Faith dissonance theory leon festinger in prophecy

When prophecy fails

Disturbing religion

Nowhere in the West is politics as religiously shaped as in the USA. Even in normal cases, this spiritual dimension is hardly understandable from a European point of view. Some phenomena surrounding the current 2020 election have reached a new level of disturbing religious culture. For example, the way in which the official spiritual advisor to US President Paula White prays in a trance to prevent demonic powers from fraudulent elections. Or the appearance of Kenneth Copeland, one of the world's most influential evangelical Pentecostal preachers in the last few decades, who acknowledged the unanimous assessment of the media that Biden had won the election with a laugh that many find creepy.

The films, which are widely shared on the Internet, are so disturbing because they undermine the feeling of living in the same world.

Can you somehow understand something like that? A little bit.

Cognitive dissonance and its consequences

"When prophecy fails" - this is the title of one of the most important classics in social psychology by Leon Festinger and others from 1957. In the early 1950s, a group of young psychologists discovered a UFO sect that was preparing for the end of the world to come. The researchers recognized this as a unique opportunity for participatory observation of a special kind: They joined the community in order to be able to study up close how the group would deal with the failure of their prophecy. Festinger and Co. started from the following question: What happens to a belief,

  1. to which a person adheres wholeheartedly and to which he or she directs his life,
  2. if this is refuted as obviously as possible and
  3. do the believers experience this together in a dense social cohesion?

Festinger Before beginning the investigation, he put forward a hypothesis that may be astonishing at first sight: Most members of such a religious group will not give up their faith, but on the contrary devote themselves even more intensively to its missionary dissemination. Indeed, this hypothesis turned out to be correct.

The absence of the end of the world did not lead most of them to apostasy, but rather to an increase in their missionary endeavors.

Why in the world are strong beliefs so resistant to facts? Festinger and others developed the from this observation Cognitive dissonance theory. People love the feeling of consonance between thought and reality, belief and practice. You need consistency. That is why they bear dissonance so badly. People strive to reduce dissonance.

This can happen in different directions. The simplest would of course be to adapt one's beliefs to reality if there is a discrepancy between beliefs and tangible reality. But this does not happen with strong ideological convictions. Such beliefs have become part of one's identity. To hold on to them is no longer a question of truth, but a question of character. For those affected, it is about loyalty and courage. Above all, the more you have sacrificed or suffered for your own convictions, the more you hold onto them.

Nietzsche already said: "People value a thing according to the effort that they have made for its sake."

But the community in which one is involved is also very important. When the UFO sect did not end the world, only those turned away from their faith who had not experienced the end of the world with the others or were not so strongly integrated into the group overall. (This should be borne in mind when radical religious groups oppose the Corona rules, namely that the request for physical distancing makes something absolutely necessary for these groups impossible.)
One might be tempted to understand this mechanism as a blueprint for fundamentalist communities: Demand the greatest possible sacrifices from your believers and make sure that they are always embedded in dense fellowship (small groups). Religious groups that adhere to these two factors will be significantly more successful, at least in the short and medium term, than communities that encourage independent thinking.

But perhaps it should not be overlooked that this passionate struggle to hold on to the faith is also about something that is deeply human. Even more: that is essential to faith.

Sometimes it takes faith against all odds. Sometimes what you see gives you no reason to hope (Romans 8:24). Sometimes one has to hold on to "what one does not see" (Heb. 11: 1) and "believe in hope where there is no hope" (Rom. 4:18), fully aware that such hope is not based on sight, but in faith (2 Corinthians 5: 7). The struggle for such a belief is anything but ridiculous.

For many believers today, isn't it ultimately also about this, just in a completely different way:

To hold on to a prophetic faith that seeks not the proximity of the mighty but the powerless. Who blesses his enemies instead of wanting to see their downfall.

Who only speaks of enemies when it comes to love for them. A hope against the appearance that it is not yet too late to face human challenges like the global climate crisis together.

Possible ways out

One should not expect that the disappointment of a deep faith hope will lead to a fundamental revision of that belief. For people who have closely linked their religious beliefs and approval of Trump, this is a state of emergency. They absolutely want to hold on to their beliefs. But they can only succeed in this if they develop their faith further, at least in part. They must manage to find a new form of their faith without feeling that they have been unfaithful to their faith.

  1. Of course, it can happen that individuals fail and drop out altogether. In recent years, not a few people who grew up with such piety have dropped out; and very often when they had to move for reasons of study or work and gained distance from their previous social involvement in such communities of conviction. It is not uncommon for them to leave not only such a form but also every form of organized religion. But it will most likely remain the exception.
  2. One should not underestimate how flexibly beliefs can develop even in strictly religious movements. One of the most famous examples are the Jehovah's Witnesses, who throughout their history repeatedly foretold the return of Jesus for specific years (1878, 1881, 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975); and each time managed not to break because of the failure of this prophecy. They succeeded in telling their story, e.g. with the interpretation that Jesus actually took over his reign, but invisible in heaven.
  3. One can already observe that a change is taking place among less extreme religious Trump supporters: they are committed to emphasizing the importance of the political less strongly in the future. In moderate evangelical circles, such as those reported in the magazine Christianity Today is represented, one can observe that one does not want to break with previous convictions, but in the future wants to work more in a missionary than a political way in the public.

Of course, it would be desirable if such circles would not only question the status of the political, but also their own understanding of politics. That they see politics not as a place of power struggle, but as a space in which good things are argued with and for others. But in view of the apocalyptic worldview and the deep-seated resentment against everything progressive, no mass movement in this direction is to be expected at the moment.

And there we are again on the topic:

Hold on to faith. All those who wish for something like that need a belief against the face and hope for what cannot be seen right now. Without trance and laughter. With love and patience.


Photo by chester wade on Unsplash

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