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The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« on: 2004-06-10 02:03:19 »
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[Note: In case you’re wondering, this essay has never before been published—either on paper or electronically—and probably won’t be for another five to ten years, in a book that will require far more extensive and intensive research than I had intitially realized.] 




The Cowardice of One’s Convictions:
Cognitive Dissonance Theory in a Nutshell

by

Len Kennedy




[Psalms 14:1, New and Improved] The fool hath said in his heart, “The god I was conditioned to believe in when I was too young to know any better is the one and only true god.”

Why do most people presume that—of all the world’s religions—the religion they just happened to be born into is the one true one?  Why do most believers tend to read their Bible (or Koran or other ostensibly sacred text) not for guidance but for reassurance, seeking passages that will justify what they already believe and how they already behave?  Why do most religionists tend to avoid and evade any arguments and evidence that clash with their cherished beliefs—and are therefore somewhat disinclined to buy books with titles like God Must Be Spinning in His Grave?
    I think Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance—while certainly not the full explanation—goes a long way toward accounting for these phenomena.
    According to Festinger’s original formulation,[1] cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort one experiences when considering two inconsistent cognitions (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, or bits of knowledge).  The theory has since been refined, and its scope narrowed, to apply only to those situations in which one’s self-concept is involved.[2]
    For example, most people like to think of themselves as relatively reasonable and intelligent individuals—as evidenced by the common expression “I’m as reasonable and intelligent as the next gink.”
    So if you were to suggest to someone that his religious beliefs were somewhat less than sensible, that would clash with his self-concept, thereby arousing dissonance: His perception of himself as a sensible and rational person would conflict with your suggestion that some of his core beliefs may be neither sensible nor rational.

What Beliefs Are Most Resistant to Change?
Since it’s easier to get a handle on abstract, general theories by observing concrete, specific examples, let’s look at a genuinely fictitious character—a devout Christian named Curt Schnook.
    As with most people, the convictions Schnook is liable to cling to most tenaciously are those that he wants most desperately to believe (e.g., the perennial hope that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God; that after we die, we’re not really dead; and that some kind of divine justice gets meted out in that conjectured afterlife).
    And, not surprisingly, some of the beliefs he’s liable to cleave to most stubbornly are those he shares with his significant others.  And the causality cuts both ways: People not only tend to seek out and associate with those who share their opinions, they also tend to share the opinions of those with whom they associate.
    Schnook’s least changeable beliefs will be those that are foundational, those that are central to how he defines himself (for example, his view of himself as a kind and compassionate Christian).  These and other beliefs become even less malleable when Schnook has publicly committed himself to them (by being an active member in his church, for instance).  Another important factor is how much time, effort, and money he has invested in those beliefs; the more a person suffers to attain a particular goal, the more he’ll cherish that goal—and it’s the rare individual indeed who will admit he’s wasted a huge chunk of his life on an illusion.
    “The theory of cognitive dissonance,” writes Elliot Aronson in The Social Animal, “does not picture people as rational beings; rather, it pictures them as rationalizing beings. . . .  [W]e humans are motivated not so much to be right; rather, we are motivated to believe we are right (and wise, and decent, and good).”[3]

The Downside of Commitment
As Aronson points out, “The deeper a person’s commitment to an attitude, the greater his or her tendency to reject dissonant evidence.”[4]
    If someone is committed to a belief, any information contrary to that belief will arouse dissonance, and often the easiest way to decrease that dissonance is to distort the evidence—or to reject it outright.
    “[P]eople are not passive receptacles for the deposition of information.  The manner in which they view and interpret information depends on how deeply they are committed to a particular belief or course of action.”[5]
    And—as if it weren’t bad enough that he’ll usually just flat out ignore arguments that clash with his beliefs—Schnook will tend to distort those few arguments he actually does hear.  He will not only be highly selective when it comes to what information he’ll consider in the first place; he’ll also be highly selective in how he remembers that information, recalling the reasonable arguments that agree with his own position and the unreasonable arguments that agree with the opposing position, while conveniently forgetting the unreasonable arguments that agree with his own position and the reasonable arguments that agree with the opposing position.

Dissonance?  What Dissonance?
People can diminish dissonance in a number of ways, but, as Philip Zimbardo and Michael Leippe say, in The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence, “The overall rule is that people take the path of least resistance.”[6]
    And what could be easier than simply avoiding dissonance in the first place.  For example, Schnook will tend to steer clear of any magazines and books that are likely to present perspectives that are incompatible with his religious and political views.  And, of course, he’ll tend to shun people whose beliefs and values are different from his.
    To quote Aronson again, “People don’t like to see or hear things that conflict with their deeply held beliefs or wishes.”[7]

The Diminution of Dissonance
Let’s say Schnook has done something that conflicts with his beliefs—he’s cussed out a Jehovah’s Witness after she had interrupted his dinner to try to sell him a belief system that’s even sillier than the one he has already.  Though the Jehovah’s Witness was rude, Schnook overreacted and behaved even more rudely . . . and now Schnook feels like a schmuck.
    What are some specific ways in which Schnook can go about diminishing his dissonance?
    He can try derogating the victim—thereby reaffirming his self-concept as a kind, decent, and fair man—and he can tell himself that the Jehovah’s Witness just got what she deserved (“After all,” he asks himself, “doesn’t Luke 19:27 tell us there’s a special place in hell reserved for door-to-door solicitors?”).
    He can try lowering the importance of the cognitions—for example, by downplaying the importance of the act (“Jehovah’s Witnesses are used to that sort of thing”).
    He can try adding consonant elements to change the dissonant-to-consonant ratio—e.g., by recalling some of the more virtuous things he’s done in the past, thereby reminding himself that he really is a good person.
    He can seek out fellow believers who he knows will reassure him (“Yes, Curt, I’m pretty sure that was Luke 19:27”).
    On exceedingly rare occasions, however—and only if all else has failed—he may actually change his beliefs (“Dang, Bobbie Jo, I guess I really am a schmuck!”).

The Significance of Social Support
When it comes to Schnook’s most important beliefs—for example, those concerning religion, politics, and sex—the greater the amount of social support he has, the easier it will be for him to maintain those beliefs.  And, surprisingly, he may even find himself in the missionary position, reducing his dissonance by going out and proselytizing—because if he can convince other people that his beliefs are true, then he can better convince himself of their veracity.
    The greater the amount of social support Schnook has for his beliefs, the easier it will be for him to maintain those beliefs, as long as they don’t conflict with his perceived reality.  That’s one of the key reasons traditional religions still persist: They deal mainly with issues that can neither be proven nor disproven empirically.  No matter what arguments you use to bolster your beliefs, religionists will always be able to conjure up some sort of rationalization to justify their beliefs, and there’s nothing you can say or do that will refute their “counterargument.”
    But there’s still hope. . . .

Dissonance That Makes a Difference
If two inconsistent cognitions are both important—and if there is no easier way—Mr. Schnook may undergo major cognitive restructuring.  Although extremely rare, it is by far the most meaningful mode of dissonance reduction, because it involves such an enormous amount of mental activity.  After all, as mentioned earlier, one of the key findings of dissonance theory is that the harder someone works to attain a goal, the more meaningful and valuable that goal becomes.

Fending Off Foolish Consistencies
We humans are born schnooks.  We all began our life in this world as gullible little munchkins.  But now that we’re adults capable of critical thinking, we’re no longer justified in being so incredibly credulous.
    Probably the best way to guard against ossified beliefs—and to counter our tendency to avoid and evade cognitive dissonance—is the scientific method: Rather than stubbornly clinging to some ready-made dogma, we need to continually challenge our assumptions—and always be ready to change our hypotheses to fit the facts, and not vice versa.
    As Ralph Waldo Emerson’s oft-quoted squib cautions us, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Obviously, Emerson isn’t saying consistency per se is foolish.  After all, we humans wouldn’t have evolved such a strong psychological need for maintaining consistency if it hadn’t helped our ancestors to survive and propagate their genes.
    But when we irrationally demand consistency at all costs—for example, when we refuse to question the potpourri of poppycock, dreck, and schlock that was shoveled into our skulls before we had acquired any capacity for critical thinking—we abandon any hope of evolving as individuals.
    As the art critic Bernard Berenson once quipped, “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.”
    But perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche said it best, in a maxim he scribbled into one of his notebooks in the late 1880s: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!!!”





Notes:

    1. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957).
    2. Elliot Aronson, “The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective.”  In Leonard Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 4 (New York: Academic Press, 1969), pp. 1–34.
    3. Elliot Aronson, The Social Animal, 7th ed. (New York: Freeman, 1995), p. 181.
    4. Ibid., p. 183.
    5. Ibid., p. 184.
    6. Philip G. Zimbardo and Michael R. Leippe, The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), p.118 (Italics in original).
    7. Aronson, The Social Animal, p. 185.





Addendum:

If you’re a pragmatist, as I am, you’d probably like to know how to keep a Jehovah’s Witness from knocking in the first place: Check out the following Hermitudinous post, and you will be both enlightened and edified:

    http://virus.lucifer.com/bbs/index.php?board=33;action=display;threadid=27997

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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #1 on: 2004-07-05 14:01:51 »
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I would just like to tell you that this is a really well written article first off.  Then, in addition, I would like to say that if it were in my power, I would make this required reading for people who want to call themselves critical thinkers.  This seems to get right to the heart of the problem, which is that we all need to question our own beliefs, rather than just let them sit passivly as some prescription of morals or ideas about the world.

If people followed this advice, the world we be so much better off that I cannot even accurately portray the increase in overall happiness of everyone with words.  This reminds me of how rediculous it is to have any dogmatic principles, and makes me once again awe at the critical thinking abilities of our otherwise greatly dogmatic and rigid human minds.

This seems to utilize all of the modern findings of science and philosophy to come to it's conclusions, which is always a plus.  I believe that both Virus and many things that I have written in the past agree completely with both the sentiment and the reasoning behind this peice of work.  Thank you for sharing it will all of us here at Virus, I truly appreciate it.

-Atheist Crusader
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #2 on: 2004-07-07 00:39:25 »
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It’s nice to get some concrete feedback for a change.  Although it was gratifying to see that over a hundred people had checked it out (with no small thanks to Rhino’s mention of it on the CoV mailing list), it’s good to have tangible proof that all that time I spent studying the theory of cognitive dissonance didn’t benefit only myself.
    It would be nice if we could somehow get the general population to wrap their frontal lobes around cognitive dissonance theory, to learn the more common logical fallacies, and to simply admit to themselves that a lot of what they “know” isn’t necessarily so.  Then there would undoubtedly be a lot less foolish dogmatism—and therefore a lot less violence in the name of dubious dogmatic beliefs.
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« Reply #3 on: 2004-07-11 17:40:48 »
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #5 on: 2004-07-12 22:34:02 »
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OK, let's say you follow LenKen's advice. You embrace the scientific method, you subscribe to Skeptic magazine, you give up Jesus, the tooth fairy, Bigfoot and Santa Claus, and you start posting to the Virus BBS. Now comes the tough part. What dogmatic beliefs are still lurking in the darkness, propping up your self-esteem? You don't really thing you hunted down and eliminated all inconsistent beliefs, did you? No, you picked the low hanging fruit, the ones that obviously don't jibe with accepted reasonable beliefs (and Skeptic magazine articles). But if you think you're done, well, that's just your subtler, trickier memes whispering in your ear.
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« Reply #6 on: 2004-10-16 19:50:55 »
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #7 on: 2004-10-17 00:28:46 »
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LenKen: Why do most people presume that—of all the world’s religions—the religion they just happened to be born into is the one true one?  Why do most believers tend to read their Bible (or Koran or other ostensibly sacred text) not for guidance but for reassurance, seeking passages that will justify what they already believe and how they already behave?

The Apostle Paul: I don’t think that’s true at all, otherwise, conversions would almost never occur, and many believers that I know, strive to be better than they are and challenge the “status quo” of religion.

LenKen: Most, not all.  Conversions are relatively rare.  And when most people do “convert” they tend to convert from one flavor of the religion in which they were originally indoctrinated to a more tasty flavor of the same general religion—for example, Catholics may convert to Protestantism, or vice versa.
_____________

LenKen: And the causality cuts both ways: People not only tend to seek out and associate with those who share their opinions, they also tend to share the opinions of those with whom they associate.

The Apostle Paul: I believe that’s a natural occurrence, even with people here, right? We do assimilate with like minded believers; you don’t for the sake of discovery, attend church services or a small group ministry do you?

LenKen: I attended all the church I want to attend—more than I would have preferred to attend, as a matter of fact—when I was a kid.  And as you said in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
_____________

The Apostle Paul: In my case, it’s not fear of conflict or fear of being proven wrong; I’ve examined life from a critical perspective and came to the conclusion, based on the evidence I found, that God revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that He lived a sinless life, taught us how to live and due to the sinful nature of mankind, died as a substitute for our sins. Yeah, I agree, it’s absurd, it is absolutely crazy, so crazy in fact it just might work!

LenKen: Somehow I have a feeling that you and I have somewhat different definitions of the words critical perspective and evidence.
_____________

The Apostle Paul: You might argue that, it was just my guilty conscious that caused me to feel bad, well that doesn’t hold much water, since I tend to be pretty stubborn and I’m hardly a long-suffering believer. Actually I just returned in the last couple of months to a life of faith. Besides, I’m kind of a pr*ck, lol. But God is working on me!

LenKen: You may find this hard to believe, but I’m actually kind of a prick, too.  But about the only people who are conscienceless (I’m pretty sure that’s a word) are sociopaths.  I’ve felt bad about a lot of the times when I was more of an asshole than I needed to be, but that’s because, like most people, I have a conscience that keeps me in check most of the time.  Not once has the Holy Ghost ever had to sneak up behind me and say, “Boo!”
_____________

LenKen: That’s one of the key reasons traditional religions still persist: They deal mainly with issues that can neither be proven nor disproven empirically.  No matter what arguments you use to bolster your beliefs, religionists will always be able to conjure up some sort of rationalization to justify their beliefs, and there’s nothing you can say or do that will refute their “counterargument.”

The Apostle Paul: Again, I don’t challenge your statement as much as how you attribute it solely to “traditional religions”.

LenKen: Oh, I realize the general principle of rationalizing one’s beliefs applies to just about any kind of belief system and not just traditional religions—I’m merely using belief in traditional religions as a specific example.
_____________

The Apostle Paul: You’re right though, I can’t be argued out of my belief system, anymore than you can be debated out of yours,  but I’m not afraid to defend my faith or to have open and frank discussions with people who do not share my beliefs.

LenKen: Well, I’m sure someday you’ll see the light.  
_____________

The Apostle Paul: And, it is my sincerest desire, that there may be someone here who is still searching and perhaps God can use me in some small way to have them take a second or third look at this Jesus of Nazareth.

LenKen: I doubt that you’ll find any converts here at the CoV.  After all, most of us were once infected with a mind virus much like the one you’ve fallen prey to . . . and almost all of us have since built up an immunity to that virus?
    Hey, who knows?  Maybe God just sent you here simply to remind us heathens that He doesn’t exist.  
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #8 on: 2004-10-17 01:47:30 »
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #9 on: 2004-10-17 02:24:36 »
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Quote:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

Ooh, them’s fightin’ words.

*puts up dukes*  
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #10 on: 2004-10-17 07:50:07 »
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A few comments on what’s been posted, even if it has been somewhere in July...:

Len quoting Aronson, “The deeper a person’s commitment to an attitude, the greater his or her tendency to reject dissonant evidence”, made me wonder if dissonance theory actually overlooks the possibility that we might not only react to stimuli of a certain valence (i.e. here, dissonant stimuli), but that we even might ACTIVELY not only reactively reduce cognitive dissonance.

I am talking about giving a CONSONANT valence to actually irrelevant stimuli, or even FABRICATING experience (in the sense of delusions/hallucinations or else). This amounts to a sort of “dissonance prevention” by strengthening one’s cognitive consonance through the addition of consonant and not the subtraction of dissonant stimuli.

Note that I am well aware of the fact that dissonance theory cannot explain everything. But I always liked it…


The more important yet less innovative comment is on David’s effectively ignored cave I’ll re-post as a whole,

“OK, let's say you follow LenKen's advice. You embrace the scientific method, you subscribe to Skeptic magazine, you give up Jesus, the tooth fairy, Bigfoot and Santa Claus, and you start posting to the Virus BBS. Now comes the tough part. What dogmatic beliefs are still lurking in the darkness, propping up your self-esteem? You don't really thing you hunted down and eliminated all inconsistent beliefs, did you? No, you picked the low hanging fruit, the ones that obviously don't jibe with accepted reasonable beliefs (and Skeptic magazine articles). But if you think you're done, well, that's just your subtler, trickier memes whispering in your ear.”

This is imho absolutely paramount. It is the true question we have to ask ourselves when attacking religious beliefs, yet the most difficult to answer, as David correctly stated.

I always imagine “attacks on religion” in a somewhat literal sense, of storming a castle, for example, with dogmas and other articles of faith being the walls and watchtowers, while the components actually hidden by the agnostic veil finding inaccessible refuge in the keep: the idea is to destroy most of the surrounding fortifications, and then leave the castle’s inhabitants to decide whether or not they leave their battered home to seek more comfortable abodes.

The point is, and it is David’s point, that our position, too, has its castle, its articles of faith; these are far less exposed and better fortified, but nonetheless can be attacked. Such articles could be, the correctness of the Greek logic, for example.

Even more deeply rooted, the very bricks the walls consist of, are the categories of thinking we HAVE to believe to be true since we must think within these categories. As one authority, Kant, categorised them – and to categorise he had – these are:

a) Categories of quantity: Unity, Plurality, Totality
b) Categories of quality: Reality, Negation, Limitation
c) Categories of relation: Substance and Accident, Causality and Dependence, Community or Interaction
d) Categories of modality: Possibility-Impossibility, Existence-Non-existence, Necessity-Contingency

[from http://www.island-of-freedom.com/KANT.HTM]

Yet you can question these, too, and you can question if you can question at all, and you can question whether “these” “words” “actually” “describe” “anything” “,” “or” “these” “thoughts” [lead to =>] . . .






[yes, these lines contain NOTHING]

More on that later, after evaluating a similar discussion with one of my dear Christian friends…
Björn


p.s.: In case that topic has been debated before - as wouldn't surprise me -, could someone send me the link?
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #11 on: 2004-10-17 16:20:08 »
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #12 on: 2005-01-27 20:11:34 »
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Quote from: LenKen on 2004-06-10 02:03:19   
Another important factor is how much time, effort, and money he has invested in those beliefs; the more a person suffers to attain a particular goal, the more he’ll cherish that goal—and it’s the rare individual indeed who will admit he’s wasted a huge chunk of his life on an illusion.

I take it then that I'm a rare individual. What a priviledge to be able to read this work of yours here. I have found similiar truths myself but through a different method. That of testing my assumptions to see if they jibe with reality, the best i can.

I think that I was something I found in this that made it possible. I have a new name for something I've already experienced and wrestled with myself. Thanks.

Obviously on the onset it's uncomfortable to consider that those foundational beliefs might have been wrong your whole life but these two simple truths I have found very useful.

It is better to think wrong than to not think at all.
It is better to be wrong than to stay wrong.

There's something in that along the lines of what you said and I'd agree indeed it's a rare quality to find someone who has admitted to wasting so much time on an illusion, but I'd say to them that It's better than the alternative. To keep on believing nonsense as the truth.

- drift
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #13 on: 2005-02-08 04:41:34 »
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I believe your essay explains why Christians are often so blissful...to put it bluntly, Ignorance is bliss.  If an individual is willing to fully commit to their belief in the existence and teachings of an unseen deity (who is, according to different sources, either powered by faith or present in spite of it), enough to place their faith in this power that all things will be justified and achieved through it, then that individual instantly transfers all guilt and blame and self-loathing unto this unseen vessel and believes themself absolved, free and pure.

Coincidentally, this is the same sort of ideology that bondage submissives have...the idea that by forcing oneself to submit to humiliation and even pain, the spirit is somehow freed from the constraints of psychological repression.  To suffer is to soar.  Or something like that.
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Re:The Cowardice of One’s Convictions
« Reply #14 on: 2005-04-05 11:40:37 »
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I applaud your work LenKen, it is an excellent work that I think should be published someday, I will share it with my friends ASAP. It has solely an indirect similarity and the ideas are not proposed as professionally as you did (plus it's in spanish) but I just wrote an essay on differing truth from reality (posted here in virus) which proposes the same rational thinking to acquire the most correct truth.
  You know, it's funny, I use to think I was crazy because I change my mind about certain subjects, and I did it more than once. But now that I read this, I know I was merely enforcing my ability to reason.
  Unfortunately, none philosopher has yet shown how we can "rationalize" our society. An essay like this will connect with open minds, but not everyone will even bother on reading it, and you know and explained in you essay why (ask Mr. Schnook to read it).
  As most frames of thought in human life, an open mind is thought, they are thought to neither reject or accept, but to analyze, and never turn into fanatics. We can't blame Mr. Schnook now can we!, I freed my mind because certain facts of my life allowed me to (Just scares the shit of me to think that this could not have happened) but not everyone has the same priviliges. Your proposition seems identical to drift's axiom shield, which rejects any idea that contradict an existing idea.
  Also a complicated life can make you give up on thinking, I know many people who don't even care anymore. But has in any proposition their always seems to be other ideas that and other exposers that seem to have a better way to acquire the goals of that specific way of thinking. Religion mantains it's influence because it manages to reject any idea that places contradictions (even though they emerge anyway) an their main ideas, even when contradicted are justified, never changed. I am not saying that we should not add to an idea that somebody else proposes, but we should, without imparting orders on anybody else, frame one single goal, and defend it. If we are to open the human mind we need to propose a way and stick to that, we don't need a million ways to get to nowhere.
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God is just an equation,
who equals slavery.
God is just a perception,
of people's misery.
                            (Mindfuckers, Victor Rivera 2004)
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