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Reflections on Ethics 7
Cognitive Dissonance and Scripture

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Reflections 6, 14, 19, & 40, Meditation 120 and Ask the Patriarch 32 and the ensuing discussions contain related material.

My local newspaper, The Medicine Hat News, regularly prints letters from a person who reckons himself to be an expert on the Bible and its use as a guide to morality. Recently he wrote opposing the use of alcoholic beverages, and to support his argument, he claimed the word “wine” as used in the New Testament actually means grape juice[1], and this is particularly true of the miracle of converting water into wine. He further claimed that Christ never supported the use of alcohol and that he and his disciples were lifelong teetotallers. To support this position, he stated he owned five different translations of the Bible, all of which made the translation of wine into grape juice. Of course, he did not mention the hundreds of other translations and versions of the Bible which leave the wine as wine. But, he is far from alone in his interpretation.

In a similar vein, I received a message commenting favourably on my reflection on the ten commandments, but pointing out that he had been brought up to believe that “Thou shalt not kill” should really be interpreted as “Thou shalt not murder.”[2] And I suspect a Bible translation could be found with this version of the sixth commandment, and no doubt many Christian ministers preach this particular interpretation.

Translation is an art. Individual words tend to have a wide range of meanings and connotations, and few, if any, words have exactly the same range in another language. Which means translators have to make a choice. They have to determine the most probable underlying meaning to determine the most appropriate translation. And different translators may make different choices. How much are these choices decided by the personal preconceptions of the translator?

I suggest that no-one without an anti-alcohol agenda will make the claim that references to wine in the New Testament should be translated as grape juice. It is the moral position on alcohol that drives this particular interpretation. Similarly, to translate the sixth commandment’s “kill” as “murder” betrays a denial of the moral absolute implicit in “Thou shalt not kill.”

Leon Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance which is based on the principle that people prefer their cognitions, or beliefs, to be consistent with each other and with their own behavior.1 Further, inconsistency, or dissonance, among their own ideas makes people uneasy enough to alter these ideas so that they will agree with each other.2

What we see in these two translation issues are prime examples of cognitive dissonance.

First, there is and underlying belief in scripture (regardless of specific religion) as the source of all morality.

Secondly, there is a moral belief (anti-alcohol in one case, justified killing of other humans in the other) either not covered by or at odds with what is stated in the scripture.

To resolve the conflict without abandoning either belief, it becomes necessary to change the translation or interpretation of scripture to bring it in line with the moral belief.

But what we really have is people making their own moral choices. By forcing the scriptural authority to fit the mould, its authority is being subordinated to the personal belief. The scripture is no longer necessary, other than as justification..

No holy book covers every possible moral and ethical situation, nor can it. Sooner or later, all of us find ourselves in a situation without clear guidance from the “good book.” So, is it better to let “cognitive dissonance” lead you into re-interpreting scripture, or should you accept full personal responsibility for your own morality?


1. Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology

2. Ibid