Faith, Internal Conflict and Cognitive Dissonance
Faith tries to restrain me as infidelity beckons me,
Kaaba is behind me, while the Church stands before me …
Internal conflict is what defines the children of Adam. So long as there are faith and belief, there will always be an oscillation between belief and disbelief. In the above verse, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib has most eloquently described this internal struggle between two contradictory notions or sentiments, the feeling of being pulled in two directions. To believe in one thing while doing another.
This age-old struggle may also be seen as a conflict between the heart and mind – the spiritual and the material, intuition and rational thought. Whatever the case, this vacillation is a depiction of a conflict which is entirely natural to the human mind. It is indeed for this reason that this internal struggle was deemed Jihad e Akbar by the Prophet (pbuh) of Islam – the perpetual battle that one has to fight against part of their own self or nafs.
The truth is that for any human being, whether a believer or non-believer, life is generally a constant struggle between incongruous beliefs and attitudes. This eternal conflict is the defining element of human beings, an essential component of the free will bestowed upon us by God. As Iqbal says about the human soul or ego:
Since the dawn of time, it has been imprisoned in struggle
And now resides in the dust of Adam
Interestingly, psychology also addresses this incessant internal conflict which appears to be integral to the human mental framework. In 1957, American Social Psychologist Leon Festinger developed the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance may be defined as the state of having inconsistent or conflicting thoughts, beliefs, attitudes or behaviours, which, in turn, produce a feeling of discomfort within the individual.
Is cognitive dissonance part of human nature?
Cognitive dissonance is basically an inconsistency between thought and behaviour, where an individual may believe one thing but behave in contradiction to that belief. For instance, if a person believes that excessive alcohol consumption may be harmful to health, but still continues to drink heavily, this discrepancy or dissonance between belief and behaviour would inevitably lead to discomfort within the individual’s psychological framework.
It may be inferred from this theory that experiencing dissonance is a natural part of human mental make up, as is the resultant discomfort which arises to enable the individual to strive towards consonance between conflicting beliefs or conflicting thought and deed. This may be deemed as a desire to attain balance or equilibrium, which is inherent within the individual, being part of the Cosmos, which, according to the Quran has been created in a state of balance or meezan.
According to Festinger:
The presence of dissonance gives rise to pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. The strength of the pressures to reduce the dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance.
In other words, the presence and awareness of dissonance produce within a persons’ feelings of discomfort which drive them towards consonance. The higher the amount of discomfort experienced by the person, the stronger the motivation to get rid of the inconsistency or conflict.
A study of human anatomy brings to light the fact that the human body generally and optimally functions in a state of equilibrium. All organ systems of the human body function to collectively achieve what is known in biological terms as homeostasis, a self-regulating process by which the human body maintains stability, equilibrium or balance of bodily functions. Any imbalance within the system would, therefore, naturally result in discomfort within the organism. Much like physiological imbalances, psychological disequilibrium also causes stress and discomfort and results in a drive much similar in nature to a physiological drive.
Equilibrium and the ability to reach perfection
Much the same way as an individual biologically strives to achieve physiological equilibrium, the mind and soul also strive and work towards internal, psychological and spiritual harmony. Though internal conflict is inherent in man, he constantly strives towards a balanced and contented state of mind which is free of conflict – towards peace and serenity. There are individuals who manage to achieve such a state of harmony and are addressed by the Quran as Nafs ul Mutmainnah – the souls who are in a state of total peace and contentment.
While this phrase has been primarily used in the Quran for those who have been given the glad tidings of paradise, it may also be applied to those individuals who, by overcoming their internal conflict, manage to achieve peace and harmony within this world. Those who experience little or no internal conflict. Who submit their will to God in such a way that they have no trouble following the straight path, who find no incongruence between their principles and beliefs and their actual deeds and behaviour – in other words, such souls manage to remain focused on one goal, and rarely experience being pulled in different directions.
To conclude, Cognitive Dissonance is part and parcel of faith – the inherent conflict which naturally arises within all believers. The resultant psychological discomfort, which may be viewed as guilt, comes as a blessing which assists in our attempts to get rid of such discrepancies between thought and deed by modifying our behaviour and bringing it back into alignment with our beliefs, so that the soul can achieve its ultimate goal of finally becoming free from conflict and attaining the status of Nafs ul Mutmainnah – the contented soul.