The Teachings of Jesus and Cognitive Dissonance

Michael: Last week, we discussed Jesus’s commandment of “Do not Judge”. We noted that judgment may be an innate feature of our humanity, it comes instantaneously and automatically. It occurred to me that asking if we can stop judgment is similar to Nicodemus’s question if we can be born again by returning to the mother’s womb. The answer, to both questions, is “no, that’s ridiculous.” We cannot be born again by going back to the mother’s womb, and we cannot stop the judgment. 

If that’s the case, then why does Jesus keep saying these strange statements: “Do not judge”, “If your tongue or arm cause you to sin, then cut them off!”,“You have to be perfect, like God is perfect”, “you have to be born again”.  I’m not sure if you have ever thought about it, but a lot of what Jesus said during his teachings is shocking, counter-intuitive, and hard to understand. It probably comes as no surprise that it’s not just us who find his teaching to be confusing. The disciples were also a confused bunch. This is evidenced in the bible that recounts how the disciples questioned what Jesus said and did behind his back, they asked him to explain the parables to them in private, and they bickered with each other over who among them was the greatest. The strongest evidence of the ineffectiveness of Jesus’s teaching came when one of the disciples sold him off while the rest of them fled the scene and cowered away in hiding. If Jesus were a preacher today, he would have done a terrible job. We will come back to this idea later on in the discussion. 

To prove to you my point of the strangeness of the teachings of Jesus, I will focus on his descriptions of the kingdom of heaven. You see, according to Jesus, in the kingdom of heaven, children are the governors. In the kingdom of heaven, the first become last and the last become first, if someone hits you on one cheek, you turn the other cheek for them to hit it as well. If someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, you let them have your coat as well. It is very hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven, as hard as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. That’s why the kingdom of heaven is full of the downtrodden, mourners, and prostitutes.

According to Jesus’s description, the kingdom of heaven is a truly bizarre place. It is nowhere even close to how we imagine heaven. When we imagine heaven, we prefer to use other biblical passages that say heaven is where there will be no more sin, no more ailments, physical, and emotional pain. All tears will be wiped away. We will have incorruptible bodies. And we will dwell with God and be his people. I don’t know about you, but these sound like very different heavens. I would like you to try and picture the kingdom of heaven according to Jesus. What does it look like? Perhaps picturing a slum in India or the current state of Gaza would give you a closer image of the kingdom of heaven according to Jesus.   

The question that I would like to answer in today’s discussion is why does Jesus keep saying these confusing and confounding statements and teachings. To be clear, it is not just an isolated statement or two. Many, if not most, of Jesus’s teachings are confusing if you include the parables. The answer that I would like to propose today is that Jesus used this method of teaching on purpose in order to create cognitive dissonance in his listeners.  

Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential theories in social psychology. It was developed by Leon Festinger at the beginning of the 1950s. It suggests that inconsistencies among cognitions (such as, knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, oneself, or one’s behavior) generate an uncomfortable motivating feeling (which is the cognitive dissonance state). To repeat it in simpler terms, if you try to hold two opposing opinions in your mind, you will have an uncomfortable feeling that will motivate you to reduce this discomfort.

The theory was further developed by a student of Festinger called Elliot Aronson. Aronson used this theory to change social behavior. As I’m sure you are aware, changing human behavior is no easy ordeal. For example, I’m sure you agree with me that going to the gym is good for you while eating sugar is bad for you. But how much are you able to change your behavior to go to the gym more frequently or to cut down on eating sugar just because you know you should? Believing in something and actually doing it are different things; the first does not necessarily lead to the latter.  

How can we bridge the gap between believing something and doing it? Cognitive dissonance may be the answer. Here’s a real-life example from Elliot Aronson on how he used cognitive dissonance to change human behavior: This is from a podcast called hidden brain, link below.  

Elliot Aronson: 

Santa Cruz is a very interesting campus. The students all believe in the importance of global warming. They all believe in saving the redwood trees. They all believe in all the environmental issues, but when you ask them to take short showers because of the perennial water shortage we have in California, they don’t do it. Because taking a shower is more than just getting clean. You can take a three-minute shower and be pretty clean, but it’s a luxurious experience and people enjoy luxuriating in the shower. So, then we decided to use the hypocrisy paradigm. It’s making people aware of the fact that they are behaving hypocritically, and the only way to change that is for them to start behaving in a way that’s in line with their public statements.  

So what we did was to put up a big poster in the field house that said, “Conserve water, take short showers. If I can do it, so can you.” And then their name is printed in big block letters underneath that sign. And we got people to put their name on that sign that was posted in the Fieldhouse in public view. And almost everybody that we asked to do that was willing to do it. And then we had somebody stationed in the shower room with a waterproof stopwatch, and as soon as the person got under the shower and turned it on, they started a stopwatch. And as soon as they stopped, they stopped the stopwatch, and the results we got were incredible. 
Podcast host (Shankar Vedantam): 

The researchers found that people took much shorter showers when they had made a public commitment to taking short showers. The reason was simple. If I had just publicly declared my support for water conservation and then didn’t conserve water when I was in the shower a few minutes later, how would that make me feel? 

Elliot Aronson: 

I would feel like a hypocrite. I signed that petition. It’s up there for everybody to see. There were several of these that we put up. It will be up there forever. I must start taking short showers. That’s the only way I can keep from feeling like a hypocrite. 

As humans, we are hardwired to believe that we are good, smart, competent, and moral people. Most people think they’re better than average in intelligence, better than average as a driver, better than average on most things. Most importantly, we are not hypocrites. Being a hypocrite is a state of cognitive dissonance that calls for a resolution of the discomfort through either action or changing an opinion. This is how Aronson got students not just to take shorter showers but also to use condoms more frequently to stop the spread of AIDS. He also used this to increase the numbers of black voters in the 2012 presidential election.  

Do you think that’s the reason why Jesus kept saying confounding statements? Do you think that’s why he used the word “Hypocrite” more than any other preacher? Could it be to induce cognitive dissonance in us? To implore us to take action instead of settling into our comfortable position of thinking I am a better than average human being?  

Aronson’s work indicates that the choice you make and act upon in order to decrease your cognitive dissonance can have a far-reaching effect on your attitude and behavior towards a certain moral question. Let’s take an example, imagine your attitude towards the homeless. Perhaps, when you were young, you had an ambivalent attitude. You may have thought it is sad that human beings have to live in such a state, but in the greatest country on earth, a few good choices and some hard work can change your life.

As Christians, we consider Jesus to be the son of God, our Saviour. When we read the bible, Jesus befriending such downtrodden people is puzzling. Jesus’s proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is for such people is shocking and audacious. How can I, a nice, clean-shaven Christian make sense of this cognitive dissonance that my Savior is creating? Remember that cognitive dissonance creates discomfort, and this discomfort requires resolution. We can resolve it in several ways. We either lessen it by acting upon it or actively ignoring it. If I decide to do a small act or gesture towards a person in need, this has the potential to change both my attitude and behavior towards the homeless; to look upon them with a kinder eye, to sympathize with their circumstances, and to advocate for their well-being. If instead I look away from their plight, this has the potential to harden my heart, think of them as scum, and subconsciously reject half the bible while still calling myself Christian. This choice is of immense consequence because it is how I chose to resolve my cognitive dissonance. Whichever choice I take, I am forced to stick with it so as to not fall into another state of cognitive dissonance by being a hypocrite who changes their stance every other day.  

I would like to go back to the disciples and their response to the confusing teachings of Jesus. The disciples failed Jesus during his darkest hour. But, I would like to argue that through the cognitive dissonance created by the confounding teachings and behavior of Jesus, the disciples managed to transcend their prejudice, religion, and culture. Therefore, the disciples transformed one of the most exclusive religions into one of the most inclusive. The promises of God, once made to a small sect of ethnically pure people, metamorphosed into global promises. The spread of Christianity from small Jewish churches into the gentiles was a turning point, which allowed this movement to become one of the most successful non-violent social movements in the history of humanity. This is the effect that the teachings and example of Jesus can have on us. Everyone is a child of God, and everyone is invited to the wedding feast. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. 

What do you think of this idea; that the strange teachings of Jesus are meant to create cognitive dissonance? I have heard from Anonymous and others that reading the bible can change you. Is that how that happens, through cognitive dissonance? What happens when you take the teachings of Jesus seriously? Do you become kinder, or more hardened? If the standard of God is perfection, aren’t we all hypocrites for thinking we are better than average moral people? Does that humble you? 



Michael’s comment: How evangelism gets you more entrenched into the church:  

When a person evangelizes, whether by standing at busy street corners or by going door to door, they may experience people actively ignoring them or even ridicule them. This creates a state of cognitive dissonance because, as a better than average smart person, it doesn’t make sense for me to be getting humiliated for next to nothing (since they are not being paid by the church). Therefore, to reduce this cognitive dissonance, this person may dig deeper into their church’s message and teaching, therefore becoming more entrenched and wholeheartedly believing in the cause of their evangelism. I used the research described here to come to this analysis: 


C-J: I believe that judgment is a feature rooted in fear and self-preservation. We desire to maintain our positions and safeguard them, whether through philosophy, government, or rules. In order to truly embrace the inclusive heaven described in the Bible—a place where all are welcome—we must trust that we still have a spot in line, regardless of our imperfections. The arrogance of believing that we’re unbiased is, I think, what cognitive dissonance is about, particularly when we’re confronted with our own hypocrisy. For me, it’s a call to dig deeper. Instead of merely feeling uncomfortable and wondering why, I question what’s motivating my discomfort. Is it fear stemming from a lack of understanding of others? Jesus continually emphasized that God embodies diplomacy and grace, and we should extend this to others. Christianity’s history belies its claims of peace; it has incited numerous wars to maintain power and authority. Look at the politics in the United States or the current situation in Israel, and you’ll see that peace is not inherent in Christian doctrine. We must learn from past errors in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. All of this discord stems from pride, ego, and a drive for survival.

David: Jesus aimed to shock us into realizing our ignorance—we really don’t know anything. We can’t define heaven; any attempt to do so is bound to be incorrect. The notion that heaven is a place where thieves and prostitutes are first challenges our preconceptions and forces us to reconsider what truth and belief are. This, to me, resonates deeply with Daoism. The Dao De Jing opens with, “The way that can be trodden is not the real Way. The name that can be named is not the real Name.” If you think you know something, you’re automatically wrong. I concur with Michael; Jesus aimed to instill a form of cognitive dissonance, compelling us to delve deeper into our thoughts and beliefs, rather than accepting things at face value.

Donald: Church organizations often codify doctrine to remove dissonance, labeling it as ‘truth.’ This offers a sense of comfort; you don’t need to question anything. To illustrate, we recently bought a refrigerator with a ‘Sabbath mode.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if life also had a ‘truth mode,’ where everything aligns with preset norms? Years ago, we discussed in this class why spirituality can’t just be simplified to a set of rules. If it were that easy, there’d be no room for discomfort or doubt. Even when we think we’re following the rules, do we truly understand them? Take, for example, the unease I feel when I pull up to an intersection and see a homeless person. There’s discomfort there, yet Christ never promised comfort. He didn’t let us off the hook; we’re always accountable.

Robin: People often conflate labels, like equating Christianity with political affiliation. But one can be a Christian without being a Republican or Democrat. Both parties pander to their voting blocks rather than embodying the values they claim to uphold. True Christianity transcends political stances on war or other issues. It requires Christ-like qualities—humility, compassion, love—while leaving the judgment of souls to a higher power. Governments globally often act from a place of arrogance, falsely believing they’re the best or should rule the world, but they’re all fallible because they’re made of people.

David: In my view, Jesus intended to challenge our comfort zones and provoke thought. He didn’t offer easy answers. Conversely, Christian churches aim to resolve the uncertainty Jesus introduced, promising a simplified version of heaven and truth. Could this mean that by trying to eliminate this divine confusion, the church is being un-Christian?

Michael: Most humans believe we’re slightly better than average, a notion Jesus contradicts. He forces us to think—and perhaps more importantly, act—differently. His teachings are less about offering us a comfortable space and more about pushing us out of it, perhaps even challenging us to extend that discomfort to others for the sake of growth.

C-J: This all boils down to concessions. Without making concessions, peace is unattainable. We need to shift our focus from AI back to human interactions if we want to survive as a species. Asserting “I’m right, you’re wrong” is a perilous mindset. As I interpret your sentiments, dissent is what propels us to grow. We need to not just hear, but truly listen to the questions posed, to understand the intention behind them. This is true in politics, interpersonal relationships, or any area that motivates us. Jesus emphasized the importance of relationships—both with one another and with the planet that sustains us.

Sharon: My own struggle with behavior change illustrates this point. Knowing what’s right but not doing it equates to sin. There’s a constant internal battle—my spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. The question becomes, am I accountable for knowing the right thing but failing to act on it? While I can’t solve macro issues singlehandedly, I can make a difference on a smaller scale. I appreciate today’s discussion about how dissonance can be motivational. Stanford’s research on behavior change advises taking tiny steps, which resonates with me. While judgment exists, grace ultimately prevails, thanks to Jesus. But the internal struggle continues.

Donald: Is the call to action in public spaces similar to a pastor’s call in church? It’s often easier to remain seated, but in a church setting, most people would stand. Each person interprets this call differently, but the underlying urge is always to find comfort.

Sharon: Sometimes, silence speaks volumes.

Donald: The unease we feel when encountering a homeless person at an intersection is similar to the feeling during a call to action in church. Both scenarios confront us with choices that take us out of our comfort zone, whether it’s choosing to stand up or give a dollar. We’re always in pursuit of comfort, but what price are we willing to pay for it?

Michael: Evangelism might seem aimed at bringing more people into the church to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, but often it serves another purpose: it strengthens the belief of the person evangelizing. This makes sense because you’re committing to something that could be ridiculed unless it holds immense importance for you. So while evangelism does bring in new members, it also reinforces the beliefs of those already in the church.

C-J: I don’t mean to offend, but for me, the Church has always seemed more about money, power, and land, as well as controlling wars. This focus obscures the importance of personal and community relationships. The Catholic Church historically exerted influence over kings, who held financial sway. To me, this sort of institutional power is dangerous. Jesus focused on community, where people supported each other regardless of wealth; your life was your testimony. Mixing Jewish traditions with this communal focus creates what we call grace. Life is a challenge in multiple dimensions—moral, financial, health-related, and political. If the Church or any religious institution focuses too much on preserving its power, it risks neglecting the essential task of embracing others.

Donald: I respect many of the values of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—notice I said ‘values,’ not ‘doctrines.’ Doctrines delve into specifics and can become complicated. However, the values represented by the Church encourage a kinder, gentler society. Take, for example, the “Blue Zone” phenomenon on YouTube, which features Seventh-day Adventist communities as places where people don’t just live longer but contribute meaningfully to society. While no human-made construct is perfect, a church that offers a valuable pathway and avoids presenting itself as the sole arbiter of truth can make a significant difference.

Carolyn: I feel we have two competing voices in our lives. One is the Holy Spirit, which encourages us to foster meaningful relationships, while the other voice leads us away from goodness, fully aware of our vulnerabilities. The Holy Spirit gently nudges us to do what is right, and it’s crucial for us to remain receptive.

Don: The topic of cognitive dissonance can’t be discussed without mentioning grace. Perhaps Jesus introduces cognitive dissonance to lead us to the conclusion that it can’t be resolved through human action or reason alone. This leaves us with only one option: the need for grace. Understanding this may well be the solution to the cognitive dissonance Jesus creates.

Michael: I agree, we do need grace. If we take Jesus’ teachings seriously, we might always feel bad about ourselves, which suggests there must be a role for grace.

Reinhard: Cognitive dissonance is intriguing. Jesus’ teachings challenged established beliefs and practices, causing discomfort among the religious leaders of his time. The essence of his teaching, which emphasized love and forgiveness, aimed to simplify complex religious rules that hindered people’s relationship with God. Regarding judgment, it’s important to distinguish between matters of salvation, which are between a person and God, and trivial disputes that can be resolved within the community.

Don: The class owes a great deal to Michael for his excellent academic and spiritual contributions. Well done, Michael.

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