Cognitive dissonance and complementarianismPosted: November 10, 2010
I’ve been transcribing Joshua Harris’s recent sermons on gender roles for the blog. In reviewing them I’ve been struck again by the frequent disclaimers in both sermons about what submission “doesn’t mean.” In his first sermon on submission, for example, he begins by clearly stating that the text he’s preaching on doesn’t belittle or condescend to women, that it doesn’t condone abuse, or teach that wives are inferior to their husbands. Rather, he says, this passage honors women, and “elevates the dignity . . . [and] the value of women.”
This, to be clear, is a passage that says women should submit and be “subject” to their husbands “as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” Oh, and it calls women “the weaker vessel.” (1 Peter 3:1-6). Not exactly a subtle or difficult to interpret text; yet Harris categorically states that it does not mean what it pretty clearly says, read as literally as complementarians say the Bible should be read.*
As I’ve discussed earlier, one of the reasons for such disclaimers is that complementarian leaders know perfectly well that their theology is misogynist both in its content and its implications, and they also know that such overt misogyny doesn’t fly with people outside their communities – which isn’t to say that American society in general isn’t extremely misogynistic – it absolutely is. Many of the misogynist ideas explicit in complementarian theology are implicit in how our culture views and treats women. Even so, openly stating a belief in the divinely ordained inferiority of women is pretty unacceptable in public discourse; most complementarians avoid doing so and try to distance themselves from this implication of their theology.
But on further thought, I think there’s a lot more behind these disclaimers than mere PR or image consciousness. In fact, I think it’s probably the case that these disclaimers are primarily intended for people already in the complementarian fold. I think they’re part of a strategy – perhaps deliberate, perhaps not – to use cognitive dissonance to manipulate and control people, particularly women.
Complementarian women are constantly reminded that “God” requires them to obey their husbands, that God created them to follow male leadership. But at the same time they also hear a constant refrain that unquestioning obedience is really liberation, and that their second-class status in their families and their churches is really evidence of how loved and valued they are by complementarian men and their patriarchal god. They’re taught that passages which, read literally, clearly teach that women are of less value and status than men, really don’t undermine gender equality at all.
In order to accept these contradictory claims as true, complementarian women have to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that inducing a state of cognitive dissonance (deliberately or not) is a very effective means of controlling and manipulating people. Living with cognitive dissonance requires constant rationalizations of obviously false or contradictory claims, and tenuous explanations of why these claims appear to be false or contradictory, but are in fact true or compatible. And once you can get people to be constantly engaged in the mental gymnastics required to maintain cognitive dissonance, you have them in a place where they’re much more likely to accept other absurd or illogical ideas as true. People are more suggestible and pliable in such a state, because they’re already invested in defending whatever you claim as true, no matter how far-fetched it might be. Unsurprisingly, cognitive dissonance is a common feature of cultic or controlling groups (more on cognitive dissonance and cultic thinking/behavior here).
As I see it, this is one of many reasons why so many women accept complementarian theology as unquestioned truth and morality, despite its obvious devaluation of them, and anything or anyone considered “feminine.” They’re so deeply invested in defending the absolute truth of their theology, and the absolute righteousness of their leaders, that they are primed to accept some truly ridiculous assertions about the “holiness” of female subservience as entirely compatible with gender equality.
*I’m aware that there are translation issues with this and other texts, and that there are other more egalitarian or feminist interpretations of these texts. I’m talking specifically about the translations complementarians use and the principles of interpretation they apply to the Bible.