Christian Cognitive Distortions
Christians may suffer their faith in the form of cognitive distortions, defined as exaggerated or irrational thinking that often accompanies depression, anxiety, and other conditions. These cognitive distortions form within the Christian worldview founded on an implausible religion. Much like the outdated Earth-centric view of the universe the church once imposed on scientists, the Christian worldview foists a working model for reasoning that sometimes even derives correct answers, but this thought process often fails when applied to real-world situations. These failures trace along cognitive distortions present in the Christian worldview that manifests in discussions and actions.
As discussed in a previous article, because adherents cement their thinking to an implausible notion, they are prone to presenting their thoughts deceptively since this is the only way to prove their arguments. The implausible foundation of the bible and Christian faith gives rise to many fallacies necessary for believers to make the Christian worldview work, but are they logical fallacies or cognitive distortions?
Let’s take, for example, persecution: an idea widely embraced by the Christian worldview. In a prior discussion, we described the causes and problems associated with persecution, and now we see how this belief becomes a cognitive distortion that motivates many believers to act as protectors of the faith or as victims when faced with criticism. This belief is so strong that Christians often nonsensically raise the shield against critics, compelled by their distorted thinking. For example, my article “Christians Turn West Virginia into Breeding Ground,” which, among other things, argues white Christians want to make women into incubators to produce more white Christians, provides a persecution example with a Christian arguing,
The Depth of Christian Cognitive Distortion
The fact that Christianity comprises diverse peoples does not guarantee the religion’s inseparability from race, as proven by the existence of the Christian white supremacist group, the KKK. Blacks and Asians or any human can also be racist, but more to the point, Christianity does racially divide. Just like white Christians tied to Christian Nationalist organizations, most Black Christian Americans tie themselves to specific churches, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church or the Church of God in Christ. This distortion reflects the Christian propensity to ignore reality.
The No True Scotsman Fallacy appears so much it begs to be called pathological amongst Christians. Ignoring common sense that dictates every sect’s claim cannot be true and the lack of plausible evidence to suggest any are true, Christians persist with this fallacious claim. At the minimum, this fallacy reflects some delusional thinking.
Every day, Christians argue this claim based on their sect or their interpretation of the Bible whenever they say another Christian is not a “true” Christian. The No True Scotsman fallacy reveals as a distortion because the person believes they know what makes a Christian authentic because they have the correct interpretation of the Bible and the will of God for the same reason the person they accuse of inauthenticity makes a claim. You would have to be delusional to some degree to believe you know the true word of God and reject a “fake” Christian based on the same evidence used by the inauthentic Christian.
Keep in mind that what is important here is not so much the fallacies but the impetus to commit the fallacy.
The Strawman Argument is another typical fallacy appearing so often in Christian arguments that it also seems pathological. The Christian has replaced my argument with a different one and disproves the argument he posed: the definition of the strawman. This particular instance of the fallacy highlights the motion from fallacy to cognitive distortion. Keep this argument in mind because its importance will come to light later.
Fallacy & Distortion
While this critique shows typical arguing that presents fallacies made by a person lacking critical thinking skills, it elucidates a far worse cognitive distortion issue. People cite fallacies in philosophy and other areas such as law because these mistakes or misunderstandings easily occur in nuanced arguments, but Christians present an abundance of these fallacies whenever faced with religious criticism, even in simple criticism. The more important question asks, if Christian faith is plausible, then shouldn’t their arguments be exact, with little room for error since they should know the critic is wrong and draw on their truth to argue?
To be clear, if they know the truth of God and Jesus Christ as the savior, then why can’t Christians argue plausibly with less error or ambiguity?
Christians will give you an abundance of answers to this question, citing the Bible, human error, and other arguments but what most often drives their arguing is not truth or facts but cognitive distortions. In the case of this comment, the person defends Christianity with a distorted perception of persecution that leads to more cognitive distortions: all stemming from their implausible belief that tells them they are persecuted.
How could any person in the US rationally believe Christians are persecuted, considering they dominate government and politics?
Black and white thinking, strawman arguments, generalizing, and other cognitive distortions become necessary for Christians to justify their unrealistic belief. If Christian beliefs were even remotely plausible, you would not see the high frequency of cognitive distortions occurring, and their arguments would be far more realistic and certainly would not be as prone to obvious factual errors, such as trying to argue Christianity does not tie with race.
How do we know this person is justifying their unrealistic belief in a distorted perception of persecution? By baiting them with a comment to test their response for distortions.
The Christian has now swapped his original strawman argument for a different strawman argument, claiming the high percentage of Latinx and Blacks calling themselves Christian shows they are comfortable with American Christianity.
The Christian now proves his second strawman argument by claiming Latinx and Blacks would not be comfortable with American Christianity, if it were racist and therefore Christianity is not racist. (At this point, I am not even sure he knows what his point is!)
The Christian claims I must hate Christians because someone did something bad to me as though nothing else can explain my hate (persecution) of Christians, revealing the persecution distortion beneath all the other distortions made to support his primary belief in the implausible religion.
Psychopathological, Not Philosophical
Almost any argument with a Christian can be tested similarly to examine the distortion frequency and type of distortions, revealing how Christians must bend reality to match their perception of the truth. More than just reality-warping distortions, they become prone to more distortions needed to support that illusionary world, causing the appearance of specific forms of distortions, such as the strawman arguments needed to support the persecution claim. The commenter is not arguing my points; he is trying to reveal my hatred (persecution) of Christians. Caught in this distortion, he not only alters the argument (twice) to fit his goal, he grossly overlooks the reality that Christians are divided into large racial groups, even within sects.
Understanding this problem moves most Christian arguments from philosophy to psychology since they fit cognitive distortions more reasonably than fallacies. For instance, this Christian’s argument is not an objective or even quality subjective argument based on experience but instead a rationalization of a belief, which makes it a cognitive distortion. There is tremendous overlap in this area between cognitive distortions and logical fallacies. For example, some distortions of thought include:
1. Filtering: “You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A single detail may be picked out, and the whole event becomes colored by this detail.”*
2. Polarized Thinking: The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. Things are black or white, good or bad. You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground.”*
3. Overgeneralization: You come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again.*
Aligning by enumeration with these distortions are fallacies,
1. The fallacy of composition: “an informal fallacy that arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole."
2. False dilemma: “A false dilemma, also referred to as false dichotomy, is an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.”
3. Overgeneralization: “is a logical fallacy that occurs when a conclusion about a group is drawn from an unrepresentative sample, especially a sample that is too small or too narrow.”
This is just a short list of many distortions overlapping with fallacies, showing the thin line between distinguishing argument and pathology, complicated further by a lack of objective research. The need to use internet discussion examples highlights that while psychology has associated cognitive distortions with religion, little research exists in showing the relationship between religion and frequency and type of distortion.
Lack of research comes as no surprise in a Christian-dominated country such as the US that generally views Christianity favorably. We see this favorability readily in the literature, such as “How Cognitive Distortions Affect Religious Fundamentalists,” which provides a “perspective of how processes of thought may affect adherents of any religion.” This focus assumes cognitive distortions result from the individual’s thought process, not from the religion itself, exemplified when the author states, “From a cognitive perspective, absolutistic cognitive rigidity is more related to type of thinking than it is related to content of thought.” The bias to view religion as favorable elucidates further when the researcher states,
Absolutism can also lead to theological arrogance, which involves an absolutistic certainty — essentially the opposite of faith.
This difference between faith and absolutism relies more on a connotative definition than a realistic one, drawing on the ambiguity between absolutism and faith’s meanings, e.g., My religion is absolute. v. I have faith in my religion. Though most people never verbalize absolutism in religion, their faith often appears absolute in many topics, such as Christians with abortion law.
While this researcher brilliantly detailed distortions, his assumption that they must result from the individual’s thought process, not from believing the religion, shows bias.
In an even clearer religious bias example, psychologist Sian Ferguson, in her article “Can Religious Beliefs Make OCD Harder to Navigate?” states, “As I began therapy, I started noticing how I used a lot of religious beliefs — beliefs I thought I no longer held. I did this to justify some of the cognitive distortions that fueled my OCD.”
Ferguson goes on to say that as she “learned to recognize some of the cognitive distortions,” she “was struck by how much religious thinking was involved” and says, “I often justified my irrational thoughts with these beliefs.” Like other mental health professionals, Ferguson doesn’t see the possible causal relationship of her Catholic religion with her OCD and instead blames her OCD for causing the distortion even though she admits that “some religious teachings can worsen these distorted thoughts.” Ferguson goes out of her way to clear religion of blame, dedicating an entire section of her article ‘Religion is Not the Problem,’ claiming,
Someone who has moral OCD will probably have symptoms of another kind even if they’re not religious.
Similarly, I believe I would’ve still had OCD even if it weren’t for my Catholic upbringing. Plenty of nonreligious people have OCD, too.
Making one question how she would know this since the causes of OCD are unknown and scant research compares religion and cognitive distortions.
While we don’t have direct studies of religion’s relationship to cognitive distortions, we do, in terms of OCD, have some relationship data that Ghazel Tellawi, Ph.D. writes,
…it has been estimated that religious obsessions occur in 25% of individuals with OCD (Antony, Dowie, & Swinson, 1998). One study showed that OCD symptoms presentation can be influenced by one’s religion and culture (Sica, Novara, Sanavio, Dorz & Coradeschi, 2002). Abramowitz and colleagues (2004) highlighted this point by finding that Protestant individuals with high levels of religiosity had the highest severity of OCD symptoms.
The significant connection between religious orientation and OCD becomes even more compelling since Tellawi states, “these worries can strike the very orthodox, non-religious people, or even atheists.” Perhaps OCD manifests religious distortions, but with such a large number of OCD sufferers prone to disturbances, determining if they are triggered or caused by religion warrants increased study.
Other research tends to focus on cognitive distortions in cases of child molesting and other negative situations involving religion but little in determining cognitive distortions related to religious belief. Lacking another explanation, religion’s prevalence, specifically Christianity, causes a bias that the religion is harmless and, therefore, incapable of producing cognitive distortions, thus limiting research.
Just because moral distortions occur in nonreligious people does not dictate that religion is not causing distortions since, in the US, Christianity’s dominance entangles the religion with government, law, culture, and other areas that impact all citizens. More importantly, the biased nature of the research overlooks the critical point that Christian-caused cognitive distortions would likely fall on a continuum of severity just like other pathologies have revealed. Depression manifests symptomatically worse in some than others, suggesting that religious cognitive distortions impact similarly.
Despite the lack of research, abundant religious arguments found online reveal a high frequency of fallacies, often the same types of fallacies committed over and over, suggesting a pathology of overlapping cognitive distortions. However, assuming religion harmless infers fallacies as errors, not distortions, creating a gap in research that ignores the strong possibility that simply believing in religion (Christianity) causes cognitive distortions.
Even Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, which claims irrational and dysfunctional thought patterns (cognitive distortions) cause psychological disturbances, shifted from a pragmatic view of religion’s causation to one of religious acceptance, as seen in Mark Schiffman’s “REBT and Religion.”
At the core of REBT is to challenge irrational beliefs that lead to dysfunctional emotions or behaviors. However, an REBT therapist does not question or challenge the value system of a client. Because of this, when incorporated in a culturally and religiously sensitive way, REBT techniques can be used very effectively with religious individuals. In an article from 1990, Dr. Raymond DiGiuseppe observed that many religiously-related irrational beliefs are not caused by the religious belief per se, but rather by the client selectively abstracting only part of the religious belief system at the exclusion of attending to others.
Such statements have a positive ring and align with the majority opinion of religion but overlook the point of REBT, which uncovers the irrational and dysfunctional thought patterns, such as individuals founding their thinking on implausible religious beliefs that makes them susceptible to cognitive distortions.
What is more plausible: that a Christian patient developed a persecution complex because of her cognitive process or from vesting faith in an implausible religion guiding her cognitive process to persecution?
*McKay, Davis, & Fanning. New Harbinger, 1981. Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life Kindle Edition. Note: These styles of thinking for cognitive distortions were gleaned from the work of several authors including Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and David Burns among others.