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| Another line of research identifies two kinds of rationality one that is adaptive or practical (called "ecological rationality") that deals with things like social and moral behaviour and what is "rational" given a particular social and emotional reality. This is a species of the “bounded rationality” discussed above. And other that is more rational an less emotional in orientation, and is called “deliberative rationality”.
The laws that govern ecological rationality are not absolute in the sense that the law of gravity is absolute. Rather, they are relative to particular social structures and circumstances. For example, while I served a mission in Peru many years ago our Mission President authorized us to drink both tea and Coca Cola (both thought by most Mormons to be contrary to the Word of Wisdom) since they were safer than the water we might otherwise drink, and because he believed (wrongly as it turned out) that both had curative properties relative to stomach parasites. As our presiding religious authority, his instructions to us in that regard changed our “ecology”, and hence our behaviour. What was not socially acceptable in Mormon missionary society generally speaking became so simply because he said it should be.
On the other hand, while visiting Peru with my family a couple of years ago I took a great deal of abuse from some of them for drinking tea made from the leaf of the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived. This is the local remedy for altitude sickness (kind of like a mild case of the flu) in the areas between 11,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level that we visited. A glass of this tea has roughly the same effect as an extra strength Tylenol pill. But, its association with cocaine was off putting for my family because of their 21st century/North American/Mormon ecology. At the time, I was a faithful Mormon as well, but my experience years earlier in Peru had accustomed me to the use of herbs (including the coca plant) for various legitimate purposes. From my point of view, drinking that tea was as legitimate as taking Tylenol, and much easier. And just as Tylenol 3 is regularly abused, so is the drug that can be obtained by processing and refining coca leaves in a particular way to produce cocaine. And if we went back a couple of generations in time in North America, we would find a completely different ecology respecting cocaine itself. We forget that not long ago cocaine made Coca Cola the cultural fixture it is, and that during the same period of time cocaine was sold over the counter in North American drug stores as a cure all. Ecologies change, and as they do so does the ecological reasoning they produce.
A more jarring example of bounded or ecological rationality is the behavior of a battered spouse who chooses to remain with her husband in circumstances where she may not survive without his breadwinning assistance. That is, being physically or emotionally abused is rational if probable homeless and all that goes with it for self and children is the alternative. Other features of human psychology such as denial and cognitive dissonance (described below) often strengthen this process by suppressing information that if consciously acknowledged might compel the abused spouse to action that her unconscious mind fears. The same sort of mental processes may well apply to a male whose mate is having an affair with the most powerful individual in a violent social group, such as a primitive tribe, a Mafioso community or a group of chimpanzees.
Deliberative rationality, on the other hand, includes the kind of reasoning required by the scientific method.
As Matteo Mameli notes:
"Evolutionary considerations (and neurological data) indicate that emotions are very important (and in many more ways than people usually think)
for [ecological rationality, including] social and moral rationality. But things are different with deliberative rationality. Emotions do not help with deliberative rationality. Deliberative rationality is the ability that a person has when (i) she is able to form beliefs about which mental state she ought to be in, (ii) she is able to form the intention to be in this mental state, and (iii) this intention is successful (i.e. the intention causes the person to be in the mental state she thinks she ought to be in). A paradigmatic case of deliberative rationality is scientific rationality. The scientist examines the data at her disposal and (i) she forms the belief that she ought to believe in the truth of theory T, (ii) as a result of this belief she forms the intention to believe in T's truth, and (iii) as a result of this intention she believes in T's truth.
Evolutionary considerations (and neurological data) suggest that emotions limit the extent to which humans can be deliberatively rational. Intentions to have certain emotional reactions and to avoid other emotional reactions are often unsuccessful, and for good evolutionary reasons. The different roles that emotions play in (two different kinds of) rational behaviour explain why the debate about the rationality of emotions has been so long and so messy." (Matteo Mameli, Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, London School of Economics, "The Rationality of Emotions from an Evolutionary Point of View", to be published in "Emotion, Evolution and Rationality", Oxford University Press, March 2004)
For example, it is "rational" for me to wish to get along within my family and community, and the thought of being ostracized produces fear a strong, negative emotional reaction. This is likely due to the historic connection between being shut out of society and non-survival. Hence, behaviour that prevents my expulsion from the safety of society is supremely rational in an ecological sense. And yet, that behaviour may require that I deny reality. To use a crude example, imagine the primitive male who has seen plenty of evidence that his mate may be having sexual relations with the group's powerful male leader. Further assume that a confrontation with the leader would not likely bode well for the first male's survival. It appears that our brains have developed mechanisms that will screen an amazing amount of dangerous information such as this so that we do not need to deal with it. Sometimes this is a good thing, and other times it is not.
While George Orwell did not use the terms bounded or ecological rationality, he recognized these concepts at work in his day. His lovely little book “Why I Write” was written in England during World War II. While providing fascinating insight into why Orwell wrote what he did (“Animal Farm”, “1984” etac.), it is mostly a viciously insightful critique of the British socials ills that he believed led to its national predicament at that time the British appeared on their way to losing a life and death struggle.
While I recommend the book for a variety of reasons, its utility for present purposes to point out an interesting parallel between the forces that according to Orwell were at the root of Britain’s perspective problems leading up to World War II, and those that currently plague Mormonism. For example, read the following passages, written by Orwell in the context above, as if they had been written by a Mormon intellectual who was fully conversant with the strengths and weaknesses of the institution that sponsors his faith, changing references:
· from “democracy” to “literalist Mormonism”;
· from “totalitarianism” to a religious tradition other than Mormonism that has a cultish;
· from England to “the Mormon Church”;
· from particular British leaders to particular Mormon leaders, etc.
And when Orwell speaks of stupidity, think instead of denial. Here we see a classic example of bounded rationality at work. All page references are to Orwell’s “Why I Write”.
“An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face. The familiar arguments to the effect that democracy is “just the same as” or “just as bad as” totalitarianism never take account of this fact. All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread. In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are powerful illusions.
Even hypocrisy is a powerful safeguard. The hanging judge, that evil old man in scarlet robe and horse-hair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will ever teach what century he is living in, but who will at any rate interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstance take a money bribe, is on of the symbolic figures of England. He is a symbol of the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape.” (pages 21, 22)
“In spite of the campaigns of a few thousand left-wingers [who are the intelligentsia of whom Orwell was part], it is fairly certain that the bulk of the English people were behind Chamberlain’s foreign policy [that played into Hitler’s hands, setting up what looked like a war headed for disaster]. More, it is fairly certain that the same struggle was going on in Chamberlain’s mind as in the minds of ordinary people. His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was mere a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights. It is difficult to otherwise explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him.
” (page 28
“England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s muchquoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr. Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all it cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and it common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control that perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase. (page 30)
“One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.
The existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable. They were simply parasites, less useful to society than his fleas are to a dog.
By 1920 there many people who were aware of all this. By 1930 millions were aware of it. But the British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate. For it was not possible for them to turn themselves into mere bandits
After all, they belonged to a class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools where the duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first and greatest of the Commandments. They had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen. Clearly there was only one escape for them into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though this was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on round them.” (pages 31 33)
“It is important not to misunderstand [the leaders] motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.” (page 37)
“England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” (page 40)
“It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals ruing the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps [the uneducated masses], was a by-product of the ruling-class stupidity. Society could not use [the intellectuals], and they had not got it in them to see that devotion to one’s country implies “for better, for worse”. Both Blimps and high-brows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence. If you were a patriot you read Blackwood’s Magazine [a low-brow publication] and publicly thanked god that you were “not brainy”.
Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar war, that may make this possible.” (page 41)
That is, England’s ruling class was making decisions that made sense to them in the context of their historic dominance, understandable reluctance to give up power and influence, etc. And these decisions put the entire country at risk. Intellectuals were scorned because they called the established order into question. Among the “faithful” ignorance became a badge of honour. And if shown this situation in any other culture, the British of Orwell’s day and Mormons today would immediately recognize it as a recipe for disaster. Then, if confronted by the proposition that they were headed down precisely the same perilous path, they would distinguish their case from the other on grounds that would leave most knowledgeable outsiders shaking their heads in amazement at the depth of denial these mental gymnastics show.
The parallels between the British leaders in Orwell’s time and Mormonism’s leadership today are particularly striking. Their circumstances blind them to the reality of both their position and the effects of their actions. Time will tell how far Mormonism’s fortunes will have to decline before fundamental leadership change will occur.
In conclusion regarding bounded and ecological rationality, I note that it may well have been Christ’s observation of this universal human trait that prompted him to note that only those who had ears for his teachings would hear them.
| Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism |
by Daniel C. Peterson
DP: A prolific ex-Mormon now-atheist writer on Mormon historical topics,
asked last week whether he was planning to attend this FAIR symposium,
responded that, no, he wasn't.
bm: Those awful atheists! Peterson seems to believe that few slurs are more
potent than this given the number of times he used it in this essay, and how
he used it. I don't find the term to be useful and observe that it is mostly
used by people like Peterson as a derogatory term rather than a way of
communicating useful information about what someone else believes.
A "theist" is a person who believes in a god of some kind. An "atheist" is a
person who does not so believe. But what kind of god are we talking about?
Einstein referred to "god" as whatever caused the amazing reality he spent
his life exploring. He said that this reality must have been created by an
intelligence of such staggering magnitude that we cannot comprehend it and
should reverence. However, he had no idea what kind of intelligence that
might be or where it came from. It could have been a three line algorithm
created by random chance, a nice old man with white hair, or who knows what.
Was Einstein a theist (he believed in a god of some kind) or an atheist (he
thought most of the ideas people have about god have an extremely high
probability of being false)?
It is clear, however, that Einstein was uncertain as to about god's nature
to such an extent that his idea of god would not be called god by most
literalist religious people, and hence it is reasonable to say that he was
agnostic (he did not know) about god. Hence, I would call him an agnostic
instead of an atheist or theist. I use the same label for myself. I am
agnostic regarding god. Or I am a non-theist. And many thoughtful people
whom Peterson would call atheist because they don't believe in the kind of
god he does, have beliefs similar to mine.
As an aside, I have found a great deal of wisdom in Einstein's writing
related to the formation of culture and how his personal spirituality
worked. I recommend in that regard:
And, by the way, how many people to whom society owes a great deal were
agnostics, deists (a lot like agnostics) or full blown atheists? Many of
America's founding fathers were somewhere between atheist and deist, for
example. Many of our greatest scientists and social innovators have held
similar views. And what about all of those Buddhists, Taoists, etc.? Pretty
much all atheists.
It is unreasonable to suggest that lack of any particular religious belief
denotes moral defect. In fact, it is worse than unreasonable. It is foolish
and increasingly tending toward the unwise if not immoral in our highly
interdependent world. It is this kind of tribalism that must be broken down
in as many aspects of society as possible if we are to avoid the kinds of
disasters that occurred on 9/11, the riots that are currently going on in
the Muslim world as a result of a few religious cartoons published in
Europe, and a host of other silly and/or dangerous things. Furthermore, the
kind of ignorance Peterson trumpets is precisely what must be overcome as
people around the globe digest the facts regarding their interconnectedness
with each other, their dependence on the planet's limited resources, and the
tremendous difficulties humanity faces as a result of a population that
continues to grow and consume ever more resources.
DP: I will, as advertised, reflect on "secular anti-Mormonism." I'm grateful
for the assignment because, frankly, anti-Mormonism of the evangelical kind
has come, with a few exceptions, to bore me intensely. It's not only that it
tends to be repetitious and uninteresting--I think I've mentioned here
before the film that my friend Bill Hamblin and I have laughed about doing:
Bill and Dan's Excellent Adventure in Anti-Mormon Zombie Hell. It's not
merely that the same arguments reappear ad nauseam, no matter how often
they've been refuted, and that reviewing essentially the same book for the
thirty-second time grows tiresome.
bm: "To refute" means to establish or prove that a proposition is false.
While I don't think the Evangelicals come at Mormonism from the best
perspective for the most part, I have read enough of Peterson, Hamblin and
Midgely's responses to the Evangelical critique to know that most of the
time they do little more than kick immense amounts of dust into the air for
the purpose of showing that the Evangelicals have not quite pinned the
Mormons to the mat on this or that point. To call what Peterson does in this
regard "refutation" is offensive to anyone who understands the subject
matter. However, he is likely convincing to the faithful Mormons who read
this and assume on the basis of his hyperbole that there is nothing to be
This reminds me of the FARMS reviews I read while still faithful of Todd
Compton's book "In Sacred Loneliness". The book deals with the Joseph Smith'
s plural marriages. FARMS tore the book apart. I had read a troubling review
in a local newspaper, and heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that the
scholars at BYU had panned it. Years later while beginning to investigate
Mormonism using real scholarly sources I found Compton's rebuttal to the
FARMS reviews, and felt ill. In a few minutes of reading Compton I realized
that his approach was reasonable, and that I had been duped as a result of
trusting FARMS and so not bothering to read Compton myself. See
http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Oracl... This approach, whether
conscious or not, characterizes what I read in Peterson's work.
I do not suggest that Peterson is dishonest, just completely taken in by his
point of view. People like him fascinate me, and before I could happily
relegate Mormonism to the rear view window I needed to feel that I
understood how smart, well-intentioned, kind people (and I presume Peterson
is all of those) could do what they do on behalf of something so obviously
false as Mormonism. While writing a number of lengthy essays on this topic I
found that people like Peterson are common in most religions and other
ideology based social groups. See
http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.do%2... for example.
Time and again as I made my way through Peterson's essay I was struck by his
denial of probabilities. We can't be certain about anything in the
historical or current world. However, some things are demonstrably more
probable than others. The best strategy for any purpose where knowing what
is real is important is to adopt the information most likely to be correct
as time passes. Apologists like Peterson tend to do this as long as that
information does not conflict with their faith, which requires them to start
with certainty as to what is real in certain cases, and defend that position
against any disconfirming information that comes along. I examine the
pattern of belief that this causes in many social groups, including
So, as you read below something Peterson has suggested to be a real state of
human or physical affairs and I propose an alternative, ask yourself which
is more likely to be a reasonable estimate of reality.
DP: (You've heard the definition of insanity as when you keep doing the same
thing over and over and over again, and expect to get different results.)
It's also the deep streak of intellectual dishonesty
bm: That's it - accuse everyone else of intellectual dishonesty. That is
probably what is going on. Don't look for patterns of similar behaviour in
similar groups and use that to understand Mormons, post-Mormons and many
other groups of similarly behaving people. Consider, as an alternative
hypothesis for post-Mormon behavior (as well as Mormon apologist behaviour),
denial of the sort I describe in my essays linked above. Or how about
cognitive dissonance? Denial and cognitive dissonance apply to post-Mormons
as well as Mormons and other groups of humans. Emotional and social "proofs"
are also applicable to one group as much as to the other. Once you get
beyond dishonesty and stupidity as the presumed causes of behaviour with
which you disagree a lot of things make much more sense. Some Mormon
behavior is irrational, and some post-Mormon behavior is irrational. If you
to think in these terms, you have a chance to sort out error, in your camp
as well as that of others, from accurate observation.
The greatest gift I have received as a result of my exodus from Mormonism is
increased humility. That is, I am now prepared to admit that I not only may
be wrong in many of my current positions, but that I most assuredly am. This
teachability does wonderful things, as does the idea that reality is what it
is. It does not have to be what anyone, no matter how old or presumably
sacred or wise, said it is. It just is. The respected biologist John Maynard
Smith expresses beautifully the consequence of adopting this point of view
in his interview at www.meaningoflife.tv, which is another fine source of
useful big picture thinking.
DP: that runs through much of the countercult industry, the triumphalism
that exaggerates and even invents problems on the Mormon side while
effectively pretending that no problems remain to be addressed on the
so-called "Christian" side.
bm: Peterson is being highly selective here. Many believing Christians apply
the same scholarly standards to their own faith as to Mormonism. Throughout
this essay, Peterson sets up straw men that will be recognized as such by
most who are familiar with the relevant literature or phenomena. However,
since his target audience is generally speaking ignorant of these things,
many of them will find him persuasive when he says ridiculous things like
DP: (This couldn't possibly be more clearly illustrated than in recent
evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant use of DNA data to cast doubt upon
the Book of Mormon. In what can only be described as a display of either
stunning ignorance or appalling cynicism, these anti-Mormon crusaders ignore
the fact that the assumptions fundamental to current deep-historical DNA
studies flatly contradict traditional and widely held conservative
Protestant understandings of the book of Genesis.)
bm: As already noted, many believing Christians apply the same scholarly
standards to their own faith as to Mormonism. But Peterson would likely
disparage the faith of Christians of this type because they also tend not to
be literalist believers in the Bible. And Peterson's assessment of the DNA
research is laughable. This is classic apologistese. Even then-BYU
microbiologist Scott Woodward is on record to the effect that the DNA case
against the Book of Mormon is probably correct. However, it is not 100%
certain. He did not mention that nothing in the empirical world is 100%
DP: No, I'm quite content, for today at least, to concentrate on secular
anti-Mormonism, which I often find much more interesting and intellectually
challenging, and which, I'm coming to believe, constitutes the real locus of
action in coming years.
bm: Not if Mormons are still trying to cozy up to the Evangelicals as
Mormonism's traditional foundations, like the Book of Mormon and Joseph
Smith's trustworthiness, continue to crumble.
DP: I will pass over very quickly a message board that I like to monitor
that is, in its way, a kind of wildlife preserve for secular anti-Mormons.
bm: The Recovery from Mormonism message board to be found at [link removed]
which I will refer to as "RFM". (NOTE FROM INFYMUS: Link Removed For Archive Purposes)
DP: Some of you are probably familiar with it. Although it is of
unquestionable sociological and psychological interest, it offers little if
anything of intellectual merit. What was once said of William Jennings Bryan
could be said of even many of the star posters on this message board: "One
could steer a schooner through any part of his argument and never scrape
against a fact." Several, even, of the posters with the greatest
intellectual pretensions on the board have consistently demonstrated
themselves incapable of accurately summarizing Latter-day Saint positions
and arguments, let alone of genuinely engaging them. It's hard not to think
in this context of Groucho Marx: "From the moment I picked up your book
until I laid it down," Groucho wrote to the novelist Sydney Perelman, "I was
convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend to read it." Many on this
particular message board seem to be of the same mentality as the academic
who was asked whether he had read the new book by Professor Jones. "Read
it?" he replied. "Why, I haven't even reviewed it yet!"
bm: Hilarious! These people at RFM (including me I presume) are obviously
not worth listening to in any way and are to be pitied. What fools! Let's
not compare RFM to anything that would put it in context or help us to
understand it. And particularly, let's not compare it to any of the many
other Mormon related on-line communities that display ignorance, ill will
and silliness of similar as well as other types.
So, what is RFM? First, it is not designed as a forum for intellectual
discussion. It is supposed to be a safe place to vent, and a lot of venting
occurs there. Venting is not pretty, and usually contains a lot of
irrationality. See the essay on my website titled "Chaos and Forging the
Self" for a summary of my take on RFM in general. Until posted there it can
also be found at [link to RFM Removed]. However, despite RFM's lack of academic pretension, I have read some
brilliant stuff there as well as a lot of silliness, funniness, pathos and
humanity. And I can name a dozen people who are either successful practising
lawyers, respected university professors and/or practising scientists who
regularly post at RFM right now. I am sure there are many more of this type
who post there and I have not had the chance to get to meet in real life.
As he does consistently throughout this essay, Peterson has here set up a
straw man to knock down to the cheers of those who are generally
unencumbered by the relevant facts and trust that he is telling them an
accurate story. As you read remember that I am one of the ill-willed,
blasphemous, idiots Peterson has described.
DP: What the board does offer are displays of bravado, strutting, believers'
arguments completely misunderstood and misrepresented, bold challenges
hurled out to those who are barred from responding, and guffaws of triumph
over enemies who are not permitted to reply. Dissent is rigidly excluded
from this board, even as its denizens criticize the Church for its supposed
bm: As already noted, RFM is a place for venting and recovery, not argument.
Many topics are verboten there, such as political discussion of all kinds.
And there is a certain amount of exercise of questionable judgement about
how things are done there, as is the case in all human groups. Many people
who post at RFM go to many other places to engage in debate and find
information. Should this be surprising?
DP: However, notwithstanding the rigorous exclusion of all troublesome
dissent from their domain, the faith these posters have in their own
unanswerably brilliant selves is oddly refreshing to see in atheists, whom
you wouldn't expect to believe in any God at all.
bm: More Peterson hyperbole. More straw-men. As noted above, RFM is a
recovery site. And is it reasonable to assume that what happens at RFM is
the sole source of information for people who participate there or that just
because a person vents (or does anything else) at RFM that they have
personally subscribed to everything said there? And what does God have to do
DP: Voltaire once explained that "My prayer to God is a very short one: 'Oh,
Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' God," he said, "has granted it."
bm: Brilliant! Let's not mention that Voltaire was one of the leading
atheists (shiver) of his day who spent much of his time skewering the
silliness of people where were apologists for the Christian position, much
like Peterson. Peterson is precisely the kind of person Voltaire likely had
in mind while making this statement.
DP: But this doesn't exhaust the pleasures of that message board. It is rife
with personal abuse and bloodcurdling hostility, not uncommonly obscene,
directed against people they don't know and haven't even met--against
President Hinckley, Joseph Smith, the Brethren, the general membership of
the Church, and even, somewhat obsessively, against one particular rather
insignificant BYU professor.
bm: And some there, like me, are regularly dismissive of what I call the
"stupid, lying bastards" approach to Mormonism. This does not do the people
or social psychological mechanisms involved near enough credit. However, a
lot of post-Mormons lose their marriage, relationships with their kids and
countless other important aspects of life as a result of what happens when
the deceptive actions of Mormon leaders come to light. And there is lots of
scientific research that shows how violent a response should be anticipated
when we learn that even small scale deceptions have been practised on us. I
wonder why emotions run so high when people find out that they have
consistently through out their lives purposefully deceived by religious
leaders in whom they vested almost complete trust?
DP: Ordinary members of the Church--Morgbots or Morons
bm: This is often, in my experience, the result of the unhappy (or happy)
way in which keys on computer keyboards are set up. I can't count the number
of times I have typed "Moron" while trying to type "Mormon" and have had to
correct it. Believers in gods who disagree with the Mormon god may find in
this a divine sign instead of the comic coincidence I see.
DP: or Sheeple, in the jargon of the board--are routinely stereotyped as
insane, tyrannical, cheap, bigoted, ill-mannered, irrational, sexually
repressed, stupid, greedy, foolish, rude, poor tippers, sick, brain-dead,
and uncultured. There was once even a thread--and I'm not making this
up--devoted to discussing how Mormons noisily slurp their soup in
bm: Go read some posts at any of many LDS bulletin boards and you will find
similar displays of ignorance and inanity.
DP: Posts frequently lament the stupidity and gullibility of Church leaders,
neighbors, parents, spouses, siblings, and even offspring
bm: Much of this is reasonably accurate.
DP: --who may be wholly unaware of the anonymous poster's secret double life
of contemptuous disbelief.
bm: And what is the penalty in most Mormon communities for disclosing that
kind of disbelief? And there is nothing of secrecy or information
suppression within Mormonism, is there? I wonder where this tendency toward
secrecy and suppression of information comes?
DP: It is a splendid cyber illustration of the finger pointing and mocking
found in the "great and spacious building" of 1 Nephi.
bm: One of the many ironies in this circus piece is that Peterson does not
see how that metaphor can be used the other way. In Utah particularly, those
who stand up and publicly dissent from Mormonism are often mocked in various
ways by those who control the great and spacious buildings that literally as
well as metaphorically dominate Mormonism.
DP: Whenever the poisonous culture of the place is criticized, however, its
defenders take refuge in the culture of victimhood, deploying a supposed
need for therapeutic self-expression as their all-encompassing excuse.
bm: There is a lot more to it that that, and I don't know anyone who I
consider thoughtful who would gives RFM top grades in all important
categories. But there is some justification to the recovery approach.
I disagree with some aspects of the Alcoholics Anonymous program and
philosophy, but would I be justified in going into an AA meeting and
starting to debate my concerns with the people there who are struggling to
put their lives back together? That is what people like Peterson have been
shown to do time and again if given the chance at RFM. That he does not
consider Mormonism to be a problem from which one needs to recover would put
him in the same class as those alcohol vendors who say the same thing about
alcohol. That kind of person, for good reason, would be barred from AA
I have no problem with the designation of a safe place where those who are
critical of Mormonism can vent in peace and recover perspective and the
security that goes with it (see Lee Kirkpatrick, "Attachment, Evolution and
the Psychology of Religion"). Active Mormons have dozens of similar bulletin
boards not to mention their meeting houses. And when you check out
communities of people who have left or who dissent from other religious
groups, you find much the same kind of thing.
We see here again Peterson's penchant for exaggeration and his attempt to
present RFM and those who spend time there as particularly evil rather than
looking for ways to understand RFM by looking for parallels in other groups.
This is understandable given Peterson's apparent objective - to warn members
of the Mormon community away from those inhuman beings at RFM. The is a lot
of social psych literature along these lines (see Elliott Aronson, "The
Social Animal" for example). We tend to dehumanize those we wish to justify
ignoring or treating badly.
DP: Contemplating a depressing number of the posters on that board, I've
thought to myself, "If this is what liberation from the Mormon 'myth' makes
you--a vulgar and sometimes duplicitous crank, cackling with malice and
spite--then I would prefer to spend the few brief years left to me (before I
dissolve into the irreversible and never-ending oblivion many of the board's
posters prophesy for me and all humankind) with people who haven't been
bm: Beautiful! What a move! Two birds with one stone! He nailed those
terrible atheists again, while suggesting that people who leave Mormonism
and spend time at RFM are scum!
DP: I think of the apostates of Ammonihah, mocking Alma and Amulek in
prison, "gnashing their teeth upon them, and spitting upon them, and saying:
How shall we look when we are damned?"1 Surely the damned will not look much
different than this.
bm: This is wonderful. I could not have written a better foil myself. For
the second time in a few paragraphs Peterson refers to a Book of Mormon
passage as if it described a real event that could be used to shed light on
other real events. Without attempting the kind of useful contextual analysis
that Craig Criddle provides at
http://www.i4m.com/think/history/Book..., let me make a few quick
points of a similar nature.
If you were starting a new religion that would of course be small and likely
to attract a lot of negative attention from other social groups, wouldn't it
be great if you found some scripture that showed how God's plan included
this kind of thing and it was predicted to recur in your case (the great and
spacious building), but that anyone who disagreed with you would ultimately
meet with terrible life events? And better yet, what if this scripture
predicted that someone with your name would be the leader of this new
religion? That would be too good to be true, right? Oh, and why not in God's
name predict that when people found out that you were misleading them or
maybe even trying to have sex with their wives or daughters that, that they
would get really mad and try to prevent you from continuing to do that to
So Peterson, after characterizing everyone at RFM in the worst possible way,
uses a fantasy from the Book of Mormon in an attempt to legitimize his RFM
fantasy. Two fantasies = one reality?
And if you good Mormons wish to avoid the pain all of those people at RFM
suffer, you'd best not spend any time at RFM
And don't acknowledge that
anyone who left Mormonism or changed their belief regarding God was ever
happy about that choice. Don't refer to people like Robert Ingersol, for
http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.reli... at page 80. Etc. This is wonderful stuff.
DP: But I'm troubled by the capacity even of far less malevolent message
boards to supply a supportive sort of ersatz community as an alternative to
the fellowship of the Saints, and I worry about what participation on even
relatively benign boards does to some Latter-day Saint souls. I have in mind
one frequent poster in particular, who claims simply to be doubting and
troubled, but who in fact never misses an opportunity for a snide remark
about his Church, in which he remains active, and its teachings. These
teachings involve weighty matters of utmost import. Millions have placed
their hopes in the gospel's message, and, if this were false, it would be
tragic and unutterably sad. Perhaps the cynicism that this poster and many
others cultivate is no more than a psychologically understandable defensive
shell, a self-protective whistling past the graveyard of doubt. But, even
so, it is a shell that will, I fear, block the Spirit.
bm: I wonder if all forms of doubt block the access the Spirit presumably
gives us to a greater reality? That seems implied. Since Peterson's
spiritual leaders have all the answers, we need do nothing more than obey
them. How comforting, and is there any idea that is older than this one?
Just get in line and obey. Stop questioning and doubting.
DP: I am not optimistic about his long-term prospects, barring a fundamental
shift in attitude (and, even less hopefully, perhaps in personality).
bm: Well, it looks like Peterson has buried RFM now, so I will give a brief
description of the place myself. You judge whether his or mine makes the
There is a great deal of evidence that justifies the perception that many
Mormons have been systematically deceived throughout their lives by
well-intended religious leaders and family members. Whether this perception
is right or wrong, those who come to have it should be expected to suffer
serious trauma. The DSM-IV (used to diagnose psychiatric illness) has a
category that deals with this. See
http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%... This type of trauma is experienced by a wide of range of people who come
to regard their views with regard to religion as inaccurate and suffer a
loss of relationships and other forms of security and/or self identity as a
result. And there is a lot of literature about how to deal with/heal from
this kind of trauma. Most of this recommends something along the lines of
the well-known Kubler-Ross grieving process (see
ss.htm). Expressing anger is one aspect of this process. And people tend to
pass through it and move on.
People tend to visit RFM often for a period of months and perhaps for as
long as a couple of years, and then move on. While at RFM these people form
a complex human community that includes idiots, savants, socializers,
clowns, scientists, philosophers, bullies, babies, etc. As I said, it is a
diverse human community, and has the strengths and weaknesses one should
expect from such.
DP: Characteristic of much secularizing anti-Mormon participation on the Web
is a corrosive cynicism that, in my experience, will erode anything with
which it comes in contact.
bm: Are we talking about the same cynicism that led to the Renaissance,
Enlightenment, American Revolution, etc. or some other kind? My guess is
that Peterson welcomes cynicism that overturns blind obedience in old
Catholicism, the Divine Right of Kings, the Muslim faith, etc. but wants to
attack cynicism that questions any of his dogmas. Let's see how this plays
DP: It is not so much a reasoned intellectual stance as an attitude, or
even, perhaps, a personality type. Those afflicted with such cynicism are
like the dwarfs in the last book of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, who
are, as Aslan expresses it, so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be
taken out. Such people claim to know the price of everything and everyone,
but they seem to recognize the value of nothing. But the problem may well be
in the cynic rather than in the object of his scorn. "No man," as the French
saying goes, "is a hero to his valet."2 Why? The German philosopher G.W.F.
Hegel is surely right when he responds: "This is not because the hero is no
hero, but because the valet is a valet."3
bm: Nice. Let's again dehumanize those who disagree with us instead of
looking for patterns in history and the social science literature that might
help to explain persistent patterns of disagreement among groups of people.
DP: A more interesting form of secular anti-Mormonism springs out of, or at
least is related to, elite European secularism generally.
Some years ago, with time on my hands following the close of an academic
gathering in Graz, Austria, I spent the better part of a day looking through
the city's bookstores. The dollar being weak, prices being high, and my
luggage being cramped, I did much more looking and browsing than buying. I
soon discovered an extraordinarily interesting topic: The treatment of
Mormonism in travel books published for America-bound Europeans. Since then,
I've enjoyed many similar books in French and Italian bookstores as well as
across Germanic Europe. Almost uniformly, the tone is one of
astonishment--subtly expressed or, often, quite open--at the stupidity and
gullibility of the Latter-day Saints. Additionally, Mormon history and
doctrine are plainly deemed too patently absurd to justify much effort at
bm: Are we surprised at this? Are travel books known for their depth and
accuracy? Or are we to believe that Mormonism is subject to a conspiracy by
those who write these books?
DP: But Mormons represent merely an opportunity for a more general European
attitude to focus on a particularly ludicrous target. In a recent book
attempting to explain the American mind to bemused German-speakers,
Professor Hans-Dieter Gelfert observes that,
"To Europeans, American religiosity must necessarily seem naοve, if not
primitive. Here [in Germany], educated people are assisted, above all, by
enlightened [aufgeklδrte] theologians who reinterpret Christian teaching as
an ethical doctrine suited for the everyday, but at the same time
philosophically abstract. In the meanwhile, there are pastors who believe
that they can get by altogether without mentioning God's name. It's
completely different in America, where the Bible is still the Word of God."4
bm: Again, is this news? See http://wvs.isr.umich.edu/fig.shtml for a
University of Michigan produced summary of where the US fits into the world
picture in terms of secular v. religious values. Americans should be
expected to appear Neanderthal to Europeans.
DP: According to Phil Zuckerman, of Pitzer College, rates of agnosticism or
atheism in Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, and France reach levels higher
than fifty percent.5 There and elsewhere, underused churches are being
converted into concert halls, museums, art galleries, stores, restaurants,
condos, even nightclubs. In Scandinavia, for some reason, it is popular to
transform churches into carpet stores.6 It is well known that the late Pope
John Paul II believed that the future of Catholicism lay not in spiritually
dying Europe, but to the south, in Latin America and, perhaps even more so,
in Africa. Benedict XVI appears to share that view, with reason.
bm: More news?
DP: "In the eyes of many if not most Europeans," Professor Gelfert observes,
"American taste is equivalent to tastelessness."7 (One is tempted to suggest
that, given their own still relatively recent history of something rather
worse than poor taste, a bit of humility might be in order for the Germans,
at least. And I say this as something of a Germanophile.) Thus, European
disdain for American religiosity functions as part of a broader contempt for
American culture, nicely embodied, as a surprisingly large number of
residents of both the Continent and the British Isles see it, in our
religious fanatic cowboy president. And what could be more American than The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known for its
freshly-scrubbed, naοve, nineteen-year-old missionaries, hailing mostly from
the American West?
bm: That is correct. Americans in general are seen in Europe as naοve and
silly, and Mormons particularly so. This has been the case since near
DP: Anti-Mormonism in Europe is overwhelmingly of the secular variety;
evangelical anti-Mormonism, on the whole, is no more than a minor irritant
because the same general European secularism that directly challenges
missionary success on the continent and in the British Isles also confronts
and hampers our evangelical friends. But secularist anti-Mormonism is doing
real damage to many fragile testimonies there, and an adequate response has
still not materialized. This is a challenge that apologists in Europe itself
but also in the Church's American home base urgently need to address.
bm: Europeans regard Mormonism as merely another indication of America's
tendency toward magical thinking. America's infatuation with various forms
of New Age belief is another symptom of the same thing (see
example), as is Young Earth creationism, the popularity of alien
abductionist beliefs and a variety of other things in America. And the same
kind of arguments are mustered in defence of each of these points of view by
people like Peterson.
DP: [Peterson summarizes material to indicate that an increasing divide is
visible between America's elite (secular) and regular (religious/magical
thinking) populations. Then he says:]
In a recent magazine article, Joel Kotkin, an incisive observer of social
trends, supplies a nice, concrete example:
When Fargo, North Dakota, businessman Howard Dahl boards a plane for the
East Coast or flies to Europe and beyond, he is often struck by the views of
the people he encounters, especially their preconceptions about his part of
the country. "There's a lot of condescension. You'd think no one here ever
read a book," Dahl says, "or ever had a thought about anything. They think
we're religious fanatics." 8
bm: This condescension is regrettable, but understandable. There are many
well-educated people in the US mid-west and west whose views are similar to
those of well-educated people in New York, Paris or London. And there are a
surprising number like Peterson. He is well-educated. He has read a lot of
books, as he is demonstrating in this essay. And he is well-travelled, as he
is also at pains to let his readers know. This man is a citizen of the
world. And most well educated Europeans would regard him as hopefully
parochial not as a result of what he has not read or not seen, but as a
result of what he has absorbed from his experience as demonstrated by what
he writes. As Einstein said, the theory we accept determines what we see.
DP: How much more so, then, Salt Lake City? Since, as studies have shown,
journalists strongly tend, on the whole, to be secular, politically liberal,
anti-corporate, and socially and morally "progressive," Mormonism
constitutes a perfect target. They will be naturally antipathetic to The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church that is widely
regarded as socially retrograde, politically conservative, and
DP: "Still today," writes Hans-Dieter Gelfert,
"Americans promote a striking hero cult with regard to the great figures of
their history. In England, a tendency to dismantle onetime heroes set in
after the First World War, with Lytton Strachey's book Eminent Victorians
(1918). The same thing happened in Germany after the Second World War.
Whenever, among us, an article appears in Spiegel about a once-revered
heroic figure from German history, one can just about wager that this person
will have lost his luster thereafter."9
In this regard, American journalism seems very, very European. Since the
days of Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, it has tended to be
adversarial, very often operating on the presumption of a guilty cover-up.
What could be a more inviting target for contemporary journalists than a
corporate church with a highly controversial, very visible, and widely
documented history, wielding considerable economic power, and claims to be
led by living prophets and apostles? It's heroes and valets, all over again.
bm: Let's see. We've got a prophet who purports to speak for god; who lies
about his sexual activities; who controls his church and city through secret
quorums; who runs for the US presidency; who has himself ordained King of
the Earth; who smashes printing presses that are about to publicize what he
is up to; etc. Why would any journalist want to write about that?
And against the odds, one branch of the church he forms becomes a vastly
wealthy asset holding corporation estimated to rank at about no. 200 on the
Fortune 500 list of the worlds largest business corporation were it in that
category, that exercises political and cultural influence in the US in a
manner that many people elsewhere find both disturbing and discouraging. Not
Or how about the habit leaders of this organization still exhibit of
deceiving those who deal with them both by silence and by the publication of
clearly deceptive accounts of their own history? How about their history of
lying in public (including before federal government committees in the US)
and justifying this on the basis that protecting the power that backs up
their alleged divine mandate requires them to wield justifies these
deceptions? None of this is newsworthy?
And to cut off an argument I often hear Mormons make, the Mormon Church's
wealth has nothing to do with truth. The Catholic Church is incredibly
wealthy. Quakers controlled huge assets bases at one time. Lots of other
examples can be given to support this point. You get money by doing the
things that get money. Telling a story that will persuade people to give you
money is one of those. Mormonism's wealth is no more indicative of the truth
of its message than is Amway's. In fact, there are many parallels between
those two organizations.
DP: The prominent Pennsylvania State historian of religion Philip Jenkins,
commenting on secularism among political and social liberals, notes
"a rich vein of bilious anti-clericalism, that class-based contempt that
imagines every pastor as Elmer Gantry, every believer as a budding recruit
for the Christian Taliban, and every Catholic as a mind-manacled helot of a
pederastic priesthood. This tendency reached its apex at the [Democratic]
party's 1992 convention, at which liberal and pro-labor Pennsylvania Gov.
Bob Casey was excluded from the rostrum because of his opposition to
abortion, while feminists handed out badges caricaturing Casey in papal
Amusingly, every element of the attitude toward mainstream Christianity
mentioned by Jenkins, down to the very language, can be paralleled--indeed,
finds almost daily parallels--on my laboratory message board with regard to
bm: Oh oh. Back to RFM.
DP: But this attitude isn't confined merely to the fever swamps of Web
bm: Ouch! More insightful, helpful analysis.
DP: In an article published as recently as 15 July 2005, in a New Zealand
periodical but evidently also many other venues, the American leftist
journalist Suzan Mazur, reporting on the corporate machinations of us Mormon
theofascists, even included purported illustrations of the Latter-day Saint
endowment ceremony. They were reproduced from that essential and utterly
reliable 1882 classic, J.H. Beadle's Polygamy or the Mysteries and Crimes of
Mormonism, and were accurate right down to details like the bishop's
miters--clearly modeled on the popes' hat--worn by temple officiators.11 (To
those who have actually attended the temple yet seen no such garb and no
such rituals, Mr. Beadle might well say, with apologies once more to Groucho
Marx, "Who are you gonna believe? Me, or your lying eyes?")
bm: So, let me get this straight. The Democratic national convention in the
US, New Zealand newspapers and the American press see things pretty much the
same way? And we have already dealt with the godless Europeans. This must
mean that the good Mormons are pretty much surrounded. Are they an island of
goodness floating in an evil world? Or maybe Peterson exaggerates. And maybe
if so many people do think the Mormon worldview is unjustified, Mormons
should take a hard look in the mirror. Sounds like someone might be spending
a lot of energy arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I almost forgot -
history tells that when almost everyone things the claims of a religion are
silly, those claims are usually proven true eventually. Right? And the truth
claims of a religion do not change over time in light of secular/scientific
findings. Right? And Mormon truth claims have not changed over time. Right?
Whew! I thought I was in hot water for a second there.
As an aside, see James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" for a summary of
how to tell a crowd that is likely to give us accurate advice from one will
not. In a nutshell, the more diverse, independent and well-informed a crowd
is, the more seriously we should take its judgement. Compare the Mormon
crowd to the crowd of non-Mormon academics who study Mormonism in this
regard. Which is more likely to render accurate opinions on questions like
"was Joseph Smith trustworthy?".
"But," many Mormons are likely to say, "the scholars don't have the Spirit
and so we can ignore what they say" or some other excuse ("these are
spiritual not intellectual matters") will be offered to justify dismissing
all opposing points of view. And the fact that this is how countless
religions (many of whom now seem laughable) have defended themselves since
at least the Ancient Greeks does not matter to those who wraps themselves in
these flimsy arguments now.
DP: Agnosticism or atheism is the default setting in most circles of elite
opinion, in the United States nearly as much as Europe.
bm: Those elites. They usually do not know what they are doing. Particularly
the scientists and other scholars. Intellectual pride causes this, as well
as most of what makes our society the wonderful place it is to live. Go
DP: To an extent, secular anti-Mormonism is merely an illustration, or even
an echo, of that broader phenomenon.
bm: I would say that secular anti-Mormonism is such a small ripple in a huge
current that it hardly matters. One of the few things that make it
interesting for anyone other than the Mormons affected by it is that what
most Christians went through generations ago Mormons are going through now
as a result of having been until recently enclosed so effectively that they
did not know what the rest of the world was doing. And then the Internet
blew the doors off the cloister.
DP: An important articulation of this view is the British philosopher Antony
Flew's essay "The Presumption of Atheism"12--though I note with considerable
satisfaction that Professor Flew, probably the most vocally atheistic
English-speaking philosopher since the death of Bertrand Russell in early
1970, recently announced that, compelled by what he sees as evidence for
intelligent fine-tuning in the universe, he has abandoned his atheism and
come to embrace a form of deism.
bm: But don't define deism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism) or
mention that it is merely atheism-lite. I am a deist or close to it because
I revere whatever caused the universe, but I have no idea what it was (three
line algorithm caused by chance, an old white haired guy or a pink unicorn)
and I don't believe that whatever it is (if it is) has any idea about me.
DP: Some non-theists are rather passive about their unbelief--one wit
recently coined the term apatheism to describe the indifference to religion
and religious issues that he regards as a distinguishing mark of modern
intelligence--but some are extremely aggressive, even if they rarely descend
to the crudity of the message board that is my preferred research location
for field studies in intellectual pathology.
bm: He can't seem to get enough of bashing RFM - someone there must have
really gotten under his skin. But to give credit where it is due, I note
that I like the term "apatheism". That describes many of my friends. They
can't get worked up about religion in any way. That was Grandma's issue;
Grandma's world. There are so many other things worth thinking about now,
like how do we get the Earth's population under control and learn to live
within the constraints of its environment.
DP: It is not uncommon, for example, to hear and read references to faith as
"religious insanity."13 "Religiosity," said the psychologist Albert Ellis,
"is in many respects equivalent to irrational thinking and emotional
disturbance. ... The elegant therapeutic solution to emotional problems is
to be quite unreligious. ... The less religious they are, the more
emotionally healthy they will be."14
bm: Amen, as far as literalist religion (like most of Mormonism) is
concerned. But I think the metaphoric use of religious concepts has a great
deal to commend it. See Karen Armstrong "A Short History of Myth" for
DP: In this, Ellis was only following the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund
Freud. Religion, Freud wrote, is "the universal obsessional neurosis of
"Religion imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of
happiness and protection from suffering. The technique consists of
depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in
a delusional manner.
. . . At this price forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism
and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many
people an individual neurosis. But hardly anything more."16
bm: For more recent and reasonable views, see Lee Kirkpatrick, "Attachment,
Evolution and the Psychology of Religion", or Pascal Boyer, "Religion
Explained", or Loyal Rue, "Religion is not About God".
DP: This is more sophisticated than the description of "Morgbots" given in
my message board laboratory, but its general content is remarkably similar.
bm: So, Freud is as bad as those evil people who post at RFM? Or are they as
bad as Freud? What about all of the other psychologists and psychiatrists?
Remember, the DSM - IV provides for the diagnosis of a clinical disorder
related to the stress of leaving religions precisely like Mormonism. The
evil circle widens.
DP: Yet it is demonstrably wrong. The data rather consistently demonstrate
that Latter-day Saints who live lives consistent with their religious
beliefs experience greater general well-being, greater family and marital
stability, less delinquency, less depression, less anxiety, and less
substance abuse than those who do not, and there is very little evidence
that religious belief and practice are harmful to mental health.17
bm: That is lovely. Refer to the studies that support your point, but do not
mention the mountain of data that questions them. Duwayne Anderson, for
example, has debunked many of the statistics Peterson references (The only
data of his I could quickly google is found at
http://exmormonfoundation.org/2005con... in the form of an audio file).
And what about the stats re. Utah in general? It leads the US in various
unflattering categories, like anti-depressant use, personal bankruptcies,
some kinds of fraud, some kinds of spousal abuse, some kinds of sexual
abuse, some kinds of suicide. And attempts by Mormons to show that active
Mormons do not suffer from these problems are either flawed, or raise
another serious question - what is it about living cheek to jowl with active
Mormons that sends these statistics into the stratosphere for everyone else,
because if active Mormons are not affected that means the incidence of these
problems for non-Mormons and less active Mormons in Utah are astounding.
DP: As James R. Lewis argues in his 2003 book Legitimating New Religions,
"attacks on alternative religious groups are attempts to
psychologize--medicalize--a controversy that, on deeper examination, is
clearly a controversy over ideology and lifestyle"18 In language that cannot
possibly fail to remind Latter-day Saints of evangelical anti-Mormonism but
that, oddly, forms a point of contact with the most virulent forms of
secular anti-Mormonism as well, Thomas Langham, reviewing Lewis's book for
the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, remarks that
opponents of new religious movements have worked to delegitimate them
through acting as 'moral entrepeneurs' who have used anti-cult ideologies to
market negative stereotypes, like the 'cult' label, to the broader
community. Such activities have led new religious groups...to be classified
as illegitimate "dangerous organizations."19
bm: This is delicious. Some new religious/cults are dangerous. And those who
recruit are highly disruptive to the families of many of their recruits so
it stands to reason that they will be resisted. And these are among the most
emotional issues known to humankind (kids being distanced from parents;
marriages being broken up; etc.) so we should expect the rhetoric used to be
Now, turn this around and see how it applies to Peterson's inhuman
caricature of the people at RFM. There we have REALLY dangerous people who
the good Mormons should stay away from at all costs.
DP: Yet, Lewis says,
it is not self-evident that secularism should be the standard by which
religion is evaluated. ... [A] humanistic methodology...should attempt to
describe religionists as acting out of reasonable motives rather than from
errors of judgment or psychopathology.20
bm: I agree. That is what I try to do. Perhaps Peterson could try that with
RFM and other aspects of the post-Mormon movement.
DP: In fact, as is increasingly recognized nowadays, religious people tend
to be healthier, not only mentally but even physically, than their
bm: Let's cast the net a little broader. Are Buddhist and Taoists
irreligious? They are atheists. And yet psychologists are finding that the
ways of life embedded in the practises that come from these traditions are
particularly healthy for today's westerners. See Martin Seligman "Authentic
Happiness" and Marvin Levine, "The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga".
To make sense, Peterson should define which kind of atheists he is talking
about before making comparisons. Anderson (see above) used this technique
over and again to show how the Mormon use of statistics uses a comparison
point that skews perception. One he did not mention was the oft cited
statistic that Mormon missionaries are safer while on their missions than
19-21 year old men generally. This is used to make people feel better when
missionaries die or are severely injured while serving their missions. I
have not chased this down yet, but I am willing to bet that the "19-21 year
old men generally" category does not take into account the fact that we are
comparing Mormon missionaries whose alternative would likely be university
somewhere in the US west or mid-west to a Mormon mission. That is, most
deaths in this age group occur in urban ghettos, where you are unlikely to
find young men who would otherwise be serving Mormon missions. When you
compare apples to apples, I would be astounded if the death and serious
injury rate for Mormon missionaries was not higher than for the reference
DP: With specific regard to Mormons, Utah death rates are below rates in the
nation at large and in the mountain states for most major causes of death,
including heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, accidents,
pulmonary disease, pneumonia/flu, diabetes, liver disease, and
atherosclerosis. Utah suicide rates are higher than the national average,
but lower than the mountain states as a whole. Studies of specific LDS
populations in California, Utah, and Alberta, Canada, show that LDS men are
about half as likely to die of cancer as other men. LDS women also have
lower cancer mortality, but the difference is not as great as for men. Death
rates are lower for Latter-day Saints who have higher levels of religious
participation. In short, adherence to the Mormon code of health appears to
lower death rates from several diseases.21 The benighted Morgbots seem to be
doing rather well.
bm: See my comments above.
DP: But what of the atheists and the agnostics? Let's take a look at another
laboratory: contemporary Europe, which has not altogether unfairly been
called a "godless continent." Europe is in a state not only of demographic
but, arguably, of cultural barrenness
bm: Europe is uncultured compared to what? Utah? Peterson has an unusual
definition of culture as well as rationality. I suppose that I should not be
surprised. Mormons have long believed that they would become cultural lights
to the world, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. See "What is the
Challenge for LDS Scholars and Artists", John and Kirsten Rector, Dialogue,
Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 2003,
DP: , and it is certainly afflicted, these days, with a profound historical
amnesia: Thucydides and the Enlightenment are mentioned in the preamble to
the new European constitution as constituents of European identity--but not
bm: See the U of Michigan studies above. We don't need Christianity or any
other religion as a moral compass. There is a huge mass of social science
literature to this effect. I can tell numerous stories of agnostics/atheists
who I know personally and who live exemplary lives. One is a brain surgeon
who spends one third of his time working for free each year in the Amazon
jungle. This guy is smart, fun to be with, full of life, the kind of person
most people want to be near because he emanates a feeling of love and good
will. Sounds a lot like "the Spirit", doesn't it. Probably just Satan
deceiving us, right?
However, a metaphoric Christianity could be helpful. I buy into Gould's
"non-overlapping magisterial ("NOMA") concept, to a degree. See
DP: A striking drop has occurred in European birth and marriage rates, which
Pitzer College's Phil Zuckerman connects with the equally striking decline
in religious belief. "Religion," he says,
"seems to be critical to people's decision to raise children. People in
these advanced industrial societies see children more and more as a
liability. Some realize that this life is better without children. And you
don't even need to get married since there is no legal advantage to doing
bm: Peterson might want to bone up on some population science. This is
arguably the planet's most critical issue right now, and he is lamenting a
decline in birth rates? This is Mormon ignorance in full flower.
DP: But Zuckerman, who is himself professedly anti-religious, is alarmed at
the contrast of the low European birthrate with the high birthrates of the
rapidly growing Muslim minorities within Europe. Muslims already make up at
least a quarter of the residents of Rotterdam, Marseilles, and Malmφ,
Sweden, and fifteen percent of the residents of Brussels, the capital of the
European Union. Within the next few decades, several European cities will
acquire Muslim majorities.22 Observers have begun to speak of "Eurabia," and
"Europistan." Others have alluded to what seems to be a "collective death
wish" among Europeans, as their birth rates have fallen below levels
required simply to replace themselves.
bm: Hmmm. The Muslim countries take religion very seriously, even more so
that the US. And they have huge birth rates and an aversion to scientific
knowledge that contradicts their beliefs, similar to religious people in US.
This issue is of great concern to population scientists. Peterson has
obviously seen this data, but it has not penetrated him.
DP: During a trip to England a few years ago, I went beyond my accustomed
haunts into certain relatively nondescript parts of the country. While I've
long been accustomed to the large Muslim population of London, I was
astonished to see halal butcher shops and Muslim garb in the most ordinary
bm: Low growth areas allow immigration from high growth areas in order to
keep the low growth area economies going and for other reasons. This
incidentally helps to educate the Muslim populace, which for the moment may
be our best hope to change the way that culture thinks. How is this bad?
DP: Immediately after his assassination a few years ago, the Dutch
politician Pim Fortuyn was portrayed in the media as anti-immigration, which
was true. But he was also portrayed as right-wing, which was false. The
reality was considerably more interesting than initial stereotypes
suggested: He was, in fact, a man of the left, and a practicing homosexual,
who feared that the demographic ascendancy of scarcely assimilated
conservative Muslims in his country would doom the ultra-free sexuality that
he and many others value as essential to the culture of the modern
Netherlands. And, surely, the recent murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh
on a midday street in Amsterdam by a Dutch Muslim, and the very recent
London bombings carried out by British Muslims, seem to bear out his
worries. "The best lack all conviction," wrote the Irish poet William Butler
Yeats, "while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
But, of course, however much she may wish she could, and however clearly she
may see the benefits of belief, an unbeliever probably can't, in most cases,
simply will herself to believe. It doesn't work that way.
One vocal ex-Mormon critic explained at the most recent Sunstone symposium
that it was a specific case of God's apparent failure to intervene to
prevent evil that, rather suddenly, killed his faith. I take him at his
word. I find his reaction plausible, even understandable, and see his
subsequent arguments against Mormonism as derivative from that initial
conclusion, which serves as their presupposition.
bm: Or how about this. There is no god, or perhaps a deistic god. Who can
tell? But here is what we can say with a high probability of being correct.
Really bad things happen on a regular basis. And, our individual and
collective choices determine the kind of society in which we and our
children will live. We have plenty of reason for moral behavior, to keep our
promises, be faithful to our spouses, etc. on this basis alone. And the
social psych literature shows that our behaviour, regardless of religious
belief, tends in this direction. We also have plenty of reason to simply
enjoy life as it presents itself to us each day.
DP: But, here, an observation needs to be made: If, as in this case, the
unbeliever's loss of faith stems from what she might well regard and
characterize as a particular, almost revelatory, realization, then whatever
arguments she puts forward afterward will be, to some degree or other, ad
hoc, designed--no less than those of apologists for belief--to support a
paradigm that was actually chosen on different grounds.
bm: Huh? I must not be smart enough to follow this. Peterson will at least
agree with me on this point.
DP: Dan Vogel's take on the Witnesses, for example, strikes me as
embarrassingly strained and almost desperate. From his presupposed
bm: How awful he must be!
DP: point of view, however--having conceded that the Witnesses were both
sane and sincere, but still unwilling to grant the accuracy of their
statements--it is necessary, almost unavoidable, that he explain them away
as nineteenth century visionaries to some extent culturally incapable of
distinguishing fantasy from reality.
bm: I haven't read Vogel on this point. But how about this. The early 1800s
were lousy with people who saw visions that supported the truth claims of
various religions. Angelic visitations were common. Affidavits were sworn to
this effect. Martin Harris (I think - I am going from memory here)
eventually testified to the legitimacy of some of Strang's heavenly
Were only Smith's "revelations" valid? If so, how do we distinguish his from
the rest? Of if they were all of the same kind, how do we explain them?
There are plenty of scholars, staring with William James ("The Varieties of
Religious Experience") and including more recently people like the
neurologist Andrew Newberg (himself a deeply religions person with whom I
spent a week last summer) ("Why God Won't Go Away") who do this nicely. The
bottom line is that there are many explanations for this kind of experience
that do not require a belief that what is reported to us really happened.
See the section on "spiritual experience" at
http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni... staring at page 101.
DP: It's a matter of what are sometimes termed "prior probabilities." As
Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson, "First, you eliminate the impossible,
and then whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth."
bm: Prior probabilities is one of the keys to Bayesian probability theory,
generally regarded, along with scientific investigation, to give us our most
reliable understanding of what is real. It has nothing to do with Sherlock
DP: The problem of evil itself--so lethal to the faith of that Sunstone
atheist--will serve as an illustration of how paradigms and prior
probabilities function in these matters. To an agnostic or an atheist,
someone who assigns a very low probability (or even none at all) to the
existence of God, the existence of massive human and natural evils in this
world constitutes a serious and perhaps fatal, if not merely redundant, blow
against theistic belief.
bm: That depends entirely on the kid of god one worships. Deists, for
example, have no problem with this. I have no trouble with it.
DP: To someone, however, who regards the existence of a benevolent and
powerful God as probable, even highly probable or certain, on other grounds,
the existence of such massive evils represents merely a problem to be worked
out in the light of her theistic presuppositions. Her proposed solutions
will seem gratuitously ad hoc to atheistic critics, but, from within her
paradigm, function much the same way as refinements to broad scientific
theories function under the stimulus of new data and problems.
bm: One of the many problems with that position is that is can be used to
defend anything. It does not give uncertainty its due. See the essay at
http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.does... for more on this point.
Why should we believe in the Mormon God instead of the Muslim God or the God
of a pygmy tribe in the Amazon? Each is equally defensible, as well as
indefensible. And there is more evidence of alien abductions than for any of
these gods. Once we accept as probative of reality the feelings on which
religious faith is based, we can prove anything and hence nothing.
DP: Similarly, defenders of the Book of Mormon are sometimes accused of ad
hoc improvisations when, from their point of view, they are merely refining
and making more precise a paradigm that they regard as reasonable and
supportable on other grounds.
bm: I presume this to be a reference to the "limited geography" theory of
the Book of Mormon. Or how about that paragon of logic and probability, the
"two Cumorahs" theory? These theories tend to only be attractive to those
who have deep seated social and other needs to believe. Mormon scientists
have indicated that the limited geography theory and the Mormon response to
the DNA research of people like Southerton (see
http://www.postmormon.org/exp_e/index...) is improbable.
The best Mormons can do on this front with justification is to say that the
case against them has not been proved with 100% certainty. The Young Earth
Creationists, holocaust deniers, alien abductionists and countless others
Mormons regard to be cranks have long used precisely the same defence for
their points of faith. This runs back at least as far as the ancients Greeks
DP: However, as I've tried to illustrate, such refining is not restricted to
theistic paradigms; it occurs just as clearly in naturalistic attempts to
explain away claims of the divine. It's not a matter of black and white, but
of relative plausibility and richness of explanation.
bm: Let's see how quickly we disappear down a post-modern rabbit hole now.
DP: Some atheists are positively giddy with the good news of unbelief. One
reason, of course, is the sadly checkered history of religious believers.
"When one considers how much blood has been shed in the name of faith--in
whatever God it might be--one might perhaps wish," says Hans-Dieter Gelfert,
speaking this time not as a mere observer of the Americans but as, himself,
a religiously skeptical European, "that the founders of expansionist
religions, among which Christianity figures, had chosen not faith but humble
doubt as the royal path to God."23
bm: Consider how well those terrible atheists in Scandinavia are making out
in most social categories important to Mormons.
DP: The very notion of strong religious belief has become suspect in the
modern era, and particularly since 9-11. Take, for example the words of Sen.
Charles Schumer (D-NY), a very intelligent man who represents, in more ways
than one, one of the bluest of the blue states, during a June 2003 hearing
on the nomination of William Pryor to serve as a United States appeals-court
In Pryor's case, his beliefs are so well known, so deeply held, that it's
very hard to believe, very hard to believe that they're not going to deeply
influence the way he comes about saying, "I will follow the law." And that
would be true of anybody who had very, very deeply held views.24
bm: A reasonable point.
DP: "Deeply held views," you see, is frequently a code term for religious
views these days, and savors of theocracy.
bm: Why is this the case? There are lots of non-religious ideologies that
have done mankind terrible damage. Hitler. Stalin. Pol Pot. Mao. Space craft
cults. Etc. The problem is not religious belief per se, it is dogmatic and
irrational ideology, such as many aspects of Mormonism.
DP: During a visit a few years ago to Iran, under the auspices and with the
sponsorship of the regime there, more than a few of the two dozen or so
other American academics who were part of the group pressed me to
acknowledge the allegedly strong similarities between Utah and the Islamic
Republic. It is fashionable in some circles to speak of Utah as a theocracy,
and even of the Latter-day Saints as America's Taliban or, for short, the
"Utaliban." Which is, of course, utter nonsense. But the avowedly
anti-religious Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, which portrays
Mormons and Mormonism essentially as a violent threat to non-Latter-day
Saints, was a recent bestseller.
bm: Krakauer's fair point is that the seeds of irrationality that caused the
murders he chronicled are found in mainstream Mormonism.
DP: Critics of religious belief point recently to al-Qa'ida, the Taliban,
and Wahhabism. But they should not be permitted to forget Josef Stalin, nor,
for that matter, the entire murderous twentieth century, in which atheists
and quasi-atheists killed tens of millions. Hitler, a virulent
anti-Christian, regarded humanity as a bacterium on the earth's surface. And
Stalin railed against God even on his quite horrible deathbed in March of
bm: See my point above. More straw men. The point is not that theism or
atheism are necessarily bad or good. It is that dogma and other forms of
irrationality are bad. To the extent Mormonism relies on irrational dogma
and encourages blind obedience, it is bad.
DP: He had suffered a severe stroke that had left his right side paralyzed,
and his last hours were spent in virtually unbearable pain. Slowly, he was
strangled. As his daughter Svetlana later reported, her father choked to
death while those around his deathbed looked on. Although, at the very last,
he had seemed at most merely semiconscious, he suddenly opened his eyes and
looked about the room, plainly terrified. Then, according to Svetlana,
"something incomprehensible and awesome happened that to this day I can't
forget and don't understand." Stalin partially lifted himself in the bed,
clenched his fist toward the heavens, and shook it defiantly. Then, with an
unintelligible murmur, he dropped motionless back onto his pillow, and
bm: And what inference are we justified in drawing from that story? A man in
extremis on his death bed may have done something that appeared odd. Are we
to assume that he saw God coming for him? This is too weak to be called fear
mongering, though it seems to attempt that.
DP: I confess that I find those who rejoice in atheism baffling.
bm: No surprise here. Peterson's perspective should be expected to make many
aspects of our world baffling to him.
One of the important things to note about Mormonism is the extent to which
its worldview can prevent its faithful from grasping some of the most basic
aspects of the society and culture by which they are surrounded. This is how
you explain both people like Peterson, and people like me who until age 45
literally had no idea about the reality of the history and social practise
of Mormonism (my own religion) while getting top of the class grades in an
undergraduate program in the humanities (minor - religious studies,
ironically), law and MBA.
DP: It's not merely the thought of the atheist's funeral: "all dressed up
with nowhere to go." I think of Beethoven, hiding down in the basement with
pillows to his ears, desperately trying to save his fading sense of hearing
as he was working on his majestic "Emperor" Concerto. Or, a little later,
conducting the magnificent Ninth Symphony, which he never heard, having to
be turned around by the concertmaster because he did not know that the
audience was applauding him. I think of Mozart, feverishly trying to finish
his own Requiem--dead at thirty-five and thrown into an unmarked pauper's
grave. So many lives have been cut short, leaving so many poems unwritten,
so many symphonies uncomposed, so many scientific discoveries unmade.
bm: And many other stories can be told of atheists or agnostics who went
peacefully and happily to their graves. What does this prove? More attempted
scare mongering. See the interview with John Maynard Smith at
http://www.meaningoflife.tv for something more realistic.
DP: In fact, it's hard to think of anyone who has achieved her full
potential in this life. Tragic foreshortenings don't only happen to
geniuses. A neighbor and friend was stricken with multiple sclerosis in her
mid-twenties and now, in her thirties, lies bedridden in a rest home.
Barring some incredible medical breakthrough, this is her life. Absent hope
for a life to come, this is all she will ever have to look forward to. My
own father, for the last six years of his life, blind from an utterly
unforeseen stroke suffered during routine and relatively minor surgery, was
incapable of any of the activities in which he had once found satisfaction,
and pathetically asked me, every few weeks, whether he would ever see again.
What comfort would there be in saying, "No, Dad. This is it. Nothing good is
coming. And then you'll die."
bm: More fear mongering. Many people with even a moderately broad
perspective don't seem to have this trouble. As the non-theist and respected
biologist Ursula Goodenough puts it, "Life is like a coral reef. We each
leave behind the best, the strongest deposit we can so that the reef can
grow. But what's important is the reef.". I am content with my place in the
reef; to enjoy life's miracle while it lasts; to learn to pay more attention
to the tiny part of the miracle that is before me, moment by moment; and
think less about those parts of the future that are beyond my influence.
DP: I can certainly understand coming to the sad conclusion that this is, in
fact, the truth about the human condition: That we live briefly, then we
die, and we rot. That so, too, do our children and our grandchildren. And
that so, also, does everything we create--our music, our buildings, our
literature, our inventions. That "all we are is dust in the wind." But I
cannot understand those who regard this as glorious good news.
bm: This is likely one of those things that one must experience. This
transition was a wonderful relief for me, and continues to enliven me. Many
others report a similar experience. Again, see Maynard Smith's interview
above for a nice summary. And see my account of dealing with a son in the
ICU shortly after going through my transition at
DP: Perhaps, on second thought, though, I can understand those who might see
it as a liberation. "If there is no God," says Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov,
"that means everything is permitted." Why? Because nothing matters at all;
everything is meaningless. However, this liberation comes at a very, very
high price. "If we believe in nothing," said the great French writer and
Nobel laureate Albert Camus,
if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then
everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or
con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the
crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and
virtue are mere chance or caprice.26
At the point where it is no longer possible to say what is black and what is
white, the light is extinguished and freedom becomes a voluntary prison.27
bm: An old canard. More fear mongering. There is a mountain of social
scientific data that shows that our moral instincts have nothing to do with
religion and everything with our evolved biology. And this likely is simply
explained on the basis that human groups populated by lies and cheats did
not prosper. See the bibliography at the end of
DP: Consider, too, this supremely complacent remark, offered by a vocal
atheist critic of Mormonism during a 2001 Internet discussion: "If there
were a God," he reflected, "I think (s)he'd enjoy hanging out with
me--perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a
grand unified theory." Only someone very comfortably situated could be so
marinated in smugness about the question of whether or not God exists.
bm: I would enjoy both the Merlot (though Pinot Noir would be better, and
some well chosen bread, cheese, olives, etc. would be presumed to be part of
the deal) and the discussion as well. It is nice to feel comfortable with
reality as best we can apprehend it.
DP: But the vast majority of the world's population is not so situated, and,
for them, atheism, if true, is very bad news indeed. Most of the world's
population, historically and still today, does not live, well fed and well
traveled, to a placid old age surrounded by creature comforts. Most of the
world has been and is like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of
Cairo, the backward rural villages of India, the famine-ridden deserts of
northeastern Africa, the war-ravaged towns of the southern Sudan and of
Rwanda. If there is going to be a truly happy ending for the millions upon
millions of those whose lives have been blighted by torture, starvation,
disease, rape, and murder, that ending will have to come in a future life.
And such a future life seems to require a God.
bm: So what? How does that change the probability of what is real and what
is not? Peterson needs a primer in reasoning far more than many he likes to
DP: Yes, the problem of evil is a huge one, but to give up on God is to give
evil the final say. It is to admit that child rapists and murderers dictate
the final chapters in the lives of their terrified and agonized victims;
that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot really did triumph, forever, over the
millions they slaughtered; that, in the rotting corpses of Darfur and Iraqi
Kurdistan, we see the final, definitive chapter of thousands of lives; that
there is, really, no hope for those whose health is in irreversible decline;
that every human relationship ends in death, if not before.
bm: A big part of Peterson's problem is his narrow point of view regarding
how religious people think. When you approach these things that twist his
knickers from a Buddhist, Taoist or any of many other religious points of
view, they are not problems.
DP: This would not be good news, and I see no compelling reason to accept
it. In fact, I see numerous persuasive reasons to reject the claim. But that
is a subject not just for another occasion but, necessarily, for a great
number of other occasions.
Secular anti-Mormons typically criticize The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints on two broad grounds. First of all, they say that its
claims are untrue.
bm: Amen. I would say that Mormon claims are highly probable to be untrue.
DP: Second, they accuse it and its leaders of wrongdoing--with respect, for
example, to the origins of plural marriage, its supposed manipulation of
history, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
bm: Amen again. The kind of deception Mormons leaders use is not justified.
DP: But it is not clear that, on a purely secular and naturalistic basis,
either form of critique can be coherent. In order for one or both types of
criticism to be coherent, it may be that theism is a necessary precondition.
bm: I can hardly wait for this.
DP: Permit me to explain, very briefly. I'll take them in reverse order.
First, the critics' basis for criticizing Mormonism on moral grounds is
unclear, and its coherence needs to be demonstrated.
bm: See my point above. It is pretty simple. The deception of Mormon leaders
is not justified. There are lots of other reasons as well, but this one is
DP: "Rebellion cannot exist," observes Camus, "without the feeling that,
somewhere and somehow, one is right.28 But on what basis can a materialist,
whose universe is exhausted by material particles and the void, claim that
something is objectively wrong?
bm: Here we go down the postmodern rabbit hole. Camus is one of the
post-Modern philosophers who support the Mormon intellectual position that
as long as it "works", "feels good" etc. Mormon belief and practise is
justified. See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni... starting at page
10, and go to page 15 to cut straight to the point.
DP: Do right and wrong not become matters merely of personal preference,
and, perhaps, of power? Not only existentialists but many superficial "life
counselors" suggest that we should construct our own "meaning" for life. But
is self-constructed meaning really meaning at all? Or is meaning not,
rather, something that can only be received, from another intelligence? And
why should anybody else pay even the slightest attention to somebody's
bm: Elementary ethics rest on a number of rules, the most common of which
resembles the Golden Rule (Kant's categorical imperative), while others are
derived from utility theory and justice theory. Deception of the type in
which Mormonism's leaders have engaged, and in which they still engage, run
contrary to each of these. The idea that atheism implies immorality is
DP: Camus observes of the atheistic French revolutionaries of 1793 that,
when they effectively "guillotined" God, "they deprived themselves forever
of the right to outlaw crime or to censure malevolent instincts."29 "From
the moment that man submits God to moral judgment, he kills Him in his own
heart. And then what is the basis of morality? God is denied in the name of
justice, but can the idea of justice be understood without the idea of
God?"30 If those who deny any objective basis for morality nonetheless go on
behaving morally and invoking morality, we can only be grateful that they
have not pursued the implications of their position to their logical end,
and that they continue to live on borrowed moral capital. Of the nihilistic
revolutionaries who are the subject of his brilliant meditation in The
Rebel, Camus remarks that
All of them, decrying the human condition and its creator, have affirmed the
solitude of man and the nonexistence of any kind of morality. But at the
same time they have all tried to construct a purely terrestrial kingdom
where their chosen principles will hold sway.31
bm: On whose side is Peterson citing Camus? His words don't fit in my mouth.
DP: It is not surprising that, just prior to his tragic and early death in a
1960 automobile accident, Albert Camus was evidently giving serious
consideration to being received into the Roman Catholic Church. He was, I'm
guessing, horrified by the revolutionary excesses of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, and had come to suspect that only theism could provide
an objective basis for moral judgments. It is precisely the same kind of
reasoning that led the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden to embrace
Christianity: He found himself sitting in a movie hall in the late 1930s, in
an area of New York City then heavily populated with German immigrants. As a
newsreel played, depicting acts of Nazi barbarism toward European Jews, the
audience around him erupted with cheers and surges of pleased laughter.
Shaken by what he had witnessed, Auden realized that his secular worldview
couldn't provide him with a firm moral ground from which to protest that
Nazi brutality was objectively evil.
bm: More fear mongering and straw men. Why don't we talk about the social
record of the Godless Scandanivian countries? Why don't we talk about the
problems with Christianity in America (see
http://harpers.org/ExcerptTheChristia...)? Oh, but I suppose of
America were all Mormon - all like Utah - things would be much better.
Peterson is compelling only to those who share his myopic point of view.
DP: Camus and Auden may have been right. On the basis of what moral
principles do secularizing critics pronounce the Church wanting? How were
those principles chosen, and why should anybody else defer to them? Even if
one were to grant the factual claims on which they stake their moral
judgments, it is not at all clear that those moral judgments are capable of
bearing any objectively real weight.
bm: See the above. This is one of the reasons for which many Europeans are
likely to regard people like Peterson as ignorant. The amount of reading the
man has done to understand the little he does must be close to world record
territory. And I don't accuse him of stupidity, ill will or anything else of
a similar sort. He is a product of Mormon culture. Similar people are found
with all other similarly narrow cultures that I have studied. See the long
essays referenced at the beginning of this review.
DP: But then, neither is it clear, given secularizing principles, that
concepts like "factual claims" and "personal preference" are even
coherent--which brings us to the second type of secular objection to
Mormonism: The critics' basis for criticizing Mormonism on intellectual
grounds, saying that it is untrue, is unsure, and its coherence needs to be
bm: I think I can feel what is coming. This runs down the line of the post
Modern Mormon position outlined in the Denial essay I reference above.
DP: Why? We all know essentially what it would mean to say that an
astronomer's thinking about the atmosphere of Jupiter was correct, and what
it means to say that the conclusion of a syllogism follows from, or is
entailed by, the premises of the syllogism.
However, on a completely secularist, naturalistic view, it seems that
"thoughts" are really merely neurochemical events in the brain, able (in
principle, at least) to be described by the laws of physics. But the laws of
physics are deterministic--I'll leave quantum indeterminacy out of
bm: Good thing, because it is irrelevant above the quantum level and that is
where our brains function.
DP: because I don't think it helps either side much--such that, if
"thoughts" are merely physical, it is unclear how we can really say that a
conclusion follows from premises. Why? Because any given brain state seems
to be causally determined by the preceding brain state. And it is hard,
moreover, to see how the neurochemical condition of the brain can have a
relationship of either truth or falsity with the atmosphere of a distant
planet--or, for that matter, with anything else. A lump of cells is neither
true nor false. It isn't "about" anything else; it just is.
bm: I can't believe my good fortune to be witness to the public expression
by a prominent Mormon apologist of something this ridiculous.
So we can know nothing about culture, history, etc. if we adopt a
naturalistic position (see www.naturalism.org)? I can't believe what I am
hearing. I just re-read the paragraph above. It is worse than I first
thought. Peterson says that if I adopt the secular, naturalist point of view
I abandon my claim to be able to find any reliable evidence about anything.
This is incredible.
DP: Thus, truly consistent secularist critics of Mormonism may have sawed
off the limb on which they were sitting. They may have deprived themselves
not only of a standard of moral judgment that cannot be dismissed as merely
subjective, but of a coherent claim to be able to address questions of truth
and falsity (with respect to Mormonism and every other topic). Some form of
theism, or, at least, of non-naturalism, may be required to save their
position from being merely self-refuting. (If it is not, this will have to
be demonstrated.) But if they adopt theism, or even mere non-naturalism,
they will no longer be secularist critics, but will have become something
bm: I can hardly wait to forward this to my never-LDS scientist friends.
They will bust a gut.
DP: Many years ago, as a missionary in Switzerland, another elder and I met
a woman at the door while we were tracting. When we told her that we
represented The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she smiled
quite oddly and, even more oddly by Swiss standards, invited us in. She
immediately fetched her husband, and asked us to tell him the name of the
Church that we represented. He too smiled oddly when he heard it, and I
began to wonder what sort of people we had found. But then he explained that
he was a Yugoslavian-born physician who had once been a Melchizedek
Priesthood holder in our Church. And he told us a story that, I confess, I
have never checked since; I may have some of the details wrong, but the gist
of it is as follows: Decades before, he had served as a counselor to a
priesthood leader in his native country as the communists were consolidating
their power there. Several times, he said, this priesthood leader had dreams
warning him that members of his congregation needed to flee because the
secret police would soon be coming for them. And the man was right every
time. However, the former counselor, with whom I was speaking, had
eventually made his way to medical school in Switzerland, where his studies
had taught him that revelation was an illusion. But how, I asked, did he
account for his former priesthood leader's remarkably accurate record of
forecasting visits from the secret police, a record of which I knew (and
know) nothing but what he had told me? "Brain chemistry and chance," he
bm: That is a good answer.
DP: There was, in other words, no substantial or necessary link between the
various brain states of the priesthood leader and external events. That they
coincided was just sheer good luck for those who thereby escaped the
clutches of the commissars. (I might add that the German missionary with
whom I was working that particular day, a converted German merchant sailor
who was, to put it mildly, plain spoken, thereupon asked if he could visit
the home again with his tape recorder, because, he said, this man furnished
an unforgettable specimen of how Satan deceives people. Visibly surprised by
such bluntness, the man agreed that he could return.)
bm: Mormon arrogance based on the same kind of emotional epistemology, and
unjustified certainty, that causes suicide bombings and riots over cartoons.
And applauded by Peterson in the same way other such arrogance and
aggressive behaviour is applauded in other ignorant religious communities.
Blind faith is a beautiful thing to witness.
DP: If there were powerful arguments compelling us to forsake religious
belief, and if there were no persuasive arguments for such belief, we might
feel ourselves obliged to accept what I, at least, regard as the bleakness
of the secular, naturalistic worldview.
bm: It is clear by now that arguments that many would find compelling are
not acceptable to Peterson.
DP: But we are not so compelled, and there are persuasive arguments for
belief. The question is at the very least equally balanced. And in such a
situation, as William James brilliantly argued against W.K. Clifford,
religious belief represents a rational choice. Even if one thinks the matter
only fifty-fifty--which I emphatically do not--James's advice to "choose the
sunny side of doubt" strikes me as eminently reasonable. Besides, as we now
know, it's healthier.
bm: Whether the question is "equally balanced" depends entirely on the
evidence one believes to be relevant. If you eliminate emotion based
evidence on the basis that it is demonstrable unreliable, the question is
far from balanced.
Consider the pattern of irrational belief related to religion described at
http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.does.... Basically, many religious believers (including Mormons) can be
shown to generally accept the findings of science, but to deny them where
the information produced by science conflicts with important religious
beliefs. The Mormon attitude regarding many aspects of archaeology, DNA
science etc. relative to the Book of Mormon are a prime example of this. The
evidence Mormons and other religious people use to justify their irrational
denial of scientific evidence in this regard is mostly emotional and/or
social in nature. When the emotional and social evidence is eliminated, the
question of belief in any particular kind of God (such as the Mormon
version, who is alleged to have appeared to Joseph Smith, etc.) is far from
balanced. There is no reason to believe that any of the these versions of
God is any more likely to be true than the others. And ask any believer
about the probability of the others being true.
DP: I'm grateful to Lou Midgley for drawing my attention to an anecdote
related by the eminent Protestant church historian Martin Marty with
reference to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It involves
the famous eighteenth-century French hostess Marie de Vichy-Chamrond, the
Marquise du Deffand, a friend of Voltaire and other leading intellectuals of
the day. When Cardinal de Polignac informed her that the martyr St. Denis,
the first bishop of Paris, had walked a hundred miles after his execution,
carrying his head in his hand, Madame du Deffand replied that, "In such a
promenade, it is the first step that is difficult." She meant, of course,
that it is not the claim that St. Denis walked a hundred miles that poses a
difficulty. Perhaps he actually walked only ninety-nine miles, or perhaps he
walked a hundred and two--such differences are immaterial. The fundamental
question is whether, after his beheading, he walked at all. Once that
essential point has once been granted, the rest is mere detail.
bm: This is an apt analogy. It uses something extremely unlikely (walking
anywhere after having one's head severed) to help us understand something
else that is extremely unlikely (Mormonism's founding events being true).
DP: Marty uses the story to identify what is fundamental in Latter-day Saint
claims, particularly as they have come under the lens of what he terms "the
crisis of historical consciousness"--by which he intends the skepticism and
intense scrutiny of modern historical scholarship, which has been directed
against virtually all traditional claims, religious and otherwise, around
the world. "By analogy," he writes,
if the beginning of the promenade of Mormon history, the First Vision and
the Book of Mormon, can survive the crisis, then the rest of the promenade
follows and nothing that happens in it can really detract from the miracle
of the whole. If the first steps do not survive, there can be only
antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full interest in the rest of the story.32
bm: As said above, these events are about as likely true as is a man to walk
anywhere without his head.
DP: Whatever may be said about Church involvement with the Equal Rights
Amendment and California Proposition 29, or about Brigham Young's
personality, or about the Church's history with racial issues, or about
Church finances or the Indian Placement Program, or about possibly imperfect
local leaders, or about any number of other matters in which we sometimes
become lost, the fundamental issues are really quite few. But they are
fundamental. And, on them, I believe we fare quite well. We simply need to
keep our eyes, and so far as possible, our critics' e
| Yesterday I posted at the Recovery from Mormonism bulletin board the full text of an essay written by BYU/FARMS' (the Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) Daniel Peterson, along with my
commentary. I choose this format first because I simply read the essay and
annotated it on the fly, and second because I did not want anyone to think I
was taking Peterson's highly entertaining comments out of context.
short time of my posting (no more than a few hours) the board monitors at
RFM received a complaint from the people at the Foundation for Apologetic
Information and Research ("FAIR") that my post violated their copyright in
Peterson's essay, which as noted below was on FAIR's website (see
http://www.fairlds.org/). I find this in and of itself fascinating. The link
to the article at FAIR was provided, and I would have thought FAIR would
appreciate me advertising for them at RFM. And given the extensive nature of
my commentary, I suspect that the way in which I dealt with Peterson's
argument is well within the "fair use" exception to copyright law.
Nonetheless, since they have complained and RFM wants to be well onside
their copyright obligations, I wasted an hour chopping up yesterday's
writing for re-publication at RFM. It is below.
I note in passing that the folks at FAIR have a long history of taking a
legalistic approach to information sharing. They seem to have bought fully
into the lovely idea that Mormons are engaged in a life and death struggle
with the forces of darkness that seek to overcome them, and that a wide
range of questionable means are justified by the righteousness of the
ultimate Mormon end. Boyd Packer is no doubt proud of FAIR in this regard.
So, it is OK to cyber squat in an effort to waste their enemies time,
publish misleading pap of many kinds with a thin scholarly veneer, etc. The
essay I review below is a prime example of this kind of thing.
I don't accuse the people at FAIR of stupidity, ill-will or anything of that
kind. They are products of the fascinating confluence of powerful Mormon
dogma and conditioning systems within a human group that has reached the
critical mass required for the creation and maintenance of culture on the
one hand, and the very secular forces Peterson is stumbling around on the
other that are being injected with increasing regularity and potency into
Mormonism's veins. I have further comments below, directed at Peterson, that
deal with the idea that people who do the kind of thing he does are not bad,
just the predictable product of a particularly narrow (and bad) culture that
is struggling for survival in a rapidly changing world. The same kind of
confluence is producing conflict in the Muslim world of a more violent kind
as we speak.
Back to Peterson and his essay. It classically illustrates how Mormon
apologists use straw-men arguments and a variety of other flawed analytical
techniques to reassure a group that the belief system in which they are
heavily invested is worth preserving. A friend drew a few of Peterson's
comments about this piece to may attention. He apparently managed to make a
copy of it during the short time it was up at RFM yesterday. Peterson said
"In my opinion, [McCue's] purported rebuttal substantially and grossly
misrepresented my position at numerous fundamental points, creating a
ludicrous straw man in which I can't recognize my own ideas."
I have preserved enough of Peterson's text below to allow anyone who wishes
to judge how badly I have mischaracterized him.
I suggest that those who read this remember that Peterson's most important
audience is people who are like I used to be. That is, faithful Mormons who
think BYU is a respected academic institution when it comes to religious
studies; who respect Peterson's academic credentials; who assume that
Peterson is employing the usual scholarly standards in what he writes; and
most of all, who fervently hope that Mormonism is true. For these people
Peterson is compelling and this is precisely what I find so offensive about
his writing - it does not present anything remotely resembling a fair case
and hence whether by design or not, will tend to dupe trusting people. On
the other hand, virtually anyone outside the circle of Mormon faith who
takes the time to read this will likely be treated to a few good laughs and
I have called this a "quick" reaction because I wrote my comments while
reading Peterson's essay for the first time, and then re-read them once to
edit for spelling and tone. Since I was forced by FAIR to waste another hour
to re-read and chop up what I did yesterday, I added a few more comments
while doing that. However, "quick" does not mean "short".
I simply start at the beginning of Peterson's essay and add my comments as
they occur to me. I have excised at FAIR's request the portions of Peterson'
s text that are not relevant to my comments.
Peterson's text is designated by "DP" and mine by "bm". I am sure there are
lots of typos in what follows. This exercise is not important enough to me
to justify the time that careful editing would require. And what I have done
is enough to allow anyone with "ears to hear" to understand the nature of
the apologist beast that Peterson typifies.
| Topic: Mormon Belief Interferes With Rational Decision Making? And Where Will This Take Mormonism? |
Monday, Feb 13, 2006, at 07:07 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 3 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| Rational forces have consistently throughout modern history overcome irrationality. However, during long periods of time irrational forces of various kinds have imposed heavy burdens on groups of people. For example, for centuries leading up to about 1100 CE the Muslim/Arab peoples led humankind with regard to secular studies such as math and science, and they were also the wealthiest and in many ways the most cultured group on Earth at the same time. At that point, religious forces gained the upper hand within Muslim society and they began to emphasize "spiritual" studies over secular, quickly lost their scientific, wealth and cultural advantages and began down the road that now has Muslims rioting and killing each other over cartoons published on the other side of the world (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia...). This is a temporary setback that has lasted, to this point, almost 1000 years.
I see something similar occurring within Mormonism right now, and the direction those who remain faithful to Mormonism take is likely to determine much regarding the diversity and richness of life their descendants enjoy for generations to come.
I am regularly (such as last night) in conversation with well-educated Mormons who struggle when trying to deal with rational concepts related to things like science, investment strategies, politics and other purely secular matters. And I see in their struggles infections likely attributable to the magical thinking at the heart of what is required these days to be a literally believing Mormon. The conversation in which I participated last night that sparked this piece had to do with an investment opportunity that a successful young Mormon had been offered. Since Mormons still respect my judgement regarding investments (that, evidently, does not require "the Spirit"), he wanted to run the proposal that had been made to him by me. I was happy to listen for a few minutes and tell him what I thought.
Five seconds into my friend's explanation, I gave him a thumbs down. He has been offered the chance to get in on the ground floor of a "perpetual motion machine" that is going to revolutionize the energy and automotive industries. I summarized the many similar "opportunities" I have encountered during my career and how each of them caused a lot of investors to lose their money while usually also being sincerely believed in by a "genius" inventor who the scientific community "did not understand"; I explained how humans are congenitally (it seems) unable to resist huge upside propositions like this that have no support in the scientific theory that ultimately must explain how they work; etc. That is, the speculative stock industry and Las Vegas are kept in business by the human inability to assess with reasonable accuracy what a small chance to win a large amount of money is worth. Our greed consistently causes us to pay more for chances like this than we should. And promoters of various types have from time immemorial taken advantage of this human tendency. It is far better to be a seller of chances to invest of this type than a buyer. At least, I told him, the people in Las Vegas are upfront about how they make their money. Everyone knows that most gamblers lose money and the "house" gets rich. And so most people who gamble treat the cost of gambling as the price of entertainment. Those invest in speculative stocks or real estate or multi-level marketing schemes are often sucked into the same game on the basis that they really do have a reasonable chance to make money.
And, I noted, when an idea has been around for a while and the people who have the most expertise in related fields have passed on it, you can be pretty certain that the idea does not work.
My friend was unconvinced. He told me that NASA and other branches of the US government were "looking at this concept seriously". I said that if the concept had any material chance of success, there were countless big companies that would have already snapped it up. I mentioned the Ballard Battery organiztion (see http://www.ballard.com/be_a_customer/transportation/electric_drives) as an example of a relatively modest technology that has attracted investment capital from some of the world's lartest corporations. A perpetual motion machine would make Ballard look like peanuts and so if it were any good there is only the tiniest chance that a guy like him would be given a look at it. If the idea had merit, there would be no need to present this idea to people like him who have no idea how the technolgy works.
My friend cited (no doubt using information the "inventor" had given him) planetary motion and the movement of electrons etc. around the nucleus of atoms as "proof" that perpetual motion machines were possible. I explained a little about the big bang theory of cosmology, what happens in black holes and how the laws of entropy work to explain that the analogies he was using did not support the idea his inventor was selling. I could tell that he remained unconvinced, and heard him later in the evening planning a trip to meet the inventor in person.
In short, my young friend did not take seriously the judgement of the scientific community or of wealthy investors (like General Motors or NASA) who rely upon the judgement of scientists to make billion dollar investment decisions. I suggested to him the places he should look to assess the merits of this invention on a scientific basis, how perpetual motion machines have been an inventors' Holy Grail forever and how credible scientists long ago abandoned the idea and have focused instead on converting energy from one form (atomic, fossil fuel, sun, wind, etc.) into another that is more convenient for us to use. But he was not interested in this. He had heard about something that "felt good" to him, and that feeling was more important (at this point at least) than anything he might find in a science book. Where would a well educated young Mormon get an idea like that?
I have run into similar attitudes in the Mormon community related to much more important issues.
The world overpopulated? Don't be silly. Science will be able to continue to expand our ability to support life on Earth indefinitely.
Global warming? What is all the fuss about? There is not enough evidence yet that humankind has anything to do with global warming for us to be concerned.
Godless Europeans (and particularly the REALLY godless Scandinavians) have fewer social problems than Middle America? Don't be ridiculous. That is impossible. And no I don't want to read anything about this.
Young Mormons marry too early, have children too soon and hence have marital experiences that lead to an increased incidence of depression? That could not be further from the truth. The surveys the Church does show that active Mormons are among the happiest people on Earth.
Across a broad range of critical issues Mormons tend to be ignorant of the relevant science, and when the science is presented to them they tend to accept even the fringiest minority positions as solid support for their dogmatic beliefs. You can always find a minority position based in science to support your view, including that alien abductions are real, the Earth is 10,000 years old and the Holocaust did not occur. The rational thing for us non-scientists to do is govern ourselves by what the majority of well informed scientists have to say on any given topic.
My young friend is one of those Mormons who has struggled through the evidence related to the Book of Mormon and other aspects of Mormonism, and has decided that despite the fact that he doesn't like a lot of what Mormon leaders do and have done in the past, that his experience with Mormonism overall (and most importantly how he feels when "The Spirit" moves him) is more important than anything else. So, he has decided against the evidence that the God Joseph Smith taught about is real and gave Joseph Smith special authority that was passed on to Gordon Hinckley, etc. For example, the scientific evidence regarding DNA relative to the Book of Mormon's historicity (see http://www.postmormon.org/exp_e/index...) is interesting, but does not prove anything. Again, how we feel is more important than any evidence of this kind.
Is it surprising that the same mind that would justify Mormonism against the scientific and historical evidence in the manner just noted would also:
. be prepared to invest in a perpetual motion machine that has not scientific support,
. spend time developing a Muti-Level Marketing "business" (Amway, for example) when the statistics regarding it show that 99+ percent of those who get involved lose money, not to mention creating painful false expectations and wasting years of time in many cases,
. not care about global overpopulation or ecological issues,
. get married at age 21 right after returning from his mission because "the Lord revealed to him on his first date with XXXX that she was to be his wife",
. encourage his wife to quit her job and start having babies "because that is the Lord's will" even though he does not have a reliable means of supporting their family and she has a great job,
. move from one city to another because he feels like the Lord has something for him to do there, even though job prospects there are inferior to those where he already lives, the cost of living is higher there, commuting distances are worse there, etc.,
. start taking anti-depressants instead of seeing a counselor who would help him to understand that his day to day pattern of living is virtually guaranteed to cause depression,
. tell his gay son that it would be best if all the gay people in the world were put on an island and blown up.
I have run into each of these situations during the past little while. Non-Mormons do silly things too of course, but I think it is fair to suggest a causal relationship between the Mormon need to deny science to maintain their religious beliefs and make decisions based on emotional experience, and the Mormon tendency I see toward making other kinds of bad decisions that paying more attention to the wisdom science has produced would help to avoid.
Time will tell whether Mormons will continue to turn inward, as the Muslims did 1000 years ago, or whether they will jettison their literal beliefs that are producting the mind virus I just described. What makes this particularly interesting is that a process that occurred in the Muslim world over centuries will be compressed into a few years within North American Mormonism as a result of the average Mormon educational level and access to information through the internet. This will supercharge the move toward either ignorance and the denial of science, or rationality.
My bet is that we will see a polarization within Mormonism quickly develop. The old guard do not know and will not be prepared to learn, so their behavior will not be affected. The real battle for hearts and minds will occur in the generation that is now under 30 years of age, and even more importantly with their children.
A friend told me recently about the radical changes that have occurred during the last decade on some Hutterite (like the Old Order Amish) colonies in Alberta (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutterite - this article does not capture the extent of this change as it was described to me).
Thirty years ago when I lived near these people many of them still did not have televisions, radio, and had virtually no contact with the outside world. Now many of them are almost indistinguishable from other rural folk. And many others still dress differently but have television, the internet and a degree of intellectual and behavioral freedom that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That is, their worldview and culture has radically changed within a short time. And, a small number of hardcore traditionalists have become stricter than ever in their lifestyles (see for example http://www.perefound.org/towhom.html).
My bet is that during the next two decades we will see something similar occur within Mormonism as the generation of Mormon internet children reach maturity.
| Grandpa smoked. I don't recall learning this any more than I learned that he was a tall, bald, Mormon farmer. His smoking caused my mother and her sisters no end of angst. Because of their behaviour when together, I still associate cigarettes with whispers and tears . Smoking was a terrible sin. And, it had made Grandpa sick.
Grandpa died when I was 11. Emphysema. He was in his 60s. It was a sad funeral. But I came away with the immensely relieving sense that somehow Grandpa had been forgiven for his sins - even the smoking - and would be in the Celestial Kingdom waiting for us IF we were spiritual enough to get there.
I was near the tail end of around 50 grandchildren, and was one of the few who lived far from Grandpa and Grandma. We visited the farm occasionally - maybe 15 times during the part of those eleven years I have some chance of remembering. Grandpa was a stern shadow during those visits. I recall him chopping the head off a chicken and telling me that it was after me when it starting flopping around. I was maybe three or four, and spent a good part of the next hour beneath my mother's broad skirt, wrapped around her leg. Oddly though, I can't remember the sound of his voice or ever seeing him smile, but have a clear image of Grandpa him walking through the spindly crab apple orchard behind "Grandma's house", far enough away that I couldn't see the wisp of smoke that no doubt followed him.
Grandma could also be mean. Scraping a living out of a dry-land farm and cow-calf operation in Canada's Southern Alberta made tough people. Winter temperatures often hit -30 Celcius and during the summer hit the other side of the scale. Lots of wind. Almost no rain. If crops didn't fail, markets did.
And Grandma was around hordes of grandkids. We were more like a plague of locusts for her than some kind of treat. She moved fast and demanded order. If you got in her way or broke a rule she gave you reason to remember the experience.
Grandma married a man named George within a few years of Grandpa's death. They didn't have a real wedding or discuss their plans with anyone. They just went down to the Town Hall, had their marriage formalized in the simplest possible way, and moved in together. I am not sure which followed which, and never wondered until writing this.
Mom's explanation of Grandma's remarriage was a bit red-faced. And with her sisters there was clucking about why Grandma "needed" to do this. She was, after all, going to be in the Celestial Kingdom with Grandpa. This was another of those facts that would be silly to state - like announcing that the Sun was for sure going to rise tomorrow. So a marriage to someone else seemed a bit - well - dirty.
Grandma's marriage to George was only "temporal" (which I learned meant "only for this life"). But (sigh) Grandpa George would "keep Grandma company until she could be with Grandpa again" and she would perform a similar service for George since he was a widower. This was one of those "enduring to the end" things and Grandma needed a little help to endure. That Grandma resorted to this suggested a weakness since she did not simply wait for her reunion with Grandpa.
There was some purposeful vagueness around whether George's wife was waiting for him in the Celestial Kingdom, and whether he was going there himself. George was not as spiritual a man as Grandpa was remembered to be. But oddly, Grandpa George made Grandma happier than anyone could remember seeing her. This ensured his eventual acceptance into our family. And after a time, there was no more discussion, or even hinting, about the Celestial Kingdom relative to Grandma, Grandpa or George.
When Grandma and George married he was in his late 70s or early 80s. They lived in Grandma's little white house on one of the clown-shoe wide streets "in town". She had moved in there from the farm after Grandpa died, and the house always smelled a little like decay and mothballs.
Grandma had a number of odd, and strongly held, beliefs such as that vacuums wore out carpets. She swept her carpets and lost patience quickly with grandsons who suggested that this didn't make sense. These she would dismiss with a quick turn of her head and a tone of voice that warned even the most obtuse against bringing the issue up again.
George didn't have a lot to say when company was over or while he was at family events. He was almost deaf and rather than make people repeat themselves, he smiled a lot. But when drawn into conversation with a loud enough question, he usually had something funny or interesting to say. And Grandma looked more at peace during these times than any others I recall.
I moved to Grandpa and Grandma's farm, then run by my uncle, for a year of high school. This gave me a chance to get to know Grandma, and since Grandpa George was her companion by then, I got to know him too.
Most Wednesdays I would go from basketball practise after school over to Grandma's for dinner so that I wouldn't have to go all the way out to the farm and then come back in for "Mutual", as Young Mens was then called. And after Mutual I would often return to Grandma's house to spend the night. This reduced the irritating financial and other burdens an extra teenage presence imposed on my uncle and his wife. Even through my well-above average adolescent stupor I could feel the tension I caused in their home.
My uncle simply said "yes" when asked to assume the duty of helping his youngest sister reform her wayward son. This put my aunt in a tough spot, as a result of which she often bit (or at least tried to bite) her tongue while doing her best to cope with this challenge on top of running a farm household, dealing with her own five children who were still at home, and managing her roles as grandmother and Bishop's wife. So having me out of the house one night a week worked well for everyone.
Hving dinner, bedding down (often after a cup of Postum or herbal tea) and having Breakfast with Grandma by herself exposed me to a different woman than the one I had known only while she ran huge family gatherings. She was stern, surprisingly well-informed and to my amazement, an irreverent non-conformist. As different news items came up, she would tell me without apology which family members and towns-people she approved of, which she did not and why. She was critical of local church leaders (in small ways), politicians (in big ways), and even (gasp) my high school basketball coach.
Grandma knew how both to tell jokes and laugh at them. She was learning to paint pictures but had to be cajoled into showing me what she was working on. Two of her paintings are now among my prized possessions. She comforted me in my trials with certain family members and people at church and school, and told me stories about similar challenges she had faced. And I learned a bit from her (but not nearly as much as I now wish I had) about what it was like to farm during the early part of the 1900s in Southern Alberta, and then fall in love, get married and raise a family of mostly giddy girls (five famously laughter prone sisters to one brother) on almost nothing through the Great Depression.
George tended not to participate in these conversations because as Grandma regularly reminded me in an unusually gentle tone, "He can't hardly hear a thing". Once when I came home in the middle of the night courtesy of some long-after Mutual goofing around, I saw George shuffling blindly toward me through the dark house in his underwear, headed toward the bathroom. "Good night George", I said. He continued without acknowledging me and then jumped higher than I thought possible when I had to get out of his way a few steps later. He really was deaf.
Most days George drove the 10 highway minutes that separated town from the farm he had carved out of the prairie and passed on to his sons. He "helped out" there. I am not sure how much he got done as opposed to being in the way. Well into his 80s George could beat all of the strongest cousins on my side of the family at arm wrestling. He was a diminutive, good-humoured, bull of a man. "Forearms like fence-posts" we used to say while bragging to our friends about the last time we had seen George, with a faint, satisfied smile, put down the arm of one of our strongest, reddest faced, cousins. This became a right of passage of sorts - being strong enough to think you could take Grandpa George and then being publicly humiliated. But as George aged his became one of the several vehicles fo which everyone else in town looked.
George's driving habits were well-known. He went to the farm every morning and later "uptown" (as opposed to "downtown" where other people went) to meet his friends at the Coffee Shop. I often wondered where you get "uptown" and "downtown" when one side of one block holds all a town's commercial establishments, but that is how it was.
In any event, George was so short that he could barely see over the dash board of his car. He often drove on the wrong side of the road and took baffling routes to get from point A to B. But I doubt that being taller would have made much difference. Grandma once pressed him into service to drive me several blocks to a game or meeting of some kind, and from then on I made sure I had an alibi whenever she offered this. Driving with George took more curage than I had. Grandma never drove with him. George was at that stage of life where the merger of time and space that Einstein talks about becomes real.
The rules of the road around town for people like George were clear. His license could have been taken away long before, but everyone in town knows each other so well that they exercise remarkable constraint regarding this issue. They know their turns will come. So, if you hit George while he was driving or he hit you, it was your fault - kind of like touching a hot stove and getting burned. You could see George coming and it was your responsibility to give him a wide berth, even if that meant turning into someone's driveway or parking in the ditch for a few seconds.
Eventually George passed away. And then Grandma. We mourned them each in turn, and were grateful for the way in which they brightened each others' lives, and provided a foundation in so many ways for ours. It was not until today that I realized that though I was a faithful Mormon when Grandma died, I never thought of her as joining Grandpa. Nor did I picture her with George. My mind had suppressed the hard question of to whom did Grandma belong in the Mormon eternity.
I had the chance to be with one of my cousins a few nights ago and talked about some of these things for the first time in many years. She had forgotten that I had the chance to get to know Grandma in the relatively intimate way I did. After a few stories, she asked me if Grandma drank "her tea" when I stayed at her house.
"What are you talking about?" I asked, shock registering all over my face. "Her tea? She drank tea?"
"Sure", said my cousin. "Mom told us that she tried to quit for years - kind of like Grandpa with smoking - but she just couldn't. It had a real hold on her. I can't believe you didn't know about this. All the other cousins do. And you lived with her? I used to see her tea pot and bags just sitting there on the counter."
I was stunned.
"I suppose you didn't notice that Grandpa George drank coffee."
My expression provided the answer.
"Yup", she said. "He had his coffee making equipment along with Grandma's tea brewing stuff there at the house. And he went to the coffee shop pretty much every day to have a cup or two with his friends."
I had never wondered until that moment - over 30 years since I regularly saw Grandma and Grandpa George - what he might have been doing every day in the only coffee shop in town other than visiting with his Jack or non-Mormon farmer friends. In fact, I had not wondered how a "coffee shop" managed to stay in business in a town that was 90+% Mormon. I assumed, without ever thinking about it, that they must sell a lot of stuff other than coffee.
Grandpa, Grandma and George were all from a generation of Mormons I know a lot about as a result of the reading I have done during the past three years. Their habits were formed during a time before the degree of uniform behaviour now required of Mormons came into effect. And it must have been stressful for them as their community's behavioural standards first changed and then became more rigid.
I knew that Grandpa had his "problem". But Grandma and George? It had never occurred to me that they were anything other than standard issue Mormons, though I knew that George did not take church that seriously.
What fascinated me the most is that when the rest of the family knew about Grandma's tea habit that she would go out of her way to hide it from me. She knew I was heterodox, and perhaps that is what motivated her. But I spent many evenings and mornings with her during that year, and I liked tea. I had starting drinking it a year or two before and if Grandma had offered me a cup I would have happily joined her. She must have put her stuff, and George's, away each of the many times I came over.
As is the case with so many other aspects of my Mormon life, as I think about my experience with Grandpa, Grandma and George, and what their lives must have been like, I regret that we did not celebrate much more than we did.
We appreciated George but not as we should have. What a blessing he was for Grandma. They fell in love! They made each other riotously happy for a time, as lovers do. And they helped each other find deep contentment for many years.
And I don't know much about Grandpa, but I do know about the life he and Grandma stared down together. It brimmed with hardship. While I wish he could have remained with her and enjoyed their declining years, since that was not possible we should have had the biggest party we could afford when Grandma and George fell in love. Instead, they snuck off to formalize their relationship, and then kept their heads down while people whispered.
What a shame it is that Grandma could not have shared with me how she dealt with the conflict between the way she chose to live and what her religious community attempted to make her do. Given how non-conformist she was in other ways, it does not surprise me that she cut against the grain with regard to the word of wisdom while holding a temple recommend the whole time. How much guilt did that cause her? How did she rationalize it? She was a smart, strong willed lady. I would have benefited from her perspective with regard to these things and many others of the soul. And I now feel more kinship with her than ever. My saltiness and insistence on charting my own course likely find some of their genetic roots in her.
George, as far as I know, did not hold consistently hold a temple recommend and simply lived his life as he saw fit while going to church occasionally. I was not close enough to have expected him to confide his deepest feelings in me, but would have been grateful were he prepared to do this.
It makes me ache to think of these fine people in the last years of heroic pioneer lives feeling censure from family and community members as a result of big things like falling in love and making each other immensely happy, and little things like drinking coffee and tea. And now that I see Grandpa in context as well, his smoking was nothing. He is a shadow in my life instead of a laughing grandfather largely because of the guilt that habit produced in him. He felt unclean. How tragic.
Guilt within the Mormon and other conservative religious communities has long been a stifling burden for many people. One of my friends, Joe Staples, is a talented writer who recently finished his PhD at the University of Arizona. He once shared with me the following poem.
"In one of his lucid hours, I could see a great anger come over him. He would not look at me or anyone else in the room, and seemed to wish we would all just go away. I asked him, "Are you angry?"
"Because you're still here?"
"Do you pray?"
"Don't want to."
It was a surprise to me that my father, who had always seemed very prayerful and spiritually minded, would refuse to pray as Death approached. I wanted him to be faithful; I needed him to be heroic and stare Death down while telling his Heavenly Father that he was coming home. And that was my greatest betrayal; at the moment of his quintessential humanity, I asked him to be more than human.
Nearly ten years later I look back on the final week of his life, seeking to atone for the small injustices I perpetrated at his most vulnerable. He lived and died under the immense weight of a guilt he was never able to set aside. He was a better man than most, and far better than he believed himself to be.
But I stand now by the riverside, Dad, and am here to lay down my heavy load. Let me take yours, too, and lay it in the cool shade of the trees. We carried our loads a long time - picked them up from those who bore us. But we'll lay them down and carry instead my laughing children. We'll study guilt no more; we'll fish in the stream and sail paper boats and watch the grasses wave in the current. This atonement, too, flows both ways." (Joe P. Staples, Personal Correspondence, March 19, 2003)
As we harmonize our lives with reality, counterproductive guilt will bother us less and we will become more attuned to an inner voice that we have trained to warn us of self deception, approaching danger, and the opportunity to do good.
I now celebrate these grandparents lives - all three of them. The respected biologist Ursula Goodenough says that "Life is like a coral reef. We each leave behind the best, the strongest deposit we can so that the reef can grow. But what's important is the reef."
These were wonderful reef builders and having both experienced them in person and now having the opportunity to learn from them as I see more of their experience in light of my own, I choose to build my little bit of the reef differently than they built theirs. My children and loved ones will know of my inner most feelings - my loves, hates, struggles, triumphs and failures. They will know what I value and why I live as I do. I wish them to free them to explore their world in the broadest possible context, decide what they value, and have the greatest possible chance to bring that into being. So I will share that context as I see as well as I am able to do so.
I want my children to be content with their place in the reef; to enjoy life's miracle while it lasts; to learn to pay more attention to the tiny part of the miracle that is before them, moment by moment; and think less about those parts of the future that are beyond their influence. I aspire to all of this myself as well.
I find in my grandparents' lives many positive lessons, and at least one that is both negative and profoundly important. That is, I will not allow the innocent ignorance of my social group and their beliefs with regard to an improbable future after death to leach the color out of the wonderful picture life has painted and laid before me. I will, rather, immerse myself in life; revel in it; encourage it to seep into my every pore, and make of me what it will.
Life is so much more wonderful than I could have imagined a few years ago.
| Magical Thinking Interferes With Rational Decision Making - A Meditation On The Thoughtful Mormons Choice Between Passing On Inherited Irrationality And leaving The Fold |
Wednesday, Feb 15, 2006, at 08:20 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 3 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| Magical Thinking |
Interferes with Rational Decision Making -
A Meditation on the Thoughtful Mormon’s Choice Between
Passing on Inherited Irrationality and “Leaving the Fold”
February 11, 2006
Rational forces have consistently throughout human history overcome magical thinking and other forms of irrationality. However, it often takes a depressingly long time for the majority of even the best informed human groups to accept what with the benefit of hindsight appears to be an obvious best practise, and humans are particularly obtuse when it comes to seeing the irrationality in ideas or behaviors that are foundational to their own social groups (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.does%20mormonism%20cause%20irrational%20belief.pdf). Both history and current social reality relative to this point provide eloquent testimony to how the individual perception of reality tends to bend to group opinion. Our evolutionary history as small group animals who were dependant on a safe place within a social group for our survival is likely responsible for this (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.denial.pdf, under the heading “What Causes Denial - A Synthesis” at page 119).
The struggle between rational and irrational forces in the religious world has been nicely chronicled by many scholars (see Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God” for a particularly compelling read), and we find in the Mormon group a microcosm of this conflict. Many Mormons are at a tipping point with regard to this issue as a result of the ongoing collision between irrational Mormon beliefs and the information rich perspective provided by the Internet. The experience of other groups throughout history suggests that the direction those who remain faithful to Mormonism take on this issue will largely determine the richness of life their descendants will enjoy for generations to come.
I will conclude that individual Mormons who become aware of these issues have a choice to make of unprecedented importance as a result of what we know about how individual decision making behaviour tends to be largely determined by the behaviour supported by our dominant social group, and how slowly the behaviour of social groups tend to upgrade toward best available practises in this regard.
It is hard to sort out some aspects of early science from magic since science to a large degree emerged from magic, and the same people practiced both (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alchemy). For example, when we look back on even fairly recent medical practises they often seem more magical than scientific. Think of bloodletting, for example, a practise that was common well into the 1800s (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodletting, and see John Brooke’s “The Refiner’s Fire” for a review of how the magical/alchemical tradition influenced early Mormonism).
Ideas such as bloodletting represented the best science of their day and we should assume that some of our science based practices will be regarded by future generations much as we regard bloodletting. This is because the scientific method has built into it a number of mechanisms that over time tend to winnow out inaccurate ideas while encouraging the adoption and use of accurate ones. That is, due to the diversity of opinion and competition among a huge group of people with different interests within the scientific community, it is by far the best source of accurate information about reality that humankind has ever seen. However, the scientific community’s self-correcting mechanism is far slower than most of us realize, and worse than that, it takes enormous amounts of time for even the most important, demonstrably accurate scientific ideas to penetrate the popular consciousness.
For example, in the mid-1800s Ignaz Semmelweis (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignaz_Semmelweis), a Viennese obstetrician, carefully observed and reported that deaths after certain medical procedures declined from above 10% to below 1% after a hand and instrument washing program was instituted in various hospitals. The medical community viciously attacked him for taking this position. If he was right, they had been killing a significant percentage of their patients. Few ideas could be more abhorrent to medical practitioners and so their resistance was understandable to an extent. It took years in some places and decades in others for Semmelweis’ innovation to be adopted in the most educated corners of human civilization and in the meantime doctors and nurses continued to kill a significant percentage of their patients.
This and countless other examples from the history of science can be marshaled to show that it takes a lot more time what we assume to change minds that have formed around a way of doing things, regardless of how wrong. As both Max Planck and Thomas Kuhn have been reported to observe (with tongues no doubt only partly in cheek), “Science progresses on funeral at a time”. While this may be true, Einstein’s insight is more useful. He said that the theory we believe largely determines what we can see. Semmelweis’ observation was inconsistent with the general medical theory of his day. However, when the germ theory of disease was eventually developed (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory) hand washing and other forms of hygienic practise began to dominate hospital procedure and Semmelweis was recognized as a visionary.
If easily demonstrable, life-saving concepts like post-surgical hygienic practises are resisted, we should expect that ideas that run against the social norm and have more remote connections to our wellbeing should take much longer to be accepted. These, however, are often of immense importance and since they are not noticed can cripple entire civilizations.
For example, in the early 1600s Galileo used the newly invented telescope to revolutionize our understanding of Earth’s place in the Universe. It took at least a couple of centuries for his ideas to be widely accepted, and in 1992 the Catholic Church officially acknowledged its error in suppressing his work and in effect killing him. The Catholic Church’s tardiness in acknowledging its error is likely responsible in part for the staggering 1996 poll which reported that 20% of adult Americans believed the Sun to
revolve around the Earth (see http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/1996/05/24/MN67867.DTLandhw).
Another of our most important innovators, Charles Darwin, has also been poorly received. Recent polls (see http://www.arachnoid.com/opinion/religion.html) have found that:
35% of US adults believe that evolutionary theory is well supported by the evidence.
35% believed evolutionary theory is not well supported by the evidence.
29% reported that they did know enough about evolutionary theory to respond.
38% said that human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.
13% said that human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.
45% said God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.
And lest we think that beliefs of this kind don’t really matter, recall that for centuries leading up to about 1100 CE the Muslim/Arab peoples led humankind with regard to secular studies such as math and science, and they were also the wealthiest and in many ways the most cultured group on Earth at the same time. At that point, religious forces gained the upper hand within Muslim society and they began to emphasize “spiritual” studies over secular, quickly lost their scientific, wealth and cultural advantages and began down the road that now has Muslims rioting and killing each other over cartoons published in Denmark and other parts of Europe (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4684652.stm). The triumph of irrationality in many parts of the Muslim is a temporary setback that has lasted, to this point, almost 1000 years.
The struggle between rational and irrational forces in the religious world has been nicely chronicled by many scholars (see Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God” for a particularly compelling read), and we find in Mormon history a microcosm of this conflict. The direction those who remain faithful to Mormonism take on this issue will likely determine much regarding the diversity and richness of life their descendants enjoy for generations to come.
When we criticize any group (including the Mormons) for the use of “magical thinking” that impairs their decision making, what we are often saying is that they are using an outmoded kind of science. This is often the result of religious beliefs that formed during a particular period of time that were consistent with at least some of the scientific and historical data then available. However, once those beliefs form they become foundational to claims religious leaders make to God’s authority, and hence will be resisted because if they are found to be false it will undermine the authority of a group’s leaders and hence the stability of the group. Most humans unconsciously fear such destabilizing forces, and hence will resist information that tends in that direction. This means that they have ridden science’s train so far, have gotten off and refuse to acknowledge that the train has moved from that spot even as they stare at empty tracks. The forces that impel this are the same as those that caused surgeons around the world to refuse for a long time to wash their hands in spite of what Semmelweis’ careful measurement of what happened in his hospitals showed.
Many aspects of Mormon belief and practise leap into focus when considered in light of the social and scientific ideas that were dominant during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The idea that Amerindians were Hebrew descendants; the Victorian idea of progress (“eternal progress”); the roles of men and women; what it means to have individual freedom (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.are%20mormons%20free.pdf); all fall into this category.
Mormon Irrationality or Magical Thinking
I am regularly (such as last night) in conversation with well-educated Mormons who struggle when trying to deal with rational concepts related to things like science, investment strategies, politics and other purely secular matters. And I see in their struggles infections likely attributable to the magical thinking at the heart of what is required these days to be a literally believing Mormon. The conversation in which I participated last night that caused this essay had to do with an investment opportunity that a bright, successful young Mormon had been offered. Some Mormons still respect my judgement regarding investments that seem not to require "the Spirit", and he wanted to run by me what had been proposed to him. I was happy to listen for a few minutes and tell him what I thought.
Five seconds into my friend's explanation, I gave him a thumbs down. He has been offered the chance to get in on the ground floor of a “perpetual motion machine” that is going to revolutionize the energy and automotive industries. I summarized the many similar "opportunities" I have encountered during my career and how each of them caused a lot of investors to lose their money while usually also being sincerely believed in by a “genius” inventor who the scientific community “did not understand”. I explained how humans are congenitally (it seems) unable to resist huge upside propositions like this that have little to no support in the scientific theory that ultimately must explain how they work. That is, the speculative stock and real estate “investment” industries and Las Vegas are kept in business by the human inability to assess with reasonable accuracy what a small chance to win a large amount of money is worth. Our greed consistently causes us to pay more for chances like this than we should. And promoters of various types have from time immemorial taken advantage of this human weakness. It is far better to be a seller of chances to invest of this type than a buyer. At least, I told him, the people in Las Vegas are upfront about how they make their money. Everyone knows that most gamblers lose money and the “house” gets rich. And so most people who gamble treat the cost of gambling as the price of entertainment. Those invest in speculative stocks or real estate or multi-level marketing schemes are often sucked into the same game on the basis that they really do have a reasonable chance to make money.
And, I noted, when an idea has been around for a while and the people who have the most expertise in related fields have passed on it, you can be pretty certain that the idea does not work. We are far better off following the advice of the people with the greatest experience and expertise in a give field instead of trusting our instincts. This is because we are relatively ignorant; the experts are relatively wise and their collective judgement is likely to be the most accurate evidence available as to what will work and what will not; and humans (like us) have a proven tendency to each be overconfident in their own judgement (see James Surowiecki, “The Wisdom of Crowds”). Again, this is what shady and incompetent investment promoters have intuited forever, and why our securities laws require a certain amount of “due diligence” of such promoters. This constrains their natural tendency to exaggerate while not having done the work required to know what real scientists say about their investment proposal, or worse yet, suppressing that knowledge because it contradicts what the “know” to be “true”. Does that approach to reality ring a bell, by the way?.
My friend was unconvinced. He told me that NASA and other branches of the US government were "looking at this concept seriously". I said that if the concept had any material chance of success, there were countless big companies that would have already snapped it up. I referenced (without using its name) the Ballard Battery organization (see http://www.ballard.com/be_a_customer/transportation/electric_drives) as an example of a relatively modest technology that has attracted investment capital from some of the world's largest corporations. A perpetual motion machine would make Ballard look like peanuts and so if it were any good there would be no need to present this idea to people like him who have no means to assess the technology’s merits. I thought later that I should have told my friend that if I had the details of the investment proposal I could reverse engineer the value the inventor is putting on this technology, and I am willing to bet that it is far less than the value the market places on inferior technologies (like Ballard’s) that have only been proven to have a reasonable chance of success. This approach would sound a warning bell of another kind.
My friend cited (no doubt using information the “inventor” had given him) planetary motion and the movement of electrons etc. around the nucleus of atoms as “proof” that perpetual motion machines were possible. I explained a little about the big bang theory of cosmology, what happens in black holes and how the laws of entropy work to explain that the analogies he was using did not support the idea his inventor was selling. I could tell that he remained unconvinced, and heard him later in the evening planning a trip to meet the inventor in person.
In short, my young friend did not take seriously the judgement of the scientific community or of wealthy investors (like General Motors or NASA) who rely upon the judgement of scientists to make billion dollar investment decisions. I suggested to him the places he should look to assess the merits of this invention on a scientific basis, how perpetual motion machines have been an inventors' Holy Grail forever and how credible scientists long ago abandoned the idea and have focused instead on converting energy from one form (atomic, fossil fuel, sun, wind, etc.) into another that is more convenient for us to use. But he did not seem interested in this. He had heard about something that “felt good” to him, and that feeling was more important (at this point at least) than anything he might find in a science book. Where would a well educated young Mormon get an idea like that?
I have run into similar attitudes in the Mormon community related to much more important issues.
The world overpopulated? Don’t be silly. Science will be able to continue to expand our ability to support life on Earth indefinitely.
Global warming? What is all the fuss about? There is not enough evidence yet that humankind has anything to do with global warming for us to be concerned.
Godless Europeans (and particularly the REALLY godless Scandinavians) have fewer social problems than Middle America? Don’t be ridiculous. That is impossible. And no I don't want to read anything about this.
Young Mormons marry too early, have children too soon and hence have marital experiences that lead to an increased incidence of depression? That could not be further from the truth. The surveys the Church does show that active Mormons are among the happiest people on Earth.
Across a broad range of critical issues Mormons tend to be ignorant of the relevant science, and when the science is presented to them they tend to accept even the fringiest minority positions as solid support for their dogmatic beliefs. You can always find a minority position based in science to support your view, including that alien abductions are real, the Earth is 10,000 years old and the Holocaust did not occur. The rational thing for us non-scientists to do is govern ourselves by what the majority of well informed scientists have to say on any given topic.
My young friend is one of those Mormons who has struggled through the evidence related to the Book of Mormon and other aspects of Mormonism, and has decided that despite the fact that he doesn’t like a lot of what Mormon leaders do and have done in the past, that his experience with Mormonism overall (and most importantly how he feels when "The Spirit" moves him) is more important than anything else. So, he has decided against the evidence that the God Joseph Smith taught about is real and gave Joseph Smith special authority that was passed on to Gordon Hinckley, etc. For example, the scientific evidence regarding DNA relative to the Book of Mormon's historicity (see http://www.postmormon.org/exp_e/index.php/magazine/feature_article/2004/09/22) is interesting, but does not prove anything. Again, how we feel is more important than any evidence of this kind.
Is it surprising that the same mind that would justify Mormonism against the scientific and historical evidence in the manner just noted would also:
be prepared to invest in a perpetual motion machine that has not scientific support,
spend time developing a Muti-Level Marketing "business" (Amway, for example) when the statistics regarding it show that 99+ percent of those who get involved lose money, not to mention creating painful false expectations and wasting years of time in many cases,
not care about global overpopulation or ecological issues,
get married at age 21 right after returning from his mission because “the Lord revealed to him on his first date with XXXX that she was to be his wife”,
encourage his wife to quit her job and start having babies “because that is the Lord’s will” even though he does not have a reliable means of supporting their family and she has a great job,
move from one city to another because he feels like the Lord has something for him to do there, even though job prospects there are inferior to those where he already lives, the cost of living is higher there, commuting distances are worse there, etc.,
start taking anti-depressants instead of seeing a counselor who would help him to understand that his day to day pattern of living is virtually guaranteed to cause depression,
tell his gay son that it would be best if all the gay people in the world were put on an island and blown up.
I have run into each of these situations during the past little while.
Non-Mormons do silly things too of course, and as noted above, ignorance with regard to science is far from a uniquely Mormon problem. However, Mormon beliefs create one of the many worldviews that encourage some kinds of science to be denied. And this should be expected to encourage the denial of science in other similar situations, such as where emotional experience (including all kinds of greed and fear) or social trends conflict with the best advice science has to offer. Interestingly, Buddha said greed and fear should be resisted because they are the source of most human trouble. Scientific knowledge generally helps us to do this, while belief systems like Mormonism supercharge these emotion based forces.
I therefore think it is fair to suggest a causal relationship between the Mormon need to deny science in order to maintain their religious beliefs and the Mormon tendency I observe toward making other kinds of bad decisions. If Mormons begin to pay more attention to the wisdom science has produced, their decision making will improve.
In general, I subscribe to the division or labor between science, philosophy and religion described at http://progressiveliving.org/religion/culture_war.htm. And, there is no reason to believe that giving science precedence in its sphere of influence as this and many other books and articles define it will erode the moral fabric of society. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the attempt to retain Mormon belief and a connection to the Mormon social group in light of science will produce immoral behaviour. This is one of the reasons for which Mormon leaders in the early 1900s abandoned their institutionalized lying about polygamy. They became concerned that this endemic deception would canker their people. The only thing surprising to me about this conclusion is that they took so long to reach it.
In Which Direction Will Mormons Turn?
Time will tell whether Mormons will continue to turn inward, as the Muslims did 1000 years ago, or whether they will jettison their literal beliefs that are producing the mind virus I just described. What makes this particularly interesting is that a process that occurred in the Muslim world over centuries will be compressed into a few years within North American Mormonism as a result of the average Mormon educational level and access to information through the internet. This will supercharge the move toward either ignorance and the continued denial of science, or rationality.
I expect to see a polarization within Mormonism quickly develop. The vast majority of the old guard do not have the perspective to recognize that their worldview is deficient, and will not be prepared to absorb the information required to see that they may be a problem, so their behavior will not change. The real battle for hearts and minds will occur in the generation that is now under 30 years of age, and even more importantly, for their children. Some will stay with their parents’ paradigm and others will either leave Mormonism or radically redefine the role of religion in their lives.
A friend told me recently about the radical changes that have occurred during the last decade on some Hutterite (like the Old Order Amish) colonies in Alberta (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutterite - this article does not capture the extent of this change as it was described to me).
Thirty years ago when I lived near these people many of them still did not have televisions, radio, and had virtually no contact with the outside world. Now many of them are almost indistinguishable from other rural folk. And many others still dress differently but have television, Internet access and degrees of intellectual and behavioral freedom that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. That is, their worldview and culture has radically changed within a short time. And, a small number of hardcore traditionalists have gone the other way (see for example http://www.perefound.org/towhom.html).
My bet is that during the next two decades we will see something similar occur within Mormonism as the current generation of Mormon Internet children reach maturity. This is likely to strengthen Mormon fundamentalist groups and see the creation of new ones as some adults flee what they perceive to be chaos and gathering evil of society and attempt to shelter their children from it. M. Night Shyamalan's “The Village” (see http://movies.about.com/library/weekly/aavillage072904.htm) provides a compelling look at this psychological space. The same forces will increase the trend toward Mormon home schooling. Mormon programmed Internet filters and portals, and Mormon sponsored university or trade schools (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Virginia_University).
On the other hand, an increasing number of Mormons in the developed world will simply terminate their affiliation with the Mormon Church, or begin to participate on their terms instead of those dictated by Mormon leaders. This trend is evident across much of the religious spectrum where we see organizations like Rick Warren’s megachurch flourish on the basis of offering a wide choice of worship and communal experience wrapped within the same amorphous dogma (see http://www.gladwell.com/2005/2005_09_12_a_warren.html), New Age belief of many kinds rising in popularity, and the decline of non-democratic institutions of most kinds across the developed world (see http://wvs.isr.umich.edu/papers/postmod.shtml).
The Mormon institutional structure should be expected to remain largely unchanged due to its paralyzingly conservative decision making mechanism. All significant changes must be unanimously approved by the 15 top leaders, all of whom are old and male. This means that little if any formal change will occur for decades unless some kind of fundamental tipping point is reached as occurred with the Community of Christ (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/undeception.pdf). I think it highly unlikely that this will occur within my lifetime.
However, an increasing degree of individual flexibility will be permitted to members as a matter of practical necessity as Stake Presidents and Bishops are faced with more and more people like me. As I was told, it does not matter what I believed as long as I keep my mouth shut and so didn’t disturb the orthodoxy of others. As long as I kept that rule, I was free to participate on whatever terms I choose. This approach has become common, and will lead increasing numbers of Mormons to lead double lives. They will attend at least some Mormon services and often hold responsible leadership positions while participating anonymously on Internet bulletin boards and email lists where they can express their real beliefs and develop a sense of community with others and clarity of self perception that can only be achieved within this mode of expression.
This will cause increasing numbers of Mormons to justifying lying (or such creative use of language that the difference between it and lying is immaterial) during temple recommend interviews when asked to confirm their beliefs. It will cause increasing number of Mormon young people to enter a baffling world of grey as they begin to understand their parents’ ambivalent position regarding religious belief, practise, what it means to keep a promise and answers questions honestly, etc. This should be expected to cause a continued erosion Mormon community’s moral fabric.
On a lighter note, these same forces will continue to cause ironies like currently serving Mormon Bishops who consult with people like me regarding how they should counsel faithful Mormons about issues related to sexual morality, sexual practises within marriage, masturbation, whether young people or mature couples should serve missions, etc. These Bishops tell me that they don’t dare discuss these questions with their Stake Presidents or other Mormon file leaders because they are out of touch with the reality related to these issues, and in any event discussions of that kind would require the revelation of the Bishop’s heterodox beliefs. Bishops of this kind are usually closet heretics who believe that they can do more good “from the inside” walking what one such man eloquently labelled the “path of inner darkness”, then they can from the outside.
The concept that the theory and data summarized above brings into sharp focus for me can be summarized as follows:
The influence of the group is over each individual member’s perception of reality is far more powerful that most of us realize.
Social groups tend to take much longer than we assume to accept even easily understandable realities.
Social groups can take centuries to grasp things like the importance of science in general while suffering terrible deteriorations in their standard of living and imposing particularly cruel and arbitrary hardships on the weaker members of their group such as women, gay persons, etc.
Those who reject the majority scientific view tend to make worse decisions with regard to a host of important issues than those who accept science on this basis.
The world is increasingly divided into groups that choose to accept the best wisdom science has to offer, and those who don’t.
Once socialized to a particular worldview (science accepting or science rejecting), many people are unable to change and the influence of parents on this process declines radically once children reach their teens.
Accordingly, I should expect that two decisions I make will echo for generations in my family. The first is how openly I will teach my children about how find wisdom and make decisions. That is, when should we give science primacy over religious dogma; where do we find the foundations of moral reasoning; etc. And the second, and by far the most important, is my choice of a social group or groups with which I choose to associate and cause my children to associate and how that group either supports or contradicts what I teach my children about how to find wisdom and make decisions.
The decision to distance oneself from Mormonism is hard. Great sacrifices are required of many who go that route. I have attempted to outline above what is at stake and why great sacrifices are usually justified. While I could never know enough about another person’s circumstances to weigh the costs and benefits in her case, I think it is reasonable to say that in most cases the benefits easily justify the costs; that our fears are overblown; that we do not know enough about what awaits us on the outside to understand how much we and our loved ones have to gain by starting a new life; and that most talk of “letting the kids make up their own minds” and “making personal sacrifices to avoid hurting my wife, my parents, etc.” are rationalizations for avoiding the personal discomfort required to take arrows in the back while leaving the Mormon community and facing the uncertainty of forming new relationships (see Lee Kirkpatrick, “Attachment, Evolution and the Psychology of Religion” or Steven Hassan, “Releasing the Bonds”, for a summary of why leaving a close-knit religious group should be expected to be extremely difficult).
I will conclude with a note that I received last seek from someone with whom I started to correspond last summer.
“February 7, 2006
Just going through some of my old email and came across this one [a note I sent to him in the summer of 2006 answering some questions for him and trying to put an obviously anxious person at ease by sharing my experience with him].
So much has changed since then. Life is like a whole different reality since leaving the LDS Church. I am so much happier and have found a relationship with God that I never knew possible. It continues to grow and develop each day. I continue to search and learn of spiritual truth and hope to one day completely understand it all. However, I know now to seek God in trying to understand God. I certainly value the opinions of others but I never take for granted what they are saying and always seek to verify or dispel what they are telling me.
I just wanted to take a moment and let you know how much your writings and common sentiments gave me the courage to explore what I needed to.
Again, thank you and I hope this note finds you in good spirits and God's blessings.
Sharing this kind of thing is useful in my view because it illustrates how quickly the world can move from dark to light when one has the courage to press ahead at a time when it is terrifying to do that.
I note that I do not necessarily agree with the beliefs this fellow now has, but do not generally do more in email exchanges than you see here. I make my thoughts available for what they are worth, and if that is useful to someone, great.
Well-informed Mormons have to tough choice to make that should be expected to profoundly influence their families for generations to come. If they remain within a conservative, irrational social group, ignorance and difficulty for their family are likely to follow for a long time. And if they leave that group, they are likely to experience significant discomfort but more importantly, they must face the terrifying prospect of disagreeing with their dominant social group. Throughout most of human history, it usually meant death to do this and our biology was set up on that basis.
As is the case with most decisions, perspective is often what is required to overcome fear and make good decisions. I hope the perspective in this essay is useful to some who read it.
| Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. Arthur Schopenhauer,
I try to help my children see how wonderful and deep our experience with this world of ours can be and don’t feel that I get through to them that well. The occasional hint that a bit of message is sinking in keeps me going. I am also encouraged by research that indicates that what our children observe us do is more important than what we tell them about basic attitudes toward life. So, I will continue to relish my own experience and attempt to share my enthusiasm with them as I can.
I was recently struck by a few parallels between the difficulties I must overcome as I try to teach my children the importance of perspective in general and some of the basic problems I see within Mormonism, and want to note those before the slip through the increasingly rickety information processing system that is my brain. I will conclude that Mormon belief tends to limit perspective, hence creating an additional challenge for those who are trying to excite Mormons about the kind of thing this essay describes.
The main idea I am trying to get through to my children is that a great deal of what matters to most people about life is determined by the breadth of their perspective how far they can see. This in turn is determined primarily by three things:
access to information;
perspective building habits that determine the degree to which they consistently spend time using that access to broaden their point of view; and
the number of ideas they generate and put into use.
Only a modest amount of intelligence is required, thank goodness. The bulk of us in the “average” range have more than enough brainpower to live highly productive, satisfying lives.
Access to Information
We are awash in information. The key is to find the desire to access it, and to learn how to do that. This requires the development of a few basic skills. Each of these helps determine how far we can see in ways as important as the telescope, microscope, maps, the printing press and other important innovations did for prior generations. Some of these skills are new, but most are old.
Interpretation. This sounds silly perhaps, but reading in one language is still the backbone of communication. Those who read widely have a broader context within which to understand and work with ideas. They also have better writing and speaking skills since the nature of language is drilled into us as we read. Kids are most likely to read what interests them. One of our sons owes his ability to read to Calvin and Hobbes. Another to Harry Potter. We read to them when they were small, and try to find the magic bullet for them as they get older whatever will catch their interest and get them reading on their own. I used the word “interpretation” though because as we mature we find all kinds of other important sources of information. How well we listen and ask question as we network informally at the office, in the community and at home determines our access to important sources of information. One of my most successful clients does not read a lot, but spends hours every day on the cell phone trading information with his network of business associates and friends. He stays amazingly well informed about the critical issues relevant to his business primarily through this means. This unorthodox style would not suit most business owners, but in his niche it not only works, but works extremely well. As we learn more about our culture we read the tea leaves of which books sell, which headlines appear and which don’t, how others around us react to movies, which aspects of our artistic heritage fall in and out of favour, etc. Each of these functions involves absorbing and interpreting information of various types.
Expression. This includes expressing ourselves through symbols whether spoken, written, drawn or otherwise. The most basic skill in this regard will for the foreseeable future be writing. Many commentators have noted how the internet is changing our culture in this regard. More people are writing more words than ever. And we are not talking about a moderate upward trend. This is a leap of many orders of magnitude. Much of this communication might be regarded as pointless. The same can be said of most speech. But most written communication is good exercise. When combined with lots of reading, this can be expected to naturally develop talent. I encourage our kids to email their friends and to develop groups of friends that extend around the world. As we meet people from other places and I see the sparks of friendship in the air, I try to facilitate internet friendships. Most of my efforts are fruitless. But occasionally something good has resulted.
Science literacy. Science has always been important and will become increasingly so as communications technologies continue to dominate the creation of culture as well as economics, and the merger of technology and biology reshape life on more levels than we can now imagine. Many of the most important social, financial, political and moral opportunities and pitfalls during the foreseeable future will have large scientific components. Even those who are not inclined toward a career in the sciences are foolish to neglect that part of their education. I have a library full of science related books and encourage our kids, to no avail so far, to read them. However, as I read I regularly come across ideas that I know will interest them and this leads to conversation. Helen Fisher’s research related to how men and women signal sexual interest to each other lit up one daughter recently. A son was fascinated by the most recent speculation as to how a meteor approaching earth could not be prevented from hitting us and how that cataclysm would likely play out, step by grisly step. Another was interested in how groups make decisions that are wiser in many cases than what their wisest members are capable of.
Basic computer and Internet skills. It is not hard to convince kids to become Internet literate. It is more challenging to get them excited about how to use this tool find information. We try to use school assignments for this. But more importantly, I ask my kids questions and then encourage then to use the Internet to find answers in the same fashion I do. And when they come to me with questions, I walk them through the process I use to find information including the interesting side trips that often come up while I am researching ideas that interest me.
I characterize these skills as access to high peaks with great views; or to powerful telescopes that allow us to see what is coming or where we are doing; etc.
Perspective Building Habits
The longer I live the clearer it becomes that we respond primarily to necessity. Some necessities are more obvious and powerful than others. We need food, water, safety, sleep, etc. and will do almost anything to meet our needs in this regard. Less obvious but equally important needs include intimacy of various kinds, the approval of others in our social groups, opportunities to “self actualize”, etc.
We are likely to do things on a regular basis only if we perceive them to be necessary. And many of the activities that we prefer and that are readily available to us have an anaesthetizing quality, such as most television watching, some computer use and certain kinds of food and drug consumption. On the other hand, other activities that are extremely important and enjoyable once we are engaged in them seem like work to us and are avoided.
For example, Martin Seligman (see “Authentic Happiness”) and other researchers have shown that depression in adults and children is strongly correlated with large amounts of unstructured leisure time and insufficient hours each day spent engaged in challenging activities that require high levels of concentration. Ironically, the adults and children who are not depressed and have the kind of challenges in their lives that would predict mental health tend to say that they wish they had more unstructured time and fewer challenges.
The lesson in this research is that our instincts mislead us to a large degree both in terms of what we need to be happy, and what is likely to put us in a position to choose how we wish to spend our time. We can fight this be using other instincts that we know from our experience pulls in the opposite direction. For example:
Rewards. Most of us don’t like exercising and yet feel good when we do it. One of our young sons regularly thanks me for cajoling him into getting onto our exercise equipment, and yet is hard to persuade him to do that. I am the same way myself once working out I marvel at how good it feels and yet don’t do it as often as I should. So, our 11-year son gets paid to work out. Not much, but enough to get him a 30+ minute workout (once he is going he is happy to keep going) at least three times a week. Once this becomes a habit, it has a reasonable chance of continuing under its own steam. I see no problem with doing this for all kinds of things reading books; writing book reports; earning awards at school including certain grade levels; etc.
Groups. We are small group animals by evolution and so are powerfully influenced by the groups with which we associate. And there is lots of chance to choose to be associated with different groups. Kids who are on sports teams and have committed to do things that will help their team are far more likely to be active than other kids. The same applies to kids who are on the debate team, in the art or drama club, or involved in other group oriented activities, including those as low key as taking an evening ceramics class. While I am taking a class of any kind I am far more likely to spend my free time doing things related to what I am learning in that class, and much of what I choose to do will be derived from cues I take from other people in the class. That is, I tend to become a bit more like the people in my class as long as I continue to associate with them. So, if I want to make progress in the development any kind of skill all I have to do is sign up for a series of classes and try to meet and hang outwith other people who have some of the talents I want to cultivate.
Competition. If we are committed to doing something, we tend to invest energy in becoming better at it. As soon as our kids are join a sports team or start attending karate or dance class, it is amazing how quickly we see their behaviour spontaneously chance to spend time working on whatever skills their activity requires. In my case, if I commit to play in a golf tournament several weeks off, I will end up at the course to practise even though the tournament does not mean anything. As the worst student in an art class I feel a special motivation to improve myself and see ample evidence around me of what I can expect if I keep practising and taking courses since I know how long some of the other students have been at it. This principle can be used to motivate all kinds of behaviour.
Feedback. Activities that allow us to measure our progress tend to more interesting to us and easier to stick with. This is one of the reasons that computer games seem addictive. Each player can find a “level” of the game that is appropriate to his skill level; the game gives him constant feedback as to how well he is doing; and as his skill level improves he can ratchet up the way in which the game challenges him. For years we had a Karaoke machine in our home that was seldom used. Then one of the kids computer game consoles came with some software that allowed Karaoke to the “played” like a game. A track would appear on the screen that showed when the singer’s voice was on, and off, key. And the audience response (cheering and booing) both followed the on and off key pattern, and could be programmed to various levels from novice to expert. Our kids and their friends immediately started to make heavy use of this game. I have noticed that the karate lessons are kids take use this structure. The constant feedback from the instructor and progression through the belt levels performs this function. What I have learned coaching kids sports also indicates the importance of this principle. The more feedback mechanisms we can incorporate into an activity the more likely it is that we will stick with it.
There are many other similar concepts but I am running out of time and so will stop here. The key concept is that we need to understand the environment that will cause us to feel either a need or desire to engage in the activities in which we have decided we wish to engage. Each of the perspective expanding activities to which I referred above can be made the subject of rewards, connected to group or competitive activities, become the subject of feedback, etc. Increasingly we find our groups, competition and feedback from internet based communities or even computer simulation.
Idea Generation and Action
A recent study showed that success in the scientific and academic communities and IQ of above 125 did not correlate to success in terms of publishing papers, registers patents, etc. However, the consistent production of ideas did correlate with success. Even the smartest among us have a relatively few ideas that are really good. Hence, those who regularly produce ideas and then work on them over time turn a small percentage of a large number of ideas into success. Those who produce a small number of ideas and work with them have the same kind of success in percentage terms and so accomplish far less than their more prolific peers.
This concept is connected to perspective because many of the ideas we come across as we build our perspective can only be useful if acted upon. For example, I discovered a while ago a line of research that suggested that getting involved in an artistic activity would be helpful to me as I continued to find my way through the post-Mormon world. Reading and thinking about that idea was of limited use. Taking an art course, however, turned out to be of great use (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%...). We live through the integration of what we learn with the things we choose to do. We are part idea and part action. Either without the other is empty or even dangerous. The way we combine these elements of our life influences how we interact with other human beings; the kind of physical and mental exercise in which we engage (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.camp...); the kind of human groups to which we attach ourselves (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star...); etc.
Perspective Limiting Mormon Belief
All belief systems organize information, including beliefs, hierarchically. That is, some kinds of information are less important than others.
The Mormon system has at the top of its belief pyramid the idea that there is a God who has mandated certain human behaviours, and those who obey His rules will receive immensely important advantages both during life and after death. The basic ideas related to these beliefs are not disprovable or legitimately questionable. For example, when Mormon and non-Mormon scientists recently used DNA evidence to question the Book of Mormon’s assertion that the Amerindians are descendants of a group of people who came to the Americas from Jerusalem, the Mormon Church responded by indicating that, "We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other" (see http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-...). The implication that a scientist who points out that an assertion of fact (Amerindians areof Hebrew stock) contradicts the extant data must is opposing the Mormon Church for some unknown and presumably illegitimate reason is classically Mormon, and laughable from a scientific point of view.
In the fashion just indicated, any information that purports to question Mormon beliefs must by definition, within the Mormon system, be incorrect. Since information produced by science and the scholarly study of history questions many Mormon beliefs, science and the other scholars are wrong to this extent no matter how persuasive they evidence they put forward may appear. This perception of scholarly unreliability and bad will cannot help but diminish the stature of the scientific and scholarly community in most Mormon eyes. This is why many well educated Mormons, like me, do not take science seriously and are hence both poorly informed and apathetic with regard to many issues that require an understanding of science to be appreciated, such as our population and ecological crises.
In addition, Mormons believe that God has seen the future and is in control of a plan for this Earth that includes its termination “soon”. Mormons have believed that the end was to come “soon” since Joseph Smith’s day. All we can do is make sure we are obedient so that whether we end before the earth or it before us, we will pass into God’s presence. This focus on obedience to Mormon authority instead of learning how human behaviour impacts other humans and the Earth drains human energy away from tasks that are critically important, such as educating ourselves and others with regard to the importance of these issues while changing our behaviour as well as that of other people.
Finally, Mormonism requires a large percentage of its members discretionary time. This intensifies at age 14 when young Mormons begin to attend “Seminary”. These daily religious education classes, along with Sunday and weekday evening activities, condition and socially isolate to a degree those who participate in them. And in most parts of the world outside Utah, Seminary is held before school leading many Mormon teenagers to suffer from sleep deprivation. A Mormon sapped of time and energy is a Mormon less likely to be interested in learning anything that might question her faith, or anything at all that she does not really need to learn, for that matter.
As a result, Mormonism both limits perspective and makes many healthy activities related to learning less likely. This is ironic because one of Mormonism’s stated fundamental principles is that Christ’s message (or gospel) embraces all truth, no matter its source. Hence, from the Mormon point of view as soon as “truth” shows up, it will be embraced. This makes it sound like Mormonism should encourage the development of a broad perspective. Practically speaking, however, this principle means that what is not embraced by Mormon authorities cannot be truth. Here we find the root of most Mormon problems. Mormon authorities will not accept anything as truth that may question their authority, such as the powerfully persuasive evidence that indicates the Book of Mormon to be a 19th century production instead of ancient history. The Mormon leaders’ protection of this insignificant piece of turf has spoiled what could have been a religion that embraced a no holds barred pursuit of truth.
Accordingly, when trying to persuade a Mormon to expand her perspective the challenges I noted above regarding my children are multiplied. We still have to deal with all the instincts that pulls toward mind numbing, depressing activities. We still have to find ways to create a sense of desire or necessity regarding the activities we want them understand. And we face scepticism regarding the usefulness of science and apathy towards important actions that is caused by the belief that we are in God’s hands in the end anyways. This makes a challenging job even tougher.
I think it is fair to say that Mormon belief tends to limit perspective, and hence that Mormons tend not to be able to see as far as other similarly educated non-Mormons. As I continue to try to teach my children to see, I will accordingly continue to remove the scales from their and my eyes that were carefully put there by generations of well intentioned Mormon leaders and family members.
"Apologetics" is the systematic defence of a position (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apologet...) regardless of its legitimacy. Apologetics usually start from the proposition that a truth has been found and must be defended. Hence, dogma (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogma) is found at the root of most apologetic enterprises.
Apologetics can also be understood as the opposite of real scholarly pursuit. Scholars seek understanding with regard to the real, the beautiful, the useful, etc. Science has proven to be the most reliable branch of scholarship in terms of its ability to help us understand what is real and how relationships between real things work by way of theory formation and testing by experiment. Not surprisingly, as the study of science and history progresses they often contradicts dogma. This brings scientists and other scholars into conflict with apologetists who generally masquerade as scholars since that enhances their credibility. Academic institutions like Brigham Young University regularly lose credibilty with their peers as a result of their so-called scholars participating in apolgetic endeavors. An apologist in academic robes wears a particularly offensive form of sheeps clothing.
When I read religious apologetics of any kind I am bothered by a vertiginous feeling. This is largely the result of the need apologists have to obscure the evidence scientists and other scholars unearth that contradicts the dogma that apologists must defend. The purpose of this essay is to outline how the apologetic enterprise works in this regard.
How Many Hills Named "Cumorah" Are There?
To understand what I mean, consider a Mormon classic - the so-called “two Cumorahs” theory. This explains why Joseph Smith received the golden plates at a hill he referred to as “Cumorah” in upstate New York which has been found to be an extremely unlikely candidate for the events that are believed by Mormons to have literally occurred there. Since the alternative to finding a second location for these events was to admit that the Book of Mormon is fictive, Mormon scholars have brought us the "two Cumorahs theory", as lucidly described at http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?tabl.... This is closely connected to another masterpiece of logic, known as the “limited geography theory” of the Book of Mormon (see http://farms.byu.edu/publications/bom...).
Aside from contradicting nearly two centuries of Mormon prophetic statements, these theories would have us accept that the Book of Mormon events were played out in area of Central America that is small enough that it has not yet been discovered, and yet large and populous enough for battles that killed millions of people to have been fought there, and unusual in that it was the most scientifically and culturally advanced place in the Americas for most of about 1,000 years. And then, God moved the gold plates that told the history of this people to New York where Joseph Smith could find them without telling Joseph about on this, leaving him to believe that the epic described in the Book of Mormon was played out across the length and breadth of America and that all Amerindians as well as Polynesians were the literal descendents of the people the Book of Mormon says immigrated to the Americas from Jerusalem.
Are Mormon Apologists Unique?
Other religions do no better. Go read some Young Earth Creationist drivel (God put dinosaur bones in the Earth to test our faith), the Muslim apologists (Muslims own a toll booth on the only road to heaven and if you disagree they are justified in killing you), the Jehovah’s Witnesses explanation for their leaders numerous failed prophecies that Christ would return to Earth on specific dates (God is just testing them), etc. This stuff all comes from the same place the desire to prevent ideas from changing and most importantly, to preserve the power that depends upon these ideas. And note the “God is just testing us” theme. When the going gets really tough, that argument is the last resort. Look for it to appear in Mormon apologetic discourse with increasing frequency.
The Worse the Alternatives Look, the Fewer Will Leave
Did I mention that I feel dizzy when I venture into any apologist's lair? This is because much of the apologetic effort is directed toward making any alternative to their cherished beliefs hard to understand, and fearful, so that people will not change their beliefs or behavior. Attachment theory explains why this strategy is a good idea for religious organizations who want to survive and prosper. That is, religion causes its believers to become dependant on its ideas and the social groups it sponsors, and then makes all alternatives look as risky and dangerous as possible. Things that are hard to understand are easy to make look risky and dangerous. The fear this causes triggers our attachment instinct, which drives us into the arms of the people and institutions to which we have become attached as a result of our life experience to that point. There are no evil gnomes sitting around and planning this stuff. It is just how humans in groups function. Nothing is clearer from a reading of religious and political history than this.
Evidence Gets in the Way
Another way to understand this process is to remember that science became what we think of as science when it began to test ideas against evidence. Tycho Brahe was one of the leaders in this regard. He measured the position of the planets and stars more carefully than anyone before laying the groundwork for the revolution of humanities understanding of their place in the universe. While carefully measurement of reality sounds like common sense to us, it was an Earth shaking innovation in his day. Until then, the unencumbered-by-evidence use of premises (basic ideas) assumed to be true and logic enabled the smartest people on the planet to reach pretty much any conclusion they wanted about religion, cosmology, or anything else. This caused questions like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin to occupy an amazing amount of serious scholarly time for centuries. And today, the Mormon belief system makes logical sense if you accept the basic ideas that there is a God of a particular kind who created us and had us come to Earth as the Mormon Plan of Salvation indicates. Accept those ideas (and they are drilled deep into young Mormons), and the rest makes a lot of sense.
Since modern apologists must persuade people who generally believe that the facts are important and we should compare the evidence to what the theory predicts, they need to find ways to minimize the importance of evidence that conflicts with their theory. The limited geography theory is a great example of how this works. Mormon apologists solve the evidence v. theory problem here in two ways.
Change the Theory
First, they change the theory without batting an eye. Two centuries of Mormon prophets, including Joseph Smith, simply misunderstood reality and what God had communicated them, and consistently misled their followers by statements about where Book of Mormon events occurred, who was literally descended from Book of Mormon peoples, etc. Opps. Why would God allow that to happen? To test us maybe?
The logic works like this. Prophets make mistakes. The Bible shows that. So, we should expect prophets to be wrong about some things. However, we must assume that in every case where a prophet has not been proven wrong that he was speaking God’s own truth, regardless of how many times we have found him to be unreliable or even flat out lying to us. Sounds like a sensible way to live, doesn’t it? Why would God put us in such a hard position? Life is full of such tests for the faithful, of all stripes it turns out when you start looking at how other religions work.
I bet people who think like this get taken advantage of a lot. Let’s check the data. Sure enough, Utah hosts more con artists per capita (as measured by rates of financial fraud and multi-level marketing companies) than any other US state.
Duck into a Post Modern Rabbit Hole
Second, Mormon apologists question the ability of scientific and historical analysis to tell us anything upon which we should rely if it contradicts Mormon beliefs. They resort to various versions of post-modern theory in this regard. History, science, etc. are not that reliable. No evidence of wheels, horses, steel, etc. in the Americas? How can anyone be certain about things like that? And maybe the “most correct of any book on Earth” (see http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?tabl...) used a kind of complicated code to communicate its sacred and all important message. “Steel” really meant “obsidian” or “copper”. “Horse” really meant “tapir”. Etc. Or maybe God is testing us?
I need to stop thinking about this for a minute. My head is starting to hurt.
And since some facts will be proved beyond doubt, what does a “fact” mean anyway? How can we ever know anything except what we experience in the moment? And what that experience means is a private experience. So if you feel good about your experience, you should not change it. Using this theory, it is possible to chase one's tail down any number of post-modern rabbit holes and find oneself having an earnest conversation with the Queen of Hearts, or Joseph Smith for that matter.
The use of extreme post-modernism is the friend of anyone who wants to resist the tide of evidence against her position. It was invented after all, by humanities profs who were sick and tired of the way the "hard" sciences were talking over the academic and cultural world. Alan Sokal showed those guys (see http://www.drizzle.com/~jwalsh/sokal/...).
Harness the Human Fear of Leaving the Dominant Social Group
Most people (even those who are abused) feel good enough about their social experience that they are not easily persuaded to leave their dominant social group. Humans seem to have been designed that way because our connection to a social group was so important to our survival. Hence, the "we can't really know what is going on - you'd better stay were you feel secure" approach plays nicely into the hands of social groups who are trying to slow down defections. Mormons use this approach against those who criticize them, as do other Christian groups against the marauding Mormon missionaries who seek converts wherever they can be found.
When the overall apologetic game comes into focus it would be pretty entertaining if it did not leave such carnage in its wake retarded minds; broken marriages and families; damaged friendships; planes that fly into buildings; riots over cartoons published thousands of miles away; etc.
It is both comical and tragic to see science and history denying post-modern ideas walking arm in arm down the street with the Mormon position that Joseph Smith received God’s exclusive authority and absolute truth from God and all humankind who hears this message must either accept it, become Mormon and start to obey Mormon authority or miss countless blessings both while living and after death.
Sounds kind of complicated, doesn’t it. Are you feeling dizzy yet?
This Is Complicated Stuff
It is not easy to apologize for beliefs like the Mormon, Muslim, JW, young earth creationist in a fashion that will be acceptable to even a conservative community that badly wants to continue to believe. Hence, the nature of the task requires smart people with a taste for labyrinthine argument. And it is no surprise that apologists can be counted on to come at the most simple of concepts from odd angles in order to show how hard to understand they "really" are.
For example, take the proposition that the Book of Mormon, like so many other similar pieces of religious literature, was made up to look ancient so that it would be more persuasive. There is an extremely high probability, once all of the relevant evidence is considered, that this is the case. Non-Mormon scholars who study in this are believe that this is as incontrovertible as the idea that the Holocaust occurred more or less as the mainstream historians say it did, or that many well intentioned people are deluded in their belief that they have been visited by aliens.
What Would the Bishop of Occam, or Don King, Say?
I was reminded of the apologetic approach to life a short time ago while reading an entertaining piece in Sports Illustrated - a summary of a recent New York Friars Club roast of the fight promoter Don King. For King, it was said, the simplest truth requires no less than a three rail bank shot. I would say the same of Wieseltier and his ilk.
While Occam's Razor (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_...) is not a hard and fast rule, I think it is fair to say that when you run across people who serially, flagrantly and consistently violate it, you should keep one hand on your wallet and use liberal amounts of salt before ingesting anything. Nowhere is this truer than around religious apologists of any stripe.
| Where is Mormon Apologetics (and Mormonism) Headed?
The Internet and Persuasion
Apologetics is all about persuasion. What it takes to persuade a group of people depends on the state of their knowledge related to their subject, how many viable courses of action they have relative to the question at hand, and a variety of other things.
The Internet has become such a pervasive influence in our lives that it is the place to start if we wish to predict where Mormon apologetics, or Mormonism itself, is headed. As a result of the Internet, Mormons see their beliefs against a much broader set of information than ever. And this information set will continue to expand. Hence, the kind of naοve faith that has sustained most Mormons to this point will become increasingly rare, and will have to be chosen instead of being the usual case. Consider, for example, what has happened during the past few years regarding DNA research as it concerns Mormonism. The necessity of dealing with increasingly well informed members and potential converts will cause the LDS and other formerly isolated cultures to mutate more rapidly than ever as they attempt to retain their grip on each new generation of members who are ingesting loads of information that may not affect their well-conditioned parents, but will deeply affect them.
And now, I will prophesy. Unlike Mormon Prophets, I do not fear being wrong, and can comfortably express myself in probabilistic terms. I will then forget about this until someone reminds me years from now either how right, or how wrong, I now am.
In the Internet age, more believers are going to get to know their apologists and the line between apologist and believer, along with countless other lines, will be blurred. This does not mean that Mormons will suddenly become adventuresome and head for the border of their faith community in droves. Rather, it means that the border is moving toward them. It is no longer at some distant frontier. Rather, it is a vast area accessible at the click of a mouse, spilling out of news headlines, beckoning from Oprah’s magazine and, in areas where Mormonism is a significant social force (like most of the Western US), being talked about by co-workers over coffee.
Apologists are those who have seen beyond the border of their belief system and feel compelled to defend it. It used to be necessary to make a long journey in the company of a few elites to the place where this could be done. Now a wrong turn at the end of the driveway and bang there you are in the middle of No-Mans-Land. And if you catch a glimpse of more than a few of the carefully hooded faces in the crowds teeming there, you are likely to be surprised by someone you know. They will be either muttering and shaking their heads in astonishment, or more surprising yet, saying things that imply a breadth of knowledge and heterodox belief that you could not have imagine in them. People will go to the borderlands to relax, learn, express themselves, be themselves. You may even run into Mom or Dad; Grandpa or Grandma there, checking out the new, speaking openly about what they think or chatting with far flung friends.
The New Apologists
I predict that a new kind of LDS apologist will result from democratization of knowledge and influence that the Internet is causing within Mormonism as elsewhere. This apologist will not be on average as extreme or strident as her predecessors. There will be many more “hers” in this genre than ever. And there will be a far broader range of apologetic opinion than we have seen. Institutions like BYU and FARMS will continue to be influential, but the “blogosphere” and whatever emerges from cyberspace next will play increasingly important roles in defining the opinions that matter within Mormonism and what springs up to trouble Mormon leaders from the grassroots. Increasingly, what makes sense will be repeated first in whispers and then openly and then will have to be dealt with somehow. The leaders power will decline. The people’s influence will increase.
This trend will create a new form of de facto Internet based group of General Authorities whose ideas will be quoted but for a while yet not attributed to anyone, or perhaps to some vaguely referenced “general authority” or “the scriptures”. What they say makes so much sense that it must be in the scriptures somewhere; or surely someone in authority said this. These faceless authorities might be called the Quorum of Plenty.
The rule that lessons and talks given in Church must use as their only information sources the scriptures will be flagrantly, consistently and quietly broken. But the scriptures will generally, at least for a while, be the only sources quoted.
The coming apologetic influence will probably take Mormonism down a path well worn long ago by Jews, Catholics and various Protestant groups. While travelling this road, apologetic theories like two (or however many) Cumorahs will quickly become laugh (or shiver) getters even at faithful Mormon gatherings on the rare occasion that they are mentioned at all. And they won’t be mentioned to non-Mormons at all by the few who are aware of them. Kind of like marrying other mens wives and ankle to wrist length wool garments designed to enable sexual intercourse without removal (shiver).
The Internet Crowd Will Be A Tougher Sell for Apologists
This new crowd of apologists will quickly and of necessity focus on themes that make sense to the average Mormon and his non-Mormon acquaintenances since he will be increasingly likely to need to defend the weak spots in his belief system while doing his missionary duty or chit chatting around the water cooler about the latest LA Times (or whatever) piece regarding how little sense Mormonism “used to make”. That was the “old way of thinking about Mormonism”.
This dynamic will change what flies and what does not in the apologetic world. No longer will we have a small group of elites speaking from their ivory tower to a few of the faithful below who are terrified about what they have just heard concerning Joseph Smith’s sexual predations or the Book of Mormon’s rickety historicity. The bafflegab that has dominated Mormon apologetics to date worked when preaching to those, and only those, who wanted to believe. But try that stuff around the water cooler or during a potential “missionary experience” and see if your buddies can keep a straight face. This is the force that will reshape Mormon apologetics.
I refer again to Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”. He makes a compelling case for the way in which a large, diverse group with access to abundant information quickly tends to produce the most efficient solution available to any problem. So, remembering that necessity is what causes most evolutionary change, let’s restate the apologetic problem in its Internet context and think about what the relatively well-informed non-Mormon crowd that will be interacting with their Mormon friends about the legitimacy of Mormonism is likely to cause.
As stated above, Mormons have their beliefs, they know that they are true, and recognize subconsciously at least that the very nature of their community depends on these truths, which confirms the idea that they must be true. And now those beliefs are being challenged by allegations that Joseph Smith was untrustworthy, the Book of Mormon seems less and less likely to tell a real story, and Mormon leaders past and present seem more error and deception prone the closer we look. What to do?
More and more Mormons will be disturbed by the cold reception theories like “two Cumorahs” and “limited geography” get from their acquaintenances. “If it is probably not true, then why do you believe it?” will be the repeated and increasingly troubling question from well-meaning friends and relatives. The crowd will sniff this out in a heart beat. And the crowd will not be impressed with the credentials of religious studies “scholars” at BYU, and after just a little googling will find all kinds of unflattering things said about them by other religious studies scholars. And not just the usual scholarly sniping, but allegations that they are not scholars at all. Their peers respected people like Douglas Davies of England’s University of Durham will say that some people from BYU are merely evangelists pretending to be scholars. And after hearing about two (or three) Cumorahs, that won’t be a hard sell for most non-scholars.
Which Approaches Are Likely to Work?
So, what are the alternative approaches to this problem? As noted above, various kinds of post-modernism could be used to say that we can’t really know anything. The crowd will instantly turn that one back on the poor Mormons, with a perhaps polite but nonetheless stinging recognition of its hypocrisy. “If nothing is certain, how can you be certain enough about your beliefs that I should pay any attention to them?” Next.
It is a surprising small step from “nothing is certain” to “everything is metaphor”, and given how many respectable religions have already gone that route, that is where I expect a large slice of Mormonism to end up. I was recently advised of a Stake Conference in which the members were told that when praying about the Book of Mormon, they should not ask whether its facts and details were literally true, but rather whether the message it teaches about Christ is true. I heard of another Stake Conference at which Joseph Smith’s polyandry was discussed, and the members were told that this was Joseph’s Abrahamic test that he went to the beds of the many women who offered themselves sexually to him with the same kind of heavy heart that Abraham mythically bore as he carried Isaac to a presumed sacrifice. That is, Mormon leaders are beginning to assume that the members will know of the troubling aspects of Mormon history, and are beginning to create a narrative that will explain troubling facts in a way that themembers may be prepared to accept. I expect to see and hear more of this kind of thing.
I note as an apologetic aside regarding Joseph Smith’s alleged Abrahamic and sexual test, that this kind of excuse has a long pedigree. For example, in the 1600s a Jewish rabbi names Sabbetai Zevi rose to prominence (see http://www.conncoll.edu/academics/dep...) and due to his charisma and many signs and wonders that were perceived by his followers to accompany his ministry, he was accepted by many as the Messiah. As 1666 approached, one of the many years during history that Christians have predicted for the second coming of Christ, Zevi travelled to Turkey and said that the Sultan would give up his throne to him because he was the Messiah. Instead, the Sultan threw Zevi into jail and told him that the had three alternatives. He could prove his claims by performing a miracle, convert to Islam or suffer death. Zevi promptly proclaimed his allegiance to Allah. His followers, for a time at least, held onto their faith on the basis that Zevi was descending into the darkest pits of hell to redeem the last sparks of light that might reside there before ascending to his throne of Messiahship. They waited, with waning hopes, until he died for him to do something that would merit is former claims to Messiahship. After his death, some still believed on the basis of increasingly metaphysical claims.
Faith, false or not, dies a slow, hard death. I don’t doubt that with a bit of scratching around we could find those who still believe Sabbetai Zevi’s claim to Messiahship.
In any event, there is a halfway house between Mormon literalism and metaphor that will be filled for at least one, and likely two to three, generations. This will be required to allow those who have the virulent, literalist form Mormon belief in their bones to die off as their children and grandchildren mature without it. This is the tricky stage, but Mormonism handled it with regard to polygamy’s revocation (or was the suspension? I am still confused) and can handle it here as well.
For the halfway house to work, there must be as little talk as possible pro or con about literalist Mormon beliefs in order to allow time for them to be forgotten. I regularly run into one approach now that with a bit of a push would do this. It is a variant on the “experience trumps all” idea described above. It would work like this.
Instead of refusing to talk about how many Cumorahs there are or what Joseph Smith’s lying means in terms of Mormon foundations, these would be deemed childish, unimportant questions and would be ignored. Those who insist on asking them would be labelled “superficial” and “naοve”, and pointed to the Catholics, Anglicans, Jews and others with disastrous histories while being reminded that many people in these communities live satisfying lives that are enriched by the religious belief and community involvement despite a problematic religious history. The only questions would dealing with would concern how we can better experience and enjoy life today; how various Mormon community functions and rituals (yes, including the temple rituals) correlate to Buddhist and other healthy individual and social-psychological habits, and how other similar habits can be incorporated into Mormonism since all truth belongs to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These issues would be made to attract as much as possible of the attention Mormons, post-Mormons and non-Mormons have to dedicate to Mormonism.
The good news regarding this approach to Mormon apologetics is that it will likely cause Mormons to lose, eventually, their “one true church” arrogance. Again, this is a well trodden path. History beat this idea our of most Catholics and Jews ages ago.
I don’t expect Mormon leaders to get on this bandwagon. They will still ask for, and take, all of the time, energy, money and obedience they can from their faithful. However, a larger percentage of the faithful as time passes will use their religion instead of being used by it.
Many Mormons will for a long time suffer from the rationalization that will be required to answer temple recommend questions and behave in a manner that does not conform to temple covenants (like the one that requires 100% obedience to Mormon authority). However, once fully on board the metaphor train, this can be done. And many Mormons will have no trouble rationalizing this the best of available alternatives. It is still my view that it is morally corrosive to treat in metaphoric terms questions that are stated literally and understood to be intended literally by the person asking them. But again, for Mormons this will be for the most part considered to be the lesser of evils to the extent it is considered at all. Eventually, both the nature of the temple recommend questions and temple covenants will be toned down. But that is likely decades if not generations away.
Mormon Youth Strategies
In order to minimize the rate of change, I expect the Mormon Church to continue to pay special attention to its youth. For example, I expect to hear that young Mormons are overtly and covertly pressured to spend time exclusively with other Mormons so that they can be more effectively indoctrinated and conditioned. This will involve attendance at more and/or more professionally run, meetings and events (like “Especially for Youth”) where they can "feel the spirit" or as a sceptic might suggest, have their emotional buttons pushed and be conditioned.
I also expect young Mormons to spend more time learning the distinctive history of their people, and being taught to behave in ways that make them a socially distinct group. A General Authority once told me that that was what the Word of Wisdom was all about. It has nothing necessarily to do with health. It is a social marker. See Pascal Boyer, "Religion Explained" for a review of how social markers help to define and hold together groups of people. And, I expect young Mormons to be rewarded and punished in various ways for engaging in socially distinguishing behaviour (distinctive dress; distinctive eating or drinking habits; distinctive leisure activities; etc.) and for avoiding things that could challenge their beliefs, such as the Internet and certain other communications tools and forms of entertainment.
What Do Faithful Mormons Say?
After writing the initial part of my apologetics forecast, I decided to test it by reviewing posting patterns at LDS blogs and bulletin boards. This indicated that the Internet is bringing many newly troubled Mormons into contact with the boundary between belief and unbelief in the fashion just indicated.
Here are a few posts as www.nauvoo.com, a bulletin board restricted to believing Mormons, that are typical (see http://www.nauvoo.com/ubb/forum/ultim...) and confirm the pattern I expected to find. Each paragraph represents a different person:
“People sometimes fail to realize that it's ALL interpretation. A hyper-literal reading of scripture is interpretation. A conclusion drawn from scientific fact is interpretation. Everything we believe is constantly being filtered through our imperfect human minds, and in the end, nobody has a perfect grasp of "the facts". Nobody. All we can do is trust our consciences about what is right, and where we should be, independent of the ebb and flow of doctrinal and scientific arguments.”
“I never go to anti-mormon sites. I have found over the years as I have studied personally and tried to find doctrinal answers to my questions through prayer, study of approved LDS materials and the general authorities that there have often, as you state, been discrepancies and moments of shock when my neat little perceptions and testimony about "Mormonism" has been challenged. The question I ask myself is do I still believe or do I throw everything I have ever believed out the window. I choose to do as [another poster] has suggested - I rely on faith and try to humble myself. I do not trust trite and easy answers but seek to feel the spirit to help me find my way. I focus on the Saviour and the clear and simple knowledge I have that He lives, that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I also rely on the many significant instances in my life when I have received witnesses by way of answers to prayers, experiences and blessings which also bear witness that the path I am on is the right one. Do I struggle from time to time? Yes. But I also cling to the fact that it is living the gospel and having faith in the gospel that brings me the most complete happiness, peace and joy. I have had two friends leave the Church over intellectual discoveries and discrepancies. One of whom I consider a very spiritual person. I don't believe her decision to leave was simple or trite but I am not sure that she was willing to keep searching for answers. Bottom line is that it is Heavenly Father, the Saviour and the Holy Ghost that ultimately provide the answers. Not men.”
And here the one that hits the nail most squarely on the head:
“I should add that I do believe the gospel is true. But, I lean much more heavily on faith now than I ever did before. I used to be very confident that I "knew" that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, etc. I am more humble now. I have faith that the feelings and impressions I have and believe to come from the Spirit, really do come from the Spirit. I have faith that the good things that happen to me in my life are answers to prayers and blessings from God. I have faith that the transformation that takes place in me is the result of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I believe these things while acknowledging the possibility that my perceptions and way of organizing my experiences could be mistaken.”
The reason I like this is that it shows what I believe will be the critical transition for many Mormons. Ever since I can remember Mormon leaders have been telling us that what we believe from a religious point of view is a matter of faith, not intellect. So, just believe. However, most Mormons do not understand what that means. I certainly didn’t. As our friend above said, “I used to be very confident that I "knew" that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, etc.” Me too.
The transition to humility just described is what is required when the rickety foundations of Mormon history and social practise come into view. That is where a bit of post-modern theory, plus a focus on current experience and how a person feels about that will become crucial. And the emphasis on current feeling and de-emphasis on history will eventually take it our of the discussion entirely. A few decades or generations after that, Mormons will be comfortable discussion their beliefs on a purely metaphoric basis while acknowledging that their history does not provide a factual basis for literal belief.
Religions grow up very slowly.
So, I expect Mormon leaders to continue broadcast their message as they have, but with the necessary additional twists that will be required to get average Mormons over the hump this man describes. That is, the leaders will include enough allusion in their speeches and writing to post-modern and phenomenological (the overriding importance of present experience - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenomen...) terms that the apologists will be able to take it from there.
The way in which people like those whose words I have just quoted perceive Mormonism and the rest of their lives related to it makes the apologists’ job both more important and trickier. And more importantly, it will redefine the apologetic community.
This Is Progress
The changes that I see coming represent an improvement. This pleases me despite the fact that I would prefer to see Mormonism simply disappear and feel very happy with my decision to leave it. I think that the probability of a complete Mormon collapse (or over substantial collapse) is so small that it is not worth spending any time on. I am a pragmatist.
When all is said and done, there are only so many fingers to plug holes in a rapidly expanding dyke that restrains an even more rapidly rising information tide. Thus, for the next while, despite the efforts of apologists, cultural change within Mormonism will occur more rapidly than ever in the ways noted above. This will particularly be visible between generations as a result of the way in which children seem designed to reappraise their environment in fundamental ways. In reaction to this, a gradually shrinking percentage of the Mormon population will become ultra-"faithful". They will become the equivalent of the Ultra Orthodox Jews, or Taliban, and will be subject to all of the dangers each of those groups carry with them. And, an increasing number o these will continue to flee the secularism that they will see “infecting Mormonism”, and become fundamentalists of one kind or another. Regrettably, Mormon history and theology favors polygamist fundamentalism.
| How Solid Are Mormon Financial Foundations?; And How Much Does The Defection, Resignation Or Quiet Withdrawal Of One Tithepaying Member Matter? |
Thursday, Feb 23, 2006, at 07:39 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 3 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| I think many people underestimate the impact of each Mormon resignations, declaration of inactivity or quiet withdrawal of financial and other dediction. I have done this analysis before but can’t find it so I will redo for your benefit and then post it to the bulletin board at the beginning of a new thread. This kind of analysis is particularly important when you think about the way in which “tipping points” work, as described by Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book by that title.
Mormonism depends on a far smaller financial base than is typically assumed. There are likely less than 120,000 adults on whom Mormon finances rely in the long term. I get to this number as follows:
· Start with the official membership of 12mm, though it is suspect.
· Less than half are active. Let’s say 5mm, as defined by attendance at more than one meeting per month (the “active member” definition when I was involved in LDS leadership).
· About half of those are adult. Let’s say 2.5mm.
· About half of those are in North America. Let’s say 1.25mm.
· About half of those are male - 600,000.
· Not all adults will be full time wage earners, and not all of them will be full tithe payers. If I had to guess, I would say that on average 75% of adult ward members who attended regularly and are significant wage earners were also full tithe payers. But many of those who are not full tithe payers pay some tithing, and so to err on the high side I will assume that all “active” adults who earn substantial wages pay a substantial amount of tithing.
· Most of the reasonable money makers, and hence tithing payers, are male. I would say that there are no more than 600,000 people who pay close to 10% of their income (calculated in any way you wish to rationalize it) to LDS Inc.. These would be about 400,000 males and 200,000 females.
· Something close to the Pareto principle (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_p...) likely applies here. This principle is based on the observation that in many populations things like income and wealth are distributed so that roughly 20% of the population has 80% of whatever you are looking at. This would suggest that in the Mormon population of its most important tithe payers adult wage earners in North America that 20% carry 80% of the load.
· Hence, there are likely no more than 120,000 North Americans who play a very important part in the Mormon financial system. I will refer to these folks as Mormonism’s “Golden Geese”.
The reasonableness of this analysis is supported by the following calculation: LDS Inc.’s revenues were estimated at $6B per year (see http://www.mrm.org/multimedia/text/mo...). Some of this would come from its business investments, but even allowing nothing for that, all it would take is $10,000 per person per year from 600,000 people to produce $6B in revenues per year. This shows that we are in the ballpark given the business revenues that are likely to be involved. Hence, I don’t think that I am underestimating the number of “serious” tithe payers within Mormondom.
It is my view that the sole meaningful source of new Golden Geese is the maturation of well-educated, North American Mormons. I don’t have the time to work that out properly, but it could be done based on the population numbers described above coupled with demographic data related to how large Mormon age cohorts are, and many Mormons are college educated. In the roughest of terms, if there are 1.25mm active Mormon North American young people, and they are evenly divided into 24 groups (one for each year from one to 24 when we will assume some Mormons start earning a reasonable college grad wage), this would mean that each year there are 52,000 potential new wage earners each year. No more than half will be college grads 26,000. Many of those will be female and less likely to become Golden Geese. We will assume that 20,000 new tithe payers will appear each year. 20% of them will eventually become Golden Geese 4,000.
So in that context, what are the effect of resignations? Someone worked out last year (as I recall) that there must have been in the neighbourhood of 70,000 resignations if the LDS Church’s published numbers related to membership increases, baptisms, deaths, etc. were accurate. That number does not surprise me. And, for every member that resigns many others simply quit attending and/or reduce their commitment level so as to reduce both time and money donated.
The critical issue is how many of those who resign or otherwise fade away were Golden Geese. I am not aware of anything other than anecdotal information to help us here. However, I run into and hear about a lot of people who are senior former Golden Geese and who have recently stopped laying. My guess is that LDS Inc. has been seeing for the past several years at least year over year decreases in its Golden Geese. The enormous increases in the size of the North American economy and the amounts of money Americans in particular have earned during the past few years have perhaps disguised this. But I recall hearing regular pleas from visiting GAs to the effect that even this relatively wealthy part of the Mormon world was barely carrying its weight.
I would love to hear from anyone who has access to the data needed to estimate how many Golden Geese fly the coop each year.
LDS Inc. has a huge asset base and that will allow it to weather all kinds of financial storms as it reinvents itself. However, the realization that cash flow from members is drying up will be a big part of what motivates charge. This will put writing on the wall that the leaders won’t miss. It will be interpreted as a lack of faith; a sign of the evil times; an indication that the end of days is near; and at the same time it will move Mormon leaders to change their tune just as did the US federal governments forcing polygamy off the table and the pressure of civil rights groups in the 1960s and 70s.
Finally, think about the behaviour of people and organizations who depend upon the perception of stability and success to generate future success. Stock promoters are famous for having lavish offices at times when they are not paying their rent and the banks are calling for their scalps, for example. Banks must maintain the appearance of stability in order to stay in business. This dictates the kind of offices they maintain and a variety of other things. This rule applies to many other similar enterprises, and religions like Mormonism fall into this category.
So, count on Mormonism to present itself as the most rock solid institution in the world, and even if it becomes cash strapped. It can’t afford to admit that, and I would not put it by Mormonism’s leaders to continue to build monuments to themselves as revenues dry up on a “build it and they will come theory”. After all, the largest statues on Easter Island were carved long after all of the trees had been cut down making it impossible to move the statues from the quarry. The people there appear to have been persuaded by their religious leaders that if they had the faith to carve, god would provide the means of locomotion as well as restoring their economic fortunes. Not long after this, civil war broke out as the perfidy and/or blindness of the leaders became apparent. This pattern has been repeated in many cultures where religious faith dominated reason. Time will tell how far down this path Mormonism will do.
| The theory of biological evolution has produced more accurate predictions that arguably any other single scientific theory. It is, in the world of science, an 800 pound gorilla. And it is based on three simple features of our world summarized by wikipedia as follows:
“In nature, all organisms produce more offspring than will survive and successfully reproduce. All offspring show variations in characteristics which can affect their chance of survival and reproduction in the prevailing conditions. Characteristics which are heritable and increase the reproductive success of individuals (or related individuals) will tend to become more common and be preserved in the population over successive generations, whereas other less favourable characteristics will tend to be become eliminated. Darwin called this process Natural Selection.”
The question “cui bono” or “who benefits” helps us to bring the principles of natural selection to bear when trying to predict evolutionary paths that will result from a change in either an environment or a set of genes. For example, when soot from the Industrial Revolution darkened trees in England, who would benefit dark moths who could better hide form the birds seeking them, or light colored moths that would be more visible? We would guess that the dark moths would prosper, and hence are not surprised to hear that within a short time the moth population, as a result of natural selection, became darker in color.
The principles of natural selection can be applied loosely at least to the formation of culture through various models using memes and analogues to other aspects of evolutionary theory . These are used to explain the formation, maintenance and transmission of culture and while they lack the rigour of evolutionary theory applied to biology, they offer the best tools we have at the moment to predict the evolution of human culture. Here again, we find the question “cui bono?” to be useful in a wide variety of circumstances.
The key to applying the “who benefits” principle is to bear in mind an insight perhaps best expressed by Richard Dawkins . He explains that it helps to think of the genes themselves as the winners and losers in the natural selection game instead of one animal in particular or another. That is, biological organisms for the most part simply replicate as much as they can which means that the different sets of genes they carry represent as much as they can. And then the environment determines which sets of genes survive, and which don’t. Genes that are well suited to the environment survive and multiply. Those that are not suited do not. From one generation to the another, it is sets of genes that win or lose.
A loose analogy, at least, to how it is the fitness of genes that determines the nature of the biological organisms that prosper as the generations pass can be found in how the “fitness” of ideas and social practises available to particular social groups will influence the rise and fall of social habits and institutions. So, as we see environments around social groups changing, we can gain insight into behavior past, present and future by examining the fitness of the ideas and social practises that are available. The question “what is reasonably available?” is complicated given the complexity of factors related to organizational intentionality not to mention limits as to how far an organism can change in a given period of time. And, there are usually many ideas and social practises competing at close quarters for resources within any social group. So, the analysis required to use this model with reasonable scientific rigorously is at this point impossible. Nonetheless, the model is now useful. The best wecan hope for is access to the most useful information available, and in my view the use of this model advances the ball in terms of our ability to analyze group behaviors.
I have been thinking about the excellent comments on the thread noted above in light of the “who benefits” principle. As already noted, we can predict evolutionary paths to a degree by looking at environmental changes and thinking about the traits (or in the case of social evolution, ideas and social practises) that are likely to be most “fit” in the new environment. The internet has created a major environmental change for Mormonism. The question becomes, what kind of ideas and social behaviors will Mormonism likely keep and which will it deep six because they no longer work. Here are a few thoughts along those lines.
· Keep the Golden Geese laying: The focus will be on keeping the Golden Geese laying, and finding new Golden Geese. Hence, look for a focus on reactivation efforts; look for more profile being given to successful Mormons (like Mitt Romney) who will make the Golden Geese more comfortable within Mormonism; look for ways to make the Golden Geese more comfortable with Mormon history etc. because young Golden Geese are among those most likely find this stuff.
· Information Suppression. Look for more Bushmanesque apologetics because suppression no longer works; the facts are out; someone needs to explain them; who better than someone like Bushman? Conversely, look for less of the crazy Peterson style of apologetics. The faithful crowd gets nervous after running things like Two Cumorahs and Limited Geography by their friends and dealing something between polite smiles or outright disdain. But Bushman you can sell with a straight face. This will be particularly appealing to the Golden Geese to people who don’t know much about Mormon history.
· Leader Selection: The Golden Geese have always tended to be leaders (that is, money = blessings = spirituality). Given the increasing importance of the Golden Geese, look for this trend to strengthen. The forces of denial, cognitive dissonance etc. (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni...) are more powerful while in leadership position because of how busy the leaders are, how often the have to affirm their beliefs in public, etc.
· Missionary Service: Missions cost money to run, and the return on investment will cause missions in Europe and North America to continue to be “consolidated” (closed). However, missionary efforts in the developing world will not produce cash flow either. So look for missionary work to be increasingly oriented toward the missionaries themselves. This has always been the case to a degree, but it will become more obvious. Which missionaries, for example, tend to return home and then go inactive? They are not worth the mission investment from the institutions point of view. I am willing to bet that pre-mission sin and quick repentance positively correlates with missionaries who are sent home early or don’t last long in activity after “returning with honor”. Hence, reduce the number of missionaries; focus on “quality” etc. And, send more missionaries to the third world where (like me) they will be less likely to learn about real Mormon history etc. while serving missions.
· Quality, not Quantity: Just as missionaries can be bad investments, so can members. Hence, raise the bar for who can be baptized. Particularly in developing countries. You don’t want tons of members who will be a cash drawn. But, if a well heeled professional wants to join (and that will happen on occasion), you can wave the rules because people like that know what they are doing.
· Volunteer Donations: As cash donations decline, look for increased reliance on the donation of time. Several posts above tagged this trend as already in evidence, and I agree. Prestige within the Mormon groups is an asset that will be increasingly converted into cash by LDS Inc. For example, older couples feel guilty about not going on missions. Look for the heat to be increased re. the older couples in this regard, and look for more opportunities for them to assuage their guilt by serving missions near home in ways that will save LDS Inc.’s cash flow for more important things, like being invested to generate more cash flow. The recent announcement that missionary couples will now be called to provide janitorial services runs along this line, as does the increasing opportunities to provide services that use professional skills like accounting and information processing.
· Non-Mormon Cash Needs: The Mormon Church has been criticized for its relatively small donations in aid of non-Mormons in disaster areas, etc. Other religious groups give many times per capita what Mormons give in this regard. Don’t look for this to change in light of the other pressures the Mormon financial system is likely to be under.
I am sure that others here can add to this list.
| For the most part, when I re-enter the Mormon world (or even its fringes) I experience vertigo. This is the world Lewis Carroll wrote about - a postmodern place where words mean what anyone wants, we must pretend nonsense is sense, and probabilities are ignored. Hence, we can prove anything, and nothing, to those who've passed through this looking glass. |
We are the blind little boy in "Dumb and Dumber", cuddling our dead budgie and wondering what all that tape is doing around its neck while we try in vain to make it sing. And where it that nice man we bought the bird from? He was so nice, and we trusted him.
The Pythons' "Dead Parrot" sketch brings the point home (see http://bau2.uibk.ac.at/sg/python/Scripts/TheDeadParrotSketch).
Our religion appears dead. We are distraught. And so we take our problem to smiling men and women whom we have until recently paid regularly and dearly for our beliefs. During one recent year, for example, FARMS received $27mm in tax deductible donations. And Mormonism's revenues are estimate at $6B annually. That's one hell of a dead dubgie pile.
Our coversation with the nice shopkeepers is funny for everyone except we whose blood and tears by the bucket was handed over in exchange for what is now obviously a dead bird.
And so it maddens us, at least initially, to listen to your comic nonsense. Eventually we calm down, but our experience with you and your ilk have permanently jaundiced us toward you.
This is not Wonderland. Go consort with your own kind where intellectual survival depends on one's ability to skate the razor's edge between sense and nonsense, or numb yourself so thoroughly that it doesn't matter.
Your world is as Alice described Jabberwocky. "It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!" (You see she didn't like to confess even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate---" (see http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/jabber/jabberwocky.html)
. We have our bellies more than full of you and your upsidedown-ness.
We don't care how sincere you are. We don't care how smart you are. We don't care how many of you there are. We don't care how long you talk, how many books you write or if you swear that you are eternal and hence can never, ever go away. All we care about is whether you make sense. If you don't, either leave or we will throw you out. It is that simple.
And don't whine about how unreasonable and closedminded we are. Your whining is even more irritating than your talking. We are as interested in talking to you as to the Young Earth Creationists, Holocaust Deniers, JWs, Scientologists, Alien Abductionists and a host of others. You are all no doubt charming people in many ways. But we don't have time to explore every nonsense invented by man and desperately changed each time more of its puerility shows through. Particularly in light of all of the other wonderful things we have recently discovered.
So enjoy your lives. We are enjoying ours.
And you've got the count of three to be out of our sight. One, two ...
| A theme in a number of threads that have come up in the wake of yesterday’s little showdown at the FAIR corral is “A debate with Daniel Peterson is pointless. Why Bother?” So let me address that.
First, Dan Peterson was telling all who would listen to him that I, and others here, hide in our protected, ignorant backwater (while publishing essays on the Internet, I note, where anyone can critique them) instead of meeting him where he can deal with us. This was undeniably the spark that lit the flame. I wanted to see if he really wanted to exchange views with me. We have the answer to that question now. I was dismissed as insufficiently credentialed; unprincipled in various ways and hence likely to waste his time in debate; unworthy of his special attention in part because I have shown unscholarly tendencies in Internet postings; etc. If I was as soft a target and as venerated in the post-Mormon community as Peterson says I am, I would think he would have been licking his chops at the prospect of giving me a public spanking, showing everyone how shallow and foolish people like me are, and hence striking a heavy blow in favour of “the truth”. In any event, I knew what I was getting into, and am not surprised at how things turned out in this regard. See FARMS treatment of Grant Palmer (http://www.signaturebooks.com/excerpt...) for a primer on how Peterson and his friends deal with those who disagree with them.
A poster on another thread suggest that the best way to deal with publicity seekers like Peterson is to ignore them. In general I agree. And I stay away from FAIR and other similar places because they are a waste of time for me. However, in this case for the reasons I am in the process of stating I made an exception to the rules that I usually follow.
Second, most of what I write regarding Mormonism has the effect of putting Mormon experience in the broadest context of which I am capable. Nothing is more helpful when it comes to learning than perspective. Hence, this is what I do as I continue to try to figure out how I was affected by the Mormon conditioning system and how I can undo that effect both in me and those I love. A debate with Dan Peterson would force me to condense an immense amount of material into sound bites suited to the debating format. This is what I have to do when I go to court. And I am consistently amazed at the gems that can be squeezed out of mountains of data when under a requirement to present the best points in the most compelling format in a few minutes. Dan would have been forced to do the same with his defence of Mormonism’s emotional epistemology, and to explain why it is valid while all other emotion based epistemologies that produce contradictory “truths” are not; and why any such systems should be expected to be reliable given their general track record of unreliability. Dan and I would not agree with each other, that is for sure. But the debate would results in the concise articulation of two opposing ways of interpreting the evidence that life presents us. The only approach that is likely to work for Dan as he tries to defend Mormonism is one that relies on subjective, personal experience. My approach would be to show how unreliable that method of “knowing” is across a broad range of phenomena and cultures and to then ask over and over again on what basis Mormons justify certainty in their case against that background of unreliable outcomes. I think that it would have been useful for the contrast between these ways of knowing to have created in this format, presently publicly, and warehoused for future reference.
Third, as indicated on RFM religions like Mormonism depend heavily on “social proof”. A debate of the kind I proposed would attract attention to a variety of subjects related to Mormonism and hence would work against the power of Mormonism’s social proof.
Fourth, it takes energy to break through the cocoon surrounding Mormon belief. In my case, it was a request for help from a friend that got me on the Internet for the first time looking at Mormon issues. A month later I was intellectually out of Mormonism, and bleeding emotionally from every pore. A debate like the one I proposed would create a lot of energy. As a result, a lot of people whose perspective regarding their faith is limited as mine was would at one time or another be introduced to this debate and it would play a role in helping to reform their thinking. I say reform because most faithful Mormons use rational epistemic standards regarding most aspects of life other than their religious beliefs. The trick is to decompartmentalize their thinking.
Fifth, I am not under the delusion that a huge number of people would “see the light” as a result of this effort. The debate would have been a small step in the right direction. Since I had the ability to propose that the step be taken, and to take it if give the opportunity, I did that. I perceive myself as a member of a large choir, not as a soloist. If everyone takes the small steps of this kind of which they are capable, an immense amount can be accomplished. I still get feedback from people who read the letter I wrote to Jeffrey Holland (see http://www.i4m.com/think/intro/bishop...) or the radio debate/interview I had with Van Hale (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.van%20hale%20show.pdf). Those were other similar small steps. I felt like something needed to be said, and so I said it and let the chips fall where they may. My game is one of bunts, singles and stolen bases, not home runs.
And finally, there is a long tradition in religious and academic circles of precisely this kind of thing. This is the case even within Mormonism (see http://www.koffordbooks.com/petersen/...) though I am certainly no Sterling McMurrin, and I doubt that Dan would put himself in the same league as Hugh Nibley. But as I said at FAIR yesterday, despite my humble stature, I would do for this exercise.
| I am going to have to restrain myself from overusing the word "mystagogery". How I have managed to miss that one, I don’t know. What a wonderful word. If you could pass me the cite for Rahner’s coinage of it, I would be most appreciative.
I have wanted to respond to Michael’s post re. the various usages of postmodern thought in the religious community since reading it, but have not been able to. And since things at work are getting hot and hence I may lose the ideas he prompted and your recent posts have pushed along, I am going to blurt something out now that will capture at least the essence of what deserves (and will hopefully eventually get) better treatment.
Postmodernism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmode...) is primarily a set of tools used to question the validity of a worldview. It started out in the aftermath of World War I as part of the existential crisis that disaster provoked, and played a useful role in critiquing the rickety assumptions on which many sources of social authority rested. However, it was quickly fashioned into a shield by those who were attacked by it, and from there it mushroomed into so many things that it is now hard to define. Some aspects of postmodernism are still profoundly helpful. It has sharpened many aspects of the social sciences. However, other aspects of what is now called postmodernism are worse then nonsense. And I suggest that it is the use of the basic postmodern critique to defend the indefensible that is largely responsible for its bastardization.
Postmodernism has been used in more ways that we can now count in different communities. Its use in the religious context is among the less prominent of these. Extreme cases are often useful in highlighting the operation of principles. These are like caricatures in both functional and dysfunctional ways. That is, they can get us right to the point, or mislead, and which of these is accomplished is mostly a matter of perspective. So with that caveat, I will summarize an extreme case - how postmodern theory is used in the literalist religious community. I don’t know the liberal religious community as well and would be interested in hearing others on that point.
If I am Biblical literalist and you attack my religious beliefs by "deconstructing" them using science, I will deconstruct your scientific beliefs using the philosophy of science, semiotics and any number of other academic disciplines that are at least vaguely postmodern. And, I will accuse you of "scientism", "reductionism" and "idolatry" for good measure. I will insist that you are trying to use a tape measure and magnifying glass to understand quarks; you are tilting at windmills; you should stop being so "simplistic"; you should leave the "flatland" and open yourself to the "mystery of being"; and you should allow god to communicate to your soul.
I will tell you to read some Heidegger (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidegge...) and get a grip on the primacy of the experienced moment and how little we can posit with confidence about "reality" (what a lame word!) beyond that; etc. And perhaps most of all, I will tell you to stop playing with the most sacred aspect of other people’s lives. This is ground that you should step onto with the greatest care because of its importance to other people’s lives. This is their ground of meaning. If they lose it, their lives may well spin out of control into divorce, promiscuous sex, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. and it will be your fault. Many of these people are innocent and relatively ignorant. You, as a scientist, have credibility with them even though you really have no credentials regarding what you pompously and unjustifiably have chosen as your topic. You don’t venture opinions regarding scientific topics on which you are unqualified to speak. Hence, you should keep your views to yourself regarding the religious beliefs of other people since these are by definition private, subjective experiences that are not susceptible to your analysis. Hence, what you are doing is profoundly immoral and you need to go look hard in the mirror and think about that.
I will also remind you that science purports to provide the framework within which religious belief can be understood, and that this is unjustified in scientific terms because the most important part of religious experience is outside the scientific realm. You can no more analyze religion and justify your analysis as reliable than you can analyze the nature of life in other galaxies. This analysis is simply not possible, and hence no conclusions drawn from it are justified.
For a great example of this genre, see R. Dennis Potter's article at page 71 of November's Sunstone Magazine ("Yea, Yea, Nay, Nay: Determining What is Real"). I won’t outline the scientific response, but you can imagine it.
Once the issue has been joined between intellectually oriented religious people and the scientific community over the philosophy of science, it rockets into the definitional stratosphere within moments. Hence, for all but the few who understand the complex philosophical terrain being surveyed, the conclusion will likely be that the scientific critique of any particular religious belief is nowhere near as solid as it first sounded. Hence, continuing to adhere to whatever belief system was being questioned becomes more justifiable.
This is a profoundly relieving conclusion for the few faithful who have cared enough to follow the debate as far as they could. They, being trusted members of the religious community in question and often opinion leaders because they have the intellectual legs to follow things like a debate on the philosophy of science past the first sentence, convey that message back to anyone else in their community who noticed the brouhaha. "Don’t worry. We have been to the frontier and everything is fine." These words will be warehoused within the community and pulled out whenever one of the faithful runs across these issues and is troubled by them. And this is precisely the conscious or unconscious objective of those who apologize for any faith based position using postmodern theory or any of its variants.
I note that the word "postmodern" usually does not show up in these defenses. My father was surprised when I took his defense of Mormonism and lined it up with a typical postmodern argument in defense of a non-religious matter. He is thoroughly postmodern with regard to anything critical of Mormonism, while being a hard-headed, literalist, regarding his Mormon beliefs, and a skeptical, rational thinker regarding just about everything else. This is a pretty standard package within the well-educated corps of the literalist religious community.
Ironically, the body of the faithful who are comforted by the postmodern critique of science (and the same is done with history) hardly pause in their pursuit of life within a worldview that posits certainty regarding many things that are well within the competence of science to critique. So, the postmodern critique of science by a few intellectuals at the fringe of a faith based social organism blocks an easily justifiable postmodern attack on that organism’s certain ideological premises, which in most cases the intellectual defenders of the faith do not accept in the certain, orthodox fashion.
I think the mystagogery concept can be usefully employed to describe this phenomenon. Without knowing it, the dogmatically certain are defended by a few mystagogues at the fringes of their faith who are encouraged in this by literalist religious leaders simply because the defense works. Ironically, not long ago the mystagogues would have been thrown out of the religious community. Now they are encouraged, as long as they continue to profess faith and obey the leaders, because they are more useful than disruptive.
In many cases, the mystagogues believe that a continuation of the faith community is so important that it does not matter if the faithful really "get it" or not. The literalist leaders generally believe that this is the case. So as the mystagogues summarize to the faithful how they dealt with the scientific barbarians at the border and watch eyes around them glaze over, they are satisfied they have done their job. All is well.
The religious leaders don’t talk about the mystagogues, and don’t want their views to be widely known. They tell the faithful that these things are "mysteries" that it is best to leave alone. But when one of the faithful is troubled by science, the mystagogues (I am badly overusing this wonderful word) are trotted out, the waters are calmed, and the new potential mystagogue is cautioned as to how this sacred, powerful knowledge is to be used. It should not be spoken of to those among the faithful who "would not understand".
The practical approach that eventually brought me through the morass I just described (which I later found is common to most literalist religious groups), is as follows:
- We have myriad decisions to make each day. We make these, generally speaking, on the basis of what we wish to happen in the future (our objectives) and what we perceive to be the most reliable evidence as to what is real and how cause and effect relationships work between real entities.
- Science provides that best evidence as to what is likely to be real, and how cause and effect relationships between real entities work. The continued creation of technology, medicines, etc. on the basis of scientific work supports this position.
- The opinion of the majority of the scientific community on any topic within the competence of science (including where the boundaries of scientific competence reside) is the most reliable evidence available to us of what is real, and how reality works. This is not guaranteed to be "truth", but it is the best we have.
- Science eloquently explains the power of the social group to influence perception.
- Beliefs that are well outside the realm of science often slop back into our scientific beliefs, and because of the power of the social group to control perception, will overcome our scientific worldview. Many scientifically thinking Mormons, for example, are strikingly ignorant of the world’s population and ecological problems because of the Mormon belief that each woman should bear as many children as she is physically able and can support financially and emotionally.
- Anyone who attempts to use a tiny minority position with regard to science (like "scientific realism should not be trusted to the extent it questions religious faith") to overturn a majority scientific view that questions the premises of a social group of which the critic is a member should generally not be taken seriously because he is highly probable to be within the grip of the perception distorting influence of his group, regardless of how well qualified he may be in other ways.
- We should take the lessons of postmodernism to heart, and particularly so when considering the ideological premises of our own social groups. A great deal of empirical evidence in support of the basic postmodern principle (don't be so sure of yourself) has been produced by psychologists. See for example, Arie Kruglanski’s "The Psychology of Closedmindedness" which I am told by one of my psychology professor friends is the leading book in this area. Kruglanski says, basically, that in order to survive we must truncate the information gathering and assessment process, decide what is real, and act. And it is more important to our continued survival that we be able to trust our own judgment than be accurate in many of our observations. Moment by moment, day to day, these imperatives shape our basic epistemic habits. Add to this to the importance of the social group to human survival and prosperity, and it is not hard to understand why we would tend toward accepting and feeling certain about interpretations of reality on the basis of "social proofs" even in the face of powerfully disconfirming evidence of other kinds. This emphasizes the importance of questioning our tendency towards certainty.
- On the other hand, when our foundational beliefs are questioned, we should not be surprised that we will instinctively use whatever is at hand to defend them. The confirmation and other biases make this human trait clear. So, our tendency will be to question the validity, certainty etc. of those who challenge us.
- The best way through thicket is to rely on the collective wisdom that humanity has created and will create from time to time to determine what is real. This is particularly hard to do when it comes to personal, emotional choices, and perhaps most important in those cases. For example, medical doctors are counseled not to treat their family members because their judgment is probable to be compromised in such cases. Likewise, in determining the reliability of any religious truth claim, it is likely best to rely upon the most knowledgeable and reliable people available who are not influenced by the biases of the group itself.
- It is also critically important that we restrain our instinct toward certainty regarding the unknown. Once we are unjustifiably certain about an unknown, this becomes part of our worldview and as the result of the confirmation and other biases, will likely have a limiting effect on our ability to perceive many things that may be knowable.
- In light of the best evidence available regarding the reliability of religious truth claims, we can make more clear headed choices as to which social groups (religious and other) we will associate with, and on what terms.
| Ideology based institutions like Mormonism are social organisms, much like animals, plants and other life forms. They need food and other energy sources and seek these; and they defend themselves against threats. Ideas form the foundation of these social organisms. These ideas must continue to be accepted as valid, believable etc. if the organism is to survive. Hence, when the organism is confronted by evidence or other ideas that question the validity of its foundational ideas, this is a threat as real as a skunk seeing a coyote creeping through the weeds. The organism should be expected to use whatever powers it has to deal with what threatens. In the skunk’s case, this would ultimately mean putting out a particularly offensive stench that would discourge all but the most ravenous coyotes from attacking.
Since an organism like Mormonism must defend ideas, it defences are intellectual in nature. This brings us to the stench emitted by a particular kind of postmodernism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmode...).
Postmodernism is primarily a set of tools used to question the validity of a worldview. It started out in the aftermath of World War I as part of the existential crisis that disaster provoked, and played a useful role in critiquing the rickety assumptions on which many sources of social authority rested. However, it was quickly fashioned into a shield by those who were attacked by it, and from there it mushroomed into so many things that it is now hard to define. Some aspects of postmodernism are still profoundly helpful. It has sharpened many aspects of the social sciences. However, other aspects of what is now called postmodernism are worse then nonsense. And I suggest that it is the use of the basic postmodern critique to defend the indefensible that is largely responsible for its bastardization.
Jacques Derrida is revered by those at the foggiest fringes of postmodern thought and reviled by almost everyone else who is familiar with his work (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/obi...). Derrida made a career out of accusing all who critiqued his work of misunderstanding him, while refusing to clarify his position. The whole point of the exercise seemed to be avoidance of understanding.
I read recently somewhere (I can’t recall where it might have been in “Doubt and Certainty” by Rothman and Sudarshan) reference to an interview Michel Foucault (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_F...) gave in which he said that while developing his reputation as an academic in France during Derrida’s career, about 25% of all he wrote in his scholarly papers was “impenetrable nonsense”, because at the time such was required to be taken seriously as a French academic. Derrida was eventually more ignored than anything else in Europe, came to the US and was embraced by the postmodern community within the humanities here that was busily defending its ideological borders against science’s growing influence. Religious groups of many kinds (including Young Earth Creationissts, Mormons, JWs, Moonies, Scientologists and many others) made use of his ideas to defend themselves against historical and scientific critique, or those of others that came from the same kind of school. And it was precisely this perverse strain of anti-reason with the US humanities community that that enabled Alan Sokal to pull his famous trick (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_af...).
The smell around Daniel Peterson and his ilk at FARMS are symptoms of an ideological system in distress as much as the smell of decaying flesh is of a dead body. They are Derridian postmodern fog machines whose purpose is to make the terrain around the borders of Mormonism so hard to find and to appear so baffling and unattractive that the faithful who wander in that direction will turn back in dismay.
Don’t hold your breath (though it is hard to resist doing this) while waiting for Peterson or FARMS to clarify anything. But even smelly fog shows can be enjoyed at a distance. Peterson and his FARMSy friends put out some spectacularly pungent fog. One of my recent favourites is FARMS review of Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” (see http://farms.byu.edu/pdf.php?filename...). I have a half finished review that illustrates why is it best seen as a nice bit of postmodern fog that would produce laughter in scientific community (if anyone there cared enough to read it) while ironically causing the Mormon faithful to breathe a deep sigh of relief.
You can best assess what is raising the levels of cognitive dissonance ( see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitiv...)in the Mormon community by following the direction in which FARMS points its offensive, but effective, fog machine.
| My Southern Alberta Mormon ancestors could see forever - to eternity even. |
Mormon belief banished intellectual fog. Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founder, and the Mormon prophets who inherited his mantle, provided clear answers to many religious conundra.
"What is God like?" He is a perfected man, with a physical body like ours, but made perfect.
"How did that happen?" God used to be like us; lived on an Earth like this one; obeyed his God; and as a result, His body became perfected after death just as our can be.
"Was Jesus God's son?" Yes.
"Literally?" Yes. God physically impregnated Mary, and so Jesus is literally His son.
"Is Heaven real?" Yes.
"How does one get there?" By obedience to the living word of God's prophets who have inherited Joseph Smith's authority. This obedience will purify and perfect the Saints, and enable them to enter God's presence after death. These, and only these, will enter the Kingdom of God.
"Why does God permit suffering and cruelty?" To test and purify us.
The Mormon universe is capricious, but completely understood.
And real fog in Southern Alberta was a rare - even mystic - event as a result of near constant, bone dry wind. The high Canadian plain is pan flat to the east, and gently rises to the west toward the distant, glistening Rockies. But sometimes, and particularly in the Spring when we get most of our annual moisture, cloud touches ground. Nature secretes herself to prepare for renewal.
Today was one of those days. A thick morning fog swathed the vast expanse of slumbering, snow-rashed prairie in surreality. Mayor Magrath Drive's four dusty lanes narrowed into Highway 3 just south of Lethbridge and pointed me into white billows beyond which I knew lay Cardston.
As I started down the highway my mind turned cartwheels over the brilliant chapter from Philip Ball's "Critical Mass" I had finished minutes before. And I unconsciously smiled in anticipation of seeing old friends.
The boys slept. They were emphatic last night about not wanting to be awakened if I chose to watch an early morning game. I was their chauffeur. They were part of a recently crowned Zone champion junior varsity basketball team, and had persuaded me to drive them to Lethbridge to watch their friends on the varsity team play for the high school provincial championship. My alma mater, the near 100% Mormon Raymond High School, was in the provincial championship tournament as well, and I was headed to Cardston to watch them play. I would likely be back to the hotel before my charges stirred.
My "old school" team, and its ancient glories, were no match for sleep on a Saturday morning as far as the boys were concerned, though on the trip down they had thanked me for the story about my high school team that I told them in the locker room just before their championship game. History is starting to seem relevant to them as experience and education expand their vision of the present.
They were lucky to be in the Zone final game to begin with, and once on the court delivered their second upset of the day, and against a team that had beaten them by 30 the week before. This mimicked my most exciting Raymond Comet experience - the one that provided their pre-game inspiration. The boys said that my story was responsible for their explosive start in the biggest game of their lives. I didn't spoil their moment by talking about probability distributions and luck.
Highway 3 came back into focus as Welling suddenly appeared in the mist. I slowed down momentary to pass a few old houses and farm buildings scattered along the highway, and check for the highway patrol that sometimes hid there.
What was Ball's point that had me so revved up? It took me several reads to get it, but the effort had been more than worth while and now, even though I still basked in the glow of learning something important, it took effort to recapture these slippery ideas. Such is the lot of those of us who come late in life to appreciate the importance of what science has to say.
Ball used a branch of statistical physics to explain why it was reasonable to expect human groups to suddenly change their characteristics on the basis of a "phase transition" similar to what happens when a liquid starts to boil. This has to do with "power law distributions" and "self organizing critical systems" .
Different human groups will react in different ways to environmental changes due in large measure to how information flows within them. I knew from other reading that something analogous occurs within each human brain. Ball's focus was on how individuals interact in groups in complicated ways that are analogous to grains of sand being added to a pile and occasionally starting avalanches of different sizes. He showed how we tend to overestimate the importance of our individual psychology and "free will", and underestimate the extent to which our lives are influenced by how we in effect "bounce off" other individuals.
Thanks to Ball's lucid analysis, an image had sprung into my mind of what sometimes happens as new and disturbing information entering a group. It would have little noticeable impact for a long time, and then finally one individual would experience a phase transition at the neural level. That is, enough neurons would fire in a new pattern, consistent with the new information, to change one mind. Then, that individual would interact with others and help to cause mental phase transitions in them, and as they did the same with other individuals, a social avalanche of changing attitudes and behaviour would occur. This would abruptly release social or intellectual pressure that had built mostly unnoticed over a long period of time, just as avalanches release accumulated physical energy. Most avalanches would be small, and occasionally a landscape changing event would occur.
A social phase transition of this sort is likely what brought down the Berlin Wall and changed Eastern Europe in a period of a few years. As I passed the turn offs to Raymond and then Magrath , I thought about how the Internet had recently caused my rebirth. Old information is riding on new, slick rails deep into the Mormon heartland. As a result, Mormonism is in a phase transition.
An idea had tugged at me as I reluctantly put down Ball's book so as not to be late for the game. While driving, it blossomed. Using computer systems like those Ball described, I could model the kind of social change that may occur within Mormonism. And, I could create a visual representation of the entire process from neurons, to an individual, to a group, to that group vis-ΰ-vis other groups. This would look like a time series starting with an individual soldier fighting at a battle front, and ending with rapidly changing national boundaries. I felt the natural high that accompanies even minor inspiration as this idea came into focus, and settled back to enjoy the drive.
It had been years since I had last been on this winding highway that climbs from the prairie into the foothills, but I could likely have made the trip with my eyes shut. Dilapidated farmhouses, granaries and small towns loomed suddenly as familiar ghosts before leaping out of the fog and disappearing abruptly behind me. Each dip and curve into a creek carved coulee brought back memories of relatives who had homesteaded there, kids who had died in car accidents, hunting trips both real and hoped for. This road runs through my heart.
But there should be little here to bring me back. Many relatives and friends have moved away or died. I have trouble appreciating, and being appreciated by, most who remain. And somehow as years pass, my feeling for this barren place and those who live here becomes more palpable.
In the absence of water and the face of wind, roots go down deep or not at all. Mine are deeper here than I thought possible. This was proved a few years ago when I tried to pull them out, and then wither them through lack of nourishment. This morning told me that they are stronger than ever.
I cruised past an old truck, then a new Lincoln Towncar. In both cases, a stoic white haired gentleman was behind the wheel with his wife beside him. All were dressed in their Sunday best, on a Saturday morning, driving the speed limit, on their way to Cardston. It was a near certainty that they were on their way to do Mormon temple work.
A wizened farmer - faded as his land - walked purposefully in muddy black gumboots down a sideroad from a weather beaten house toward more-beaten outbuildings. His bent back and off-center gait told of countless hours sitting on a tractor and likely an accident or several. If he took his hat off to display his farmer's tan and put on a rumpled suit, he would be the man in the truck.
A familiar pit wrapped strong arms around my gut as each ghostly landmark begged me to stop and to pick up the shards of my Mormon soul. This rare combination of loss inspired angst and the lingering glow of Philip Ball's conceptual trip produced a soaring yen .
Tears welled up. No matter how often I leave this place or how long I stay away, to come back is to know where I was forged. No amount of digging and pulling can remove my roots from this windy moonscape. And I no longer think it wise to extricate myself. This is me; I am it. Life weaves us using threads available while we are rapidly growing, tender shoots. And thankfully, as long as we continue to grow, life still weaves.
A song I recognized caught my attention from the background. Its haunting quality embraced my mood. So I turned it up and listened carefully enough to understand some of the lyrics. They paralyzed me. I almost drove off the road while fiddling with my iPod to replay the parts I couldn't catch the first, or second, time through. This is what came into focus behind gorgeous, offbeat, minor key music and striking vocals.
By: Imogen Heap
I am alone
by the colour
Inside a poem
words I ever
Ya I'm washing my hands
For now I am banned
Would you take my
Would you take my
candle, I know
Would you take my
Away from me
I am blind
For I have lied
left for me
to do is hide
Take in a deep
For I am a new man
and I arise
Would you take my
This is all there
I can see that
I have to be
careful with it
Now it's been
Ya, this is
Light of my destiny
come stay with me,
Would you take my
Away from me
I have no idea what Imogen Heap meant by her lyrics and the wonderful music they were set to, but they moved me deeply in a variety of ways. They vividly conjured my journey out of Mormonism. But most poignantly as I heard them on this misty prairie morning, they brought to mind the two old couples I had passed and the farmer on his way to a small barn - contented dust particles about to be swept up in the storm of social change Philip Ball helped me to see. These people stand as proxies for countless relatives and friends who have their roots here; roots formed immutably as were mine.
A single, fragile candle has lit the way for most faithful Mormons. It is the only light they know and so seems like the Sun itself. Forces far larger and more powerful than they can possibly understand are entering their lives, likely for the most part by way of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. This makes the light that once seemed eternal and all-powerful suddenly fragile, threatening them and all they hold sacred with extinction. Depression looms as they watch their family be literally torn apart in many cases. Revelations' apocalyptic vision seems apt for this End of Days; this seeming dark, insane whirlwind.
Ironically, the fact that their candle is the only light they have known makes it the only light they can see. Such is the nature of human conditioning. So, the many lights that disturb their lives are off the visible spectrum. These bring terrifying darkness to those without eyes to see; and buzzing chaos to ears that cannot hear.
The few who push through this, and develop new eyes and ears, tend to be overwhelmed by a vast range of novel experience, and eventually joy. During a three week period I went from contented Mormon, to considering suicide, to marvelling at a human tapestry more glorious than anything I had imagined. My Mormon candle seemed a fascinating firefly that disappeared into an hour blaze of fireworks.
Mormons are for the most part kind, intelligent human beings, and don't make it to the point at which Imogen speaks of washing hands, being banned, etc. But they are the color blue; and they are trapped inside the words of the only poem they ever knew.
One of their worst nightmares is the death of that poem; the extinguishment of their light and the chaotic darkness they know must follow. This is so horrible a possibility that it can't be imagined, and so is characteristic of the most terrifying motifs of all time - an evil with which the mind cannot cope and so must modify. Hence, technology run amok becomes Frankenstein or The Matrix and Mormon apostates like me are branded sinners who have lost the Spirit but can't do more than menace the faithful. Mormon walls cannot fall, or change.
Imogen's character in the song painfully redeems herself and charts a new, precious course. For most people trapped in foundational social flux, however, this is not possible.
I love these people, and feel their terror as they clutch precious, flickering candles. But I can't bring myself to stand in the storm's way, and if I did would likely do more harm than good. The lives of younger, and future, generations are at stake. The Mormon candle will lead its holders into the abyss with rapidly increasing certainty as society changes. New lights, and new eyes, are required and will be developed, though the cost makes my knees tremble.
And so I grieved as I pulled into Cardston and parked in the shadow of the Mormon temple before going to find some of my old teammates in the high school gym next door. An old truck and Lincoln Towncar drove past and pulled into the lot on the Temple's west side, and four peaceful old folk made their slow way toward the massive granite Temple - a symbol of the blazing, unchanging light by which most faithful Mormons assume they walk.
My great-grandparents sacrificed to build this symbol. My grandparents were married in it, as were my parents, in-laws, brothers and sisters. My wife and I married there too, and as had all those who went before us, we solemnly promised our unconditional obedience to God and his exclusive agents on Earth, the men who lead the Mormon Church.
The four Sunday dressed Mormons - one couple well coiffed and the other rumpled - were certainly on their way to perform sacred ordinances for the dead, like baptism, so that if the deceased accepted Mormonism in the spirit world they could enter God's presence. Without this help from the living, the dead cannot be saved. And if the living are unwilling to lend this assistance, they will not be worthy of salvation themselves.
Mormon temple ritual, modelled on Masonic rites , satisfies a variety of deep human needs - for community; connection to the numinous; the perception of certainty amid life's chaos. Thus, generations of Mormons have busied themselves inside the Mormon hive with matters of eternal consequence, leaving little time or opportunity to consider insignificant gentile concerns.
One of Mormonism's dominant motifs is found in the Book of Mormon and describes the "rod of iron" to which the faithful must cling when they are required to pass through "mists of darkness" and other difficulties. This iron rod is the utterly reliable word of Mormonism's leaders. Those who hold fast to it will not be lost in the fog and are less likely to experience anything that would make that fog enticing. So when Mormon dogma seems like blazing light, it should be followed. When it seems a flickering flame, follow it still. And in utter darkness, it is still the only reliable guide. Dogma of all stripes extracts comforting clarity from chaos.
Metaphors are slippery things. One man's fog is another's life giving moisture. What is certain, however, is that human minds grow around these metaphors, and once mature in a particular form, large scale change is somewhere between difficult and impossible. As Philip Ball put it several times while describing the various human group interactions that have been modelled using computer simulations, "history matters". In these models, identical individuals in identical groups in identical conditions, but with different histories, have radically different futures. Our experience as individuals and groups has a lot to say about our future.
So as life giving intellectual fog douses Mormon candles, many must cling to their iron rod. They have grown so completely around it that nothing is else possible. Some will be torn away, and while they may never recover from the trauma this causes, their sacrifice is likely to provide the best possible platform from which their children and grandchildren may develop. And a few - particularly those who are still growing - will against their initial will thrill to the feel of moisture on their faces and marvel as tender shoots come through in the most unexpected places. New eyes and ears will eventually emerge. They will not so much let go of the iron rod as wonder where it went and why it ever seemed real. In them the Universe is reborn. What seemed a terrifying fog is a womb. As the myths of so many cultures tell us , we are often reconstructed through a terrifying immersion in chaos.
Regrettably, there is an unbridgeable chasm between those who cling to iron rods or tiny candles of all kinds and those who cannot see them. Nothing can be done about this. So the wise accept it, and speak of this distance as little as possible to their loved ones. To shake an iron rod or attempt to douse a candle disturbs the foundation upon which existence depends, and will produce fear as deep and desperate as the harsh words that accompany it. Elephants in corners are preferable to this, let alone the suicide bombers these emotions create in more violent societies. And while overarching themes such as our need in a shrinking world to get along and live within planetary means will eventually build usable bridges, this is a generational task. It will not reunite us with more than a few of the believers we most love.
I smiled, and sighed, as I entered the Cardston High School, walked toward the gym and saw a cherished friend with his elephant in tow. I had not spoken to him for more than a few minutes during the past 30 years, and I had never before seen his elephant. Nor had he seen mine.
The four of us enjoyed a wonderful visit.
| The Evolution of God and Morality |
The Role of Cheaters and Suckers in Social Groups
One of my favorite sayings comes from Goethe:
As Man is
So is his God
And thus is God
oft strangely odd
Since our Christian tradition (including its moral concepts) has its roots in Hebrew, that is an interesting place to look for an understanding of how god, and morality, have evolved. I was reminded of this when I received an email from a Jewish friend that included the following information:
“I am reminded of something I shared with my Rabbi a few weeks ago. It comes from a [somewhat uneven] book by Douglass Rushkoff titled Nothing Sacred. Quoting ...
’Iconoclasm leads to the conclusion that any God must, ultimately, be a universal and nameless God. The natural result of settling for an abstract and unknowable deity is to then focus, instead, on human beings and life itself as the supremely sacred vessels of existence. There's no one around to pray to, so one learns to enact sanctity through ethical behavior. Iconoclasm destroys all man-made symbols and leads to abstract monotheism, which in turn leads to an ethos of social justice.
Jewish community became the new temple. The emerging Talmudic law stressed that God was experienced differently by everybody. Accordingly, the Israelites who witnessed him "directly" at Mount Sinai each saw a different image of God. Likewise, wherever Jews prayed together, the spirit of God was present even though each person experienced him personally and uniquely. There was no longer any official doctrine on what God was. His name could no longer be pronounced; his meaning could no longer be conceived.
From then on, most Jewish thinkers have understood God more by what he is not than by whatever he is. Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides developed what is now called "negative theology." God is not a creature. God has no hands, and neither does God have emotions. Since any positive attribute of God is "inadmissible," he can be referred to only in the negative. If we are to appreciate God, we must do so by contemplating the underlying order of the natural universe. God is in the beauty of the logic, the details. Maimonides understood that any fixed conception of God must also be a form of idolatry. Negative theology prevents Jews from going backward and reducing their abstract God to a particular image, concept, or icon. But what happens when one moves forward from there?
Let's push the envelope just a little further, along with the existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century: If God cannot be conceived in any way, if his existence is utterly out of reach of human systems of belief and intellect, then for all practical purposes he does not exist. The evolution of God -- from Abraham's fire-breathing warmonger through Moses' righteous savior and Isaiah's compassionate father to Philo's allegorical character in the human drama -- is from real, to the ethereal, to the inconceivable. This is why the spiritual crisis of the twentieth century, precipitated by the success of the scientific model and rationality that came with it, need not threaten one's spiritual foundations. As long as faith finds its foothold in something other than the authority of God or the testaments of those who claim to have encountered him, logic and spirituality are not at odds. God is just not something Jews are suppose to worry about.
In this light, abstract monotheism is not the process by which a people find the one true God, but the path through which they get over the need for him. Whether he exists or not, he is beyond human's perceptual reach or conceptual grasp. He is increasingly inaccessible and rendered effectively absent. This is no cause for sadness. Our continuing evolution beyond the need for a paternal character named God doesn't mean we have to become atheists; we might just as likely become pantheists, learning to see God in everything and everyone. For at each step along the way, the Jews' focus on an external master whose hunger they need to quell or whose edicts they need to obey is replaced by an emphasis on people's duty to one another.”
This, and other communications over the past few days with friends who have a Jewish and scientific background, reminded me of another of the many insights I harvested from Philip Ball's book "Critical Mass". The bottom line I read between Ball's analysis of one corner of the game theory research and the development of Jewish theology is this: Just as the notion of God within Jewish culture evolved in response to events such as the Babylonian captivity, the notion of morality everywhere has evolved in similar ways.
Ball summarized part of the game theory research dealing with the old Prisoner's Dilemma. For those who want some background as to how this works, I have cut and pasted some notes below.
The short version of this story is as follows. Various populations of agents that play different versions of the Prisoner's Dilemma game are set up in a computer model, and then allowed to play against each other. They can also change the way they play the game if they run into a better strategy. You will recall that in this game the communal pie is maximized if people trust each other and hence cooperate with each other; the communal pie is minimized when everyone cheats on each other and no one cooperates; the piece of pie an individual takes is maximized if she cheats while everyone else cooperates (a cheater surrounded by co-operators - many religious cult leaders and other flim flam artists fit this description); and the individual piece is minimized if she is a habitual co-operator in a population of cheaters.
In the cases that are of the most relevance to the current discussion, the starting point is chaos - almost everyone cheats on everyone else at every opportunity. There are only a few non-cheaters in the system. Occasionally they start to interact with each other and quickly become richer. They then take over the game - their behaviour spreads.
And once cooperation dominates, a few cheaters almost always remain and prosper, as long as they don't become too numerous or congregate. Cheaters need to be spread throughout the population and remain in the minority to do well. They are analogous to parasites. Again, the leaders of some religious groups exhibit this behaviour.
It is interesting to note that the only way that the initial cycle of pervasive cheating can be broken is through the adoption of a rigid "tit for tat" system that closely resembles "an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth". "...'Tit for tat is the pivot, rather than the aim, of an evolution toward cooperation'. In other words, it is needed to establish cooperation in a diverse population; but once that has been achieved, "softer" cooperative strategies will take over". (Ball, p. 435)
It is also notable that many biological systems operate on a tit for tat basis (Ball, p. 423) "including vampire bats, stickleback fish, money and even viruses". ... Edward O. Wilson argues that as civilization revolved, such modes of human behaviour will have become converted from instinctive impulses to social norms, then to legal imperatives, and ultimately to moral principles."
As noted, tit for tat produces a communal pie that is still far below optimal. The optimal systems for most circumstances are forgiving or “generous” versions of tit for tat, like for example that I will start by trusting you, and then give you two or three strikes before I reciprocate your cheating behaviour. For obvious reasons, however, this would not work in a group of consistent cheaters. They would never reciprocate my trust, and after two to three cheats I would start cheating too. However, in a population of primarily tit for tat people, generous tit for tat makes it so that good behaviour can spread more quickly and the odd mistake does not automatically crash us back to consistent cheating.
In the most realistic models that have been developed, it takes a long time for populations to evolve from chaos to tit for tat, and from there toward more compassionate models that gets us close to maximum communal benefit, and when this happens it looks like a phase transition - critical mass is achieved and a radical behavioural change spreads through the population, much as what seems to have occurred with the simultaneous blossoming of the Golden Rule during the Axial Age (BCE 800 to 200) in Hebrew, Greek, Indian and Chinese cultures.
And these phase transitions can operate in reverse as well. That is, the models also indicate that at times groups do crash back toward chaos. This is often caused by the population becoming too soft - too unconditionally forgiving; too generous and not enough tit for tat - which makes such an inviting target for cheaters that they emerge in large number. And when they thrive sufficiently the entire population is driven into chaotic poverty. There appears to be something to be said for maintaining a relatively firm stance against cheaters.
Another model that does better than all others in many cases is generous but opportunistic tit for tat (I will play generous tit for tat unless I run into a real sucker whom I will happily swindle). This keeps the unconditionally forgiving (“sucker”) population under control and it is an overstrong sucker population that opens the door to hardcore cheaters. Though we are loath to admit it, there are many among us who are opportunistic in this way. The idea that these people are doing us all a service is a slippery slope that I don’t want to think too much about.
However, what is clear is that anyone who counsels unconditional forgiveness is either not thinking clearly, or perhaps is one of those people who wishes to be surrounded by suckers.
How many times did Joseph Smith say we should forgive those who take advantage of us?
ps. These models are just that - models. Hence, while we can learn about our social reality from them, they are so much simpler than we are that it would be unwise to simply assume that what the model indicates is "true" or "justified". Models of this type provide what is likely the best information we have as to how social groups will behave in the long term. Armed with that information, we should be better able to decide what we value and how to behave in light of what we wish to being into existence.
Here are a few quotes from Ball that lay out the basics of the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Page 416 - 419: Temptation is arguably the fundamental problem for human societies. It sometimes pays not to be the good, kind, considerate citizen but to rebel, to cheat, to fight, to do the dirty. If my neighbours are all meek, law-abiding people, what is to stop me from appropriating some of their land, or gods, or cattle? A Hobbesian individual in a Hobbesian world is as miserable as everyone else. But a Hobbesian in Eden can run riot, amass a fortune, gorge himself, and fear no reprisal (unless he believes in God). Temptation is a part of the human condition, and that is the problem for all utopias: not everyone is nice, because sometimes crime pays.
It is not obvious how to devise a "particle" that can be led into temptation. But in the 1950s, Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher at the RAND Corporation did more or less just that. They developed a simple mathematical model that incorporated the element of temptation into an interaction between two agents.
The model was presented as a kind of game. Flood and Dresher were exploring the theory of games devised by the mathematical physicist John von Neumann in the 1920s. One of the most formidable mathematicians of the twentieth century, von Neumann helped establish the theoretical basis of the computer and made crucial contributions to the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. He cultivated something of a reputation as a playboy genius, which his passion for gambling and poker did much to enhance. But von Neumann didn't just want to play these games; he wanted to understand them.
For sheer complexity, a mathematician can do no better than to study the game of chess. There is a sense, however, in which poker is much more challenging, for it incorporates the psychological element of bluffing. The question is not, as in chess, what the next best move is, but which move will anticipate, mislead, or disconcert your opponent. The elements of risk and uncertainty in games like poker led von Neumann to see a connection with economics, and in 1944 he set out his ideas in a book coauthored with the economist Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.
The game devised by Flood and Dresher involved a gamble. It has become known as the Prisoner's Dilemma, and it introduced game theory into sociology, biology and political science. The game is played by two agents, who are depicted in the explanatory metaphor as prisoners suspected of committing a crime. Each is offered the inducement that if he testifies against the other, thereby securing the other's conviction, he will be set free. If neither agrees to testify, both will receive a sentence - but only a light one, because of the paucity of evidence. If both testify against each other, the sentences will be heavier - but not as heavy as that of the convicted party if only one of them testifies, since the evidence in the former case is equivocal.
The temptation is, of course, to testify against the other prisoner. ...
The essence of the Prisoner's Dilemma can be expressed in terms of a choice either to "cooperate" or to "defect". The best outcome - the maximal payoff - for one agent comes if he defects (testifies) while the other cooperates (that is, refuses to testify - the cooperation here is with the other prisoner, not the authorities). In that case, the other player is the "sucker" and gets the worst outcome. But if the agents play rationally, they get neither this optimal payoff nor the next best thing, which is the payoff from mutual cooperation. Instead, they get the meager rewards of mutual defection, which are a little better than the sucker's payoff.
To recast this dilemma in terms of individuals living in a society, we can regard cooperation as being law-abiding and defection as breaking the law for one's own gain at another's expense. ...
The frustrating thing about this game is that the players - the prisoners, if you like - can't communicate. It is obviously in their interests to agree to cooperate rather than to both defect. But since they cannot convey to each other a readiness to do this, they are better off assuming the worst of the other player, which implies that they must defect.
If you play the game more than once, however, there is scope for communication of a kind: even if the players cannot correspond directly, they can signal their intentions by the way they play. If one player reveals a willingness to cooperate by doing so in one round, the other player might decide to reciprocate in the next. The players who, having both begun with ruthless defection, later begin to cooperate find that they achieve better outcomes as a result. They do not need to experience any sense of guilt or moral obligation to switch to cooperation. Pure self-interest is enough to make that the best choice.
This means that the impasses that compels defection from both players in a single round of the Prisoner's Dilemma can be broken simply by playing the game repeatedly. And that is how we commonly encounter comparable situations in real life. If I cheat on my neighbour, he as plenty of opportunity to retaliate. Most businesses deal again and again with the same clients. If two countries share a border, they cannot avoid ongoing political, economic and social interactions. [end quote]
| Most topics are best understood in the broadest possible context (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.rena...). So, I think it is useful to attempt to place the discussion of changing one's religious orientation - and in particular moving from the Mormon to the post-Mormon world - in the broadest historical, psychological and sociological framework possible within the constraints of space and time I have imposed on myself. This is particularly the case regarding religion because many religious people, including Mormons, have been trained to think of their religion as uniquely important and hence not subject to understanding in the same way other aspects of human experience. This is referred to in the psychological literature as "compartmentalization" (see http://www.planetpsych.com/zPsycholog...) and is essential to the maintenance of religious beliefs that are inconsistent with much of the rational thought required to earn a living and generally to exist in harmony with secular society.
Hence, much of the recovery process relates to breaking down the manner in which Mormonism has compartmentalized our ideas with regard to religion; how it has trained us to think that our religious beliefs are not subject to rational analysis and cannot be understood in terms of the same psychological and sociological mechanisms that have been extensively studied in other contexts. My story illustrates the power of compartmentalization (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.the%...). After returning home from my Mormon mission to Peru in 1979, I decided to prepare myself for more missionary service in the Kingdom by learning about how other religions work, about the psychology of religion, etc. Hence, religious studies hence became my undergraduate minor. I made it through many religious studies courses of various types, many of which directly challenged my compartmentalized Mormon point of view, and was confronted by one professor who was offended by my closed minded approach. None of this moved me. I recall thinking that some of the books I read in that regard were "shallow" when compared to Hugh Nibley's wonderful scholarship (he was my main academic guiding light in those days; see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.leav... for some of my current views regarding Nibley) and that the professor who challenged me and tried to point out my own narrow mindedness was unethical and without God's spirit. I don't recall even a moments thought that my LDS beliefs might not be true. At the time, this was simply unthinkable by my congested brain.
I of course do not allege that psychology, sociology etc. has everything figured out for us. But we do know a lot about how beliefs in general and religious beliefs in particular are formed and maintained, and the work the scholars in various fields have done in this regard is enormously helpful for those who are trying to understand how the world could have seemed to certain for so long, and then suddenly (or gradually for some people) turned to dust. The perspective gained by standing on the shoulders of the scholars who have done this work can be crucial in different ways. For some, it takes the edge off the terror they feel while moving from one state of seeing religious "reality" to another. For others, much more importantly, it provides the courage necessary to pass through the "narrow gate" and acknowledge reality in the first place. And for yet others, perhaps more important still, it provides the balm needed to heal wounds that have been largely ignored after leaving Mormonism for one reason oranother long ago, all the while feeling vaguely deficient and guilty as a result of not having lived "up to" the standard set by the Mormon community.
The transition out of Mormon belief was more painful than anything else in my experience, and paradoxically, some of my life's greatest euphoria followed close on the heels of my worst misery. Joseph Smith captured this paradox in his description of how his vision of God and Christ was immediately preceded by a struggle with the forces of darkness. In this he echoed an ancient mythic theme. I do not suggest that this means he was inspired, but rather acknowledge his ability to identify and push important psychological buttons that have been used by countless religious and other social leaders before and since him to attract and hold the attention of their peers. Charisma, power and the ability to persuade are generally speaking what are perceived to be divine inspiration.
So, here are several perspective broadening exercises we will undertake to enhance our understanding of Mormonism and how it affects us.
First, we will set the process of changing belief in what is likely its broadest possible context - that of mythology. That is, people have been going through this kind of thing in one way or another ever since humankind began to record her history. I found this idea in and of itself profoundly comforting and enlightening.
Second, we will review a couple of succinct analyses of the process of spiritual transition. The first is a bare bones description of the process as described by an insightful post-Mormon, and the second is a summary of James Fowler's robust treatment of this topic in his well-worth-reading book "Stages of Faith".
Third, we will focus on the part of the process described by Fowler that is likely of greatest interest to those who will read this essay - the transition from the narrow, group-controlled belief (Fowler calls this "stage two" or "stage three" faith) through the anger and terror of Fowler's "stage four faith" into the light and wonder of Fowler's "stage five" faith. This is of particular importance to both post-Mormons and those who deal with them because the terror and anger of stage four discourages some people from ever going there, and is frightening to anyone who has to deal with someone who is going through it. Perspective here is of particular importance. We will review some of what the psychological and sociological literature has to say about this transition, what it is reasonable to expect of it in terms of time and energy, and how to try to manage it. This will include an extensive analysis of what might be called the "Stage of Grief". That is, the literature with regard to how we grieve losses and adjust to them is of great help to those who are going through this process in terms of the removal of Mormonism or any other major ideological pillar from their lives.
Fourth, we will review a variety of the principles that relate to building a new worldview, and why that is for many people one of life's highlights.
And finally, we will wrap up with more mythology since we remember stories far more effectively than we remember theory, and so we will attempt to attach the most important principles we have discussed to one of the worlds most famous and memorable myths that is relevant to this process.
| A few weeks ago I gave a long in person interview and several email interviews to Jeremy Loome, the writer at large for the Edmonton Sun, part of a large chain of newspapers in Canada. The interview was part the research Jeremy was doing for a five day series on spirituality. You can find day one at
http://www.edmontonsun.com/News/Edmon..., as well as a summary of the other four days which will run Monday through Thurs. of this week.
Day 4 features two guys named "Bob", one is Bob White, a lawyer and last I heard Mormon Area General Authority whom I have known for over twenty years. I am the other. Jeremy told me that I would likely be disappointed with the way day 4 is reported. He says he did not have enough space to do the "Mormon issue" justice. I will not prejudge why he feels that way or guess at which of the hundreds of pages of information I reviewed with him that he will choose to use. He did tell me, however, that of the many people he spoke to while preparing for this piece, I was among the most helpful in terms of bringing spiritual issues in general into focus for him. And the structure of his series reflects a lot of the information I summarized for him, and people I suggested that he call. For example, I introduced him to Andrew Newberg's research and told him I was sure that Andy would be pleased to speak with him (I spent a week at a conference with Newberg last summer) - see Day 3. And, I told him about David Oler's secular humanist (that is, atheist) Jewish synagogues that are headquartered in Chicago, and introduced him to Oler - see Day 5.
I should also say that I had the pleasure of lunch with Jeremy just over a week ago in Edmonton, and was very impressed with the amount he had learned about religion and the social science related to it since we had spoken. He is one of these people who ingests and processes information at a rapid rate, and taught me a number of fascinating things over lunch. He also told me that doing the series had changed his view of seriously religious people - he is much more tolerant of them than he was.
What I propose to do is annotate each day of Jeremy's series. Today's offering will follow.
Here is the article's text:
THE GURU AND THE GIRLFRIEND
A local guru who promises the path to inner truth. But to some, John de Ruiter is the latest in a long history of people substituting psychobabble and self-worship for spiritual growth.
LOSING HER ILLUSIONS
Joyce De Ruiter's time as the wife of Edmonton spiritual guru John de Ruiter taught her that being enlightened isn't always what it's cracked up to be. But plenty of others still disagree.
GOD ON THE BRAIN
For every person who's had a spiritual awakening, Dr. Andy Newberg has a message: we're all the same when we have God on the brain. Newberg's research may revolutionize how we view faith.
This is the story of two Albertans named Bob, both lawyers, both smart and, as bookends in the debate over the roots of the Mormon Church, proof that faith can affect how anyone interprets facts.
In Chicago and across the U.S. and Canada, formerly orthodox Jews are reinterpreting their faith and concluding man created religion, not God. But they're also among its biggest fans.
The people are looking for answers, but don't show it yet. On a warm Saturday night, the 400 or so who file into a west-end auditorium exhibit no anxiety or curiosity.
- - -
Grandmas mix with middle-aged professionals and little kids. People mill between the seats, surrounded by 40-foot marble pillars and a roof accented by crystal chandeliers. It could be a church five minutes before service, though there's no pulpit on stage, just a table, some flowers and a chair.
The people who run this building would tell you John de Ruiter is a "philosopher," not a guru or religious cult leader. His website, which trumpets the recent construction of the $1.7-million building on 177 Street, even cautions he's not there to solve problems, just to offer "core-splitting" truth.
It doesn't stop people from seeking advice, as they've done for a decade. They fly from across the globe to pay homage - and cash - to de Ruiter, a Jesus type in a suit. His outing by media as a marital cheat five years ago didn't visibly dent his popularity.
In the crowd is "Anne." A few months back, her boyfriend would've sat next to her. But he returned to the U.S. West Coast alone and spends his time trying to coax her back. He has proposed, but no longer thinks marriage is realistic. But he tries because he loves her. Dave thinks John de Ruiter's teachings could be dangerous. He isn't alone.
- - -
Health problems and curiosity brought Dave to Edmonton, common among de Ruiter's followers. He'd seen de Ruiter at a U.S. meeting, one of dozens around the world annually.
"It was almost like there was an energy radiating from him," Dave recalls. "He didn't seem to really say anything that made much sense, but he just had this presence that made you want to come back and figure it out."
Dave had supported other charismatic spiritualists. "Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer, once said of Charles Manson's followers that if you looked into their eyes, you could tell they were true believers. That's kind of what it was like," he says. "The people, they hung on John's every word."
Anne was one of the most devoted, he says. They hit it off immediately, and a relationship followed. "I felt like I'd maybe found some of the answers I'd been looking for my entire life and the woman I loved at the same time."
Weeks later, Dave was beside himself. He'd given up his life to devote it to a man he thought could be a prophet. He'd asked questions, but the answers to him and others from de Ruiter seemed garbled, useless. He felt he had nothing left.
"There wasn't any substance to him, but she insisted on staying. I listened and he talked. People asked questions and he talked, or he'd just sit and ignore them. But nothing he said ever made much sense."
- - -
De Ruiter was a Catholic as a child but joined the Lutheran Church in adulthood and studied to become a pastor. Known within the church as having an uncommon fervour, de Ruiter once gave testimony - an accounting of religious experiences - to the church's board of directors for nine straight hours.
A few years earlier, at 17, he claimed a revelation. De Ruiter has said he was overcome by bliss-like peace that led to a full year of happiness and certainty. In an effort to reclaim the sensation, he started studying alternate religions and philosophies, and eventually left Christianity
By 1994, the shoestore worker met Boots Beaudry, an ex-army medic and clerk turned spiritualist. Beaudry saw de Ruiter's effect on people, and believed his claim of tapping a wellspring of inner truth.
She'd hidden her interest in mysticism while in the army for fear of ridicule, but opened her Whyte Avenue clinic to de Ruiter for public meetings.
His following grew to hundreds. Larger, rented venues followed. He also started lecturing outside Alberta, charging hundreds of dollars for four-day "retreats" and attracting followers - some quite wealthy - who moved to Edmonton. One couple, businessman Peter Von Sass and his wife Ilona, moved to the city from Calgary to be near de Ruiter and invited their daughters, Benita and Katrina, into the fold. Others came from Britain, Germany and Australia.
Initially, de Ruiter denied to his wife, Joyce, that he was sleeping with the sisters. Eventually he admitted it and sought her acceptance, she says, claiming his "ultimate truth" had OK'd it. Many followers accepted it, but Joyce publicly rejected him. Five years later, the bitterness continues.
- - -
"What John talks about is staying within what you know to be true," says Beaudry. We're in a diner near her clinic. She's out of the inner circle, but still reveres de Ruiter.
"Let's say you're in pain. If you stay within what you know to be true, that means you don't make it more than what it is and you don't make it less than what it is. You just let it be."
Beaudry joined up with de Ruiter after leaving the military. She'd been a medic during the Edmonton tornado in 1987 and decided the military was not a safe occupation.
With just three years left until her pension, she opted out. At the same time, she believed she could see forms of energy around people. New-age healing beckoned.
She says de Ruiter's philosophy is to look for answers within, a capital-T "Truth," uncluttered by human convention or experience. She supports his contention his inner truth told him he wasn't cheating when he slept with the sisters, even though he'd counselled his followers against infidelity.
"I don't think it's right, some of the stuff that he has done, but that doesn't mean to say it's not true," she says.
I suggest that listening only to your heart without considering others could be a recipe for selfishness.
"Ah, but if you're walking with a hardness of heart towards yourself or anyone else, it just doesn't work," she says.
"When you're walking with an open hand, it's like ... it's like with Benita: I knew that was coming long before it actually happened, and long before I talked to him about it.
"And I said to him, 'This is not right.' And he said, 'This is not what you think it is.' He didn't say whether he was messing with her. He's talking from the inside, from that place of honesty. Honesty and truth are not the same things as morality."
Isn't "honesty," at someone else's expense, selfish? I ask.
"Yes," she says simply. "But it's a wonderful selfishness. And we should all be more selfish. If I'm paying more attention to what someone else wants or what they believe is true to them, then what about what I want?"
Selflessness, she says, is a waste of time. "What good will you do? You're not going to change anything. The people who might've been hurt will still be hurt by something else."
- - -
De Ruiter's claim of offering philosophy, not guidance, is considered even by some supporters a legal manoeuvre. At least one, a B.C. man with pre-existing mental health issues, committed suicide prior to de Ruiter placing warnings on his website.
There's no suggestion that attending the meetings played any role in the man's death, but when a man's allegedly answering some of life's great questions, it pays to be careful.
"People reveal their souls to him, their deepest secrets and their greatest anxieties," says Dr. Stephen Kent, a cult expert at the University of Alberta. "And he responds in ways that give direction to them.
"The practical consequence of his teachings is that people will continue to bond with him, first and foremost. So people who support him date together, live together, socialize and party and bring the kids.
"Despite the fact that his teachings have a highly individualistic dimension, the practical consequence is that he's building a community around himself.
"What's interesting about John's message is that there doesn't seem to be an emphasis on social action. I've never heard anything about helping to develop a sense of self by doing charitable work, by helping society."
Though Kent says that could be dangerous, he also notes that people might find enough comfort in the procedure of opening up to de Ruiter to stave off problems for a while.
It's a lucrative trade-off. Beaudry concedes z's following - which happily purchases his dozens of DVD and audiotape lectures -has raised a lot of money.
"People would hand him envelopes stuffed thick with cash. He talked about building a community where people could explore philosophical truth together, getting a big piece of land where people could build homes," says Beaudry. Then she laughs.
"I told him 'John, make sure you don't call it Jonestown' and he just laughed at that," she says. "I think some of the others were offended but I've never worried too much about them. I told him, 'Don't go serving any Kool-Aid.' "
To the outside observer, Anne's loyalty and Boots's certainty may seem puzzling.
What would compel people to drop everything and follow a man claiming to embody truth without proof? To give him money, adoration and support?
But it's not uncommon. In fact, science may soon explain why humans seem compelled to support spiritual beliefs despite overwhelmingly contrary evidence that they are irrational.
- - -
Over the next four days this series will explore why we ridicule others' beliefs but hold on to our own, why such beliefs can be both beneficial and dangerous, and why, ultimately, human beings will nearly always be able to accept what comforts them over harsh realities.
| I continue to be impressed by the volume of information Jeremy Loome has summarized in these articles. Today’s is the best so far. And, the edition of the paper contained two other related articles both of which cover research I discussed with Loome. I suspect that he had a hand in them. They can be found at http://www.edmontonsun.com/News/World... (“Science Seeking Answers”) and http://www.edmontonsun.com/News/World... (“Achieving Meditative Bliss”). I will review all three articles together.
Loome summarizes the basics of Andrew Newberg’s research as found in “Why God Won’t Go Away”. For more on that topic, see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni...starting at page 105. This explains the state of bliss experienced in deep meditation. More importantly, in its milder forms it explains what induces Mormon testimony. My experience in this regard is summarized at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/out%20o... starting at page 77.
In “Achieving Meditative Bliss” at http://www.edmontonsun.com/News/World...
the mechanics of my testimony experience are adequately summarized as follows:
“Cult leaders use artificially devised punish-and-reward scenarios - often combined with informational and sense deprivation - to brainwash people into supporting them. The reward part can include reaching the bliss sensation, which allows the procedure to become self-perpetuating. The tie is strong enough that sometimes merely being in their guru or leader's presence or around something that reminds them of him will cause the brain to dissociate.”
I pause here to note that Newberg says that a mild state of bliss or absolute unitary being, as he labels it can be induced by causing anxiety and relief to coincide. My testimony experience was induced by angst over not having a “testimony” when all of my friends said they had one and were committing to go on, or were leaving on, their Mormon missions. Relief was induced by my finally accepting that the Mormon Church “must be true”. This amounted to a surrender to social pressure. Hence, the creation of extreme social pressure becomes its own proof of truth because the relief created by surrender to it causes bliss. The greater the angst one feels, the greater the relief upon surrender, and the greater the bliss. Hence, the “Saul to Paul” type of person should be expected to have the most powerful, blissful experience.
The “Achieving Meditative Bliss” article continues as follows:
“Every mainstream religion has tapped into the technique over the centuries, he says, either through direct meditation or through chanting, hymns and other mantra-like focusing techniques that can produce the same reaction, perhaps explaining why people in evangelical church congregations see the same visions and have some of the same physical reactions as modern spiritualists.”
Mormonism uses these techniques as do most other religions. Another interesting form of group psychology exists in Mormon temples where the most faithful Mormons share a socially bizarre ceremony that amounts to an initiation rite (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/temple%... starting at page 20). Many studies have shown how enduring a painful initiation or paying a significant price of any kind to be part of a group increases commitment to the group. While the Mormon temple ceremony is not physically painful, it is so odd that few people who go through it could imagine their non-Mormon friends thinking anything other than it is crazy. This makes it a bit of a dirty secret (I actually do the things made fun of on the Simpsons and elsewhere in terms of secret handshakes, bizaare costumes, etc.) This joint participation in something socially bizarre sets people apart and amounts to paying a price to be a group member. The group submission to authority, group movements and actions, long periods of silence, etc. in the temple will produce a mild dissociative state a connection to that “something greater” Newberg described that many people find comforting.
The article continues:
“It boils down to agenda," says Martin. "With a cult, the flow of power is always towards the leader, and in a traditional religion, hopefully the flow of power is more evenly distributed towards the group.
There are important parallels between mainstream orthodox religions and cults, says Martin. In each, people become utterly subservient to the extent of giving up free will, in the hope of achieving a leader's "transcendent" state - whether that's explained by the leader or his supporters as going to heaven, knowing inner truth, being one with the universe, or other status elevating them to spiritual bliss.”
Mormonism is not as bad cult as many. If the Moonies are an 8 out of 10, Mormonism would be a 6 in my estimation. And Mormonism is less monolithic than the Moonies from what I can tell. That is, Mormonism will take as much as a person will give and will encourage all to give far more than is healthy, but will accept lower levels of commitment than most hard core cults.
I have said for some time that the key regarding religion is to determine who is using whom. If the religious institution or leader is using the believer, the relationship should be changed. I like they way this concept is described above in terms of power flows. The question to ask is whether individual members are empowered by their relationship to the institution or leader, or whether the institution or leader are weakening individual members while aggrandizing themselves. Insiders are rarely able to see what is going on this regard.
Back to Loome’s article. He makes an important point when he refers to the research related to how many people undergo basic personality change 5%. That is, once we have established a basic belief pattern it is unlikely to change. Michael Shermer’s extensive survey reported in “How We Believe” reaches the same conclusion. And Loome summarizes Newberg’s explanation for this, which I find convincing. That is, all religions use a combination of attraction to a powerful, uber-confident leader, a supportive group, and the kind of other-worldly bliss noted above to attract converts.
Because Loome is writing in the context of cultish behaviour (See Day 1 and 2 re John de Ruiter) and had the usual tiny amount of space with which journalists must work, he does not deal with the literature related to the conditioning that occurs once a person is in a group, and in particular, when one is raised from childhood within a group. This is how you can get Harvard PhD’s in paleontology who believe the Earth is 6,000 -10,000 years old (see http://www.towersonline.net/story.php...) and Mormon “scholars” who seriously argue that the word “horse” in the Book of Mormon really means “tapir” as well as countless other nonsenses.
Loome approaches his conclusion by quoting Newberg as saying that all religions start more or less the same way, based on the principles outlined above. I spent a week with Newberg last summer and found him to be both charming and sharp. His personal belief is that there is perhaps something “out there” to which we connect when in the state of absolute unitary being, and perhaps this state of perception is the most real in our experience. However, he does not support any particular conception of god nor does he purport to understand god. And he is clear as to the difference between what he believes is supported by science, and what is at this point speculation.
I also note how ancient and universal this attraction to the absolute unitary being state is. The religious historian Karen Armstrong in her recent book “The Great Transformation: The Origin of Our Religious Traditions” (pages xv, xvi) notes that in the ancient world:
“People usually experienced the sacred as an immanent presence in the world around them and within themselves. Some believed that gods, men, women, animals, plants, insects, and rocks all shared the same divine life. All were subject to an overarching cosmic order that kept everything in being. Even the gods had to obey this order, and they cooperated with human beings in the preservation of the divine energies of the cosmos.
Ancient religion depended upon what has been called the perennial philosophy, because it was present, in some form, in most premodern cultures. Every single person, or experience on earth was a replica a pale shadow of a reality in the divine world. The sacred world was, therefore, the prototype of human existence, and because it was richer, stronger, and more enduring than anything on earth, men and women wanted desperately to participate in it. The perennial philosophy is still a key factor today in the lives of some indigenous tribes. The Australian aborigines, for example, experience the sacred realm of Dreamtime as far more real than the material world. They have brief glimpses of Dreamtime in sleep or in moments of vision; it is timeless and ‘everywhen’.”
A scientist (see Meera Nanda, “Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris” at http://www.metanexus.net/metanexus_on...) who was raised in the Hindu tradition describes the same experience Newberg and Armstrong are talking about in these terms:
“[beware of] the noetic, or intellectualist, trap that William James identified in The Varieties of Religious Experience when he noticed how mystical experience has the quality of a profound knowing: “although similar to the states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance
and as a rule, they carry with them a curious sense of authority”.
At their peak, meditative experiences invariably bring about a feeling of having touched something far deeper and far more real than what is normally experienced by the five senses in our ordinary lives. And this conviction itself becomes a source of validation of the of the objective reality of what they have seen: what they see in their minds, they assume, must exist outside. Vision gets fixed into metaphysical systems built on super-sensory entities and processes. The experience of losing the boundaries of one's ego, the feeling of having transcended time and space, gives the feeling of becoming one with the universe, of “seeing” the entire macrocosm in one's own mind. It is not a coincidence that the teaching of Vedanta “Thou art That” has been interpreted by so many as implying that I (the enlightened one) am Brahman, that I am the universe, that my mind is the mind of the entire cosmos and by controlling my mind, I can control the cosmos.”
One of the traps (often well intended) into which religious believers of all stripes sometimes fall is precisely what James points out above the bliss Newberg describes is taken as confirmation that the beliefs of a particular system are correct, even though there is no evidence to support them. Such is the emotional force of the experience of seeming to touch something beyond ourselves; seeming to become part of a larger organism or reality of some kind. We crave this as surely now as did our ancestors as far back into history’s mists as we can see.
And in conclusion, Loome sounds a caution note as follows:
“In some cases, gurus have exhibited the same lapses in moral and personal behaviour outlined in traditional religious documents, proof-positive the experience is not fundamentally benevolent.
In the worst cases - Jim Jones, the Solar Temple, David Koresh's Branch Davidian and the Heaven's Gate cult would be modern examples - increasingly irrational behaviour can lead to mass suicide among members more comfortable with the security of an irrational belief than in facing reality.”
While these extreme cases are worth remembering, they seem so remote from anything we might experience that they don’t move us kind of like the chance of a plane crash is so small that it does not stop us from traveling by air.
It is much more productive, in my view, to focus on how most religious groups to one degree or another take advantage of some of their members in small ways, thus stunting their growth, making the unnecessarily fearful, inducing ignorance to protect belief, etc. is the real issue.
For example, I was talking to a friend the other day about the population and other problems in Africa, and he told me about a documentary he say the other day in which a religious worker was interviewed in Africa who was doing all kinds of good things to relieve hunger and other terrible living conditions there. But, his organization would not educate regarding birth control or distribute birth control devices because that was against God’s law. Good comes constantly mixed with bad. Our task whatever our belief system happens to be is to better connect it to reality so that we will not be take advantage of by well intended (or other) people.
By coincidence, a few days ago I received an email from one of Jim Jones relatives a man who left the Jonestown cult a short time before the mass suicide to which Loome refers. I will conclude with a quote from his message to me that ties this all together:
“I grew up in the Peoples Temple. Jim Jones was my
. For me as a child, teenager, and young adult, the Temple was the great citadel of hope and Jim, the man of the age. After I graduated from ******
I came to see the church more clearly. Naturally, my dedication waned and I found myself increasingly under suspicion. Even so, I wrestled (much as you did) with my growing disbelief but escaped
before the Guyana massacre. My entire family and my community died in Jonestown. Jim, much like Joseph Smith, was a huckster pretty much all along.”
I deal with lots of “hucksters” in my legal practices. One of the mental habits that defines them is the ability to rationalize. Exaggeration or outright lying is OK as long as it serves a greater purpose. For example, lying to get money from investors or banks is OK as long as you believe you really will pay it back, and everyone will be rich as a result. The improbable scenarios in which these people sincerely believe are the best testimony I can offer to the power of denial.
In the Jim Jones, Joseph Smiths, John de Ruiters and other similar types of the religions world I see this principle in action. And in the end, whether they believe what they say or not, and how much is “noble lying” (lies told for some higher purpose) and how much is honest mistake, does not matter. All that matters is how trustworthy these people are. Once we have decided that they are unreliable sources of information, we should dismiss them and move on. This task is made far more difficult when we have had our own experiences with the kind of bliss Newberg describes in a particular belief setting and under the influence of particular religious leaders. Worse yet, our family and social lives are often formed around a particular set of beliefs.
The first challenge is met fairly easily by learning how to have the same experience Newberg describes in other settings. I can induce this myself almost at will, in mild and what I consider to be healthy forms, by meditating, drawing, riding my motorcycle, etc. Loome told me some stories about his avocation as a jazz musician that indicate the same kind of experience.
The second challenge that posed by a tight knit social or family group is much more difficult. We are existentially threatened by anything that might disturb important social relationships (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni... at page 119). The only way to deal with this to go through the painful, terrifying process of pulling away from the unhealthy group and finding others that serve us instead of forcing us to serve them while distorting our view of reality. This birth canal is the most awful I have known, and what waited on the other side more wonderful than anything I could have conceived as possible.
| As I move through my recovery, I am tending more toward art and creativity than I did during my initial stages. See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%... for an indication as to why it would likely have been a good thing had I made this transition earlier. This is a wonderful change in a variety of ways. Hence, a guy who has read very little fiction is starting to read fiction. I am half way through "A Complicated Kindness" by Miriam Toews, and want to recommend this as a great read, and possibly the wedge that will break open many a Mormon psyche. Let me explain.
First, you can find some commentary regarding the book at http://www.janmag.com/fiction/ack.htm.... It has won several awards in Canada this and last year.
Toews is/was a Mennonite and is writing about her people. Many of them (and their community) are caricatures of the most literalist mainstream Mormons. Hence, the dogmatism, mind twisting, cognitive dissonance, unhappiness, forced happiness, etc. that are part of Mormon culture are displayed so obviously in this book that it may cause a moment of clarity for some Mormons with regard to their own culture.
I have not finished the book yet, and while I love most of it (Toews' word play and use of humour to spice the book is particularly fine), I don't think she has done justice to what literalist religion looks and feels like from the inside. But boy, does she paint a chilling picture of the mind warping nature of literalist belief coupled with a strong social group and information from the outside world pushing into the community.
A number of people have been kind enough to encourage me to write a book, and I will likely do that. However, I am deferring for the time being in part as a result of what Karen Armstrong noted in her fine memoir "The Spiral Staircase". She regrets writing her first memoir a decade ago (Through the Narrow Gate - about her departure from the nunnery) because she did not have sufficient distance from (and hence perspective of) her religious experience to comprehend and hence do that aspect of her life justice. I am waiting in part because I know how raw I still am, and can feel perspective continuing to change for me in significant ways.
One book that I plan to write will be similar to Toews' (and was conceived a couple of years ago), except I will use several narrative voices to tell the story. I have not chosen the voices yet, but the story will be set in a small Mormon town on the fringes of non-Mormon society (Raymond, Alberta or Thatcher, Arizona several decades ago would both work fine; I have ancestors who pioneered both places; I grew up in part in Raymond) and will include people like a Bishop who knows the whole Mormon story and does not believe it in a literal sense, but keeps this to himself while piously lying on a regular basis for various reasons so that he can try to change a culture he loves from the inside; a overtly apostate basketball coach who is only tolerated in this little Mormon town because he is a "winner", but often steps over the line in terms of what the good Mormon parents of most of his kids will tolerate in terms of free thought and hence corrupting influence on their kids (he and his non-Mormon wife are backin his ancestral town because his wife fell ill and they need, and deeply appreciate, the wonderful support they receive from his Mormon extended family and friends); a 100% faithful, spiritually oriented Mormon boy on the basketball team dominated by kids who don't take religion seriously but assume that they will eventually straighten up; a near genious science teacher at the high school who cannot see that his beliefs cost him a career as a serious scientist, whose mission in life is to help his Mormon students integrate their faith with the science he loves passionately and teaches to them, and whose cognitive dissonance rises during the story as science continues to evolve and more acutely question his literalist beliefs; various well intentioned literalist Mormons who combine the best and worst traits of that species, etc. Voices drawn from this crowd will combine to tell one story from radically different points of view.
I want to illustrate the goodness of the people who can't see anything beyond their faith; the tension in those who see both sides experience; the complete disgust we should expect from those who "don't get" religion at all; the guilt most kids experience as they "succumb" to doing things like drinking, masturbation, having sex; the way the "faithful" can be so kind and cruel in the same breath; the way in which faith justifies and motivates both the best and worst of our inclinations; and most importantly, what it is like to have one's worldview fractured as a mature person. Toews' story is mostly about coming of age. Mine will have some of that in it, but will deal more with what I will call "the second coming" - that painful, miraculous coming of age that occurs for those of us who do not individuate until well into adulthood.
The kind of cognitive dissonance related stress Toews describes will be part of the story too, but the extreme nature of the shunning and information control in the group she is writing about makes that so blatant that it is not as helpful as the Mormon example, where in most cases a more subtle kind of control is exercised and is amazingly effective now that I can see if from the outside.
My only criticism of Toews so far (and perhaps she will get to this) is that she does not capture the full humanity of characters like "the Mouth" (the leader of the religious group) in her story. These are complex, interesting characters that are easy to villify. This, in my view, can become the pulsing heart of a good story.
I mentioned a few days ago a loved on who is about to change, I hope. This person told me that the thing that finally made the penny drop was some information that showed how in other cultures wonderful, well intentioned people who seem in many respects to be the best humanity can offer have done horrendous things in the name of faith while being revered by those who follow them. When I do get around to some serious writing, it will be my intent to illustrate how this comes about, and what it feels like to be on the inside, on the outside, and to move from one state to another.
In the meantime, if anyone else is up to this task, please have at it. And if anyone can suggest things I might read to refine my sense of how this dynamic works or might be described, please let me know.
| I know there are many strong arguments. If you've got a few minutes with a TBM loved one, and the chance to make one argument, which would you make?
Here is my choice, at least when dealing with TBMs who are generally rational and well informed regarding how science works. Since I was that kind of TBM, this approach and why I did not find it persuasive while I was TBM, is a source of fascination for me.
Not a single credible non-Mormon scientist to my knowledge has advocated the Mormon side of any of the many scientifically testable claims implicit in the Book of Mormon. And here is why that is such powerful evidence against the BofM's claims.
The scientific community is the single most productive group in human history when it comes to producing reliable information about reality. It is set up for the express purpose of doing this. Almost all who participate in this process pool their information so that science will adance as rapibly as possible. And countless people check each piece of significant work that is put forward as "science". Scientists usually don't make a lot of money. They are rewarded by reputation.
Science can be thought of to a large extent a competition in the establishment of ideas that accurately describe reality where the biggest winners have new elements, theories, species, etc. ("Darwinian evolution", "Brownian motion", for example) named after them. Points are scored both for showing that ideas thought to be reliable descriptions of reality are not, and that ideas thought not to be reliable in this regard, or new ideas, accurately describe reality. Thousands of really smart people with immense resources under the control, worldwide, play this game 24-7.
And none of them are prepared to give the ideas about reality that are dear to most Mormon hearts a second glance. Think about that.
Imagine the reputation a scientist could garner were she able to posit even a reasonably likely case for elephants or horses in the Americas around the time of Christ? Or steel at that same time. Or that the migration hypothesis on which the BofM rests has a reasonable chance of being correct. There are literally dozens of other scientific hypotheses like these embedded in the BofM and other aspects of Mormon theology. Mankind starting in Missouri? The sun deriving its energy from another celestial body, whatever its name? Dark skin color as a social-pathology indicator?
And remember, for a scientist to score huge points it is not necessary to prove than any of this stuff is "true". All they have to show is that a semi-plausible case for it can be made. And not a single one of these people, who would score huge points in a game to which their lives are dedicated are prepared to argue in favour of any of these ideas. Not a single one. This should tell us something about the quality of these ideas as desciptors of reality, and the reliability of the people who first put them forward as real, and worse yet, who continue to teach them as reality in light of what science has to tell us.
There are many analogous situations. The people who believe that the Earth is 6,000 to 10,000 years old continue to publish garbage that has a striking resemblance to FARMS output re. the historicity of the Book of Mormon (see for example, "Young Earth Creationists: Creation Conference in Lynchburg" by Jason Rosenhouse in the Volume 12, No. 2 of Skeptic at http://www.skeptic.com/the_magazine/i...). But no serious scientists do not take their side in peer reviewed journals. Is this a conspiracy, or is it a huge community of knowledgable people who have tested something so thoroughly that the horse is dead and not worthy of more beating, or attempts at revival? Most Mormons would quickly agree with the latter statement.
The alien abduction research is even more interesting in this regard. A few scientists did, until recently at least, take the position that the hypothesis that alien abductions are real should be taken seriously. Peer reviewed papers have been published along this line.
And yet, not a single peer reviewed paper has been published that suggests taking any of the many Mormon theories about the Book of Mormon Americas seriously.
Is this a conspiracy by the scientific community against Mormonism, or should we admit that aliens visiting the earth and abducting people for breeding experiments, etc. is more likely than the Book of Mormon is historically accurate? Or should we admit that the Book of Mormon being accurate has roughly the same probability as the Earth being about 6,000 years old? That is the consensus of the huge community of scientists who are the people most knowledgeable with regard to the many scientific disciplines that are relevant to this topic.
The best Mormon apologists can do against this, as illustrated by the debate related to DNA and the BofM (see http://www.postmormon.org/exp_e/index...), is to establish that the case against the Mormon position is not airtight. That is, it can't be proven with 100% certainty that the Mormon position is false any more than it can be proven that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, or is not flat, or that humans descended from mice as well as apes. However, given all of the evidence relevant to questions of this kind, we can determine roughly speaking how probable it is that the Earth is 6,000 years old, or flat. And the probability is vanishingly small.
We intuitively use probabilities to govern countless decisions each day based on our perception of the evidence, and hence reality. And it is this hugely important question of probabilities that religious apologists work as hard as possible to obscure. They focus on the absense of absolute proof, and avoid the examination of probabilities.
I remember years ago reading one of Nibley's essays in which he alluded to the fact that scientists, linguists, etc. did not take the BofM seriously, and argued that as soon as they finally came to their senses and considered his brilliant theories regarding the BofM, BofA, etc. they would agree with him - that Mormonism can't prove its case, but is worth taking very seriously. For years that idea was compelling to me. And then one day the scales fell from my eyes. They never fell from Hugh's. They have not fallen from my father's, many of his highly intelligent friends' or many brilliant people of my acquaintance.
To the end of my days I am likely to be engaged by the mystery of what causes some to see and other similarly situated people in all discernible ways, not to see. I am as well versed in the science related to perception now as all but a tiny fraction of the population, and this question still grips me.
| "It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong. Voltaire"
The Gospel of Judas is shaking up the religious world. While it has many messages, perhaps its most important is that when it was written, as now, people perceived present and past events so as to justify their most important beliefs.
The Gospel of Judas (see http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/lo...) was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s, decomposed while lost in the murky antiquities trading world until the late 1990s, and then dramatically surfaced and was restored and recently authenticated as ancient using a variety of modern technologies. It was likely written within a hundred years of the four canonical gospels, around 200 CE, and was known of well 180 CE. The canonical gospels, of course, were not reduced to writing until between 35 and 65 years after Jesus death (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospels#..., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_c..., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical...).
New information about foundational social beliefs tends to make people both excited and uncomfortable. In this, the Gospel of Judas is a little like the Dead Sea Scrolls. They turned some parts of the religious world upside down in the decades following their discovery in the 1940s (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea...) while casting bright new light on the world Jesus inhabited. Compelling evidence that many of Jesus teachings most important teachings were in circulation well before his birth forced a radical reappraisal of his role as a social innovator and original teacher. Compared to this, the Gospel of Judas is not much. But it is interesting, and it is causing a stir.
What Does the Gospel of Judas Say?
Judas’ gospel tells us that Jesus trust Judas Iscariot more than any other disciple, and so chose him for that most difficult and important seeing to it that Jesus’ was executed and so performed his divine, redemptory function. As the National Geographic puts it:
The text begins by announcing that it is the "secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover." It goes on to describe Judas as Jesus' closest friend, someone who understands Christ's true message and is singled out for special status among Jesus' disciples.
In the key passage Jesus tells Judas, "'you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.'" Kasser, the translation-project leader, offers an interpretation: "Jesus says it is necessary for someone to free him finally from his human body, and he prefers that this liberation be done by a friend rather than by an enemy.
"So he asks Judas, who is his friend, to sell him out, to betray him. It's treason to the general public, but between Jesus and Judas it's not treachery." (see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/ne...).
The Gospel of Judas also says that Jesus told him that the other disciples (and hence now all of traditional Christianity) worshipped a subsidiary God; a God that may have created humanity but was in turn created by and subject to a higher god - the creator of the universe which was an all-powerful entity beyond human comprehension. In Hindu terms, this is the difference between Brahman (all powerful and indescribable) and Indra (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra) . In Mormon terms, it the difference between Elohim and the eternal law to which Elohim is subject (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/out%20o... at page 22).
No one suggests that the Gospel of Judas’ story is more likely an accurate account of the interaction between Jesus and Judas than the versions contained in the New Testament. In fact, the scholarly consensus is that most of Jesus’ recorded sayings never fell from his lips (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Se...). Rather, his teachings were probably part of popular culture and eventually assumed to have been his because they were assumed to be true. So many human cultures have evolved this way in similar situations that it is not reasonable to assume Christianity was different.
In a variety of ways, the Gospel of Judas displays Gnostic characteristics (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnostici... and http://www.earlychristianwritings.com...). The Gnostics were an early Christian sect that believed itself to have secret, sacred information conveyed by Jesus to special followers that was essential to salvation. Mainstream Christians did their best to stamp out Gnostic belief and practice. For example, Jesus’ message to Judas about the nature of God and Judas’ role in Jesus sacrifice was part of the secret “gnosis” or wisdom. Much of the storyline that has made “The Da Vinci Code” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Da_V...) the blockbuster it is comes from this tradition as well.
Gnostic roots run deep and broad. For example, they believed in a collection of lesser gods that represented the dual nature of humanity (good vs. evil; ying vs. yang). This idea is found at the core of the oldest religions, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, and so long pre-dates Christianity.
Zoroastrianism originated in ancient Iran and taught that there is an all-powerful, but unknowable, God. Hinduism’s Brahman is similarly indefinable, potent and pervasive.
The Zoroastrian god has two aspects that are represented as a series of lesser angels (or gods) representing good and evil. Hinduism has similar subsidiary divinities that are derived from Brahman. These lesser beings are in some ways like the Christian God described by the Gospel of Judas (see http://www.avesta.org/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastr... and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahman).
Hindu belief says that we are bound to this plane by a form of that evil, manifested as desire or fear, which are two sides of the same coin. Shed desire and you will transcend the human limitations that prevent us from understanding ultimate reality. But that’s a tall order (see http://www.stephen-knapp.com).
And Buddhism came out of Hinduism much as Christianity came out of the Hebrew tradition. So it also emphasizes the unity of humanity with the ultimate being and the importance of overcoming the desires that blind and bind us.
At a minimum, the Gospel of Judas is another significant link between early Christianity and these far older belief systems. It indicates, as did the Dead Sea Scrolls in countless ways, that Christianity was derivative from earlier traditions instead of having been created in a blinding flash of divine power.
Social Morality More Deep, Broad Roots
Our most basic moral rules also run deep in our religious traditions. For example, most reject "moral relativism" the idea that there is no absolute good or evil; that right and wrong are mere matters of agreement within groups of humans (see http://www.moral-relativism.com/). Zoroastrianism does this by telling us that the duality of good and evil is part of everything. Judaism, Christianity and the Muslim faiths say that their respective Gods have told us what is good, what is bad, and how to tell the difference, and that is that. However, the best argument against moral relativism may be sociological instead of religious for practical reasons, among others.
And most religious believers reject the validity of all basic religious tenets that differ from their own. This makes the it somewhere between difficult and impossible for people with different deeply held religious beliefs to agree regarding moral principles or even who owns which piece of disputed property. This is the problem that has caused so much violence in places like Palestine and Northern Ireland.
Science, however, has credibility in most religious communities and so can answer questions about all religious and other social groups more persuasively than can any single religion. That is not to say that religious people defer to science when it questions their beliefs. Far from it. However, science is often the basis upon which all non-believers of a particular religious tradition will agree to critique that tradition. And over the course of generations, religious beliefs that are inconsistent with science tend to be modified to conform, or are simply (and quietly) dropped. Think of the Catholic resistance, and then acquiesce to the shape of the Earth, that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and Darwinian evolution (for the most part, at least).
This historical pattern gives hope that science will eventually become the unifying force regarding how we perceive reality, and that religion will take on the kind of role that art and community service organizations now play. That is, I will regard my religious beliefs as an important part of how I relate to life and my community. These beliefs will resemble my relationship to sports (I prefer basketball over hockey for various historical reasons that I am prepared to defend on mostly irrational, aesthetic grounds), art (I prefer moderately abstract art over representation; certain kinds of music over others; etc.), literature, etc. In each of these cases, my views are passionately held and not likely to change, while at the same time I understand why others who have had a different life experience will passionately hold different points of view.
I will also regard my religious beliefs as a crucial organizing factor around which much of my social and family life will gyrate. It will provide much of my social context, and so the social and ritual framework that stabilize me and my most important relationships.
However, my moral sense, political views, opinions regarding economics etc. will come from science and philosophy. These will inform my religious experience as they inform my athletic and artistic experience. And, in the depths of each of these kinds of experience I will sometimes glimpse essences or feel meanings that are inarticulate part of the massive unconscious ocean on which our sliver of consciousness rides and I will be reminded that my ritual and community life influences me in ways that are unfathomable.
Social Forces as God
Scientists and historians have observed that moral codes based on the "Golden Rule" principle became part of almost all cultures (and religions) at about the same time, during the Axial Age between 900 and 200 BCE. This suggests that morality was crucial to the formation of civilization as we know it. Modern research in areas such as game theory (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner...) provide a strong theoretical foundation for this position. And it makes sense that each human group in pre-scientific times would attribute their important rules to their god (see Karen Armstrong, “The Great Transformation reviewed at http://www.latimes.com/features/relig...).
And there's a widespread pattern that ties religious beliefs to how social groups are organized. For example, agrarian cultures tended to develop belief systems that used rituals consistent with their relationship to the annual fertility cycle. This gave rise to female imagery and some matriarchal social and religious structures. And hunter, herder, warrior groups (like the Aryans who gave us Zoroastrianism) tended to develop belief systems that ritualized the conflict that was so large a part of their lives. They also emphasized, from both religious and social points of view, the masculine traits necessary to survive in a violent environment (see Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, and “Thou art That”).
The notion of god that evolved along with these radically different rituals and beliefs were quite different in some ways, while sharing many socially important basic concepts such as the Golden Rule. As the Lutheran scholar Loyal Rue sees it, “Religion Is Not About God” (see his book by that title, and a related podcast at http://faculty.juniata.edu/braxton/Lo...).
Stephen Prothero illustrates this point in a modern context in “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon”. There he describes the radically different ways in which Jesus has been perceived, and the social uses to which he has been put, in a variety of American sub-cultures ranging from post-slavery black communities to the various incarnations of Mormonism.
To many scientifically oriented people, God now seems more like a mirror into which human groups look than an all powerful independent being. They largely agree with Goethe, who said:
As man is;
So is his God;
And thus is God;
Oft strangely odd.
And this, perhaps, is what the Gospel of Judas most clearly says. The Gnostics shortly after Jesus seem to have interpreted his story in a fashion that was consistent with their worldview, just as did the more mainstream Christians of their day. And various religions and irreligious groups are now doing precisely the same thing.
The more things change, the more they seem the same. At least in some ways.
| I went to an after work social function in honor of our articling students (Canadian legalese for “one year indentured slaves”) who recently qualified to become lawyers. While there a woman I did not know (had never before seen) called me aside and told me she was a former Mormon, had heard a few moments ago that I had a “Mormon website” and wanted to talk about it. A story came out that is so typical that I think it should be told in this kind of forum and dissected. I will do that with a generic story instead of hers in order to preserve her anonymity.
I will call the person in this story Gail. Gail grows up Mormon and is “rebellious”. During her teens she experiments with things that are contrary to the Mormon way. But she does not repent, and eventually leaves her family to get away from the constraints her parents and community try to place on her. She considers herself no longer Mormon from her teens on. But when occasionally called to repentance by family members, or when visiting home and feeling the rebuke (silent or otherwise) of family, former friends and neighbors, she still intensely hurts and feels badly about herself in ways she can't explain. She believes she is living in a fashion that is just fine, but still she feels bad about something she can't describe or define.
These are subtle feelings. She has consciously rejected Mormonism, and yet feels sick to her stomach when she knows one of these confrontations is likely to come up, and for days afterwards finds herself thinking about it, and wondering if she should change the way she lives and then yelling at herself because of how ridiculous these feelings are. She feels hesitant about breaking Mormon rules years after outwardly rejecting Mormonism, and then shakes her head at herself. Where does this craziness come from, she wonders.
Gail knows that Mormonism doesn’t make sense, but can’t explain why. When pressed, she simply says that she doesn’t believe it because it doesn’t make sense. But when asked how she would react if a Young Earth Creationist told her she was going to hell because she did not believe the Bible is literally true, she says that would not bother her in the slightest she would laugh it off as someone else’s crazy beliefs. And when asked why she doesn’t just laugh off the Mormon beliefs that she is occasionally confronted with, she doesn’t know but says that “laughing them off” does not describe how she deals with them. She doesn’t believe them, but she can’t laugh them off. And she intensely dislikes even fears those moments when she knows she is likely to have to listen to Mormons tells her what they believe and either tell her or imply in a million ways that she is less than they are because she does not conform to their beliefs and standards of behaviour.
I know a number of people who have lived decades of life in the state I just described. In each case, once they finally got around to completely falsifying Mormonism they were able to deal with significant life problems that had plagued them for most of that period of time. I believe that these problems in some cases crippling in nature are related to their self esteem. Their relationship to Mormonism had caused them to believe, at varying levels of consciousness, that they were defective because they could not live “up to” the standard of life required to be a faithful Mormon. In each case, once they falsified Mormonism they began to see themselves as different, and better, people. And they no longer allowed Mormons to make them feel inferior.
This is not an event, but rather a process that requires a re-wiring of the brain that occurs as we think new thoughts over and over again. Much of my writing is the product of the continual reworking of a set of thoughts that run along the healthy lines and that I decided to establish as my main mental framework. I would read books related to these ideas and then write notes to myself (some of which become posts here or elsewhere, or essays) that over and over again reprocessed the thoughts I want to characterize my mental processes. I would look for threads here and elsewhere to post on related to the same general ideas. I travelled to conferences where I could connect with people to whom I could talk about these issues, and then with whom I could maintain a correspondence along the same lines. Some people do this by chatting, reading books, watching movies, etc. I mostly do it through writing. If we want to change the way our brains work, something like this needs to be done.
I explained this to Gail, and volunteered to send her a few things to read, websites that I have found to contain helpful information, links to places like this and information related to how I have seen people use them. She had no idea this world existed. I told her that there is no one best way to rewire her brain, but that there are lots of ways that have worked for different people and that as she reads and asks questions in places like this and then tries out different approaches, she will likely find something that works for her.
Gail asked in particular how to deal with friends and family members who insist, from time to time, on bearing their Mormon testimony to her and so trying to save her while crippling her with guilt. What a beautiful picture. One has told her that she is not only destroying herself, but preventing their entire family from going to the Celestial Kingdom. I explained that this kind of issue has been dealt with for a long time in the counseling literature that deals with individuation, attachment, grieving and related topics. And I note in passing that each of the people I am aggregating in this personality pastiche presents confidently and attractively. The hurt is buried deep.
As Gail works through this process, she will learn to set boundaries and demand the respect of her family members, or she will withdraw from association with them. Sometimes that is necessary for a period of time to make a point. Sometimes that becomes permanent, but rarely.
I am consistently impressed by the importance of falsifying the Mormon paradigm on the way out the door, and finding ways to realistically validate the goodness of the person leaving. For most people who have been conditioned as believers, it is not enough to simply withdraw. And Mormons vastly prefer a relationship that subconsciously at least allows them to stand on the high ground, looking down on the weak souls who cannot live by their exalted standard.
In a perverse way, many Mormons draw strength from pointing to others who are not married, who drink, who smoke, who are not having children, who are gay, who have children out of wedlock, who have not gone on misssions, etc. All of these people are presumed to be living below their potential and to be unhappy, and this belief strengthens the Mormon belief that by obeying the Mormon law happiness will come. And at the same time, it is an ironic fact that the Mormon community is likely taking more anti-depressants per capita that the presumably sinful, unhappy people on which they smuggly look down. There must be a reality TV script in this somewhere.
It does not matter so much that the Mormons be knocked off their perches (though I must confess to enjoying this when it happens), but for the reasons already noted, it is critical to the mental health of most of those who leave that they feel in their guts as well as their brains that it is only a limited perspective ignorance that causes Mormons to act and feel superior. They have no justification on rational or moral grounds for their position, and this is obvious to the vast majority of well-informed non-Mormons. In fact, many Mormons wallow in muck so dark they can’t see where they are. If there is a heaven and hell, few will be more surprised upon death than many hardcore TBM Mormons.
I would be interested to hear if my folk psychology is consistent with what others have observed, and what related patterns have been observed.
| I asked for suggestions as to the best single argument against the Book of Mormon, and got a lot of great suggestions. I agree with many on the earlier thread who said that of course there is no one clincher; that for most people it is the cumulative weight of many factors; and that for most Mormons it does not seem to matter what you tell them, they remain committed to their belief position. However, we have to start somewhere when deconstructing in a loving, humane way the beliefs of those people who matter most to us. And so it makes sense to think about how this is best done, and hence where to start.
And, it is important to recognize that this is a long term process in most cases, and that despite the appearance that what we say or do about Mormonism has no effect on the people with whom we interact, important things are often happening between their ears.
As I was giving this a bit more thought this morning, I decided to outline and put forward for discussion a few things I think are important about the deconversion process. The most important of these might be called the “delayed reaction effect” of information related to important religious beliefs.
But first, a little background.
In the thread yesterday I noted my favorite approach when dealing with scientifically oriented people is to describe the scientific consensus that the Book of Mormon theories about reality are without merit. That puts them on par with other religious theories that can be tested like the earth is 6,000 years old and biological evolution is a myth. Scientists ignore these as well, while vigorously pursuing all known theories about reality that have any material chance of being correct, or even that are taken seriously by other respected scientists.
My favorite approach for non-scientific people is that when we consider Joseph Smith’s story from front to back, even as told by faithful Mormons like Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling”, Smith is not trustworthy and should not be believed about anything important. See xxxxx for my usual tedious treatment of this subject.
And I note that my introspection on this subject is directly related to the fact that one of my loved ones is in the process of deconverting at the moment, and I am both celebrating and thinking about how trying this process has been for all concerned. While on that subject, I note that my initial celebratory cheer here was picked up at FAIR (see http://www.fairboards.org/index.php?s...). I seldom darken FAIR’s door, and was alerted to this by a friend. I suggested that she advise the folks at FAIR, if she felt so inclined, that my celebration relates to the fact that an intimate relationship was ruptured when I left Mormonism. I celebrate the return of that intimacy, and the knowledge that a loved one is becoming more connected to reality and hence will be far more likely to make wise life decisions than would have been the case had he/she remained a literalist Mormon. It’s as simple as that. I have no trouble with the morality of attempting to disabuse most people of erroneous beliefs. While I don’t agree with some of Sam Harris’ points in “The End of Faith”, I am fully on board with him in this regard it is time to end the deference accorded to irrational religious belief.
So, when trying to deconstruct the testimony of someone we love (and this is such hard work that it is not likely to occur outside this context), here are some ideas that I find useful. I don’t put this forward as “how it is”, but rather for discussion. I am sure that lots of people here have experience that can be added to mine with a view to creating a model that might be buffed up, and summarized for Eric to put on the website here to aid future generations of those who are trying to find the Mormon exit, and move their family members or others toward it while doing as little damage as possible.
1. Our social lives are formed around Mormonism, and hence the potential cost of a change in belief in this regard is huge. This causes denial, which means that our subconscious minds override our perceptive powers to prevent us from seeing dangerous information (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni...).
2. Conditioning related to religions beliefs affects how our brains format and function. Think of how baby cats raised in a room without vertical lines cannot see things like table legs when released into the “real” world, and walk right into them. Our ability to perceive is fundamentally affected by the kind of conditioning Mormonism uses on us. That is why science arguments of the kind I outlined tend to be ineffective when made to faithful Mormon scientists. This explains the compartmentalized brain concept that was nicely articulated at on the other thread.
3. It takes time to change our ability to perceive since this requires some brain reformatting and that we overcome denial. It is nowhere near as simple as being presented with new evidence and saying “Oh, so that’s it!” Neural patterns must be changed to allow us to in some cases see the information at all, like the little cats, and in others to realistically interpret that information. I am reminded of the tame cats our neighbours imported at great cost from England when the immigrated to Canada a short while ago. They let them out to play in our rural community, and the coyotes enjoyed a tasty imported snack. These cats did not recognize the significance of sounds and signs that keep many other cats in our area safe.
4. Points 1 through 3 mean that patience is a must. We should expect the information we present contra Mormon belief to be rejected. We should expect it to cause pain. We should expect our loved ones to feel threatened. We should expect to need to comfort them and show them more love and offer them more evidence of our commitment to them than at any other time in our relationship. Attempts to force acceptance ahead of perception are likely to be interpreted as threatening and contrary to the interest of the person threatened.
5. Different people are moved by different kinds of information. Science oriented people are likely to eventually be moved by the kind of approach I took. In that case, I would go down one science thread after another as opportunity presented itself. Sight is likely to gradually develop if this process is permitted to continue long enough. Other people are more oriented toward history and might find Mike Quinn useful. Many women are moved by books like Todd Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness” or by Newell and Avery’s “Mormon Enigma”, which are about polygamy. In the end, lots of different kinds of information are generally required. We see what was persuasive by hindsight.
6. Mormonism harnesses powerful emotional forces that have been drilled right into our DNA by evolution (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni... starting at page 119). Generally, intellectual forces are no match for these.
7. Emotional forces can be dealt with in two ways. First, other emotional forces can be mounted to go head to head with them. For example, if it appears that a marriage may end as a result of faith differences, this can sometimes cause eyes to open. And it can cause marriages to unnecessarily end or to suffer damage that will make them permanently limp. For many women reading about the reality of polygamy and the way Mormon men like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young lied to and about the women in their lives is an emotional experience. It is an emotional experience for some parents to understand what Mormon belief does to many young women; how gay people are treated within the Mormon system; how so many other religions leaders have through they spoke with God and then used the power this experience gave them to horribly abuse those who followed them; etc. When we think in emotional terms, we can often find other issues that will work in this regard for particular loved ones. Second, emotional forces can be gradually defused. Much of our emotion related to Mormonism can be explained by attachment theory (see Kirkpatrick, “Attachment, Evolution and the Psychology of Religion”, for example). We depend upon the things we are attached to. This is often healthy, and sometimes not. For example, as we develop a broader group of friends (ie. non-Mormon friends), our dependence on Mormonism declines and our brain allows us to see things that would threaten our Mormon beliefs. Hence, introducing Mormon loved ones to new situations where they can see how other people live, and ideally become emotionally intimate with non-Mormons, can be a huge step toward breaking the bonds of literalist Mormon belief. Some important things happened in this regard last summer for my family at Star Island (see http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star%20island%20overview.pdf). The changes that some family members experienced there were related to, and see by way of changed behaviour, other family members when we came home. That has in turn caused further changes to occur.
8. In summary, individual humans, as well as human groups, seem to change their behaviours often on the basis of a “phase transition” similar to what happens when a liquid starts to boil. This has to do with “power law distributions” and “self organizing critical systems”. Different human groups will react in different ways to environmental changes due in large measure to how information flows within them. Something analogous occurs within each human brain. Individuals in groups interact in complicated ways that are analogous to grains of sand being added to a pile and occasionally starting avalanches of different sizes. We tend to overestimate the importance of our individual psychology and “free will”, and underestimate the extent to which our lives are influenced by how we in effect “bounce off” other individuals and the information by which we are surrounded. Those who wish to influence the deconversion process hence should focus on changing the environmental conditions around the loved one for whom a deconversion is hoped.
What do you think? Let have some critique of these ideas and others to add to the mix. We will then summarize.
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