Cognitive Dissonance


Is it *really* that complicated?


“Morality is definitely subjective. Everyone has different beliefs and were raised a certain way. You might think murder is wrong, but you only think that because you’ve been raised that way. Others who are raised differently might disagree, so who is to say?” Or so he claimed. I teach a philosophy class to high schoolers, and we were discussing whether morality is objective or subjective. They had watched a debate on the question the day before. All heads but one in the class nodded in agreement to the student’s comment. Assertions like that are a dime a dozen when it comes to the morality issue. I have come to expect it. Still, I probed further.

Me: are you saying that moral beliefs are like ice cream choices--no one choice/belief is better than the opposite? Larry (let’s call him Larry. I am, of course, obscuring his real name): precisely. I mean, c’mon Mr. B, in the debate the one guy claimed that torturing babies for fun is wrong. Well that’s just his opinion. Me: That’s *just* his opinion...you seem to be emphasizing the word *just*. In other words, you think that is merely his belief, nothing more. It is not true, and he doesn’t know that to be true. Am I understanding you correctly? Larry: yes, absolutely.


Me: So you really believe that you can’t know that its wrong to torture babies for fun? Larry: yes (straight face. He was very confident in this.) The rest of the class audibly groaned in horror at what Larry just said. Here’s the thing, though: they recoiled in horror right then, but 30 seconds later the rest of the class would say the same thing. Each student in turn made the exact same assertions that Larry made, and said it without blinking. Then they’d balk when I held their feet to the fire and applied it to real situations, only to return to their relativism a moment later.

There was even one black student who waffled regarding whether slavery was wrong: "yes, no, I mean, it's wrong for me but that's how they were raised, I mean yes it's wrong, well....I don't know.....(pause) yes, it's wrong."

This kept happening, all without them realizing the irony. Time after time, one moment they’d be horrified at someone else’s relativism, only to turn around and espouse relativism with a straight face themselves. The air was thick with cognitive dissonance. There are several reasons why. Just thoughts off the top of my head: 1) They don’t get much of an opportunity to think deeply about the big questions of life, including moral questions. Their bandwidth and time is spent on building the successful life, and the flotsam and jetsam of suburbia--college applications, sat prep, soccer practice, being chauffeured to piano lessons, social media, etc--they are not given the opportunity and space to think about what matters most, so their moral thinking is left very raw and secular.


2) They think like this because the adults think like this. Older generations think the exact same way. It’s how they’ve been raised. Lets face it: confusion is nothing new, so we cannot blame them for being mixed up. 3) No one is really a relativist. They are just selective relativists when defending turf. As J. Budziszewski notes, the desire to know competes intensely with the desire not to know. Our desire to be autonomous clashes with the conscience God has given us. We want to be independent and call our own shots--which requires denial of the moral law--but at the end of the day we live in God’s world and it’s impossible to totally do an end run around that. Also Budziszewski, there are things we can’t not know--the moral law written on the heart--but various forces in the world and our sin nature serve to suppress that knowledge. What you get is a very confused individual talking out of both sides of his mouth. 4) For Christian youth, churches don’t really address and form the intellect much. The discipling of the world is left fairly unchallenged at the idea level, so the lies of the world win by default. This is one reason why thorough training in apologetics--not just a small series or two in youth group!--is an absolute necessity in church and in the home. It builds resilience.


It’s an absolute mess up in their heads--a worldview junk drawer. If we want kids in the Church to be different, we must teach them differently and counteract the discipleship they get from the world. This is why teaching apologetics deeply and thoroughly is necessary in our youth groups, in home discipleship, and church discipleship generally. Neglecting this leaves them vulnerable to lies.


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