What does cognitive dissonance have to do with abortion and social justice?

September 2, 2020

Human beings are complex creatures. Aristotle described us as “rational animals.” Augustine considered humanity’s driving force to be “love.” In addition to thinking and loving, we experience the full sweep of human emotions, and we do so as creatures who are at once both embodied and spiritual beings. But beyond our complexity, we are also contradictory. Often our words fail to match our actions and our actions fail to match our beliefs. But why is it so often the case that one part of our lives fails to cohere with another, especially when we are discussing matters of great significance? 

Such incongruence shows up in many areas of our lives. Perhaps the most obvious examples stem from the issues of abortion and social justice. But before considering them in detail, let us turn our attention to the root of the problem. Why is it that human beings manifest so many contradictions?

Sin and integrity

The answer is, at least in part, a simple one: sin. Each of us wakes up everyday living in the midst of a fallen world under the curse of sin (Gen. 3:14-19). The apostle Paul spoke to this reality when he said, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Because of sin, even those most deeply committed to following Jesus struggle to live with perfect integrity. That is, we struggle to live in such a way that all of these things “hang together” with consistency. Because of sin, each of us sometimes fails to live, speak, and act in accordance with our beliefs.

Martin Luther famously ignited the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door. Lesser known is the fact that the first of Luther’s theses suggests that the whole of the Christian life is to be marked by repentance. Repentance is a clear example of our work to reconcile our internal contradictions. When we speak or act in a way that runs contrary to our beliefs, we repent of those actions. And in doing this we are foremost seeking to make right our offense unto God. 

But, secondly, we are seeking to remedy and restore the rupture of our own integrity. For the people of God, persisting in a state of unrepentant sin throws our lives off balance. When our lives lack integrity, it is as though we are unable to walk upright. Our words, actions, and relationships are encumbered. And to address these problems, our consciences press for reconciliation.

Cognitive dissonance

But the problem is more complicated still. It is not just that sin often keeps us from acting in ways that align with our beliefs. Sometimes, it is our beliefs themselves that lack integrity, which is not to say that our beliefs are errant but that they contradict one another. For various reasons, our beliefs are occasionally in conflict. And in so much as these contradictions are apparent to us, we can work to reconcile them. Many times this reconciliation happens almost without notice. Someone might simply draw attention to your conflicting views prompting you to respond by adjusting one or the other (or both) to bring them into alignment.

Other times, though, the difficulty is much greater. In certain cases, a person may be presented with information that clearly demonstrates the contradictory nature of their beliefs and, against reason, fail to reconcile the contradiction. This is what is known as cognitive dissonance, where a person holds two or more contradictory views at the same time. And in our modern society, abortion is perhaps the most stunning example.

Abortion and social justice

Cognitive dissonance exists on both sides of the abortion fight. For those holding to the pro-life position, the dissonance is succinctly expressed in one of the most frequent criticisms of the pro-life movement. Critics argue that those who claim to be “pro-life” are really just “pro-birth.” They charge opponents of abortion with paying lip service to the “sanctity” and “value” of human life by arguing that these same people often fail to promote or defend such concepts when it comes to a host of other issues including immigration, addiction, and criminal justice.

A belief in human dignity is just that, a belief that all human life is valuable. For Christians, our belief that every person is made in the image of God means that every person possesses intrinsic and inestimable worth (Gen. 1:27). And for this reason, we adamantly oppose abortion.

Relatedly, throughout the pandemic, many have used some version of the formula “You’re not really pro-life unless . . .” to argue for everything from support for lockdowns to masks to church closures. Soon, to be sure, the same formula will be invoked to support immunization against the virus. But not a few people who are themselves ardently pro-life have bristled at this rhetoric. And many who take issue with this language do not disagree at every point with the proposals being advanced, but they understandably think it inappropriate to use someone’s opposition to abortion to browbeat them into supporting other policies. Certainly, one can deeply value human life without supporting every possible measure to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Even so, the lines of intersection between these mitigation efforts and human dignity could not be more apparent.

A belief in human dignity is just that, a belief that all human life is valuable. For Christians, our belief that every person is made in the image of God means that every person possesses intrinsic and inestimable worth (Gen. 1:27). And for this reason, we adamantly oppose abortion. No matter how small a person may be, we believe it is no small thing to be made in the image of God. And while it is unreasonable to assume that one’s belief in human dignity therefore requires one to support a specific proposal or set of policies, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the same “pro-life ethic” that one uses to oppose abortion would be applied to all of life. 

Sadly, that has not been the case for many who consider themselves pro-life. Too often, many in the pro-life camp have validated this criticism by rightly expressing staunch opposition to abortion while remaining apathetic in the face of other kinds of injustice or human suffering. But again, this dissonance occurs on both sides of the aisle. Advocates of social justice are frequently the loudest critics of the “hypocrisy” of pro-lifers. But in reality, the dissonance regularly on display by many proponents of social justice is even more staggering.

Theoretically, advocates of social justice engage such work because they likewise esteem the value of human life. Efforts to promote justice, alleviate suffering, end hunger, advance literacy, and care for the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable are driven by a desire to see people flourish. Such endeavors are laudable. Not only that, but they are obviously rooted in a high view of the human person. It is therefore all the more mystifying why proponents of social justice so rarely support any measures to protect and secure the well-being of the most vulnerable population on the planet—infants within their mothers’ wombs. The willingness to make any sacrifice to bring relief to those in distress except the people afflicted by our society’s most egregious and violent practice is nothing less than cognitive dissonance on full display. 

And lest one claim that “a fetus is not a person,” it is crucial to remember that such beliefs are contradicted not only by theology but science. It’s true that infants in their mothers’ wombs are wholly dependent beings, not unlike newborn children or adults in the most advanced stage of human development. But dependence in no way negates a person’s worth. Even more persuasive is the fact that modern technologies such as 4D ultrasounds not only allow us to see the heartbeat of a child in utero, but literally bring us face to face with an unborn person. Through 4D imaging we can behold a child’s facial features and witness the movement of human hands and feet. Ultimately, as Nancy Pearcey argues, because of “advances in genetics and DNA, virtually all professional bioethicists agree that life begins at conception.” Children in the womb are vulnerable and most deserving of protection. How a person could champion the value of life while callously turning away from the suffering of the unborn is utterly beyond comprehension.

Reconciling the tension

Thankfully it is not the case that all pro-life advocates have a limited appreciation for human dignity. Nor is it the case that every advocate for social justice ignores the plight of the unborn. In fact, many people in both camps display an exemplary integrity of belief, one that consistently applies their core values across the board—to the born and unborn alike. And it is that kind of integrity to which we should all strive. After all, to do so is to follow the example of Jesus. 

Jesus was perfectly consistent in his beliefs, regardless of the cost. And he never decided which people mattered. He affirmed the value of every person, especially those most frequently overlooked. Following his example will transcend any party platform or ideology. It may keep you out of step with those on “your side,” but it will never lead toward error or contradiction. Cognitive dissonance affects all of us. Fixing your eyes on Jesus is the path to integrity.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24