsifying, or by ignoring altogether the evidence that does not suit their purpose. When their most passionately held position is challenged, they react violently and resort to slander and calumny such as the Islamohobes do. The Islamophobes have a toolkit ready for attack when they stand exposed. They are determined in their mission.
Ad hominem is common except that for the Islamohobes, the Prophet is their target. They also have a collection of what they think is indefensible in the Quran such as the permission to have sex with own slaves without marrying them first. Such, ayats shake up the believers of our times also, who with their sensibilities of a world at peace and free of legalised slavery, are unable to accept these as right. The Quran has enough to test the believers as well as the disbelievers. However, the promise of Allah, that those who place their trust in Him and seek His help, will find guidance, is unfailing. There is no arrow that these wretched Islamophobes can shoot that will ever find its mark. The morality of the permission to have sex with own slave is covered in my article:
Degrees of Cognitive Dissonance
Not everyone feels cognitive dissonance to the same degree. People with a higher need for consistency and certainty in their lives usually feel the effects of cognitive dissonance more than those who have a lesser need for such consistency. People who have not trained themselves to deal honestly with cognitive dissonance become habitual liars and feel nothing. It is about these people that the Quran says:
(2:16) These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction,(17) Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see. (18) Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the correct path).
People who have learnt to suppress cognitive dissonance will rarely change their stand on any issue no matter even if they are proved wrong. This is so since their decision in the first place is not based on an objective analysis and the truth in any case is unimportant to such people. Pride and arrogance prevent such people from changing their stand even if proved wrong. The Quran says about such people:
(6:109) They swear their strongest oaths by Allah, that if a (special) sign came to them, by it they would believe. Say: "Certainly (all) signs are in the power of Allah: but what will make you (Muslims) realise that (even) if (special) signs came, they will not believe."?
(7:101) Such were the towns whose story We (thus) relate unto thee: There came indeed to them their messengers with clear (signs): But they would not believe what they had rejected before. Thus doth Allah seal up the hearts of those who reject faith.
(7:146) Those who behave arrogantly on the earth in defiance of right - them will I turn away from My signs: Even if they see all the signs, they will not believe in them; and if they see the way of right conduct, they will not adopt it as the way; but if they see the way of error, that is the way they will adopt. For they have rejected our signs, and failed to take warning from them.
That unchecked cognitive bias will take a person down a spiral, is an unchanging law of human behaviour.
Can A Person Suffering From The Disease Of Suppressing Cognitive Dissonance Change Himself?
A person has to first accept that there is a problem and make a moral choice to change and seek God’s help for changing.
People must realize that refusing to learn to deal honestly with cognitive dissonance in its most basic form, is a lie to oneself and self-deception. Matz and his colleagues (2008) found that people who were extraverted were less likely to feel the negative impact of cognitive dissonance and were also less likely to change their mind. Introverts, on the other hand, deal more honestly with cognitive dissonance. This is hardly surprising since introverts are concerned with self-image and telling a lie to one self is more difficult and the extraverts are more concerned with what others say about them. The cronies, side-kicks and sycophants of the extraverts are there to heap praise on them whatever they say or do and join them in their attacks on truth. If there are people who confront them with their lie and embarrass them, they will respond by categorizing them with some odious labels and try to cover the truth with more lies. These people will never change when they have people who support them in their lie. Politicians therefore are some of the most adept liars and practitioners of systematic deceit and the most shameless among all the liars.
Self-awareness and a desire to change is the key to changing oneself. You know when you are disregarding information that contradicts your stand on any issue. As Socrates said “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Develop self-awareness which is the first step to change.
If there is a conflict between what you desire and what you consider right then consciously choose what is right. Learn to admit past mistakes, repent, apologize for these and learn to move forward.
People who talk about morals speak about the ‘conscience’ or the inner voice which is nothing but the cognitive dissonance that we experience when our action does not match what we consider to be right.
Can Prayer Help?
Prayer is a form of self-conditioning or priming and is most effective in changing one’s behaviour. Belief in God helps but it should work even without such belief if the prayer is changed to a daily resolution or pledge.
This prayer (of the Prophet) is my daily morning prayer:
O Allah! Purge my heart of hypocrisy,
My conduct from dissimulation,
My tongue from falsehood,
And my eyes from treachery,
For You indeed know the treacherous glance of the eyes
And that which the heart conceals.
You will notice that the Quran describes the laws of human behaviour but puts the same across as what God does. This is so since these are nothing but the unchanging laws of God which work inexorably in the most consistent and unchanging fashion. If you notice, even the laws of nature are described as if God is actively doing something for example, holding a bird in flight and preventing it from falling. People take this literally and say that if God is allowing people to go astray or sealing up their hearts, or causing them to be “deaf, dumb and blind”, how can they be blamed? This is again more of self-deception and inability to take responsibility for the moral choices they themselves make or for the path that they have chosen even though God constantly reminds them that:
(4:120) Satan makes them promises, and creates in them false desires; but Satan’s promises are nothing but deception.
(35:5) O men! Certainly the promise of Allah is true. Let not then this present life deceive you, nor let the Chief Deceiver deceive you about Allah. (6) Verily Satan is an enemy to you: so treat him as an enemy. He only invites his adherents that they may become Companions of the Blazing Fire.
A frequent contributor to NewAgeIslam.com, Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He has spent years studying Quran in-depth and made seminal contributions to its interpretation.
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