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What is "Compartmentalization" with regard to religion?

Whenever the question is brought up how intelligent, educated individuals can be religious (the best example are: theistic scientists), the word most often used to explain that is "compartmentalization".

But how does it work? These people do not suffer from a 'split personality' in a technical sense (where some part of the person does not know what is going on in another part).

Is compartmentalization just a handy concept to offer a pseudo-explanation of a strange phenomenon, or is it real? Are there any psychologists who have published on that topic?

Matias 8 Oct 11

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"One of the challenges, however, of being highly compartmentalized is that over time, people may lean more and more into those compartments where they feel most competent, capable and confident. That can cause other compartments to either atrophy from disuse or in some cases, never develop in the first place.

"Over time, these people can appear to be more like “human doings” that don’t feel particularly present as people even as they appear quite competent in a particular function. Think of IT instead of HR (or Romney vs. Obama).

"This may explain some of the challenges that successful problem-solving entrepreneurs have in “relating” to spouses and children who don’t want solutions or advice or to be figured out, but want to be listened to and understood."

"Compartmentalized v. Integrated: The Mind of Elliott Rogers - Does too much Compartmentalization Risk Disconnecting You from People?"

By Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A., Psychology Today, May 2014.


Really interesting. And slightly scary.

It means you can never really know someone. If they can split themselves off that way.

Most introverts compartmentalise as a means of survival ?


This is really about cognitive dissonance, as others have said. Separating irreconcilable beliefs in order to function. I think we should be honest and admit that we all do this, or are capable of it, on some things. I suspect, though this is not my field, that it's a trait that allows human beings to cope with things but continue on with the contradiction. That said, this compartmentalizing in religious people is often so pronounced they literally say stupid things that impair their mental function and make them look and sound silly. A scientist who says they believe in the silly Jesus story, for example. Out comes a lot of nonsense, yet they can't help themselves. An historian or social scientist who knows the fakery of Jesus and Christianity, but peddles rubbish about their "faith" and spiritual knowledge. I've seen it, pushed them in debates, and watched the compartments in their brains clash. And religions rationalize this for them, prattling on about being "tested by God" or knowledge from another way of knowing, and so on. I've said this before, but when intelligent people start justifying their brand of religion, they seem less intelligent. They are because their cognitively dissonant minds are impaired during this discussion. The neuroscientists will give us more scientific analysis, but that's my layman take on it.

@Matias Compartmentalising is how the stress is avoided, evaded, denied or tolerated from cognitive dissonance. The stress appears when stress is placed on the subject bringing the normally separated compartments into conflict. I've seen it, when asking serious probing questions of someone who holds irreconcilable positions, like science and religion. I've done it. Focused questioning brings real stress, silly answers and sometimes just dumb things coming out of the mouth of someone I know who should know better. Truly, sometimes it's almost sad. Look at the uncomfortable body language. Any rationalisation is used to have some answer, no matter how unbelievable. This is the stress that is usually avoided by keeping the mind separated. Cognitive dissonance and mind compartmentalisation are inextricably linked, in my view.

@Matias well, that's how YOU see it from YOUR world view. There are many who would agree with MY worldview, and you can see in this thread. You can't call differing perspectives logically incoherent simply because your perspective differs. You posed a question in your post, and I have given my view, as have others. Don't attack people for sharing their perspective on the question you pose.


I am not expert on the Psychological analysis of compartmentalization though I have done much study of the Psychology of religion.

Compartmentalization I can say is a real thing. As a correctional officer after 15 years I had developed the us vs. them psychology in maximum security where ours lives were in danger constantly that I began to see the offenders in some aspects as less than human. I realized this when I happened across offenders that had passed away. I had no regard for their humanity what so ever. I had no more passion for the humans that I had found dead than a mouse in a trap. I realized this and felt somewhat guilty for that. If I had come across any other human that had died there would have been an emotional response.
I am glad that I am no longer a correctional officer and have recovered my humanity now 6 years later and have plans to volunteer as atheist clergy As I am an ordained Atheist Pastor(another story.)

As far a religion is concerned I was indoctrinated very young as a young earth creationist, fundamentalist, extremist. It is by no means a split personality. It is simply a disregard for reality when it comes to faith. Lets take gravity. If the religion says that gravity does not exist then to the believer it is simply God magic that makes everyone think that it exist even though it does not "really" exist. I know it does sound crazy. People that are intelligent, of sound mind are very capable of this. This is why you can have perfectly normal, rational people display unthinkable beliefs and behaviors when it comes to religion. This compartmentalization is not a conscious choice or understanding to the individuals that it occurs in. It is normally like when I was a correctional officer a symptom of conditioning.

This is also how good people in Germany during WW2 were able to participate in the holocaust. The pressures and fear made these normal otherwise good people rationalize subconsciously unthinkable actions.


I don’t know of any psychological analyses, but here’s the opinion of a Nobel laureate in physics:


"There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God [...] There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God."[13]

It is a healthy, sane and reasonable opinion. Trying to psychoanalyze those with whom you disagree—now that is what is irrational, especially if you have no credentials in psychology.


I know of no research on compartmentalization but I would not be surprised if it exists. Speaking from my armchair I would say that compartmentalization is the ability to ignore cognitive dissonance. People can learn to tune out all kinds of stimuli: the sounds of chainsaws, jackhammers, trash trucks, crying babies, etc.. By comparison, a niggling little detail like the incompatibility between belief in god(s) and scientific knowledge is no great hurdle. We should not be surprised when emotion trumps logic.


"Compartmentalization in religion?" Is that like when Jesus finally got his own room?


I have seen astounding compartmentalization at work across other domains, such that nothing surprises me anymore. Some examples from my experience:

Earth-loving pagan types couldn't possibly be racist, right? Wrong!

A self-described "green" friend of the environment couldn't possibly buy bottled water and refuse to recycle, right? Wrong!

A self-improvement and mental health enthusiast couldn't possibly be hopelessly, deleteriously mired in co-dependency, right? Wrong!

I've seen all kinds. I have my own. That this should occur with religion is no surprise, intelligence or no. I don't understand how it works, but I know it can be powerful--and there are no guarantees with human beans.

And what is compartmentalization other than a coping mechanism to help avoid cognitive dissonance and the stresses it causes?

Thats not compartmentalization. That's recognizing a situation and acting appropriately.

If you are a mathematician and a father, you can help your kid with their algebra homework and not see a conflict. But, if you are a fundamental Christian biologist, you have to build a rigorous maze in your head so science and religion don't collide.


I think they were indoctrinated as children and just never had reason to question it.

Orbit Level 7 Dec 2, 2018

My brother is a geophysicist and a hardcore Baptist. He sees no contradiction in this. That can only happen by compartmentization. When he's at work, hes a scientist (Technologist really), when he comes home hes an uber Christian. How can he do this.

I contend that he can't. He is beholden to two Gods (metaphorically speaking). In order to his job or live his life, he has to compromise his ideals continually. Instead of doing one thing well, he does both poorly (he is a successful grophysicist- thus a technogist). His science paradigm is compromised when a controversial issue arises. He compromises his religious ideology anytime he does his science. The two patadigms are mutually exclusive and opposed. Doesnt mean you can't be successful, just means your judgement is always suspect.


These people are choosing to think differently in regard to different sectors of their lives. Down deep, they know that their ways of thinking about these different sectors are incompatible, but their compartmentialization enables them to avoid the discomfort of having to face the conflict. It is simply a coping device to evade internal conflict.

@Matias Your attempt at an analogy simply does not make sense, and bears no resemblance to reality..

@Matias As Hermann Hesse pointed out in his STEPPENWOLF, we are all a bundle of contradictions. Most people do not want to recognize -- much less, face -- that fact. To keep from dealing with that fact, they compartmentalize.It is the most aware, intelligent, and truly independent of us who choose to face and deal with the fact of our contradictions..

@Matias I am saying no such thing. You are putting false words in my mouth.

@Matias Those who compartmentalize will almost always deny that they are doing it.


It seems to me the idea of compartmentalization can be akin to specialization. A book that talks about the ever increasing complexities of the world are leading to specializations is titled "Common Fire". I went to a book discussion on this book by the authors Laurent A. Parks Daloz, Sharon Daloz Parks (a couple with an interesting approach to their surnames) [] A big part of the discussion centered on how people become specialists in a field but lose the overall picture of that field. I have a friend who was a nurse practitioner. She told me she had gotten her PhD and I asked why still be a NP and not a doctor. She said doctors tend to specialize in one area whereas NP's see the whole body. I consider myself a Jack of all trades (and master of some). I look for generalities and try to see the world from a holistic angle.
I very much think compartmentalization is real and increasing in our complex society. A recent article in the Atlantic showed how the presidency has gotten far too complex for one person and we see with the present rapscallion how that is very true.

I can see your point. I worked for a big accounting firm. I saw most of the employees were into their jobs first, families, second, religion and or sports next and that was that, compartmentalization. There wasn't enough time/energy to take on other areas. The complexity of their jobs made it even harder to focus on other things. One manager who specialized in non-profits told me she couldn't do her own taxes and need a specialist to do it. I still see a connection in that specialization and focus it requires can lead to a loss of time for other things.


Suspension of Disbelief is another potential explanation.

Sane rational people can sit through 2 hours of a movie or TV show about a zombie apocalypse, dragons, vampires, etc. Sitting through a church service is no different.

The difference is that most people don't let movies about zombies, dragons, and vampires influence their lives.

When they let their life be influenced by stories about zombie Jesus, their compartmentalization is failing.

BD66 Level 8 Oct 11, 2018

It is a misuse of an actual world for the purposes of euphemistically excusing expedient hypocrisy.


This is something that has puzzled me all my life. When I was a schoolgirl studying science I asked my biology teacher who was a woman I admired as a teacher, but I knew to have a strong Christian faith, how she reconciled her scientific knowledge with her belief in God. She admitted she had struggled with her belief when she was a student herself but that she had come to terms with believing in both and could reconcile the two by keeping them compartmentalised. I don’t think she actually used that expression , but that was the essence of what she meant. She said she thought that if I ever opened up my mind to God that I would be able to do so too. That never happened in my case, as I am still as sceptical today as I was at 17.


If you start with God then there is nothing outside the Totality that is God.

istOreality of God but everything is in God as a temporary compartmentalisation. The Universe exists within the reality of God as a temporary compartmentalisation.

The Universe is a holographic projection of the Mind of God. Thus what is projected is not real, albeit it feels real enought for those who are part of the holographic projection.

Souls are a part of God and in the core of their are pure Spirit. They incarnate within the holographic projection in order to mature in Love. After their incarnation is over they shed the body and return to pure Spirit.

Level 1 Nov 16, 2022

Compartmentalization, it seems to me, is an evolutionary survival mechanism. In order to continue, we learned to compartmentalize psychological horrors and trauma, often locking them in a vault within the labyrinthine chambers of our minds.

And just as we are able to compartmentalize trauma, we would seem to be likewise able to compartmentalize our hopes, joys, dreams and desires, isolating them from the relatively unvarnished reality of our existence. Upon this basic framework may be erected an elaborate superstructure of avowed belief. Thus, the religionist, no matter what the doctrine, may isolate the observed nature of the universe, to include the lack of evidence for the supernatural. Has our ability to compartmentalize for reasons of survival been hijacked by religion?

@Matias First, let me say that my ideas / opinions hardly qualify as ‘theory,’ but are more similar to your term, ‘impressions.’ 😉

Second, our impressions aside, the fact that we are able to cite religious scientists who, by definition, would most assuredly claim to unify their faith with their profession, is as old as faith itself, and their refusal to, as you have said, “put the two [faith and science] into separate compartments” demonstrates absolutely nothing, other than their own religious bias.

Third, in the case of the religious scientists, not only have they succeeded, to a point, in compartmentalizing their faith from their research, they have repackaged this dichotomy into a fully unified, if not complementary, philosophy.


In my experience, people tend to just treat religion as a special category where they are justified in altering their normal standards of evidence. I've worked with scientists who would, immediately after a 3 hour lab meeting to discuss how to thoroughly prove our model, lament how people always ask for evidence for their religion.

At least for the abrahamic faiths, the defining of god has been done in such a way that it is non-testable(ish). So there is an active push by many churches under this wide umbrella to make and reinforce an artificial separation between the two. This is the heart of many books discussing the faith vs science debate. It was even a huge point in the curriculum of the philosophy/theology and even evolution course within the Catholic college I attended.

The basic idea is that god and the supernatural exist outside our universe, therefore understanding them requires a separate epistemologic toolkit than that used for understanding our universe.


To my mind, the religious are the greatest compartmentalizers of all time, they see scientific facts as pure fiction and religious fiction as facts.
Their best ever example of compartmentalization is to 'combine' the words Biblical/Religious with such pursuits as Scientist/Archaeologist, etc., in doing so they make a joke of the TRUE Scientist/Archaeologist who has studied and worked tirelessly in those fields with as unbiased mind as possible whereas the so-called Biblical/Religious one has merely 'scrabbled' around with the sole intent of find proof of their inane belief/s where there is none but, none-the-less, CLAIMING 100% falsely that they have found it and it is irrefutable.

I suppose it depends on the sect/religion. Many "science friendly" Christian sects still hold nonsensical beliefs to some level in my experience. The oddest one is to say that god guides evolution, which is ridiculous with even the smallest prodding. Why would an all knowing being need a system of natural selection to make beings it already knows it wants? This sort of shallow reasoning is probably why the Socratic method has been adopted by so many atheist "street epistomologists"

@cRex92 Yes, I've heard numerous Faithfools, as I like to call them btw, claim that Evolution is steered and guided by God, then tell me in their next breath that " God created everything as it now and as it always and always will, there is NO evolution, it is just an Atheist myth.


Intelligent, educated individuals, generally can't be religious.

zesty Level 7 Oct 11, 2018

@Matias Yes, this was the reason for the "general" in the statement. These days in the US 30 to 35% of the general population is atheist or agnostic. Among the members of the American Academy of Sciences 98% are atheists. Source: FFRF 2017

@TheMiddleWay No. False statement,.

Some of the greatest minds that have ever lived have been religious. That’s like saying intelligence didn’t exist before Luther!

@Geoffrey51 Maybe some. However the Society of Pedofiles changed the written history quite frequently, so who knows?

@GodlessB Oh NO!


Believers make "god" mean whatever they want it to mean, and act in whatever way supports their preferred narrative.
You have to remember, god is magic. Magic trumps everything.
It's seamless.


Definitely not a psychologist...
I agree with others that it is cognitive dissonance. I mean why do they (religions) all seem to "evolve". I think it is because irrefutable truths emerge and they are impossible for rational minds to deny. So dogma is adjusted to fit the new truth and a new branch of the religion is created attracting the like minded. It is pretty obvious with christianity and I am sure is reflected in most if not all religions. I mean eventually more and more truths will emerge and organized religions will dissolve into mythology. It won't happen in the blink of an eye because people are stubborn with beliefs but science and religion are by definition opposites.
As global education levels rise religious fervor will shrink


I don't know for sure how it works but it is mind control. This is not religion but it shows something about compartmentalization. In Texas many years ago a neighbor girl had come over to play with my daughter. She lived with her grandparents and later they came by to get her. The girl was about 13. The grandparents and I were sitting down talking when grandpa told me how horrible the girl's mother was. I told him that was hard to believe. He then asked to show me something, and he called the granddaughter over and said for her to sit on his lap. Then he asked her to tell him about her mother. As if hypnotized the the girl started out "eF"ing bitch this and "eF"ing bitch that." It was like a speech drilled into her from early childhood. I could hardly believe it. Grandpa then asked her to stop and he let her get off his lap.

I'm sure this will all come back to bite him in the ass later, but a similar thing goes on with religion from very early childhood. Technical engineers in the fundy field even think the Grand Canyon is proof of a worldwide flood. Who knows? Maybe they think at the bottom of it somewhere we will find the giant bath tub drain stopper.


I'm no psychologist but ingrained beliefs can be difficult to uproot even if they are irrational. It can be even more difficult if those beliefs become part of your identity. Many are taught as children that having a strong religious faith is a virtue but it is not carried over into other subjects. That's the box put around faith.


I think there are many case studies that support that it is real. The need to avoid cognitive dissonance can be enormously strong. Some blind people even insist on being able to see []

Dietl Level 7 Oct 11, 2018

Cognitive dissonance is not a mental disorder it is a symptom that everybody can have. If you try to hold two conflicting believes at the same time you experience it. You are then forced to either decide which you want to belief or ignore one or the other (compartmentalize) to alleviate this negative feeling. Some mental illnesses involve strong cognitive dissonance. I only brought up Anton's syndrome to show to what extremes the avoidance of cognitive dissonance can lead.

I do think that there is cognitive dissonance (CD) involved with most religious scientists. Most of them don't believe in a deistic god who created the universe and doesn't intervene but in a personal god who answers prayer. The former believe makes no difference for a scientist because it makes no testable predictions (so there is not necessary CD). The latter on the other hand leaves a variety of conflicts open like the problem of evil, prayer, "miracles" in the bible ect. In these cases the scientist compartmentalize their believes in order to avoid having to think about those things to avoid CD.
But to be clear, this doesn't have to be extreme. You can have mild CD.

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