Living with contradiction
March 14, 2013 4:17 AM   Subscribe

What are the mental processes that allow someone to stay in a voluntary affiliation with an organization which has one or more official beliefs that are diametrically opposed to their personal beliefs and feel good about that choice?

I would be interested if anyone knows of any studies, articles, research that has studied the phenomenon of people actively choosing to be part of groups that hold one or more core beliefs that are opposed to their personal beliefs. I would also be interested in anecdotal information from anyone who is part of a voluntary organization that has an official stance that violates one of their core beliefs, and how they resolve this tension within themselves.
posted by hworth to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Cognitive dissonance.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:39 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

People belong to faith groups and political organizations all the time with this kind of tension. What happens is they focus on the other aspects of the organization that they do support and believe in, and they work actively to promote those things. In some cases they work from the inside of the organization to change those official stands they oppose. This is how change happens in so many cases - not by the opposition opposing, but by supporters demanding change.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:47 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure I qualify as someone with anecdotal information but I'll chime in. I work for an uber religious non-profit. I am quite nearly an atheist. Even in the years I considered myself somewhat of a Christian, I still wasn't nearly as Christian as my employers. The first sentence of our mission statement says that we believe EVERY WORD of the bible is the divine word of God. This is fully at odds with what I believe.

I have serious, serious issues with the doctrine that my organization ascribes to but in the end, I feel good about my choice to work at this place by weighing the good that we do with against something I don't believe in (e.g. the bible). We feed hundreds of people in a small community every month. I have a support system -- I might not believe the same as they all do (and granted, I've never outed myself) but these people would absolutely go to bat for me as a person, not just an employee. Their bible tells them I am their sister and they believe it and treat me as such. They operate a shelter for abused women and children because they believe god compels them too. We venture out into our community and look for those in need, actively looking for ways to help. I make this organization a lot of money and they take it, keep our overhead low, pay their employees decently, and then do great, great things. Basically, I ignore the things I don't like about my organization and focus on the ones that I do and that's how I get by. (Actually, I might be a Christian if we're going by the stereotypical view some have of Christians!)

My organization is not at all political and if that ever changed I'd probably have to draw a line in the sand and leave (because I have no doubt their political stances would differ greatly from mine) but I don't see that happening. For now, I ignore that we're studying the book of Jonah as if a man really was in the belly of a whale once and focus instead on feeding the poor.

tl;dr: I work for super religious people. I am not. But we look after the less fortunate because most I work with insist that god compels them to do so. I ignore whatever bad there may be and focus on only the good, just as ThatCanadianGirl said.
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:53 AM on March 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

A couple of ways to consider framing it:

1) Having a relative with some views you consider repugnant, but whom you do not repudiate; you continue to love this person and be their family, even though they, say, oppose gay marriage, or are openly racist, or whatever.

2) Not letting perfect get in the way of good. I know people who have sons in the Boy Scouts because they feel that the organization does more good than harm on balance. Similarly, donating to/purchasing from the Salvation Army.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:06 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the answers so far. I am very interested in where the critical turning point is. So, for example, a white-only hospital in the Jim Crow South. It saved many (white people's) lives. I am sure folks who believed in racial equality at that time made the argument that the hospital is doing good works, so would it be ok to donate, volunteer, etc. there. At what historical point does that argument break down, and the idea of supporting a white-only organization become something that most people who believe in racial equality will not support?
posted by hworth at 6:41 AM on March 14, 2013

I think sometimes people disagree with a view their organisation holds, but that issue isn't really a huge deal to them. For example, I know people who intellectually support marriage equality, but are involved in religious organisations that do not allow gay marriage (and maybe even actively stand against it). These people are willing to live with this conflict of beliefs because marriage equality is not a central issue in their lives: they are not gay themselves, have few if any openly gay friends, and don't really emotionally feel how hurtful the anti-equality stance is to people directly affected by it.

It's kind of like how some (many?) people would intellectually admit that vegetarianism is probably better for the environment and for animal welfare than omnivorism, but continue to eat meat anyway, because the issue is not so important to them that it overrides the convenience of eating meat.
posted by lollusc at 6:45 AM on March 14, 2013

On preview, I think the historical point in some of these sorts of struggles is when the issue stops being intellectual and starts affecting your personal everyday experience. So with marriage equality, it's maybe when you come to have close gay friends or family members. (Which tends to happen more and more as sexual orientation becomes less of a big deal, since more people are coming out of the closet, so it kind of feeds into itself).

And with racial equality, it's maybe when enough of your social circle also becomes aware and critical of racial inequality. Then your association with organisations that commit injustices is no longer the status quo, but starts to say something about you, and so you worry about what your friends might think.

In other words, when what is the "default" position switches, I guess. People like to do the comfortable, easy thing, and to stand with the majority of their peers.
posted by lollusc at 6:50 AM on March 14, 2013

I'm also involved in an organization I don't believe in anymore, and which now violates my core beliefs. Struggling with it, though.

I think it's harder if you have a community in that organization that would feel abandoned and confused if you left.

I think the critical turning point is when your presence is actively enhancing that thing you don't believe in. Your name used to shill for it, or your money directly going straight to that thing you hate.
posted by corb at 6:54 AM on March 14, 2013

I have a few thoughts. I assume your question stems from the press about the Catholic Church the last few days and, yes, I find myself in a situation where I disagree with official Church teaching on certain issues.

First, it's my church too, just as much as the Pope's. Most people do not actually move to Canada when their candidate loses the US presidential election, all hyperbolic pre-election claims to the contrary. :) When we're talking about religious or political organizations, I think members feel ownership and feel they have a right to membership and a right to change the organization and that the Wrongy McWrongerpantses of the world don't get to steal the ship and make everyone else jump off. Most Americans who have a problem with drones aren't leaving America because drones are wrong; they're attempting to make American policy about drones change. I think for many people, their religious identity is more along those lines ("If I'm a citizen of France and France has stupid policies, I need to try to change the policies!") rather than "Love it or leave it."

Second, the organization may be powerless on a particular issue. For example, I live in a blue state that had early-ish civil unions and is about to get around to full marriage rights for gay couples. So I'm not delighted that my church is all, "Gay people can't get married!" but I actually don't care all that much because, around here, gay people can get married! And nothing the church says or does is going to change that. And most of the Catholics I know are active supporters to gay marriage rights. So the predictable pronouncements in press releases from the bishop when the state legislature moves gay marriage closer to the law just make the vast body of local Catholics roll their eyes and go back to whatever they were doing. I'm not delighted by everything the Salvation Army believes and teaches and lobbies for, but they don't seem to have any power to affect political outcomes on those issues locally, and they do a good job running their charity shops, so I donate my clothes there anyway.

Third, the local organization may be different than the top-level organization. I'm not involved in Boy Scouts, but I know that's been a really difficult decision for a lot of my friends with sons that age, because the local scouting leaders are fantastic people (the main guy has actually run for office and has strong pro-gay positions) and the local scouting organization has been a real refuge and safe space for gay youth for many years. So they're setting the stance of the national organization against the reality of the local organization, and many of them decided to stay because they know that the local leadership is GBLT-friendly.

Finally, I think the ease of associating with like-minded individuals on the internet has made it easier to enforce orthodoxy, and to say "I support foo, bar, gleep, and barnk, but YOU only support foo, bar, and gleep, and therefore you are wrong and bad and cannot be in my foo, bar, gleep, and barnk club." But when instead you're associating with people in close physical proximity to you, especially in smaller communities, you're going to get at least a few wingnuts and have fewer choices. So I may belong to a local organization to advance foo, and be fully aware that the leadership is anti-barnk, but we can all work together to advance foo without dealing with barnk. I can join a DIFFERENT club to advance barnk. And in fact being heavily involved in my local community in a wide variety of political and advocacy organizations, I have a LOT more friends now who have radically different beliefs than I do than I have ever had before. I've learned a lot about being friends with and working with people who may hold some beliefs I find appalling.

The line in the sand for me, though, is if someone or some organization wants to teach my kids something I consider appalling. It's one thing for an adult to say, "Yeah, well, those people say that, they're wrong, I'm just going to ignore it." But no way in heck do they get to teach my children those things.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:23 AM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am sure folks who believed in racial equality at that time made the argument that the hospital is doing good works, so would it be ok to donate, volunteer, etc. there

First, I'm not so sure. We're talking about a time and place where most white folks didn't believe in racial equality in a real sense (not counting separate but equal). Assuming there were at least some white people in the Jim Crow south who did feel strongly about racial equality, you've still got to think about social realities. If you're a white doctor in 1940s who believes in racial equality but isn't especially courageous, you are still going to work at that hospital because for you earning a living is more important than racism. That feeling probably didn't change until after the civil rights movement really got going and the government got involved. Basically, you won't see people boycotting institutions with shitty values en masse until public opinion is solidly in support and maybe not until the government gives you no choice.

You can see it happening with gay marriage, which has been steadily growing support. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the Supreme Court, and whether that marks the so-called turning point for gay rights. I think, though, that all bets are off when religion is involved, and perhaps why cognitive dissonance when it comes to gay rights is rampant. Even if the American public supports gay marriage, it won't mean that religious people will necessarily disaffiliate from a church that still discriminates. Religion is a guiding light for some, and it's importance in family and culture and world outlook just won't be outweighed by a single position on a discrete issue.

That's why courts are so important when it comes to minority rights. Even though people support certain rights, the majority might not be motivated enough to legislate through the political process or otherwise take a stand. And when legislatures pass actively terrible laws that hurt minorities, there is a belief that the court should intervene to protect those who don't have a strong political presence. (But many have observed that the court doesn't protect minorities until popular opinion shifts in favor of the protection. Brown v. Board is a good example. There are exceptions to that, of course. It took a really long time after Loving v. Virginia for the majority of American folks to support interracial marriage).

I'm not sure that answers anything, but it's an interesting question, and a hard one too.
posted by murfed13 at 7:35 AM on March 14, 2013

I am a member of a religious denomination whose current core teachings include some things I passionately disagree with.

For me, and for many others in my position, it's not about leaving a 'voluntary organisation' in the same way that you might leave, say, your local ten-pin bowling club. That denomination, and what it believes, speaks to your own truth and your own life and the way you experience reality. Leaving doesn't feel like, say, leaving your local bowling club because the president circulated some bigoted stuff in the last newsletter; it feels like leaving your family because one of your parents said something bigoted, or leaving your political philosophy because the Left (or Right or whatever) has historically acted for some bad causes.

and how they resolve this tension within themselves.

By refusing to participate in certain activities that would, for me, feel too much like I was complying with teachings I can't in good conscience agree with, and by supporting the causes I believe in and trying to be a force for good in the world where I can. I also take comfort and strength from communities within that denomination who don't support those teachings either.

I think one of the core principles here is that I don't believe the teachings I despise are an intrinsic and unchangeable part of that religious denomination. I think they're wrong, that they go against my religious beliefs as well as my basic principles, and that hopefully, in time and with work, they'll change.
posted by Catseye at 7:47 AM on March 14, 2013

I've heard the saying "The church is not a buffet. You don't get to pick and choose according to your own tastes." But in fact that is exactly what people do - with churches, with political parties, with volunteer organizations. I think the tipping point comes when the person feels they can't belong to the organization and be comfortable doing their own thing within it. Like that well known comic "Someone is wrong on the internet!" Or when people close their Metafilter accounts. They can't just leave the bad parts alone and it causes them to be in constant conflict.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:19 AM on March 14, 2013

By far the most disturbing method is to make up justifications to excuse complicity, and double down on the questionable behavior/stance. I have seen this over and over again and it scares the shit out of me.
posted by walla at 8:23 AM on March 14, 2013

I've heard the saying "The church is not a buffet. You don't get to pick and choose according to your own tastes."

It's called Cafeteria Catholicism. If it helps, even though people like me consider themselves to be Catholics, the pope and hierarchy would disagree.
posted by murfed13 at 8:27 AM on March 14, 2013

We are sort of dealing with this right now. An organization we are deeply involved in is facing two crucial issues. For one, my husband and I have decided we would have to leave the group because it would fundamentally alter the purpose and ethics of the group. For the other issue (gay members), I would be barred from some activities as a bisexual, albeit heterosexually married, and we can understand that for some members that would be their leaving point, but we also feel strongly that the group should include fully GLBT members, and that by staying we would be able to repeatedly voice that belief and encourage change as members.

Sometimes, belonging and pushing for change from within the group, if you feel that the group has fundamentally good values or aims, is worth fighting for. Sometimes it's too high a price to pay or leaving sends a stronger push for change.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:07 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tap dancing on the slippery slope, eh?

I once had a contract with an organization (the US Army), and after eight years I came to realize that their goals and mine were antithetical. The org wasn't evil, but it was used by fools to do evil things. When my contract was up I quit. I got off easy, because my termination coincided with an injury, and instead of petitioning for a waiver (to stay in the service), I just got out. This didn't involve any great amount of soul-searching on my part, and anyhow I was too young to know how to think about stuff like this with any facility.

Some years later I worked for a pack station where the owner put money into a new truck--he didn't need it--but somehow he couldn't afford a batch of cinches for his pack mules. Bad cinches caused sores on the animals, so as well as being uncomfortable, this leads to a dangerous situation. A client got kicked by a touchy mule, for example, because of the sores on her belly. I finished off a series of trips, then quit near the end of the season. This was a hard decision to make. It's not my policy to quit a job in the middle of the season. I examined my limitations, and felt that I couldn't treat the owner with the respect and courtesy due him because he violated certain tenets: the priorities for back-country work are: human safety, animal safety, animal comfort, human comfort--in that order.

Small examples, I'm sure. But for me the turning point would be when I had to explain to my children why I supported X when I believed Y. Am I doing it for the money? Because I can't find another job? Or am I doing it because I realize that nothing is perfect, and the differences don't violate any core issues. These are not easy thought problems, on account of the slippery slope effect.

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas has been a useful theme skeleton for me over the years. You are what you eat is another theory to use as a base point. These little bromides are trite and don't stand alone, but they are useful touch-points for any argument like this.

Good luck with this.
posted by mule98J at 9:07 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Since some people have asked, this question actually comes from my own experience with my church compared to how I see others interacting with their churches. I was raised as a United Methodist. My experience was that, along with the basic tenets of historic Christianity, the church taught a valuable social justice mission on racial equality, women's rights, economic justice, and promoting peace. I was very active in my church as a youth and even considered the ministy as a vocation at various points of my adolescence. When I turned 18, I looked closely at the core teachings of the church. In the United Methodist Church, this is called the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline taught then, as it does now, that homosexual acts are inconsistent with Christian teaching. After talking with many leaders within the denomination and many others outside of the denomination, I decided I could not stay in the church while it held those views. I left and at that time joined the UCC, which seemed to share many of the values I cherished and did not have a teaching against LGBT people. (I have since become an atheist, but I blame that mostly on my undergraduate major in comparative religion.) Many of my friends and family who stayed in the United Methodist Church said they were staying to change the church from within. It is 30 years later and the Book of Discipline has not changed. I really can not get my mind around those who have stayed and continue to actively stay inside that organization while it continues to have these policies, yet say they personally think that gay relationships are equally valid in the eyes of God as heterosexual relationships.

I have similar feelings about many other organizations, but not as much personal experience.

I really appreciate the ownership comment by Eyebrows McGee. I think that really helped me begin to understand. I tend to look at organizations (religious or otherwise) as commodities. Things I can choose to take part in or not. But, if I felt I was responsible for that organization, I might not be able to walk away as easily.
posted by hworth at 9:47 AM on March 14, 2013

I don't know if how much you'll be interested in this specifically but this page is an example of what I think you're looking for: I left the Mormon Church after I found out it was not true but other folks who have come to similar conclusions as I did have dreamed up a truly dizzying array of mental gymnastics that have allowed them to remain as members. the page i linked is a summary of some of those methods.
posted by long haired child at 12:36 PM on March 14, 2013

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