Religiosity, Cognitive Dissonance and Attitude

The Abortion Debate in the United States

Term Paper, 2011

26 Pages, Grade: A



In the United States of America, a high degree of attention has been paid to the issue of how to legislate abortion. During the past two decades, notions of the so-called „Culture-Wars“ emerged, referring to an increasing polarization of the American public over the abortion topic along the lines of religiously motivated „pro-life“ and secular „pro-choice“ activist groups. This paper is an effort to analyze from a psychological perspective how religiosity mediates people‘s attitudes towards abortion legislation, the hypothesis being that the more embedded a person is in an increasingly conservative religious community, the less likely she will be to experience cognitive dissonance over ambivalent topics like abortion, because she adheres to the amplified religious position on it. It was found that religiosity leads to more dismissive attitudes towards abortion in general. Furthermore, the more conservative a religious denomination is in the terms of Bible literalism, the stricter is the view of its adherents that abortion should be forbidden by law in most or all cases. As Bible literalism entails the belief of being indisputably right about any issue touched by it, it leads to attitude persistence, which keeps the „pro-life“ and „pro-choice“ activist groups from finding a compromise. However, contrary to what the „Culture-Wars“-hypothesis suggests, data from public opinion polls do not show an increasing polarization in attitudes over the issue.


„Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.“ - U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

„Believe those who are seeking truth. Doubt those who find it.“ - André Gide

During the 1950ies, social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleague Stanley Schachter posed as members of an American sect founded by Marian Keech[1] who was claiming that aliens would soon eradicate humanity by an immense flood and only save those who believed in her teachings (Festinger, 1956). When the flood did not arrive, the sect members faced utter ridicule. But instead of inferring that their spiritual leader was simply wrong, they re-interpreted the events to mean that God had listened to their prayers and saved everyone from death. They consequently remained part of the sect and tried to convert other people to their faith as well. Festinger explained this unexpected behavior by formulating „A theory of cognitive dissonance“ in 1957, one of the psychological phenomena best supported by experimental evidence. When a person believes one thing but does another or believes two conflicting things at the same time, the result is an unpleasant feeling of inner tension which the affected person wants to alleviate or remove. But despite its inconvenience, this perception of conflict is also an important source of information. It tells the person that one is inconsistent or maybe even wrong about thinking or behaving the way one does. It is a motivator for behavioral or attitudinal change[2]. What then if this source of information is missing because one of the rivaling cognitions is so overwhelmingly strong as to constantly suppress the other or prohibit it from developing? What if a person is so convinced to be absolutely right about something that no argument, not even factual evidence to the contrary will

persuade her? The scientific method dismisses this kind of absolutist certainty. Science‘s most basic

principle is building hypotheses which explicitly can be falsified (Popper, 1934). There can only be scientific progress when scientists allow themselves to be uncertain and to be wrong. Religious dogma on the other hand is founded on the assumption that it is indisputably true. Of course there are varying degrees of literalism. But in the end, one claim can never be questioned within a religious belief: that God exists. Until now, no scientific proof has been produced for the existence of a deity. Yet, millions of human beings believe in a supernatural being that guides their lives. Faith is a concept of utmost importance to a majority of people, for many, it is even a constituting part of their self-concept, their personal identity (Bolzendahl & Brooks, 2005).

Religion is a significant part of almost every culture on earth and has weighty influence in many societies. Hence, a scientific endeavor to understand the underlying mechanisms of faith can have important implications. However, just as all of this is fact, it is also true that religion has a history of intolerance, war and bloodshed. This is why over time, some societies agreed on keeping religious and state affairs separate, so as ruled in the United States of America by the first amendment to the constitution[1]. Nevertheless, there is one topic that has always caused considerable debate and dispute in modern societies and where religious feelings always played a role in. Thus it serves as a good example to illustrate the connection between lack of cognitive dissonance and attitude change: Women‘s rights in general and abortion legislation in particular (Djupe & Olson, 2007). The abortion debate has always been of great salience in public discourse and politics and has even increased in importance during the last ten to twenty years. „Pro-life“ and „pro-choice“ activists have come to a stall debating whether state legislation should leave the decision to abort a pregnancy to the woman and her doctor or to curtail the woman‘s right to choose what happens to her body in favor of the fetus. Both movements display certain tendencies in their arguments to support their position. The „pro-choice“ camp argues largely from a secular perspective, upholding women‘s rights and therefore favoring a more liberal legislation of the abortion issue, e.g. also allowing it in cases other than threat to the mother‘s life, rape, incest and other traumatic reasons.

The „pro-life“ position on the other hand tends to be based more often on subjective moral grounds, which not uncommonly are themselves based on religious, Christian notions of what is moral. For example, „pro-life“ activists will often argue that „all innocent human life is sanctified“, that human life begins at conception or that an embryo is already a person and therefore has the same rights as an actual child[1]. They therefore lobby for a more conservative legislative practice, e.g. only allowing abortions for traumatic reasons or in more extreme cases, never allowing it. However, in a secular state such as the USA, personal religious feelings do not have a place in legislation. There cannot be any other stand on the abortion issue than a purely scientific, religiously neutral one.

The present paper is an effort to analyze how religious affiliation and attitude towards abortion interact within the US-American context. Its aim is to lay out a theoretical foundation for future empirical research on the relation between religious faith, cognitive dissonance and attitudes. I will argue that the more pronounced Bible literalism in a congregation is, the stronger the believers‘ conviction will be of knowing absolute truth on all issues, including ones falling into the realm of natural science, and the stronger their belief will be that the Bible is a better tool for making claims about the real world than science. As science can then be dismissed in the eyes of the congregation members, they become less likely to experience cognitive dissonance when confronted with scientific evidence that challenges their faith or their positions on abortion derived from it. When literalists do not experience cognitive dissonance concerning their abortion attitude and what science has to say about it anymore, they lose an incentive to change their minds about the issue in light of new scientific evidence. Consequently, they will display attitude persistence, which

exacerbates coming to terms with their secular „pro-choice“ adversaries[1]. Apart from Festinger‘s

theory of cognitive dissonance I will draw on findings from social psychology, especially concerning attitude formation and change and how religious belief as a culture factor influences those processes. Most notably the unified model of response variability posed by Alvarez & Brehm (2002) will be of importance here. I will then ascertain the attitudes towards abortion and their respective arguments displayed by the two biggest „pro-life“ and „pro-choice“ activist groups and the largest Christian denominations as well as from survey data of mass public opinion polls. Here I will rely on Berger‘s (1992) plausibility theory stating that for a religious belief to maintain its credibility in the eyes of adherents it has to be consistently reinforced through communication with significant others. According to this assumption, people from stricter religious traditions should be less likely to change their position regarding issues of personal and religious importance because the impact of education on their attitude is weaker, leading to less cognitive dissonance and consequently, less motivation to change opinion (Peterson, 2011). I will consequently hypothesize that members of more conservative religious traditions display more attitude persistence in the sense of Smith and Mackie (2000) than members of more liberal traditions.

The following part of this paper concerns itself with the theoretical foundations of aforementioned assumptions. I will start by explaining how it is possible to scientifically investigate a question of „morally right or wrong“, as abortion is believed to be one.


[1] real name: Dorothy Martin

[2] Heider (1946) calls the same principle „imbalance“, in Alvarez & Brehm (2002), p 54

[1] (30.11.2011)

[1] (30.11.2011)

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Religiosity, Cognitive Dissonance and Attitude
The Abortion Debate in the United States
Norwegian University of Science and Technology  (Psychological Institute)
Introduction to Individual and Context
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Note A bedeutet laut NTNU: An excellent performance, clearly outstanding. The candidate demonstrates excellent judgement and a high degree of independent thinking.
kognitive Dissonanz, cognitive dissonance, religion, attitude, abortion, Religiosität, Abtreibung
Quote paper
Anna-Sophia Fritsch (Author), 2011, Religiosity, Cognitive Dissonance and Attitude, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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