Cognitive dissonance: an unpleasant tension between belief and reality. My anthropology professor explained how we all resolve cognitive dissonance on a daily basis. There are only two ways to resolve this unpleasant feeling: change reality or change your beliefs. Changing your beliefs too often makes you a hypocrite, changing reality without compromise makes you a fundamentalist. We resolve cognitive dissonance so often that we don’t even notice it anymore. It is the unpleasant feeling you get when you are eating meat but you know the animal has suffered for it. You can change your belief thinking the animal hasn’t suffered or you can change reality by becoming a vegetarian or by buying cruelty-free meat (if that exists).
We also resolve cognitive dissonance when it comes to more substantial matters, like the reason for our existence. The only difference here is that we can’t change reality; we simply exist. The only thing we can change is our belief. Some say there is a divine creator who started it all, others say we evolved from another species, there are even people who say we came from outer space and some simply don’t know or care. As Reza Aslan quoted in his book No god but God: “It is reason, not imagination, which determines what is probable and what is not.” We believe what is most probable through reflection, and what we believe matters because it has many consequences.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan gave me time for reflection; in other words time to resolve my cognitive dissonances. People encounter small and large dissonances in their lives, all of which they have to resolve in order to be happy. One of the largest dissonances in my life came when I was 17 years old; one of my friends committed suicide. I hadn’t seen him for nearly a year but it shocked me very deeply nevertheless. On top of that, some people said he would burn in hell forever, because committing suicide implies a lack of belief. This harsh unchangeable reality forced me to reconsider the worldview I grew up with. Any form of torture in the afterlife was and is unacceptable to me, because the love of God is supposed to be like the love of a parent, only many times stronger. My parents rarely punished me as a child; they preferred to distract me from evil. They would never allow me or my sisters to suffer, so why would God?
As a result, religion became purely philosophical to me. I still liked the idea of an afterlife with paradise and no more evil, but how could anyone enjoy it knowing there are others burning in hell? Evil people (e.g. Adolf Hitler) deserve to be punished, right? But torture does not equal justice; I’ve had too many e-mails from Amnesty International to believe it does. Over time I tried to collect the elements that didn’t conflict with my sense of justice. These elements could come from any religion or faith, as long as they are not driven by hate. In Islam there is Zakat (giving a percentage of your wealth to the poor), in Buddhism there is no hell, in Christianity there is the Golden Rule (Love thy neighbour), and so on.
One thing I particularly like about Islam is the fact that one of the names of God is “er-rahmaan” (the h is voiceless). It is usually translated as “the compassionate”, but this translation is incomplete. The word has the same root as the word “rahm”, which means womb. Showing compassion is forgiving someone who has wronged you, but “er-rahmaan” is more about a mother’s feelings for the child in her womb; it is about love, protection and complete selflessness. Try to think of this world as a great divine womb, isn’t that nice?
When it comes to religion I try not to limit myself to the religion I was born into. The Islamic philosopher AlDjahiz the Mu’tazilite said it better than I ever could: “Virtues and errors are distributed among different peoples and nations. One nation can not claim to have all the virtues and truths, while all errors and falsehoods are with the other nations.” It is up to us to collect the truth.
At the moment I am enjoying a lovely vacation in the south of France, which has allowed me to reflect and put my thoughts in order. Luckily I did other things as well:
Louiza was selling briwats, baklawa and lemon cakes at a local market in St. Germain de Calberte. She told me she was from Nador (Morocco) and when I mentioned that I was fasting she gave me lots of free extra’s. She also told me to marry a Moroccan woman because they are the best cooks in the world. I could only agree…
Canoeing while fasting, it’s not as bad as you might think…
This is my last article before Eid El Fitr, if you still have any advice for me; now is your last chance! My e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I wish you all the best and Ramadan Mubarak!