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BOB MCCUE - SECTION 5
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| One of my friends is a successful clinical psychologist with a background in theology. He is one of the sharpest people with whom I regularly deal when it comes to understanding the academic psychological literature, and practically applying it. Here is part of a note he sent to me and a number of other people as we were discussing the difficulty we have observed in trying to communicate with literalist religious people about matters that question their faith.
“About 90% of the world's population never achieve formal operations as Piaget (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Pia...) defined them. When these are plotted against socio-economic status (SES) on the vertical axis, the resulting graph is almost a perfectly inverted pyramid. Higher SES accounts for nearly all formal operations capacity.
As you know formal operations consists, among other things, of the ability to manipulate abstract concepts which in turn is essential for critical, analytical thinking. Objectively appraising one's religious beliefs would be an example of the latter. Brain development in early adolescence (of various frontal regions) makes formal operations possible. Thus in high school formal operations first manifest themselves but they reach their full fruition in college.
Literalist religious beliefs are not confined to lower SES but they are more common there.
There is some question as to whether Piaget's system can be extrapolated from the Western European culture from which it was derived but its validity seems to remain relatively intact in the Northern West.
With many literalists, you may be speaking the same words but you are talking a different language.”
As I have noted elsewhere, I think cognitive dissonance and various cognitive biases are highly explanatory with regard to why most of us have trouble dealing with information that conflicts with our important belief. See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.deni... for my treatment that subject. This analysis is particularly helpful when it comes to understanding the situation of well-educated people who confront inadequacies in their belief system. They are capable of abstract, critical thought and hence experience significant cognitive dissonance as they wrestle with issues that pit scientifically sound theory and evidence against dogmatic belief. And, they tend to resort to sophisticated rationalizations in an attempt to relieve their cognitive dissonance. These rationalizations include things like Heidigerian philosophy (the experienced moment is the most reliable reality, etc.), various strains of postmodern ridiculousness, and the other kinds of strained rationalizations for which farms and fair are infamous within the post-Mormon community. "Intelligent design" and "creation science" are examples of the same sort of thing in other parts of the literalist Christian community.
However, I have noticed that with many people discussions with regard to the nature of religious belief do not even get off the deck. All they can do is respond by bearing their testimony -- they "know" on the basis of their experience, what is true. That is where Piaget comes in. Just as things like the intricacies of string theory and quantum mechanics are simply beyond me, abstract ideas with regard to the disconnect between our emotional experience and reality are beyond the grasp of many members of our families and communities. It is not realistic to expect people of this sort to change their beliefs, or even understand ours, as long as their emotional and social experience continues to run along Mormon lines and as long as their intellectual experience leaves them below the formall operations watermark.
Interestingly, many people leave Mormonism because it simply does not work for them without understanding of why that is the case. That is, their emotional experience within Mormonism does not justify the investment of time, effort etc. Mormonism requires. Sadly, people of this type often carry a burden of guilt with them because they have not falsified the Mormon belief system. All they know is that it does not work for them; that it does not feel right. Many of these people still hold Mormon beliefs, which ironically indict them. They believe they were not good enough to live by the Mormon rulebook. They feel guilty. And without the ability to place their religious experience and beliefs in context, it is difficult for them to shake these feelings. This is also often a function of not having abstract thinking skills at or above the level required to get out of the Mormon box.
One of the good things we can say about Mormonism is that it emphasizes education, and hence encourages the development of Piaget's formal operational thinking. It therefore has sown the seeds of its own demise. That is not to say that the Mormon Church will go away; rather, I believe that it will be forced to change because it has created several generations now of people who are capable of abstract, critical thinking. As my friend pointed out above, these people tend to be successful. Either Mormonism will change to accommodate them, or it will lose them. If there is one thing that Mormonism's leaders understand, consciously or not, it is hanging on to cash flow. So bank on it -- Mormonism will change to become acceptable to those of its members who are capable of abstract, critical thinking. This is likely, however, to take several generations.
Consider the difference between mainstream Mormonism and the FLDS in that regard. I have long said that Mormonism retards its adherents. I still think it is a fair statement. However, we are talking about relatively minor retardation. It is far more difficult for a disaffected member of the FLDS faith to leave that cloister that it was for me to leave mine.
From my point of view, a big part of letting go of Mormonism in a healthy way comes down to being able to accept and forgive others for doing what they do in being what they are. As we come to understand that people who have lied to us, stolen time, money and energy from us, and otherwise harmed us were acting in ways that were not only predictable, but in most cases unavoidable, it is easier to let go and move on. The same kind of understanding with regard to those who cannot understand our current beliefs and behavior is helpful. And this of course applies as well to that person to whom it is often most difficult to extend forgiveness - ourselves.
| Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" – A Meditation On Healing Religious Wounds And The Breadth Of Religious Symbolism |
Wednesday, Dec 6, 2006, at 07:32 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 5 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| I spent about 18 hours driving this weekend, and it had the opportunity to listen to a lot of music as well as a couple of books on tape. Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has long been one of my favorites, and I listened to it probably a dozen times during the course of my drive. The following stream of consciousness is the result.
Leonard Cohen has achieved near iconic status in the poet/singer/songwriter community, while barely being able to sing. For an introduction, see his biography at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_...) and a recent, well-worth watching documentary – “I’m Your Man” (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478197/) that features U2 and numerous other luminaries and their accolades to Cohen, as well as performances of famous Cohen pieces by many of the same people. His website has a lot of useful information as well - http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/. This essay (http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/ - see "UNDER THE SPELL OF STRANGER MUSIC - LEONARD COHEN'S LYRICAL JUDAISM" under the "Analysis" button) lays the foundation for understanding the religious influence in his work.
Cohen’s "Hallelujah" is particularly meaningful to me. In it, he uses various symbols from his Jewish background in a way that produces a particularly powerful experience for those of us who have had intense experiences with the same symbols. As an aside, I remember being in Peru as a missionary, and being taunted by children in the street with a feigned ecstatic chorus of "hallelujahs". And, ironically, I remember thinking at the time that we were not anywhere near as ridiculous as the Pentecostals and other charismatic evangelicals who used that term as part of their worship. Little did I know how much more ridiculous we were in so many ways that were they. But I digress.
My walk with Cohen this weekend made me think about the transformative process many people who come from literalist religions backgrounds undergo, and how during the later stages of that process we reintegrate and reinterpret our inherited symbols. James Fowler describes this in his book "Stages of Faith". Elizabeth Kubler Ross alludes to the same thing in her stages of grief paradigm (google that), and much of ancient mythology plays with the same theme in countless adventurer into chaos, transformation there, and eventual return and reintegration into society. I deal with some of these concepts at http://exmormonfoundation.org/2006Con....
It is a measure of my recovery that I still feel an intense allergy to Mormonism’s foundation symbols – the silhouette of J. Smith; of the handcart pioneers; of the Salt Lake Temple; of the beehive; and most of all, of the Angel Moroni with trumpet. Hence, I am fascinated by Cohen’s treatment of his ancestral symbols, both because of what it will mean for me when I can do the same with mine, and because Cohen’s work is simply brilliant.
I have decided that part of the next phase of my recovery will include a concerted effort to integrate some of Mormonism’s foundational symbols into others that have become more meaningful me of late, such as Dali’s Geopoliticus Child (see http://dali.urvas.lt/forviewing/pic12...), Escher’s various metamorphosis pieces (see for example, http://imagecache2.allposters.com/ima...), the oroboros (see http://www.asetusa.com/sc/oroborus.jp...), the ying-yang symbol (see http://www.csusm.edu/rms/images/yingy...), evolutionary landscapes (see http://www.dillgroup.ucsf.edu/dl_imag...), the windswept tree (see http://www.cyprusbyclick.com/CITY_GUI...), Etc. . This is part of a therapeutic method some psychologists refer to as de-sensitization. For example, an arachnophobe might be exposed to images of spiders in a sufficiently safe environment to allow her to wrestle with her fear on a regular basis. Gradually, in some cases at least, she will be able to deal with more intense images and with sufficient familiarity her fear can be overcome. I'm not sure to what extent this will help me to slay some of my Mormon demons, but I have been convinced that it is worth a try. Leonard Cohen is one of my guiding lights in that regard.
Cohen’s voice is so bad that I don't particularly like his rendition of the piece. My favorite cover is by k.d. lang. My favorite is her Juno aware performance. Her emotion, and the crowd reaction, put this over the top. k.d., btw, is a lesbian candw artist who hails from a small town not far from Calgary. When she came out of the closet close to 20 years ago, that was even less trendy around here than it is now. Quite a human being; a fitting transmitter of Cohen's art. See
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCJzn0... . A more restrained version can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW_H-V....
My second favorite cover is by Rufus Wainwright, which you can find in both audio and video at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMrZ7l.... It is also included in the documentary noted above. Imogen Heap does a wonderful rendition of part of the song, which you can find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE1OFH... .
I have cut and pasted the lyrics in full below, in both their versions. The owner of a piece can change it as he wishes. The more sensual nature of the later rendition is even more provocative than was the original.
There is far too much in this piece for anyone to comprehensively analyze it. So I will simply let the words stand for themselves. Depending on how others responde to this, I may add something later to indicate what partiuclarly resonated with me.
(CD - Various Positions – 1984)
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
(CD - Leonard Cohen in Concert – June 1994 )
Baby, I've been here before.
I know this room, I've walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.
Yeah I've seen your flag on the marble arch,
But listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
No it's a cold and it's a very broken Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, (Hallelujah...)
There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below,
Ah but now you never show it to me, do you?
Yeah but I remember, yeah when I moved in you,
And the holy dove, she was moving too,
Yes every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Maybe there's a God above,
As for me, all I've ever seemed to learn from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
Yeah but it's not a complaint that you hear tonight,
It's not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light
No it's a cold and it's a very lonely Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
I did my best, it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth, I didn't come all this way to fool you.
Yeah even though it all went wrong
I'll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
| If this were a Mormon testimony meeting, I would stand up, start with the obligatory “brothers and sisters, I want to bear you my testimony that I know this is the one and only true church on the face of the earth blah blah blah”, and then get into what I really wanted to say – that I just got back from a wonderful vacation in France that I am sure you all want to hear about, and then go on to deliver a ten minute travelogue that would have only the most remote connection to religious belief or experience.
Since this is not a Mormon testimony meeting, I will simply tell you that I just got back from a wonderful vacation in France where I saw all kinds of interesting art, architecture, met some fascinating people, read all or parts of about a dozen books, and while immensely enjoying the experience found very little that that to do with Mormonism, post Mormonism or religion, practically speaking. Hence, I don’t have much to say that is relevant to the topics under discussion here, and I will spare you the travelogue.
Perhaps what I just said does not mean much for most people, but in my case it is significant. For the past five years, I have not been able to read so much as the badly translated assembly instructions for my grandson’s new bicycle without finding deep and intensely important significance with regard to religion in general and Mormonism in particular. Everyone teases me about this. My children can be downright vicious at times in this regard.
And so, as week after week in France went by and I read book after book and visited interesting place after interesting place and found little that drew me back into Mormon related themes, I realized that I am indeed recovering. And I felt good.
Maybe if I get some energy going here once jet lag has subsided and I am caught up at the office, I will cull some of the religion related stuff from my book review notes and post them. Most of that has to with human growth in general; how we deal with crises; how our relationships work; what makes art art and why are we attracted (or not) to it; etc. The books are Frances Mayes – Under the Tuscan Sun; Chaim Potok – My Name is Asher Lev; Michael Kimmelman – The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice-Versa; John Gottman – The Relationship Cure; John Gottman – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work; Pascale Quiviger – The Perfect Circle; Eleanor McKenzie - Beyond the Kama Sutra; Baron Baptiste – The Yoga Bootcamp Box; Harry Rasky – The Song of Leonard Cohen; Alberto Manguel – Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art; Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching; Christopher Hansard – The Art of Tibetan Living; Erica Brealey – The Spirit of Meditation; and a couple I left in France the titles andauthors of which I can’t now recall.
In any event, it is good to be back home and to do some RFM reading. I am starting to feel like an RFM grandpa(ma) – kind of like SL Cabbie, Randy J., Stray Mutt, Dagny or perhaps even Richard Packham or Eric K. (bless their holy names). You know – I care but do not feel the kind of panic that hits a new mother when her baby gets really sick for the first time. That is, experience has finally made me comfortable with the fact that as bad as Mormonism was, it can't really harm me. Victor Frankl survived, didn't he. Life hurts as well as it wraps us in wonder; we usually overestimate how bad its going to be and underestimate how much fun we will will have; we usually over-react; shit happens and gets cleaned up.
Don’t misunderstand. I still feel the agony and panic of those posting as they achieve their first painful glimpses of the massive fraud practiced on them. For example, here is the text of a message that was waiting on my email when I arrived home, changed sufficiently to protect identity:
“I find myself going in circles. I can see and argue both sides of the story. (The church is true/no church has the all-encompassing truth.) I see them both clearly. I am leaning more and more towards atheism, and on those days my garments are off. On days when I rely on the old framework, my garments are on. I feel miserable and scared no matter what I wear. I am torn and longing to be free. I am waiting for an answer from God and digging for any answers I can find in books in the meantime. I know that I have a strong sense of ethics, yet I have found that they still remain unscathed--with or without the belief in God. I don’t know how to get past this point and I feel as though my heart could break at any given moment. I just want to be able to make up my mind once and for all without the fear of being cursed for doing so. I am afraid to live and afraid to die. I don’t know how to adequately make sense of the spiritual experiences that I have had.”
Nice. They should build a missionary discussion around that one. "Bro. Brown, do you feeling that grinding, churning feeling in the pit of your stomach? What does that mean to you?"
And, I empathize with the endless stream of tortured spouses who try to find help coping with unraveling relationships. But since I am no longer so raw myself, I accept these feelings without having my own hormonal cascade set off again to twist me into a typing, reading, thinking, sleepless frenzy.
As I read RFM, I also note the way in which many of the same cognitive biases that hold people inside the Mormon tribe are immediately turned into tools that solidify a variety of beliefs that contradict Mormonism, some of which have sketchy rational foundations though in almost all cases, being relatively benign.
And as time passes, I find that I have more trouble getting worked up over whether J. Smith was consciously fraudulent, delusional, well-intended but mistaken, or any combination thereof. He was untrustworthy – that much is as clear as it is that the Earth is almost round. Hence, without compelling, objectively verifiable evidence to support what J. Smith says, he should be ignored. If anything, when he said "white", maybe put money on "black".
I don’t care about the degree to which G. Hinckley is conscious of the role he plays as the current chief con in the Mormon game. A con man sells confidence instead of substance, and whether he is aware of this or not is irrelevant. The best salesmen make themselves believe in their products. Why? Because if you are a salesman, this helps you to sell. Measure Hinckley for that suit and see how well it fits.
Serious jet lag twice in a few weeks is a form of mental enema – it clears the circuits through exhaustion and so allows life’s most recently formed pieces to find their places. This is like what sometimes happens when a writer accidentally deletes an almost finished but troublesome chapter, curses himself, starts to try to re-create it and then watches in amazement as the problems he was struggling with seem to resolve themselves while his story takes off in a fresh direction.
So, as I come back to myself here at home, I notice lots of things. For example, life feels more comfortable. This is not because there is more joy and less pain than when I was Mormon or recently post-Mormon. Rather, it is because my expectations are gradually becoming more realistic. I expect to be sad, angry and bored as well as contented, wondrous and ecstatic. And instead of continually needing to tell myself this, it is becoming instinctual. These new instincts bring peace.
And I increasingly notice that most of life’s satisfaction is found in the daily grind. I am finally past persuading myself of this, and accept it. I don’t need to become God, or save the Earth, or be great in any way. The gradual accomplishment of anything fills us and so enables our occasional glorious overflowings, and provides the stamina we will sometime call upon as we stagger through life’s deserts.
Keeping promises. Encouraging each other. Becoming more constant; more present; more conscious; more real; more interested in more aspects of life; more creative (thus, as said the Chinese sage, living twice - once while experiencing and a second time while recording and interpreting the experience through art). All these fruits and many others may the recovering Mormon expect.
I have never felt more positive with regard to life’s short, medium or long term prospects, for myself as well as those I most love.
| I am in the midst of making a significant career/business decision, and was struck last night by how different this process feels this time around as compared to how I experienced while Mormon. This is the first time I have made a decision of this kind since leaving Mormonism.
While Mormon, a significant part of my decision-making model was drawn from the DandC 9, which advises us to use feelings of peace (as the "burning in the bosom" is usually interpreted) as opposed to darkness/confusion to decide what God wants us to do. For those of you who may have forgotten this bit of wisdom, here it is:
8. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it be right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore you shall feel that it is right.
9. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong …
When deciding whether to accept a new job or business opportunities; move from one city to another; change intimate relationships; etc. we are generally speaking in a state of high emotional arousal or turmoil. Evolution has programmed us to fear the unknown, hence many of these feelings. The bigger the decision, the more likely we are to be in this state. Hence, if we only do what we feel peaceful about, we will tend toward what is safe; what we know; what we are already doing. Not surprisingly, this tends to keep most Mormons close to their Mormon roots and within the behavioural grooves carvedk into us by our conditioning.
And, when we feel this same angst about decisions that Mormonism encourages (getting married young; having babies young; going on a mission; etc.) we are told that these feeligns of darkness come from Satan. Where else could they come from? God has commanded us to do certain things ... Obviously, we obvious must obey what the Mormon prophets had said ...
Tails, Mormonism wins. Heads, we lose.
I remember, in particular, as a young lawyer being offered several opportunities to leave the law firm I was then working with in Vancouver, British Columbia. As I look back now, it is clear that the main reason I remained there for a decade is that whenever an opportunity to go somewhere else presented itself, I went through the process of fasting, praying, listening to my feelings, etc. and found that I did not feel adequately peaceful about taking the new opportunity. In some cases, these were opportunities that I had actively pursued because they seemed to make so much sense, but when the time came to make the decision I didn't feel peaceful enough and so let them pass. I remember weeks of listening to my emotions boil and feeling confused as to why God would veto chances that had seemed so good. That should have been a clue, but I was pretty dense. Once again, all I can do is laugh at myself as I consider my history.
When we understand a bit about the biochemistry of emotion, it is easy to predict we will have many strong feelings as we consider opportunities that require us to leave established behavioral patterns and perhaps relationships in order to undertake something new. Excitement; fear; rising energy to meet a new challenge; etc. are all part of this. But peacefulness or a burning bosom (the classic Mormon testimony feeling), generally speaking, will not be a significant part of what we feel. At most, we will get glimpes of this.
Hence, my family and I remained in Vancouver for close to 10 years in circumstances that became increasingly unbearable. The level of discomfort on a variety of fronts had to rise to the point where as I went through the Mormon decision-making process, the darkness, angst, etc. I felt at the prospect of staying with my law firm in Vancouver was worse than the fear, etc. I felt at the prospect of leaving. Once again, Mormonism had nuetered or infantilized me. It harnessed me in place.
Now, as I consider various kinds of significant opportunities I expect to feel agitated and have a reasonable understanding as to what my biochemistry is doing to produce these feelings, and how long they are likely to last. I understand that this emotional state is a short-term phenomenon, and that whether I choose to take an opportunity or not, I will shortly return to what might be called my "normal" emotional landscape. That is, my typical long-term emotional state.
The emotional spikes that occur as we contemplate, and sometimes make, significant life changes interfere with our decision-making process far more than they help us think clearly and make good decisions. They should be ignored for the most part, and we should consult with trusted friends and advisors who can help us see through this fog as we attempt to see the pros and cons of our too-rare chances for major, productive change along life's way.
Ironically, what I now regard as a miasma is the centerpiece of the Mormon decision-making process. That is what I was taught to focus on to the near exclusion of all else. And until mid-life, that is what I did.
All I can do is shake my head. Yet again.
| I just finished listening to an excellent CBC presentation with regard to the current state of culture, and a number of the factors that will influence where we go from here in that regard. You can find the program at http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/spi.... Today is a work day for me, but I will jot down a few thoughts that were stimulated by CBC before hitting the books.
Edelman, the Mormon Church’s spin doctor, was interviewed. He talked about the importance of the democratization of information, and the radical and beneficial effects that will have with regard to our society. The Hinkster might want to talk to him about where this is headed. Or, the big H can call me. I won't even charge for my advice.
The way in which the use of communications devices, and in particular video cell phones, are now used to transmit information from anywhere into the public consciousness was discussed at some length. For example, it is easy to find uncensored video footage taken by soldiers with regard to the war in Iraq (or any other war in which you are interested) on the Internet. Gone are the days during which governments could control the perception of war (or other elements of social reality) by controlling press access to the events in question. To its credit, the US government has not attempted to prevent soldiers from taking or sharing video footage of this type. Some of the US government's most recent and acute embarrassments with regard to the war effort have been a direct result of video footage of this type. There is a new kind of accountability between the government and the public as a result of the explosion of communications and information technologies.
On the other hand, there is a lot of handwringing (mostly by journalists) with regard to the reduced role journalists play in the culture formation process. They used to be the gatekeepers of the massive news enterprises that decided what kind of information most of us ingested each day. They held the government's feet to the fire by asking tough questions, and then reported and analyzed what they were told. Now, many governments (and most notably the US government) understands that they can deliver their message directly to the public through the Internet and other forms of media. So, they sidestep the journalists.
The decline of mainstream journalistic influence may cause an increase in governmental power (and executive power within government) as a result of a decline in governmental accountability. If journalists are not there to ask hard questions, who will ask? I think that is a fair point.
However, journalists and others now have access to massive amounts of information generated by the democratic information gathering and dissemination processes I have already described. A lot of people are now in a position to ask tougher questions than ever before. Think Guantanamo Bay.
The real problem is that governments are developing various excuses not to deal with journalists, or anyone else who wishes to call them to account. This is what should be resisted. As long as we do this, I think the overall trend is great.
In addition, when we think about how the dynamics described above function in the context of the secrecy oriented, non-democratic institutions like the Mormon Church, the same concerns don't exist. The Mormon Church has never been more than marginally accountable to journalists, or to anyone else. Now, the information democratization forces that are putting pressure on the US and other governments are also putting pressure on the Mormon Church. This will likely continue, and can be counted upon to fundamentally shape the way the Mormon Church functions in the future.
Think, for example, of the kind of meta or non-verbal communication I mentioned a day or two ago on SLDrone’s thread. Since some of that is relevant here, and that post will eventually disappear, I will repeat what I said.
“I have come to believe that those who remain quietly on the inside of Mormonism with changed beliefs may be the key to radically modifying Mormonism over the course of a generation or two. The reason for this has to do with how social communication works. Military studies have shown that, for example, a kind of meta-communication occurs as different kinds of weapons are used (or not) and initiatives are taken (or not) during military exercises.
For example, if one army bombs the supply lines of the other (which can be done at any time), guess what will happen next? This is a kind of conversation.
Similar examples can be found within economics. For example, business corporations routinely skirt the rules against price-fixing by nudging and winking at each other in different ways while setting their prices within certain ranges and refusing to budge. Those who see this often respond by holding their price line as well. When on party breaks rank, most others follow suit. This works particularly well in markets what that are dominated by a few players. Think OPEC, though it is big enough to be hard to control.
Consider, then, what happens within your local Mormon ward when many of the people who seem to be successful, intelligent, etc. tend to decline significant callings, don't hold temple recommends, don't bear their testimonies and on the rare occasion when they are asked to give talks or teach lessons, they talk about metaphor, art and science instead of Scripture and testimony.
This kind of behavior sends powerful messages, many of which operate below the conscious spectrum. Over the course of a generation or two, the very nature of Mormonism will change as a result of this alone.
The presence of moderates of this kind within Mormonism, even if they dare not talk about what they believe, will cause significant changes from the inside that would not likely occur if everyone who disbelieved simply stood up and left.
Larry Iannacconne's research indicates that one of the best ways to keep a religious institution strong is to maintain the cost of membership at a high level. This could mean throwing out everyone who is not prepared to bear testimony in black-and-white terms, do what was required to hold a temple recommend, et cetera. The Jehovah's Witnesses use this system, and their growth has been significantly above the Mormon growth levels for a long time.
So, my view has moderated. I still encourage everyone who can to speak out. But I recognize that those who feel that they cannot will still play a significant role from the inside in remodelling Mormonism. Those who hope for utter collapse are, I fear, waiting for Santa Claus. And I think, overall, that the combination of these two forces (contricism from outside and quietly changing behavior from within) is likely to lead to the most desirable outcome. My thinking related to that point is too convoluted to attempt to lay out here.”
Think of all this in the context of Mitt Romney's current run for the Republican nomination. He is a sharp double-edged short sword from a Mormon perspective. A Mormon in the White House sounds like a dream come true from the Mormon perspective. What could more clearly indicate that Mormonism has "arrived"? However, courtesy of Mitt Romney many Mormons are going to learn an awful lot about their own religion. It will be hard for them to stick their heads in the sand and simply avoid the message this time. They are intensely interested in the outcome of this political process, and hence will read the newspaper reports with regard to Romney and the progress he is making toward the US presidency. Whatever is discussed in that regard will enter the Mormon consciousness in an unprecedented way.
If people like us play our cards right, we can have a significant influence over how much Mormons learn about Joseph Smith and Mormonism during the next little while. Remember, the journalists now have access to democratically produced information instead of the relatively narrow sources upon which they used to rely. With many people like us feeding the same basic information to as many journalists as possible, the probability of Romney being put on the spot with regard to various Mormon issues approaches 100%. And the probability of his answers to those questions ending up in the public spotlight courtesy of the mainstream media approaches the same number.
Hence, it is extremely probable that Mitt Romney will in effect teach many Mormons far more than they have ever before had the opportunity to learn about the reality of their religion.
The basic issue to emphasize is that of trustworthiness. Every time we get the chance, we should put this front and center.
Start with Joseph Smith's trustworthiness. Given the man's track record of deception with regard to his sexual affairs and many other important issues that came up during the course of his leadership of the Mormon community, why should he be trusted with regard to anything that is not nailed down tight by trustworthy third-party verification? What standard of trustworthiness should be used? In general, the more important the issue of the higher the quality of evidence required. But in Joseph Smith's case, let's not set the bar too high, and use the standard required for a relatively modest investment. When anyone who's not already socially or emotionally committed to Mormonism applies this to Joseph Smith, they tend to be unwilling to accept anything of importance the man has had to say. The only people who believe Joseph Smith after becoming familiar with most of his story are those who already have a significant commitment to Mormonism. Social psychology eloquently explains why we should expect this to be the case. It applies to Mormonism as well as to the Jehovah's Witnesses, Young Earth creationists, alien abductionists, Scientologists, et cetera.
The most reasonable way to characterize Joseph Smith in this regard is to say that he was often in tight spots. That is, he got himself into trouble and found his control over the Mormon group slipping away. In these cases, he needed to find ways to get people to obey him, and then said and did what he needed to do to get that job done. This is not an unusual human characteristic. And, Smith was charismatic and hence able to get away with far more than most other people in similar situations.
The fact that a lot of Smith’s lying had to do with sexual indiscretion makes his the kind of story that should make headlines.
The trustworthiness issue can then be extended from Smith through various generations of Mormon leaders into the present generation. For example, given the nature of scholarly work with regard to Mormon history, on what basis is it reasonable for Mormon leaders to now use the lesson manuals they do with regard to missionaries, Sunday School, and even for credit classes at the university level? If Mormons are so happy, what about all that anti-depressant use in Utah?; Utah's bankruptcy rate?; Utah's MLM participation, spousal abuse, etc rates?; etc.
Again, these issue should be put front and center with regard to Romney whenever we have the opportunity to communicate with members of the press and others who may have the ear of those people. I have sent a couple of e-mails to journalists who have written articles with regard to Romney, I intend to continue to do that from time to time, and encourage others to do the same. I think many perhaps underestimate the power, at a time like this, that can be exercised in this way.
In short, Mitt Romney's run for the US presidency will create a massive information spike that will be driven into Mormonism's heart. It is highly probable that this will reduce the power of Mormonism's leaders, and increase the power the average Mormon perceives herself to have relative to the Mormon institution. You don't have to accept callings; give money; go on missions; etc. Do what makes sense, not what you are told to do. etc. This is what almost happens when information circulate is improved within a human group.
One of the reasons for which this spike has the potential to be so influential is that Mormons will, in the case of Mitt Romney, have a rare opportunity to compare their personal reaction to bits of information related to Mormonism's foundational beliefs, to the reaction of the general public to the same information bits. Consider the following in this regard.
Generally speaking, the populace at large does not care about Mormonism. Hence, the debate with regard to Joseph Smith's deceptive nature, Book of Mormon geography, DNA and the Book of Mormon, etc. is carried out at the fringe of the Mormon community. The few Mormons who hear about this at all, generally only hear what exmormons say (and we know exmormons are not credible because they're generally sinners like Simon Southerton), as well as what Mormon apologists and leaders have to say. It is easy for most Mormons to brush the issues off in that context.
It is entirely another thing to see Mormonism's foundational truth claims debated in national newspapers, become the subject of jokes by people like Jay Leno and Bill Maher, etc. in a context where it's obvious that virtually everyone with even half a brain just shakes their heads and laughs at the Mormon position. Mormons will come to see themselves as they should -- as people who resemble in many ways the young earth creationists and Scientologists when it comes to the credibility of their core beliefs.
It will be extremely difficult for many Mormons to tolerate seeing themselves in this way. So, the information Mormons will ingest courtesy of Mitt Romney will dramatically raise the levels of cognitive dissonance within the Mormon community. This will bring many thoughtful Mormons to the point at which they can no longer hold literalist Mormon beliefs, which in turn will dramatically decrease their willingness to obey Mormon authority.
Near the conclusion of the CBC program, one of the commentators indicated that the ability of those who wish to manipulate culture to use spin for that purpose depends upon two things: ignorance and apathy. Mitt Romney's run for the US presidency will create an intense interest within the Mormon community that will cause everything relevant to that (including "real" Mormon history) to receive an unprecedented degree of attention. This will work against both the ignorance and the apathy that has to date kept many issues with regard to Mormonism's history and current social practices off the radar screen of the typical otherwise well-informed Mormon.
All of this almost makes a guy want to shout "Hallelujah!".
So, how will the Mormon Church attempt to spin this? I don't think they will have any choice but to use Mitt Romney's run for the US presidency as part of the Mormon mainstreaming project. They cannot credibly dispute the nature of the information that will be put on the table with regard to Mormons history, and the history of its beliefs. All they will be able to do is distance themselves from that, using institutions like the Catholic Church as their model, and claiming that this is always been what they have done, though some misguided (and likely unintelligent) former Mormons did not see that. I sure hope they play this card in public, since many of the newly enlightened Mormon crowd will feel insulted since they too did not read or question because they were obedient to Mormon authority.
And, the Mormon Church will of course emphasize Mormonism's similarities to mainstream evangelical Christianity every time that chance offered.
I doubt that the Mormon Church itself will make any official pronouncements. They will leave this to the goons at FARMS, Meridian, various blogs, etc. These are Mormonism's modern intellectual Danites. You got a dirty job to do, you know who to call (indirectly, of course).
However, the perception these Danites will create will not be questioned by Mormonism's highest leaders, and over the course of a decade or two will cause a significant reshaping of the way in which the average Mormon person coming to maturity will perceive her relationship to the Mormon institution.
One thing I wonder about is the extent to which the Mormon Church will attempt to use tools such as the so-called "viral" marketing we are beginning to see on the Internet. These take advantage of the fact that for the time being at least, what we see on the Internet at youtube, on bulletin boards, on blogs, etc. is generally perceived to be more genuine -- less "spun" -- than what we see in newspapers or on television, at least as long as what we're looking at has a homemade look and feel. People who wish to shape public opinion for commercial, governmental, or ideological purposes, are beginning to take advantage of this, thus creating a new kind of spin. Hence, video footage (such as the famous "wig out" bridal video) is staged to look like a real-life event, put in a place where it is likely to be assumed to be a real-life event, while in fact being an early step in a marketing campaign for shampoo.
I have no doubt that the Mormon Church and other ideologically based institutions have already begun to use tools of this kind. We should be on the lookout for them.
Edelman, the Mormon Church's public relations guru, is clearly tuned into this kind of thing as indicated above. I doubt he will have any moral compunction with regard to using this kind of thing to further Mormonism's interests.
So, in this communications rich age, Mormonism does have a God, and He does provide Mormon prophets with direct inspiration. But his name is not Elohim, it is Edelman.
These thoughts are rambling, incomplete and can no doubt be critiqued from a number of different points of view. If anyone cares to do that, I will come back later and respond.
Now, I'm off to read some of the best literature known to humankind -- the Canadian Income Tax Act.
| A Proposed Talk For Sacrament Meeting (or Wherever) - Quote Not To Use "Mormons Are Like Redwood Seedlings Being Pruned Into One Foot Tall Bonsai" |
Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007, at 08:05 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 5 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| I have been intensely busy at work for the last little while, and accordingly not either posted or read much here for several weeks. However, I had the opportunity to read a few threads this morning, and wrote my first extended post in weeks on the "a lost Elder" thread. As I was finishing it, an interesting thought occurred to me for which I thought it was worth creating another thread. So here that is.
I know that people read this board still attend Mormon meetings, teach Sunday school lessons, etc. And, I have from time to time collaborated with friends of this kind, some of whom hold significant Mormon leadership positions, as they prepare talks to be presented at ward conferences, stake conferences, and in more mundane Mormon settings. Don't let it out that rank apostates sometimes help with the church talks that make everyone feel "the spirit". That will our little secret.
I used to write talks like this fairly regularly because I thought it was so ironic that I had the chance to do so, and I was always tickled by the positive responses, and to my knowledge, the response was invariably positive. However, eventually this came to feel like how CS Lewis described the experience of writing "The Screwtape Letters". Lewis said that one of reasons for which he stopped writing the newspaper series that eventually became that book, was that it cost him too much to twist his mind into Satan's persona. That is, he did not like being in that psychological space, and he did not like the kinds of things that he began to perceive emerging in his behavior, which he attributed to spending too time thinking like a senior devil (Screwtape) mentoring a junior tempter who had been tasked with bringing a particular human being over to the dark side.
Likewise, the further away I find myself from the Mormon mindset and community, the less inclination I have to put myself into the excruciatingly narrow mental framework that is required in order to write what would be a well-received Mormon sacrament meeting talk, for example, while spicing it with concepts that have within them the seeds of greater things.
In any event, as I concluded dictating what I posted on the other thread, it occurred to me that most of it would fit in nicely in a presentation at any Mormon leadership meeting, or other meeting, of which I could think. However, in that setting the wonderful concepts I had just outlined would be applied quite differently than I had intended.
There wonderful irony in this. What I was attempting to explain is the way in which human beings have an immense potential for growth and evolution. Mormons are relegated to a tiny portion of that potential development space by virtue of their belief system. Their use of the ideas that so excite me (and would likely excite many of them) would amount to turning redwood seedlings into one foot tall bonsais. "Wow! Just think what kind of stay at home Mom I could be?!" thinks a young woman who is bright and energetic enough to pick up either a Pulitzer or a Nobel, and maybe both. And by that I do not denigrate stay at home Moms. The same woman, with maximum degrees of freedom, might choose the role of stay at home mom, and I would applaud that. What still makes me weep is the perception of that one foot space as the only space within which a human being must grow. If there is a god, she has surely reserved an especially uncomfortable place in hell (watching endless mormon infomercials?) for those who sell this idea.
In any event, I hereby license anyone who wants to use the ideas below in Mormon meetings to do so. But, you will have to put your own "Mormon wrap" on it. I no longer have the energy for that task.
And I encourage you to encourage those who listen to you, to walk to the edges of their tiny world and see what they can discern through the the miasma that has been purposefully constructed at that border by their Mormon leaders, and the hand-puppet apologists who serve them. (see http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs....).
I am a big fan of Kohlberg's theory regarding moral development. James Fowler's "Stages of Faith" analysis is useful too (he attributes his ideas to Kohlberg in some ways), as well as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' "stages of grief" analysis when it comes to both leaving Mormonism, and the psychological landscape we must navigate once on the outside.
I also agree that the best way to understand our experience is to think in terms of these concepts on a multi-dimensional basis. We are complex systems, and we interface in countless ways with other larger and far more complex systems. These include our intimate relationships; our family relationships; our relationships in the various communities of which we are part; our relationships in the workplace; etc. not to mention our connection to the ecosystem and the rest of reality.
For example, there are infinite possibilities for permutations and combinations of traits between our attributes and those of our single most intimate partner. Multiply that infinity as many times as you wish to understand the nature of the complex space in which we function.
Accordingly, for some purposes our personalities are overdeveloped in some ways, underdeveloped and others. And, different people at different life stages have different capacities for continuing growth and development.
One of the most important conclusions coming out of the recent work related to personal productivity and satisfaction with life, both in the workplace and elsewhere, is that we are usually better off focusing on expanding our capacity in those areas where we have demonstrated both special strength, and interest. Evolution seems to have designed us to be interested, not coincidently, in those areas where we have strengths that are deemed useful in our place and time. See Martin Seligman "Authentic Happiness" for some of this (www.authentichappiness.com).
Conversely, it seems to be counterproductive in a variety of ways to spend very much energy trying to change basic character attributes that might be characterized as weaknesses. Rather, we are usually best off finding ways to protect ourselves from these (if you are disorganized, hire a good admin assistant; if you are Bill Clintonesque and want to stay in a single, intimate relationship ... I don't know what you do ...)And of course, these traits are to a large degree a function of social and other circumstance.
In some societies, for example, certain traits are considered to be strengths, whereas in others the same traits are liabilities. In many cases, these considerations are rooted in what at least once where survival imperatives.
For example, I have a very quick metabolism. At almost age 50, I can still eat more than I probably should and get away with it without exercising as much as I should, while still seeming to remain relatively fit. In our environment of abundance, my biology in this regard is advantageous in many ways. However, were I living during a time of famine, my need to consume relatively large amounts of calories in relation to the energy I put out would probably make me a social and survival liability relative to my group, and likely drive me into starvation much sooner than people whose bodies make more efficient use of the calories they take in.
In any event, in my opinion one of the most important concepts to bear in mind is that the complexity I described above is not a cause for lamentation. Rather, it demonstrates a fundamental fecundity in the reality of which we are part that is so exciting that sometimes it makes me feel like I want to get up and dance around my desk (or wherever).
We have so much potential for continued growth or personal evolution when combined with those whom we love the most, not to mention the rest of this incredible reality from which we have emerged. That is one of science's basic lessons for us -- that brand-new stuff continually emerges as a result of some kind of yet not understood creative force that operates within all aspects of reality (from the smallest -- quantum physics -- up to the largest -- cosmology --, and at every known level in between). We are one manifestation of that creative push. And from within us, and each of our social relationships, the same creative push wells up and from time to time produces new, cool stuff.
Think of it. Put any two living things together in a relationship, and a brand-new creative push comes into being. Remove one living thing from a complex relationship, this changes the relationship and so a brand new creative push comes into being. If energy is directed toward that, we can expect brand-new stuff to simply pop into existence. To the extent that we have the ability to control the nature of the energy directed into the relationship, the nature of the conditions that influence the relationship, etc., we have some ability to control the kind of "new stuff" that pops out.
Life is way better than Christmas every day, when you think about it in these terms.
Not all of the new stuff that pops out will please us, but much of it will end, we are capable of training ourselves to focus for the most part on what pleases us, is useful to us, etc. We can, in this limited sense, construct our own reality. Jon Haidt's chapter with regard to Buddhism (see "the happiest hypothesis") was very helpful to me in that regard. He differentiates in a clear and easy to understand fashion between reality as it is (including the real nature of our social relationships) and the web of values, memories, imperfect perceptions, and other lenses through which we must interpret that reality.
The better we understand the way in which our minds work in this regard, the more likely it is that we will be able to both deal with reality as it is a functional way, as well as constructing for ourselves lenses that will enable us to shape and enjoy this wonderful ride.
As is the case with most aspects of life, some of us have greater natural talent to bring to this task than others. However, Haidt and scholars that work in his field (positive psychology and its social psychology branches) are developing an increasingly impressive suite of tools that are likely to improve each of our perception of life.
The bottom line in all of this, in my view, is that we participate in, and are an integral part of, an ongoing miracle.
In any event, the best we can hope for from theories of the type discussed above (Kohlberg, Fowler, Kubler Ross, Piaget, and countless others) is a basic idea with regard to how things fit together.
And, most importantly, exploring the potential for how our lives could be - literally choosing and then constructing our lives - is exciting, and endlessly fascinating.
I just got up and danced around my desk, and then tried to see if I could jump high enough to touch my head to the ceiling, as I used to be easily able to do as evidence of what used to be a 30+ inch vertical. Could not quite make it. Got to start working out again ...
Life is good.
| Let us celebrate our heroes, and empathize with the vast majority of our social groups (including, even, religious leaders) who have no realistic chance when pitted against their social forces. These thoughts were stimulated by my reading of a recent article posted at http://www.edge.org. I have mentioned, perhaps too many times, that this is one of my favorite places for intellectual stimulation.
The article (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/zimba...) is an interview with the famous Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His "prison experiment" was one of the first to expose the power of social context to shape individual behaviour. Within days, well-adjusted students who were randomly selected to be guards became abusive, and similar students who were randomly selected to become prisoners began to display classic prisoner type behavior. The behavior was so extreme that it had to be terminated after six days, instead of running for the two weeks for which it had been planned.
In this interview, Zimbardo describes the experiment in the context of other studies he has undertaken with regard to heroism, and notes the unusual character of the few individuals who tend to swim against social currents. These he calls "heroes". To use his words,
"In her analysis, [Hanna] Ardent was saying that from everything we knew about his history, Eichmann [a German leader at Auschwitz] was essentially a normal person before he went into Auschwitz. And when he came out of Auschwitz he was again assessed as a normal person. So the interesting question is, what was the process of transformation from before to after his being embedded in that situation. As a social psychologist, I bring forth the power of situations to transform good people into evil, which is what I've been studying since my Stanford prison study way back in 1971. I argue that there are some features of special situations that can corrupt the best and brightest. Normal people, even good people. Not all, but most. And the ones who resist, the ones who somehow have the street-smarts - the situational sophistication - to resist are the exceptions. In fact, I'm going to call them heroes.
Arendt's analysis is really a forerunner of the situational analysis, although she doesn't express it as such. There is no question that what Eichmann did was evil, but there's also no question that when he was outside that situation, he was normal. The issue then is, what is it about the particulars of that situation that was able to transform this person."
Zimbardo has spent a lifetime probing this question: Why do a few resist social forces while most can be persuaded to engage in even "obviously" immoral acts once certain kinds of social dynamics push in that direction?
However, before we brand all who resist Mormonism's influence heroes (and start to celebrate our own heroism) we should recall that many who swim against social currents are misguided, disillusioned, nut cases, etc. The difference between a hero and a nut job is often largely a matter of perspective. However, with the benefit of significant historical perspective, it is possible to identify special individuals.
For example, Zimbardo's studies on heroism involved interviewing people of many cultures who assisted Jews to avoid extermination during the Holocaust. And, his studies with regard to the powerful effects of social context have helped us to understand how many of the Auschwitz guards were normal, upstanding citizens, good parents, charitable individuals, both before Auschwitz, and after Auschwitz. There was something about being in the environment created around Auschwitz that radically changed their character, and enabled them to participate in some of the most atrocious acts that have ever been chronicled. His prison experiment elegantly disclosed how easy it is for powerful circumstances of this sort to be created, and how rapidly they take effect. For more of the same sort of thing, see Stanley Milgram's famous "shock" experiments related to the power of authority (or perceived authority) to shape behavior.
We should also remember that our heroes for the most part do not feel that they "chose" their course of action. They simply acted out of the role genetics and circumstances have molded them to play as the agents of change at the fringe of society. Many people who read and post here are heroes in small ways, and some in very large ways.
Among the many bits of useful advice Zimbardo (and other social psychologists) have for us in light of their research findings is contained in the following paragraph:
"My research really says several things. One, that we have to recognize that some situations, some social settings, some behavioral contexts, have an unrecognized power to transform the human character of most of us. Two, that the way to resist - the way to prevent a descent into Hell, if you will - is precisely by understanding what it is about those situations that gives them transformative power. It is by this understanding that you can change those situations, avoid those situations, challenge those situations. And it's only by willfully ignoring them, by assuming individual nobility, individual rationality, or individual morality that we become most vulnerable to their insidious power to make good people do bad things. Those who sustain an illusion of invulnerability are the easiest touch for the con man, the cult recruiter, or the social psychologist ready to demonstrate who easy it is to twist such arrogance into submission."
Therein lies much of my rationale for taking radical, decisive action to remove my children from Mormonism's influence. And, for those who would change the Mormon community, this points the way forward. That is, just as context shapes individual human behavior, the context within which social organisms like Mormonism is set will shape their behavior. Accordingly, the big issues with regard to Mormonism are things like how information flows between the Mormon community and the rest of the world. Imagine, for example, the effect of high school educational requirements with respect to the sociology of religion and how religion works across a broad range of societies.
Similarly, think about the possibility of rules that would restrict the representations religious groups can make with regard to their history and other issues that are within the grasp of history and science. Or, what about rules that might affect the way in which religious organizations and other charities can use donations made for religious purposes to run huge businesses.
In any event, reading Zimbardo's interview made me think about a number of things. First of all, I thought of the recent article on Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2165033/entry...) containing excerpts from the recent book "God is Not Great". The slate piece provided a thumbnail sketch of Mormon history. While it was accurate for the most part (and I don't have time to set out the quibbles here), it irritatingly cheeky and deeply misleading because of its failure to place Mormonism within its social-psychological context. I have the same criticism for Richard Bushman's recent "Rough Stone Rolling". It is unreasonable to attempt to describe the history of Mormonism and understand the behavior of those within it, now or at any other time, unless the relevant social-psychological forces are sketched as background. I will further suggest that it is irresponsible to even undertake the description without that background context. I am critical of Hithchens in this regard, as I am of Bushman. The behavioral patterns of both the religious leaders and followers in contexts similar to that of Mormonism in all its stages have been studied extensively by social scientists. Failure to even mention this context indicates ignorance, at best. I did not watch the recent PBS series, but so far have seen nothing to indicate that it use social psychology as a lens the understand the Mormon experience. Perhaps someone who saw it could chime in on that point.
More importantly, Zimbardo reminded me of the massive debt I owe to a number of heroes within Mormon culture. These include people like William Law, who stood up to Joseph Smith. People like Fawn Brodie and Juanita Brooks, who swam against powerful tides when they publish their groundbreaking books with regard to Mormon history. My favorite hero -- and ironically still at least in some ways a faithful Mormon -- is Michael Quinn. His books were tipping points for me and members of my family. A single appendix (I can't remember which one -- it summarizes Mormon history in point form) to his "The Mormon Hierarchy -- Origins of Power" drove a spike through the heart of the ignorance that I used to call my Mormon testimony. Mike Quinn has laid more on the altar of faith as he has followed his convictions than anyone else I personally know.
I also pay tribute to Steve Benson. The first time I read one of his essays (it was called "Letting Go of God", I think), it chilled me to the bone. I was not ready for that kind of thick, rich, caustic soup. And, in that essay Steve displayed the acerbic wit that makes him the world class political cartoonist he is. Again, I was not ready for that when it came to beliefs I had not yet rooted out of my head. I know other members of Steve's family, and thought that while I might be on my way out of Mormonism (and I was just starting the journey at that point) and so resembled Steve in some ways, that I would never come to see the world the way he did. Several months later, after my journey was well underway, I ran across the interviews with Dallin Oaks (one of my former heroes), and Neil Maxwell that Steve and Maryanne transcribed. This abrupt pulling back of the Wizard's curtain confirmed for me in modern terms what Quinn had so beautifully established in historical terms -- that is, the Emperor had not onlybeen naked in the beginning, but had not found any clothes in the meantime. Naked, naked, naked. And so Steven and Maryanne became my heroes. I honor both of them for what they did.
The list is long, and I arbitrarily stop here.
So, thanks to Phillip Zimbardo, today I feel deeply grateful for my heroes. We each have our heroes.
And at the same time, I feel a deep empathy for the large percentage of the Mormon mass that cannot be realistically expected to change or even to see the possibility of change. Zimbardo and other social psychologists have nailed this down tight. We might wish that our loved ones will change and some of us might even still pray for it, but it is not going to happen except in a few cases, and if we wish to live our lives in peace, we must find ways to accommodate ourselves to this reality and not allow ourselves to be consumed by feelings of loss, anger and sadness in that regard.
Why was I one of the few to find new eyes? I have no idea. And so I simply try to accept this, and that most will not be like me. Maybe, in the end, I just a nutjob (and I know many people who bow their heads and say "yes" on that one.)
Both ends of the emotional spectrum are always with us. Joy and pain; exhilaration and despair; light and dark; ying and yang. However, the early stages of this journey for me were characterized by breathless peaks of joy, wonder and exhilaration, followed by equally radical moments of terror and despair - kind of like the ocean during a storm. As time passed, both the mountains and valleys began to level out, and as I have found new and more healthy places to invest my energy. A stable foundation to life, independant of man's authority, that I do not recall ever experiencing has made its presence felt. I believe this has to do with a simple acceptance of reality as I now perceive it, including our inability to know many things respecting it. This means accepting the pain, suffering and other unpleasantries that are part of life, as well as consciously putting myself in places where I expect to experience off, wonder and joy.
So, the new vines that I feel growing up around my soul are increasingly dominated by emotions such as acceptance, gratitude and a deep satisfaction that encompasses, and is more than, joy.
Life is good.
| Steve Farmer (see http://www.safarmer.com/Farmer.Beijin...) is a former Harvard prof who uses a complexity based computer program to help date ancient documents. He has told me that he thinks he may be able to shed new light on when the B of M was written. I am aware of another similar complex pattern finding system that is right now being applied to assist in determining where the B of M came from, who likely wrote it, etc.
Does anyone else sense a noose tightening? Or maybe I am a hopeless optimist.
And we can thank Mitt for the fact that countless people who knew nothing about Mormonism until recently (including most Mormons) are now hearing lots about it. This news should soon include the kind of issue I am raising here.
As probable reality's noose tightens, I predict that concepts related to "mythic truth" being almost as good as literal truth (per Santayana and other post modernish thinkers (see http://www.math.uwaterloo.ca/~kerrlaw...) will begin to circulate more broadly within Mormonism. LDS Church historian Leonard Arrington used to quote Santayana as his authority for the proposition that whether something is mythically true or literally true is not important. This is part of what got him fired as the only real historian ever to hold the position of official LDS church historian. As a result, he and the entire "church history" (an oxymoron is there ever was one) department were moved to BYU where they could be more easily controlled and ignored, as it suited those at the top of the Mormon power pyramid.
Who was it who said something about the truth not needing our help because it cuts its own way?, and the silliness of a puny human arm attempting to hold back the mighty Mississippi River?
I guess some things take a while to sort out. 200 hundred or so years is not so long in the big scheme of things. Right?
| I am in a contemplative mood today. This likely has to do with the fact that work and family life have been frenetic for months, and while the pressure is still high, today it has backed off enough to allow breathing room. The weather reflects my outlook. As I look out my office window, rain is falling on what started out as a beautiful day in the foothills of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. A few minutes ago, lightning punctuated a moment, blasting the ground no more than two miles away. The skies are overflowing; black clouds running for cover as light begins to break through in the Southwest. After brief, wrenching chaos, it will be clear and sunny again.
The motivation for writing something this afternoon is twofold. First, last night one of my daughters pointed out that exactly one year ago, she had been doing something memorable. I was sure that it had been two years, such has been the living packed into the past 12 months. I have been telling myself for some time that the waters around my personal life have stabilized. But last night when I took account I had to acknowledge that I am still in flux. A daughter and grandson moving back in with us; my wife and three youngest children living in France for six months during what will likely be for all of us a watershed family experience; our eldest son becoming engaged to and marrying a wonderful non-LDS woman (the wedding was just under two weeks ago); changing law firms for the first time in 14 years; various other personal and family milestones as well as challenges.
While this degree of change is somewhat uneasy, it is welcome.
My second reason for writing is to record some thoughts provoked by Bill Bryson and his magnificent “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Short_...) . A scientist for whom I have immense respect calls this arguably the best science book ever written for a popular audience. I have the picture-included version at home, but had not done the work necessary to appreciate it. As an afterthought, I tossed the book on CD into the car for a trip last weekend, and finished it while commuting to and from work this week. Information like this changes the world by disclosing it. Few experiences grip me as does this. A few hours with Bryson recalled my early days on the way out of Mormonism. Hence this note.
In amazingly few words, Bryson sets human life (on average, 650,000 hours for each of us, as he notes) in the context of the universe and earth’s histories, and the evolution of life. His pulls this off with humour, and so as to engage people like my pleasantly inattentive 16 year old son, who enjoyed a couple of hours of the book while in the car with me.
Bryson’s account is exhilarating, humbling and terrifying in more or less equal parts, at times consecutively and at other times simultaneously. It was not so much that I learned new things (which I did in spades), but that Bryson organized and held together so much of what I now realize I barely knew in a way that I could see parts in relation to wholes. To suddenly perceive a whole is often a radically different experience than any amount of looking at the parts. The bigger the whole, the more likely this is to be a dazzling experience. Think of a bin full of sheet metal, rivets and fans suddenly replaced by a jet in flight. That is what Bryson did for me with science.
I won’t try here to repeat Bryson’s trick, but will re-emphasize the feeling that overwhelmed me as I listed to this master teacher.
Life is a delicate miracle – far more miraculous than I had appreciated. The word “miracle” has been redefined for me relative to processes I thought I understood. The ordinary will never seem ordinary again, as least when I take the time to think.
At the risk of degrading the idea of miracles, we are each a miracle – every one of us, each bacterium, and everything in between.
Our species is at most a spark of inscrutable origin floating precariously within reality’s boundless, draughty expanse. Somehow, we have the unfathomable opportunity to protect and nurture that spark into what we cannot imagine, while at this point seeming far more likely to snuff ourselves out as a result of a staggering combination of collective ignorance and indifference.
Have you ever tried to build a fire outside on a wet, breezy day when you were freezing cold? Maybe you were winter camping with some Mormon Boy Scouts. Do you recall how you felt when a piece of almost dry moss you scraped from under a log started to catch? Can you feel the impulse to open your coat and completely surround the tiny flame to allow it to ignite, and then to lay in the snow and do whatever is necessary to breath life into it? This is how I felt at moments while listening to Bryson, except that my very existence danced in the balance.
Bryson’s book would not have hit me this way several years ago while my Mormon testimony still stood firm. God was, after all, in the wheelhouse. I didn’t know what was going on, but He did, and everything would be okay in the end. The scientists were groping their way through the first few steps of an infinite road that was entirely within God’s immaculately conceived and fastidiously groomed backyard. Science was an interesting sideshow, as was the entirety of our earthly existence. The main event would start when we re-entered the eternal realm on death.
This is like walking a tight rope with the unshakable belief that there is a huge, soft net three feet below. As long as you hold that belief, people who are really good at tightrope walking and offer to teach you will probably not attract your attention. In fact, you will probably believe that those who walk carelessly and fall off the rope to the applause of their similarly walking friends are cool. Once you understand that there is no net, things change. Learning how to stay on the rope becomes more interesting.
As I wrote that analogy, I was struck by the fact that I have often used similar ideas for different purposes. For example, while Mormon I perceived my life as a continual tight rope walk (sans net) toward the Celestial Kingdom, while the passage through this life was not worth worrying about for its own sake. Earth was a kind of hothouse where we sprouted before moving on to greater things.
The question, as it now appears, is not so much whether we have a tight rope to walk, but rather where it is. Add to that the realization that real tight ropes don’t come with nets.
The narrow Mormon path was fraught with danger. There were so many ways to disqualify myself for that glorious, eternal life after death. I was terrified that my children might fall off, and so attempted to control their behaviour in ways that will probably cause difficulty for me and some of them for the rest of our lives. The overwhelming importance of making it into the Celestial Kingdom caused such an intense focus on “the rules” that life’s present wonders escaped me. One of my unexpected responses to throwing away the Mormon rulebook was a sudden revelling in the present as it burst into my field of vision for the first time. I hasten to note that there are still many rules I regard as crucial, the golden rule chief among them. But we are talking kind and gentle compared to the heavy tome I used to carry with me.
These simple guidelines keep my eye on the future to an extent, but if my orientation used to be 90% future and 10% present, it is now more like 50-50 most of the time, and I try to spend part of each day 100% focused on just being. This is a wonderful change. As one of the meditation books I’ve read indicates, being in the present is an “off button for the ego”. It is an off button for many of the other ills that trouble our frenetic, Western psyche. Modern, mainstream Mormonism is a classic example of Western consumerist, pseudo-spirituality run amok.
In any event, the tight rope Bryson talks about radically differs from the Mormon balancing act toward the CK. Bryson’s is not an individual tight rope. Rather, it describes our species’ improbable trajectory from origin to here, and our long-term prospects. So long term, in fact, that our brains are not designed to deal with them. Getting out of those mental handcuffs is one of our greatest individual and collective challenges. Listening to Bryson is as good an antidote for this ill as any I know. I am making sure each of my children become familiar with this marvellous piece of work. I have to be careful about how I do this. If they know how badly I want them to read Bryson's book, they won’t as matter of principle.
Put another way, Bryson describes the pinhole through which the elephant somehow passed, and points out narrow passages which it must also eventually navigate. Our choice is not whether to go through the tight spots, but if we will sacrifice anything now in order to avoid suffering in future generations.
Imagine that you will have to complete a marathon two years from now. If you cannot finish the course, your only child will have to carry you. If she cannot, you will both die. You hate exercise. How much will you do to train for that marathon?
While this analogy is inadequate in many ways, it does get to the heart of the issue. In the not too distant future, humanity (including its most wealthy and profligate parts) will probably need to live in a fashion that is much less destructive than ours. The more we each consume, the heavier the burden that will eventually fall upon our children’s children.
When I imagine one of my daughters trying to drag my lazy lard-ass up a mountainside, I “get it”. I am about to buy a new car. This image will influence the kind of car I buy. I have been thinking for some time about moving nearer to where I work and my family engages in most of their activities. This image will influence that decision.
I want to do what little I can. I will do some things, but no doubt far less than I could and probably should. The better the images I construct to carry Bryson around with me, the more I will probably do. We are narrative animals. Bryson is a good story teller. But even his story is too hard for most of us to grasp, let alone remember. So I visualize myself having a hard time finding the will to exercise with clear knowledge that about my skinny little daughter will have to drag me through a mountain marathon with both our lives at stake … Yup, that works.
Perhaps here we find love’s defining test. To whom, or what, does our love extend? How far does it surpass our cultural tribe? To how many future generations? To what forms of life?
As Bryson stunningly illustrates, all life comes from a single font. It is “one” is the most literal sense. This is the most blindingly true, stunning statement science has produced. It runs far deeper than the usual chit-chat about the interconnectedness of life. We have far more in common with bacteria and all other life forms than that. However, the degree of our interdependency is enough. We will kill our offspring, if not ourselves, if we continue to neglect reality.
One way to deal with the issues Bryson raises is to throw up our hands in acknowledgment of the fact that no single one of us, or even a large group of us, can conceivably have any affect on such gargantuan processes. A fly might as well attempt to rebuild the World Trade Center or bring peace to the Middle East. However, I can imagine our ancestors less than 100 years ago being justified in a similar belief with regard to man’s first footprints on the moon, or many kinds of communication in which we now engage thoughtlessly and constantly. How does a cell phone work, by the way?
This, really, is my point. So much has been accomplished by people who caught a glimpse of what needed to be done, or they wished to do. They simply started; they did what they could. Bryson brought this point home as well. “Do what is right, let the consequence follows”, as the children’s song says. Pretty simple. Hugely powerful idea.
Nothing Bryson taught me has changed my basic orientation with regard to the future versus the present. However, it has changed the way in which I will choose to enjoy the present, and the aspects of the future to which I attend.
In an odd way, the experience I had this week with Bryson’s wonderful book is a microcosm of the decamping Mormonism experience. Both's flavour and thrust are provided by changing perspective. Culturally imposed mysteries are replaced by real mysteries. Imaginary tight ropes dissolve in some places, and imaginary nets in others. We direct our effort and attention toward things over which we have a real opportunity to exercise influence, instead of tilting with windmills. We have a much better chance of accepting what we cannot change because we can identify it, or at least some of it. We still, however, live by faith. That is what I am talking about – a better informed faith.
In this context, as we choose when to orietate ourselves toward the future and when the present, the entire experience seems more peaceful. This is consistent with what social psychologists like Daniel Gilbert (“Stumbling on Happiness”) tell us. That is, when we improve the sense of control people have over their environment, their sense of well-being dramatically improves along with their physical health. Having an idea with regard to what is controllable and what is not is a first, and very significant, step along that road.
Part of Bryson’s story is disturbing. His description of climatic catastrophes of various kinds that come and go for reasons we have yet to determine made me queasy. Then there are the catastrophes we do understand, and that visit earth regularly – comets, volcanoes (including the one bubbling beneath Yellowstone Park that is more or less due as I write), earthquakes, etc. These are terrifying, and inescapable. Regardless of what we do, any of these monsters could snuff us at any time. However, when we work out some quick probabilities with regard to any of these events happening during the next several thousand years, they are tiny. We take more risk traveling to work in a car each day. More the point, we can do nothing whatsoever about certain risks, and given what our species has done at the positive end of the scale during the last couple of centuries, it is foolish to place any limits on what we may achieve during the next few millennia. Let’s just chip away at it and allow our progeny to see what happens.
Human beings are psychologically well-equipped to deal with unavoidable risks. Unfortunately, this usually means pretending they don’t exist. We need to find a way to change that tendency, and have a recent history of being able to do so at least in some cases like CFCs and leaded gasoline.
We are much less able to deal with social rules that are constructed to control us by way of maintaining in a double bind. That is, unless we fit into the particular box that has been designated for us, no matter what we do, we are wrong and bad, and the organizations that control our lives are right and good. This is a killer. The opportunity to take that monkey off my back in exchange for facing the very occasional earth sterilizing comet, ice age or volcano feels like a fine deal – like I won some kind of lottery.
I have no idea what my life or the world will be like even 30 years from now. I hope I’m still alive and vigorous. As I approach my 50th birthday, I don't take that for granted. I’m at peace with whatever comes.
In the meantime, I will walk more lightly and spend more time simply enjoying what is before me as I pass along – smelling the flowers without cutting them.
The sun is now shining; the streets still slightly damp. High wispy clouds float instead of scuttling through darkness. Life is wonderful. A delicate miracle.
| While I do not care for everything Stephen Colbert does, I have been chuckling aloud for a couple of days while listening to his CD "I am America, and so can you!" The man is such a beautiful walking parody of what is wrong with the right end of the American political and religious spectrum, that you have to love him.
I won't try to summarize the CD, or even provide highlights. There are far too many for that, at least from the point of view of those of us who have decamped Mormonism or other literalist religious groups. I will, however, mention one of his concepts.
In Colbert’s considered, expert opinion, there are many things wrong with America. One of those is higher education. If a little information is dangerous, a lot of information is disastrous, he tells us. Accordingly, how can going to university be a good idea? Adam and Eve were doing just great until they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Fruit and books both come from trees, and so you don't have to be a biblical scholar to figure out that books are bad. The only book you should ever read (or listen to), is Colbert’s book.
As an aside, without ever talking about the way logic works -- starting with a few premises and then building upon them in an orderly fashion, in accordance with the rules of logic -- Colbert provides example after example with regard to how ridiculous conclusions can be produced by what sounds like logic. The example I just provided is one of many. That is, we start with the premise that the Bible is true, and then move from bad fruit, to the connection between fruits and books, to the conclusion that books are bad. This takes advantage of one of our consistent cognitive flaws -- when we agree with something we use a radically different mental process to check it out than when we disagree. Some scholars refer to this as "naïve realism" or, the "it makes sense -- stop" rule. If we agree with something, we give it a superficial spot check before reaffirming our belief. If we disagree with something, however, the standard we tend to use is that our existing belief must be proven wrong before it can be changed.Since most things are too ambiguous to be proven right or wrong, this anchors our existing beliefs in place. From an evolutionary point of view, being secure within a social group our most important intimate the relationships has been far more important throughout most of human history than holding accurate beliefs with regard to most of reality. It has therefore been much more adaptive to persist in holding the beliefs that dominate within our social group than it has been to accept any other belief, regardless of truth or falsity. This explains the cognitive flaw I just explained, as well as many others. But I digress.
One of the parts of Colbert’s "book" (he said he did not write anything, and therefore that it is not a "book", but rather he shouted into a dictaphone for a weekend, and then gave the tape to his agent and said "sell this”) that I thought was most interesting was his explanation with regard to why new ideas are bad. In a net shell, new ideas produce confusion. Confusion is a clear sign that your body is resisting a foreign intruder. Confusion is the feeling of your mind scabbing over to protect itself against bad stuff. When you feel confused, reject whatever is making you confused, is Colbert’s wise advice.
I am willing to bet that Stephen Colbert is unfamiliar with section 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and the wisdom contained therein – that truth is discerned through feelings of comfort and peace, and falsehood through feelings of darkness and confusion. And yet, he hit the nail squarely on the head. This is not surprising. The line of pseudo-reasoning he parodies so wonderfully has been used in countless cultures. DandC section 9 is just one of its many manifestations.
We need a post-Mormon Stephen Colbert. Humor is a far more effective tool that logic because it approaches serious topics through the emotional backdoor, and accordingly will make it much more likely for people to consider new ideas than any frontal approach. I have long said that in the battle for minds and hearts, intellectual rowboats have virtually no chance against emotional battleships. Colbert is a battleship.
| Life is good. One of the things that makes it good – or better – is taking time to record whatever we find satisfying. These are not necessarily highlights. They are, more simply, whatever resonates with us. So that is what I’m going to do this evening. I will reinforce the nice feelings I had today by writing what I am about to write. If this makes someone else feel good too that would be a bonus. My apologies in advance to MSMom. This is not going to be short.
As I write this, I am looking out a window in the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal, straight up Boulevard René Lévesque. I am here to speak at a conference, having flown in from Calgary this afternoon. On the plane, I got a lot of work done, had a nice meal with a glass of wine, and a nap. Great afternoon. As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I went down to the gym to get the blood circulating through my old body. I was tired from reading technical material most of the way out on the plane, and so did not bring any with me down to the gym. Rather, I picked through the hotel’s magazines for something to keep me company on the exercise bike, and was attracted to the September 3, 2007 issue of Time, as a result of Mother Teresa’s picture on the cover. As I rode, I learned about her 50 year long crisis of faith that has been recently made public by the Catholic Church as a result of the publication of her extensive private correspondence with various spiritual mentors (all male, btw) within the Catholic Church who attempted to assist her travail.
The book is called “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”. It is the rough equivalent of the Mormon Church publishing Spencer Kimball’s diaries and private letters (were there such) in which he indicated (if he did) that he had felt nothing that remotely resembled communication with God while serving as God’s prophet.
This brief article fascinated me for a variety of reasons. I kept thinking about it as I swam for about half an hour after getting off the exercise bike. And it stayed with me as I enjoyed about an hour of mildly endophine enhanced walking up and down Saint Catherines Street, Montréal’s social center, and while hanging out in a coffee shop to enjoy a late evening chai latte and the crowd's energy.
As an aside, Montréal is one of my favourite cities. Second only to Québec City, it is the most European place in North America. Tonight is Halloween night. In Canada, that generally speaking means “cold”. But Saint Catherines Street was not-quite-crowded with people wearing light jackets on this Wednesday evening. Some of the sidewalk cafés still had their tables out. People watching is not quite the sport here as it is in Paris, but you can see that influence. I love the feeling of diversity and energy in this place. I love the old architecture. I know something about Québec’s history and unique culture, and the older I get the more interested in that kind of thing I become.
Until roughly the 1960s, this was the most Catholic, religious place in North America. Then came a societal rupture caused by radically increasing flows of cultural information into this backwater. Sound familiar? Now, the birth rate in Québec is the lowest in North America, and it is one of the most secular of places. That is what sometimes happens when a weird social eddy gets too far out of touch with the mainstream perception of reality. Are you listening Gordo?
Many of the people from Québec I have met who are one generation older than me went through experiences with Catholicism that are remarkably similar to the one that I went through with Mormonism. This, perhaps, is what makes me feel a kinship with this place and its people. In it, I see my future's shadow as well as my childrens'.
Back to Mother Teresa. She was, of course, Catholic. Montréal still bears Catholic markings on almost every corner. Montréal, however, has reinvented itself. It followed the example of Paris and countless other European cities in that regard. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, was faithful to the end - sort of. That is what her recently published letters are about.
The Times article is titled “Her Agony”. It starts by contrasting two statements she made a few weeks apart in 1979. The first typified her public persona, and was part of the speech she made upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. She said: “It is not enough for us to say, 'I love God, but I do not love my neighbour,' because in dying on the cross, God “[made] himself the hungry one – the naked one – the homeless one.” Jesus hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate. She condemned abortion and bemoaned youth drug addiction in the West. Finally, she suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world that “radiating joy is real” because Christ is everywhere – “Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and the smile we receive.”
This is contrasted with something Mother Teresa wrote three months earlier in a letter to one of her spiritual advisors within the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In that letter she wrote “Jesus has a very special love for you [referring to her advisor] but as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great ... I look and do not see, -- listen and do not hear – the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak… I want you to pray for me ….”
The letters published in this book excerpt a roughly 50 year long stream of angst of the type indicated above. Surely this was punctuated with contentments of various kinds. But if we are to believe Mother Teresa's most private, personal correspondence, she was in a spiritual wasteland. One at least one occasion, her letters record concern that she would become a “Judas” – doubt as to whether she had the strength to continue doing her work without and maintaining Christian faith in the absence of any subjective evidence of Christ’s satisfaction with her, awareness of her or even of his existence.
Ironically, this feeling of darkness started in Mother Teresa's life shortly after she began to experience success in her ministry to the poorest of the poor in India.
During her rise to prominence within the Catholic Church and in secular circles, Mother Teresa kept her struggles for the most part to herself. However, she developed relationships with a series of mentors within the Catholic hierarchy each of whom attempted in different ways to be of assistance to her. Only one, it appears, was of great assistance. She thanked him profusely for his advice, which was as follows: (1) There was no human remedy for her feelings of separation from God and that therefore she should not feel responsible for this; (2) that feelings of intimacy or connection to Jesus are not the only proof of his being; and (3) that her very craving for God was a “sure sign” of his “hidden presence” in her life and that this absence was in a mysterious way part of the spiritual side of the work that she was doing for Jesus. She came to interpret her sense of separation from Jesus as a taste of what she believed that he experienced when while on the cross he said “my God, my God, why have you forsakenme?”
Mother Teresa attempted to have the letters that have now been published destroyed, but was overruled in that regard by the Catholic Church. The compiler of the book is a prominent Catholic priest, who is one of those who has been agitating for mother Teresa’s elevation to Sainthood. He and many others believe that the tenacious fashion in which Mother Teresa continued with her ministry in the absence of the kind of spiritual connection most people assumed she had to God or Jesus is one of the things that makes her remarkable, and that the lesson contained in her letters may become Mother Teresa’s most enduring legacy. These letters, they say, rank with the most profoundly moving to ever have been written by Catholic saints, and because they relate to a person whose life has been so well-known and documented, will have an even more profound impact. The lesson, for the Catholic (and other) faithful, is that even the Saints doubt, and yet they are faithful. In this, Mother Teresa epitomizes modern sainthood, and hence believerhood. In a doubt drenched world from which she was not immune, nothing could overcome her faith though she struggled with this issue throughout the most productive part of her life.
Time magazine canvassed various views with regard to why Mother Theresa experienced what she did, and why she reacted to that experience as she did. Christopher Hitchens, for example, indicated that Mother Teresa probably “woke up” but could not admit it. He compared her to the diehard Western Communists late in the Cold War who suffered huge amounts of cognitive dissonance as they watch the Soviet Union and other communist countries collapse. To admit that communism was a failed theory would have rendered their lives meaningless. Rather than do this, they found reasons to soldier on.
Richard Gottlieb, a teacher at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, who has written extensively about Catholicism, thought that perhaps Mother Teresa had imposed this punishment on herself. “Psychologists have long recognized that people of certain personality types are conflicted about their high achievement and find ways to punish themselves.” Gottlieb notes that Theresa’s ambitions for her ministry were tremendous. He is fascinated by her statement, “I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved before.” Yet her letters of full of inner conflict about her accomplishments.
These explanations are, of course, rejected by religiously oriented people. For them, God, Christ and the various metaphysical propositions related to them are real and beyond questioning, and therefore all of reality testifies to their truth. This includes Mother Teresa’s remarkable and painful life. As one commentator puts it: “Everything she’s experienced is what average believers experience in their spiritual lives writ large. I have known scores of people who felt abandoned by God and had doubts about God’s existence. And this book expresses that in such a stunning way that shows her full of complete trust at the same time. Who would’ve thought that the person who is considered the most faithful woman in the world struggle like that with her faith? And who would’ve thought that the one thought to be the most ardent believers could be a saint to the sceptics?”
The Time article concludes with the following passage.
“Consistent with her ongoing fight against pride, Teresa’s rationale for suppressing her personal correspondence was “I want the work to remain only His.” If the letters became public, she explained, “people will think more of me – less of Jesus.” The particularly holy are no less prone than the rest of us to misjudge the workings of history – or, if you will, of God’s providence. Teresa considered the perceived absence of God in her life as for most shameful secret but eventually learned that it could be seen as a gift abetting her calling. If her worries about publicizing it also turn out to be misplaced – if a book of hasty, troubled notes turns out to ease the spiritual road of thousands of fellow believers, there would be no shame in having been wrong – but happily, even wonderfully wrong – twice.”
As I rode the bike, swam and then walked the streets of Montréal feeling the wonderful energy of this community, the passages I have just quoted and many others rolled around in my head. I think that in Mother Teresa and the way in which this book is now being published, we can gain some fascinating insights into the differences between various types of religious institutions, and worldviews. The following is little more than a stream of consciousness in that regard. I do not have time tonight for more than that, and I’m going to post these notes as they are since I do not expect that I will have time to reread or improve them any time soon.
The Catholic Church is a much older, and more mature religious institution that is Mormonism. It is accustomed to dealing with the difficulties of its history. It has learned the lesson to a much greater extent than Mormonism that it is best to deal with reality in an upfront manner, while of course putting the best possible interpretation on it. The only thing remotely resembling Mother Teresa’s book that we’ve seen come out of Mormonism is Richard Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling”. It deals with more of the reality of Joseph Smith than any other Mormon church sanctioned publication before it, and it is apologetic in much the same fashion as is at least the commentary emanating from Catholic apologists with regard to Mother Teresa’s letters. If the Mormon Church continues to mature, we can expect over the course of at least decades but more probably centuries, its behaviour to gravitate toward what is currently demonstrated by the Catholic Church with respect to Mother Teresa. Again, just imagine the Mormon Church publishing all of Joseph Smith’s secret correspondence and journals let alone the mountains of other documents they have with respect to various aspects of Mormon history. This would take a confidence in both itself and its membership that is still not comprehensible within the context of the Mormon institution as it is now.
As I indicated above, for a person who is certain that a god of a particular type exists and that the metaphysical details of life after death, etc., are known as a result of dogmatic religious faith, everything that happens can be interpreted in a manner consistent with those beliefs. Perceived miracles are evidence of God’s blessing. Life’s trials are evidence of God’s admonitions and his attempts to purify us and prepare us for celestial glory. But in Mother Teresa story, this kind of logic is taken to a new pinnacle. That is, the profound and persistent feeling that God is not present is taken as evidence for god’s existence, and even worse, of a kind of twisted love that he has for a particularly faithful believer. Finally, the very craving the institution has installed in us for a connection to god is evidence of god, though that craving goes unsated. The same could of course be said of any crazy idea, such as those installed in the head of Truman in "The Truman Show" through a different kind of socialconditioning.
This point is worth a bit more thought. What if we applied Mother Teresa's faith to the structure of the solar system or the age of the earth? Neither evidence for nor evidence against should be allowed to change our beliefs. What our tradition says is, is. That is that. Accordingly, Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler were all wrong. Modern geology is well intended, but incorrect.
A more rational approach, of course, is to go with the evidence and to attempt to interpret the evidence in the most reliable fashion possible. This leads us to not take seriously our subjective impressions. Those can be manipulated by circumstance and hence by the people who control our circumstances, far too easily to be reliable. These subjective impressions are the bedrock of countless conflicting religious beliefs. Why should we trust our own impressions of this kind anymore than we are prepared to trust the similar impressions other people have that lead them to beliefs that are inconsistent with our own?
And, what does the persistent unsuccessful seeking for evidence of something generally indicate? What if that were evidence that the Noah's Ark existed, or that the earth is indeed about 6,000 years old? Eventually, the rational person adds up the abundant evidence that suggests something different that what we believed, and the absence of evidence in favor, and allows belief to change.
To be fair, I should not talk in terms of rational and irrational people. The evidence is crystal clear in this regard. We have a limited ability to overcome the beliefs we inherit and with regard to which we are sufficiently conditioned within our dominant social group. Some scholars refer to this as "bounded rationality". If our perspective is limited, then certain conclusions that from a broader perspective might be considered ridiculous are, in our limited case, rational. And once we have held particular beliefs for long enough, and those beliefs are practically speaking important enough to the way in which we live our lives and get along every day within a particular kind of social group, they are extremely difficult to change. Our brains have literally wired around them, like the way in which kitten raised in a world without veritical lines cannot see things like table legs.
In the case of the nature of God and his/her/its relationship to man, people like Gordon Kaufman at Harvard, Philip Clayton and Claremont University and the late Arthur Peacocke have developed theologies that are much more consistent with the evidence both found and not found than traditional belief systems. For example, Kaufman's position is that God is whatever we eventually come to understand is the creative force that underlies all nature. He accepts that this conception of God probably means that God is utterly unaware of us and accordingly did not create the universe, or this earth, with us in mind. This belief system is much closer to deism than theism, and is completely consistent with science. It is a kind of naturalized belief, which most believers indicate guts their personal belief system. It is increasingly, however, the resort of the professional clergy and many of the most thoughtful people who attend religious services of various kinds on a regular basis. I expect that it will become the bridge of choice for many young people who are raised within religious communities, while at the same time being exposed to the full range of secular, rational information about the way the world works and in particular, the way religious communities work. This will allow them to reduce the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise exist between their religious and secular worldviews.
As indicated by the spiritual confidant whom Mother Teresa credited with bringing balance back into her spiritual life, “Feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being”. So, it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it too. If you feel Christ’s presence, that is great evidence of his existence and love for you. If you don’t feel his presence, that is evidence of his existence too and that you are so special that you have to be tested in a particularly severe way. Hmmmm.
This idea seems to me to be derivative from the self abusive tendency within Catholicism and certain other religious traditions. This tendency within Christianity comes from the abominably crude and backward idea that we need the sacrifice of other living things for our own metaphysical redemption. If God would, in effect, torture his most beloved son to death in order to do something good, then our own self torture and other kinds of self abnegation are in some bizarre way virtuous. Joseph Campbell and others have indicated that these ideas probably have their roots in humankind's early recognition that life depends on death. Sacrificial rites were probably part of a complex suite of psychological coping mechanisms that enabled our ancestors to find a uneasy truce with their need to kill other things, and ultimately to face death themselves. That is where Christ's sacrifice comes in. Thankfully, our dawning consciousness allows us to simply reject these antiquated, dysfunctional notions. Death may be a necessity, but it is death. Life is sacred in the sense that all living things are connected, and to kill another thing is in a sense to take something from ourselves. I heard on the radio a few days ago about the massive jellyfish blooms that are now dominating vast tracts of our oceans. Wherever sufficient overfishing or other ecological damage occurs to weaken the ocean food chain to a particular point, jellyfish become the only creatures that are able to survive and multiply. And then they take over, making it all but impossible for the formerly dominant ecosystem to reestablish itself. We do indeed need to become more sensitive to the sacred nature of life, and everything that supports it. Our disconnectedness from the death that is required to sustain us makes it easy to eat fish, for example, without awareness of what their overharvesting has done to our oceans. Likewise, when we cut into a nice steak we do not feel the trauma of branding and castrating calves, let alone the horror of the feedlot and slaughterhouse. Slowing down and returning to something that connects us to the reality of what it is to be alive remedies this to an extent. Each year, largely for that reason, I return to my roots and spend a day wrestling with calves as they are branded, dehorned (the worst part, for them) and castrated. I take as many of my children with me as I can. I want them to understand as much as they can about this process. At a minimum, it changes their relationship to what they eat. But I digress.
Most people build their religious faith on subjective experiences. I have written elsewhere about “emotional epistemology” (google my name and “denial”) – that is, the practice of knowing that something is real as a result of the feelings that one has. Religious institutions play this game to a tee by setting us up to experience strong feelings in a context where the institution can take credit for those. Marriages; baby blessings; healings; mission farewells and welcome homes; etc. Strong feelings are almost guaranteed to be present, and the institution is right there to take the credit. And, it gets better.
For example, imagine a teenage girl who is just had a terrible fight with her mother about something like how short her dresses are. She then goes off to a Mormon youth conference, and while there under the influence of talented, cool college kids who run these programs, is put into a position where she appreciates all the things that her mother and family have done for her, and has a profoundly moving emotional experience that culminates in her bearing her testimony (after a bunch of other kids have done same) mostly about how she feels with regard to her family, but also with regard how she feels with regard to Mormonism since those two things are inextricably linked in the minds of young Mormons. As a result of this experience, she has one of those rare epiphanies probablyh caused by her sympathetic and parasympathetic systems (that is, the systems that relate to the fight or flight response on the one hand, and the quiescent system on the other – I can never remember which is which) are both high functioning at the same time. This is a rare and wonderful experience. One of the other times at which human beings experience this miracle is during lovemaking. It is arguably the most profoundly moving mental and emotional state we can experience. So if a person stumbles into that as a result of something that happens in a religious setting, it is not surprising that they will associate that profoundly moving state with the religious institution that has created the experience. One of the ways this can be done is by combining a sense of agitation or grief or fear (think – horrible fight with Mom) with a sense of relief (think – I just realized that I love my Mom and we can get along). Why do you think sermons that are movingly presented with regard to the terror of sin, hell, etc. and the wonder of grace through Christ’s redemption are so effective? Or how about grieving the loss of a loved and accepting the concept of salvation and life after death, which brings instant relief and as a result of what I just noted,an epiphany.
These are among the many ways in which powerful emotional experiences tend to be manufactured within the context created by religious institutions, with the result that people have subjective or emotional experiences on the basis of which they believe that they have had a direct experience with God or his influence. Experiences of this kind are, in general, the pillars of religious faith.
Back to Mother Teresa’s experience. After she overcame the intransigence of the Catholic institution and establish her missionary program in India, her life became flat. She did not have the kinds of emotional experiences I’ve just described. And now we have been provided with the explanation – that the absence of the type of emotional or subjective experience upon which most people wrest their religious faith does not justify a lack of faith. In fact, Mother Teresa’s sanctification sends a clear signal that the most pure kind of faith is the type that does not rely upon subjective, emotional experience. Raw, completely dogmatic faith in the absence of justifying evidence is, following the example of Mother Teresa, the most creditworthy faith of all. As I said before, here we see religion having its cake and eating it too. Note the conservative tendency - it does not matter what the evidence says, do not change what you beleive.
Hitchens indicated that Mother Teresa “woke up”. While I agree with some of the other things he said, I don't agree with this.
The human mind is far too sophisticated to allow a person to wake up if that will put them in a position that is untenable. This has to do with the distinction between the conscious and subconscious minds, or as Jon Haidt so wonderfully put it in “The Happiness Hypothesis”, the rider and the elephant. Larry Iannaconne explains how this works by using concepts drawn from economics. He talks about spiritual or social capital, and the influence that this capital has on our subconscious decision making processes. He notes, for example, that economists have illustrated how when making decisions we engage in a subconscious cost-benefit analysis, and then consciously justify the decision that has been reached in this regard. When considering the decision-making behaviour of people who are presented with information that might incline them to leave a religious tradition, Iannacconne illustrates how useful this concept is.
For example, the older a person is when confronted by this kind of information, the smaller the benefits to be realized by leaving the religious institution. It takes time to make new friends; it takes time to integrate into a new community; older people have less energy and less flexibility; etc. On the other hand, the costs that an older person would suffer upon leaving a religiously oriented community tend to be larger than those that a younger person would suffer. The longer a person is within a religious community, the more embedded they become in their friendships, social relationships, etc. Presuming that their reputation is good, the more important and useful that reputation becomes as time passes. In addition, many people perceive rightly or wrongly that they make more contributions to their community then they take out in withdrawals, and therefore that many people owe them favors. They know the songs; they know the rituals; they know the rules and procedures; they know the small “p” politics withinthe group; they know the group’s history; they have the respect of other group members; they know how to use the group to do all kinds of things that are useful to them; etc. The longer a person is within the group of this kind, the more significant these assets become.
For a person like Mother Teresa, who was not only a member of a religious group but was a leader of the group, the situation is compounded. She is subject to the “saying is believing” bias referenced in the “denial” essay I mentioned above, as well as the confirmation and other biases. These are exacerbated as a result of her position as a leader within the group.
In short, Mother Teresa did not wake up. Rather, while she was focused on the goal of creating her missionary movement, that goal justified her existence and kept her focussed on something other than the absence of communication with god. In fact, the enlivening influence that the pursuit of this goad had on her made her feel in some cases like she had received communication from god. The more successful she became, the less challenging and engaging she found her task. She habituated to her success and to the horrifying nature of much of what she confronted on a daily basis as a result of for ministry, and life became flat. This is all consistent with the basic propositions of human social psychology.
It does not appear that Mother Teresa had a large “God Spot” in her brain. In this, she is in contrast with someone like Karen Armstrong about whom I will say more below. I also probably have a large God Spot in my brain. This part of the brain lights up during particular kinds of emotional or spiritual experiences. I have had more profoundly moving spiritual experiences than you can shake a stick at. Another way to put this is that I am easily excited or emotionally moved. I am the kind of person who cries during movies, becomes very excited about new pieces of art, or new books, etc. I’m willing to bet that Mother Teresa is not that kind of person. Accordingly, she did not have the kind of subjective, emotional experience on which most people build their religious faith. In the absence of those experiences, she still had to deal with the cost-benefit equation related to a renunciation of her faith. That would’ve been done at the subconscious level. She found a way to rationalize her experience with her beliefs, and so soldiered on.
The single most moving autobiography or memoir I have read is Karen Armstrong’s “The Spiral Staircase”. Armstrong is one of the world’s foremost religious historians. She was a Catholic nun for many years, and after a crisis of faith quite different from the one Mother Teresa suffered, Armstrong left the Nunnery. She was later diagnosed as having mild temporal lobe epilepsy, which means that she had a massive one spot in her brain. This probably accounted for the abundant, moving spiritual experiences she had from an early age, which led her to enter the convent. Her wonderful memoir tells the story of how this faith gradually came undone, how she entered a deep depression, eventually left the convent and rebuild her life on the outside. She has published many books, the most recent of which is called “The Great Transformation”, and is about how the Golden rule arose well prior to Christ simultaneously in the four major cultural centers around the world during what is called the axial age, between roughly 900and 200 B.C. Her book with regard to Buddha is a classic. Her book “A History of God” was one of the first that I read after my Mormon faith shattered. Her book “The Battle for God” is another one that I found profoundly helpful.
I won’t have the time to do this, but it would be very interesting to read the book containing Mother Teresa’s letters and Karen Armstrong’s “The Spiral Staircase”, back to back while wondering about the reasons for which their experiences and reactions to their experiences could be so different. Off the cuff, Armstrong had far more evidence of God’s presence in her life than Mother Teresa ever had. However, Armstrong’s personality was such that the discipline oriented and relatively sterile life of a nun did not work for her. It was killing her a bit at a time. Eventually she collapsed into depression and that led her to leave. Had she been in a different circumstance as a Nun, the combination of her profoundly spiritual nature with her now legendary academic gifts might have turned her into a Catholic saint of a different kind. She left the convent when she was relatively young, and therefore the cost-benefit equation with which her subconscious wrestled with have been radically different than the one withwhich Mother Teresa began to wrestle after she had achieved significant success within the Catholic hierarchy.
Now, to be fair to Mother Teresa, we should wonder what she might have done had she left her successful, but still nacsent ministry in India many years ago as a result of her perception that God no longer called her. Where would she have ended up? Her drive, ambition and toughness are legendary. Might she have taken on child proverty world-wide? Or maybe she would have stayed in India and helped to deal with birth control there, before launching that internationally. Or maybe ecology would have caught her attention. She might have had a much larger impact outside, then inside, her faith community.
This is the kind of thinking that won't be done inside the religiously faithful world re. Mother Teresa, just as few there are likely to wonder about the differences between Mother Teresa and Karen Armstrong. We each see what we need or wish to see in ambiguous data. And there are few kinds of data more abiguous that those related to religious belief.
In summary, I am encouraged that the fact that the Catholic Church would publish Mother Teresa’s letters. This is the kind of thing I expect to see as human culture with regard to religion continues to evolve. The fact of the matter is that doubt and healthy scepticism are increasingly important parts of the mental equipment with which most educated human beings are equipped. It makes sense not to deny this, since a large percentage of the people who are thoughtful with regard to their faith are going to reach that conclusion on their own. And remember what happened in Quebec in the 1960s. It was a conservative Catholic backwater, and it blew up. Are you listening Gordo?
Mother Teresa was legendary before her death, and will rapidly rise to the status of Saint within the Catholic Church. The fact that she achieved what she did within Catholicism while doubting as completely as a skeptic can doubt is remarkable, but understandable on the basis of the principles I have noted above. That does not prove the existence of God, however, any more than Fidel Castro proves that communism is the true political way. It simply provides more evidence of how powerfully the behaviour of those by whom we are surrounded influences our own.
I expect institutions like the Catholic Church to use examples of this kind to their advantage. The reconciliation of doubt of the kind experienced by Mother Teresa and her continued fidelity to the Catholic dogma and way of life requires a Herculean effort that will become more commonly required if the Catholic Church is going to continue looking like it wants to look. I predict that other religious groups will follow the Catholic lead on this one, and offer this option to their faithful – it is OK to doubt as long as you are discrete about it, and as long as you still obey.
Mother Teresa was of course doing a lot of good. Some (including Christopher Hitchens) have questioned this, but even taking what has been attributed to her with a significant grain of salt, and then cutting it in half, what she accomplished his remarkable.
Life is full of ironies of this kind. Off to bed. Tomorrow will another fine day.
| The following is a note I sent to a friend this morning on this topic.
As it happens, I have thought a lot about the way in which our degree of choice influences happiness, and why it seems that to an extent at least, the more choice we have, the more unhappy we are. I have not read the "Paradox of Choice" by Schwartz that you referenced, but several of the other books I have read recently deal with that topic. I cannot recommend "The Happiness Hypothesis" highly enough. It is the best single summary of the way in which our behavior, and the choices we make, relate to happiness as well as the extent to which happiness makes sense as a life objective.
For example, the topic you have raised is dealt with at pages 101 in 102 of that book. The author, Jon Haidt, refers to Schwartz's book on page 102. He distinguishes between maximizers and satisficers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing), which goes back to the philosophy of polymath Herbert Simon, though that is not mentioned in the book. Haidt does not explicitly indicate a solution to this "problem", but that can be inferred from other things he has to say, as well as from other reading I have done. See for example, http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.why%... starting on page 6.
Daniel Dennett also deals with this in "Freedom Evolves". The idea in a nutshell is that we are still maladapted to our own consciousness, and our freedom. The environment that creates our freedoms evolves. Our consciousness evolves in large measure in response to that environment. Therefore, our consciousness is well behind the environment. The tension Schwartz and others describes is part of what causes our consciousness to continue to evolve.
We should not expect to evolve into a state of comfort with our own consciousness, and the environment it still dimly perceives. A state of comfort in that regard would be inconsistent with our basic evolutionary nature. However, we can choose our own filters to help limit the choices we need to make and therefore make ourselves more comfortable. We each do this in different ways. While we were chatting at the conference, I described one of my daughters and her friends to you. The clubbing oriented social environment in which they feel comfortable is radically more complex than the environments in which you and I feel comfortable. They have developed choice limiting algorithms that we do not need. And, they did that at a young enough age that it happened automatically for them. I hasten to add, as I mentioned when we were chatting, that I do not think this environment is particularly healthy. I don't understand many of my daughters behaviors. I don't encourage them. However, I realized some time ago that oncemy children reach about the age of 15 or 16, my choice is either become their cheerleader and therefore remain there confidante, or to cut myself out of their lives. For obvious reasons, I have chosen the former.
In any event, for you or me to attempt to transition into the kind of complex environment with which my daughter and her friends are comfortable would be extraordinarily difficult. This is kind of like learning a language -- you have to start young in order for the brain to be plastic enough to learn how to do it really well. The older we are, the less our ability to become fully fluent in a language. Social fluency appears to be governed by similar principles.
However, you and I have developed efficient choice truncating algorithms of our own that relate to our environment. Everyone does this with regard to the decisions with which they need to regularly deal. As the environment becomes more complex, new algorithms develop to the extent the brain is capable of developing them. People who present data to us and try to get us to do things like buy products design some of these algorithms. We come up with others on our own. See "Goodbye, Lenin!" for an artistic take on this process in East Germany, just after the Berlin wall came down. This movie, in German with English subtitles, touched me so deeply a few years ago that I wrote an extensive review. You can find that by googling my name and the title.
For example, I had the opportunity to choose between a large number of law firms, across Canada and internationally, when I graduated from law school. This, of course, occurred long before I had any idea with regard to the kind of things we are now discussing. As I look back at the way I made that decision, it seems clear to me that I was unconsciously groping toward a manageable, satisficing choice. I had an interest in international affairs and business, and so my first selection criteria was that the firm needed to have a substantial international business law practice. In order to maximize the probability that I would continue to be a faithful Mormon, I had decided not to move to any of the large financial centers, and to stay somewhere near my family. This limited my choices to law firms in Calgary and Vancouver. The combination of these two selection criteria cut the number of firms to below 10. This created a manageable decision making process. Had I needed more decision-making criteria to get the number down to a manageable size, I believe that I would've invoked those additional criteria. If you think about your own life, and look at the way in which other people you know make decisions, I believe that you will see this pattern -- add selection criteria until the array of alternatives becomes manageable.
All of us to an extent rely upon upon social institutions and dogmatic beliefs to simplify life. While this is unavoidable to an extent, I think that most people would find life feeling better if they made more choices and become more conscious of those choices. That is, I think that we will be far better off encouraging people to make conscious decisions with regard to how they will satisfice than allowing dogmatic social institutions to dictate to them.
I do not believe that the changes in young adult behavior we were discussing have much to do with this point, however. You might find the literature at www.worldvaluessurvey.org interesting in that regard. See in particular the data related to the "post-materialist generation". The causal factors are difficult to discern. It is likely that they relate to a relief of necessity. This trend is, overall, healthy. Our earth does not need more production and consumption. This may be the ultimate driving factor. I hope that somewhere in our unconscious is the concept that we need to slow down -- reduce the energy in the cauldron. One way to read the axial age is consistent with this. See Karen Armstrong's wonderful book "the great transformation". I summarize my thoughts in this regard at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star... starting at page 74. It is possible that meta factors of this type are slowing down the most advanced, wealthy part of humanity. Ihope this to be the case.
Another concept that has come into focus for me during the past couple of years relates to the desirability of happiness itself. You would probably find Darrin McMahon's book "Happiness -- A History" interesting in that regard. The idea, for example, that "men are that they might have joy" only came into existence a few centuries ago. That is one of the many things that brands the Book of Mormon as a 19th century, as opposed to a meridian of time, piece of literature. But I digress.
As a result of our continuing discomfort with our own recently evolved consciousness, living so as to maximize happiness is probably a bad idea. That would, in and of itself, disconnect us from reality.
You are probably aware that mild depression correlates strongly with accurate perception. It is difficult to discern the direction of the causal arrow in that regard, but the correlation is clear. This brings us to Socrates question as to whether it is better to be ignorantly happy, or somewhat more sorrowful but attached more securely to reality. He reasoned to the conclusion that the latter is a far more desirable state. Recent survey data indicates that most people agree with him. I would be in that group.
The research with regard to habituation, which Haidt nicely summarizes, indicates limits to the extent we are capable of experiencing happiness. For example, when people ask me if I am happier as a post-Mormon, on the rare occasion when I decide to give a real answer, I end up talking about habituation. The first few months after leaving Mormonism were like the first few months in a new intimate relationship. I was intoxicated with my new sense of freedom and choice; once every few weeks I spontaneously teared up as a result of a profound sense of joy; I was consumed with a desire to learn and consumed more exciting, productive information on a weekly basis than at any other time during my life. In fact, I consumed hundreds of times more information of this kind during this period on a weekly basis than at any other time during my life. Those months will without question stand out as among my most memorable. Then, I habituated to my new state. That is the way life goes. No matter how wonderful, or how bad, anexperience we tend to habituate to it. The research indicates, surprisingly, that we deal better with significant tragedy than minor, ongoing, irritation as a result of the way in which we habituate.
While habituating to my newfound sense of freedom and opportunity, I also had to deal with a sense of loss with regard to many family relationships and friendships, as well as a sense of insecurity as a result of being outside the embrace of by far the most important social group in my life, while realizing that I had been retarded in many ways as a result of the encompassing nature of that embrace. In this difficult state, I simply soldiered on. I quickly came to understand that what I was feeling had to do with breaking old, and bad, neural habits and allowing my brain the time and opportunity to develop new neural habits. The angst and pain I felt gradually subsided. My circle of interests gradually expanded. My circle of friends gradually expanded. My life gradually became more complex, and nuanced. My understanding of how life works radically improved during this period of time. My ability to predict how I will feel in certain circumstances, and how satisfied I will be with my decisions, radically improved. But am I much happier? Clearly not. Am I better off? I believe so.
True to the research Haidt and other people have summarized so well, I don't believe that right now my sense of happiness is any different than it was throughout most of my career as a Mormon. This has to do with what the research indicates is a set range for our happiness. For some people this is higher than for others. There does not appear to be much we can do beyond lives so that we will approach the upper end of our own set range.
Thankfully, there is much more to the good life than happiness. For example, I believe that right now there is much more symmetry between the various layers of my consciousness than was the case while I was Mormon. At page 142 - 144, Haidt summarizes some of Dan McAdams research, which I've found profoundly helpful in this regard. His field is narrative psychology. He talks about three levels of human personality. He calls them "basic traits", "characteristic adaptations", and "life story". Basic traits are due to a combination of genetics and early conditioning. In Haidt's terms, this is about the elephant. Characteristic adaptations, on the other hand, have more to do with basic values, goals and that kind of thing. This is part elephant, and largely due to the influence social institutions have on us. The life story or life narrative is all about the rider. This is our consciousness attempting to explain the way we live, and so reconciling tensions between our basic traits and characteristic adaptations, and often helping us to find ways to change our characteristic adaptations.
One of Haidt's points, drawn from McAdams research, is that the resolution of tension between these three levels of our personality brings a sense of authenticity, stability, etc. to our existence that does not register on the happiness spectrum. Happiness is an elephant trait. That is why it has a set range. That is why it is subject to habituation. Its mechanisms are mostly below the conscious waterline.
Most of McAdams work has to do with the way in which people rewrite their own narratives, recharacterize or change their characteristic adaptations, and explain their basic traits as they become more conscious of various aspects of themselves. Some of his most interesting work has to do with people like Orthodox Jews who become aware of their homosexuality, and as a result engage in a fascinating process of rewriting their script. Those who attempt to remain Orthodox Jews are the ones who end up with the most creative rewriting. Many analogies can be found within the Mormon community in that regard.
I have not done a good job of summarizing a massive literature. But I'm out of time for this morning and so will have to leave this where it stands.
The bottom line, from my perspective, is that while happiness will of course continue to be one of our objectives, it should not be the dominant objective. Being connected to reality is more important in some ways. Some people will have a greater ability to tolerate tension between our perception of reality and our need for happiness. These people will tend to be more conscious than their peers. Artists tend to be this way. I have some theories as to why that may be the case. See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%.... People who tend to perceive life more through the right side of the brain are also more accurate perceivers of reality. I do not know if there is a correlation between artistic ability and depression, but I suspect that this is the case.
The more I think in terms of McAdams three levels of human personality and encourage myself to learn more about my basic traits (if you want to get to know your elephant, see Harvard's https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit...), become more aware of my characteristic adaptations, and encourage myself to rewrite my life narrative, the more authentic and secure I feel. This is odd in some ways. The more I appreciate the uncertainty of life and the tenuousness of both my personal position within it and the ephemeral nature of humanity itself as a feature of life, the more secure I feel. Grasping even a difficult, harsh reality is comforting. Life is riddled with irony of this type.
| This does not happen much anymore, but I still occasionally get a letter from an LDS leader asking in a polite way what happened to my testimony and why I don't do what he thinks might bring it back.
In this case, the questions and comments were as follows:
- My questioner understands that I have displaced Steve Benson as the guru of “anti-momons” and so he writes to me as an expert.
- How would an articulate anti-mormon respond to this: Read the Book of Mormon, including Third Nephi, and answer this question: "Could an evil man have written that? And would a righteous man write it and lie about it?"
- How is my quest for a debating adversary coming? My questioner understands that Dr. Peterson declined my invitation for a debate.
My response (lightly edited) is found below. If anyone can tighten up my argument or provide better illustrative examples, I would be happy to become better edcuated.
I am not sure where you are getting your information about Steve Benson or me. I doubt he ever characterized himself (or would have been characterized by many others in the post-Mormon community) as anyone's guru. Same for me. I have never attracted more than a small amount of attention within one corner of this immense, and rapidly growing, community. It is too amorphous for guruship to take hold, and the central dynamic of the vast majority of the community is anti-authoritarian, as a result of its largely reactive nature to its member's inherited faith tradition. This explains in part the fact that Steve has been the frequent focus of attack and controversy within the part of the post-Mormon community with which I am familiar as a result of his sharp witted and tongued style. There is no equivalent to “Follow the Prophet” in post-Mormonism.
Since you are a thoughtful, well read person, I suspect that you are already familiar with the social science and neurology related to belief transition. From my perspective, the idea is basically this. Belief and behavior appeared to be completely the function of genetics and conditioning. This is reflected in the patterns formed by our neural networks. As long as our intended behavior and thought patterns are inconsistent with these neural networks, we will feel something like the force of gravity pulling us back toward where we were. Changing basic beliefs and behaviors requires the growth of new neural networks, and permitting the old ones (or least some of them) to fall into decline. This is a biological process that causes pain (not unlike the pain caused by the significant development of new muscle), some of which is described by the people who study cognitive dissonance. The growth process takes a significant amount of time and energy.
As I look back on the first several years after I decamped Mormonism, I now see the massive amount of reading, writing, analyzing, rewriting, reanalyzing, etc. that I did as an instinctive effort to rewire my brain. As the new neural patterns gradually stabilized, my impulse to continue with all of that declined. Accordingly, my interaction in the various online post-Mormon communities declined. By a little over a year ago, the time and energy I was spending in activities of that type were below 10% of what they had been at their peak, a period of time that lasted several years. I now seldom spend more than a couple of hours a week reading, writing and thinking about Mormon issues. This e-mail will absorb a substantial part of this week's unconscious allotment. I now go for weeks without doing anything of a material nature relative to Mormonism. Those who are concerned about me as some kind of serious foe (if those there be) are looking in the wrong place. Dozens like me have already sprung up and are frantically writing, posting, etc. as they re-wire their brains. Who knows where they are. Some are in Latin America and Africa, though. I know because they have been in touch with me. Steve Benson was one or two generations (these are short generations) before me. A cat (or whole bunch of cats) is out of the bag. I am glad I don't feel the need to try to keep track of this. If you want a military metaphor (since Packer seems to favour these), think Vietnam or Afghanistan. The dissent just keeps springing up from the grassroots in unexpected ways.
The time that I spent for most of my adult life on Mormonism, which was then shifted to recovering from Mormonism, is now discretionary. I use that reading about a wide variety of things, spending more time than ever at the gym, hiking, interacting with my kids, interacting with a wide range of scientists and intellectuals who live all over the world, drawing, painting, etc. Given the little I know of you, I suspect that the existence I now enjoy would appeal to you. It took a mighty effort to put myself in the position I am now in. I am deeply grateful that my life has evolved in the way it has.
The pattern I just described is typical of many, if not most, people who leave Mormonism and other literalist, authoritarian sects. During the initial stages of this process, people are emotionally battered, insecure, and accordingly may for a relatively short period of time pay serious attention to someone like Steve Benson, or me, but it is more likely that they will rely upon the Fawn Brodies, Mike Quinns, Jan Shipps, Todd Comptons, etc. of the world who are more or less permanent figures as a result of their publishing and academic standing. Small eddies of local popularity within the post-Mormon world develop on the same basis as some people become coveted book club members – they make useful, local contributions to understanding or are in other ways enjoyable conversation partners. It is no more complicated than that.
This period of insecurity does not, in any event, usually last long. The typical tenure of people at the recovery from Mormonism website, for example, is somewhere around one year. A few stay on for longer periods of time, primarily in mentor roles, but for the most part people move through a recovery process and then disappear into the cultural ether. I think this is a healthy process.
This brings us to the subject of Dr. Peterson. He did decline my offer of debate. I can't recall how long ago that was. Two years? Three years? I basically wanted to call his bluff, and that is what I did. He had been going on about how people like me (and me in particular) were afraid to visit the places on the Internet he tended to frequent at that time, and deal with him there. So I paid him a visit. I would've been happy to fly down to Salt Lake City to deal with him in person (the proposed debate topic was "Was Joseph Smith Trustworthy?"), but he did not want to do that. I was not out looking for any old debate, and have made no effort to set up anything of a similar nature up since dealing with Peterson.
As you might suspect, the challenge to re-read the Book of Mormon, pray about it, and ask the standard missionary questions is one that I thought about a lot before leaving Mormonism, and the suggestion that I repeat the process has often been made to me. Here is something from my stock answer.
In general, we are talking about epistemology. One of the most unjustifiable epistemological systems ever invented is the one that relies upon feeling -- and especially feelings that depend largely upon social context for their power (read the Book of Mormon and tell us how your feel while we love bomb you or implicitly threaten you with the withdrawal of our approval or love ...) -- as a means for determining what is real. This system is designed to create a false sense of certainty that is primarily helpful for the purpose of binding social groups together. It is unreliable from an epistemological point of view, but the way in which it is used within particular social groups can tell us a lot about their nature.
How do the JWs, for example, justify their beliefs? How about the Moonies? The Hare Krishna? If you read the cult deprogramming literature relative to groups like those, you will find a description of cult belief induction techniques that bear a striking similarity to the way in which the Mormon missionary and fellowshipping system works, and you will find a deprogramming response that attempts to break through the reliance upon feeling to discern reality. I think you and I have corresponded on this topic before, and so I will leave that point there.
If you cleave to something like the categorical imperative or golden rule, how would you justify adopting this as your epistemological standard while denying others the same right? If you permit others the same right, how do you deal with the contradiction that arises when they, on the basis of their feelings, reach the certain belief that their system is the only true system at the same time you reach the same conclusion with regard to your system? There are many ways to establish the inadequacy of emotion-based epistemic systems.
So, bearing that in mind, how would I likely respond to rereading the Book of Mormon? I would, of course, try to set the book in context and understand as much as possible about the book as I attempt to discern its reliability as a source of wisdom or knowledge. I would purposely suppress my initial gut reaction. This is how I try to approach everything I read. In some cases, this allows me to overcome an initial negative reaction based on an inadequate appreciation of the context surrounding a piece of literature, so as to put myself in a position to learn something significant. In other cases, the result of doing the kind of work required to understand a text as well as possible is its dismissal as unworthy of additional time or energy.
As you know, or at least suspect, I spent a great deal of time during the initial stages of my brain retooling focused on the Book of Mormon. I therefore have a lot of context in my head with regard to that book. The way you posed your question suggests that I should somehow eliminate that from consideration when I attempt to reassess the book. Is that what you are suggesting? If so, can you provide me with examples of other situations in which you would suggest the same thing (ignoring the best scholarship available with regard to origins, context, etc. with regard to a piece of literature) while making a serious effort to understand an important text, and particularly a text that is potentially one of your life's foundation pieces?
I am aware, for example, of studies occurring right now at *** [well known US university] that will lead to a new kind of word pattern analysis of the Book of Mormon, and will point to Sydney Rigdon as its primary author. This research will be published in peer-reviewed journals. I do not have the expertise to critique this, but from what I've read about it I think it will at the minimum cause additional scholarship and will increase the academic understanding of the Book of Mormon. The hypothesis underlying this work is that Rigdon sincerely believed in the need to reform Christianity's direction. He accordingly borrowed from Ethan Smith, Solomon Spaulding and others to create a pseudepigrapha that would move Christianity in the direction he thought it should go. He told what he regarded as a noble lie in that regard, and recruited J. Smith to help him do so. Smith probably bought into the noble lie aspect of the project, and likely had his own reasons for participating as well in light of his straightened financial circumstances and history as a treasure seeker for hire. His talents in this regard are what attracted Rigdon's attention. There is now evidence of pre-Book of Mormon contact between Ridgon and Smith. Again, I don't profess to be expert in this area. I lost interest in it long ago. I am barely aware of the developments in this area of Mormon-related scholarship.
As you know, biblical scholars believe that significant chunks of the Old and New Testament were written as psuedepigrapha. A variety of other important religious and historical texts are also understood to have originated in this fashion, including Jewish Kaballah's foundational documents. It would hardly raise an academic eyebrow if it were up established to a high degree of probability that the Book of Mormon came into being in this fashion.
About a year ago, during one of my last fits of activity re. Mormonism, I corresponded with people like Steve Farmer (see http://www.safarmer.com/Farmer.Beijin...) who use complexity theory based programs to date ancient documents. I tried to persuade him and his collaborators at Harvard to publish a peer reviewed article on the Book of Mormon, using his system. I offered to fund this. After reviewing the Book of Mormon literature re. archaeology, etc. they declined. They said that the problem was "trivial" from an academic point of view. That is, after they did months of painstaking work that showed the BofM to be of 19th century origin to some very high degree of probability, their academic peers would look at them in the same way they would anyone who spent months on a geological study designed to show that the Earth is well more than 6,000 years old. Time is short for these folks. Other academic projects are far more important tothem. The offer of substantial funding did not come close to turning the trick for them. It takes an interest in the post-Mormon community of a personal nature, it seems, to motivate a serious academic to spend time on Mormon studies, as is the case with the study proceeding at *** [the other university mentioned above].
Given the fact that I have the opportunity to understand the Book of Mormon in this type of broad, rich context, why would I choose to limit myself to the type of superficial analysis you suggest? Given the wonderful scholarship related to how religious organisms come into being and evolve, why would I choose to limit my understanding of Mormonism to my personal phenomenology? I do not approach any other aspect of my life in this kind of shallow fashion. How could I possibly justify treating what is arguably the most important aspect of my life in this way?
If the response is that we must walk in the light of faith; not rely on the arm of man or his puny intellect, etc. I would respond that we should acknowledge that the same applies to Mormonism's religious competitors. We don't exclude the best scientific and historical work when we question the legitimacy of the Taliban, the JWs, and the alien abductionists. The exhortation to ignore the most reliable evidence available is predictable when social organisms are defending their turf. Outsiders see this quickly. Insiders struggle to see it at all. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Some studies suggest that really smart people who are committed in various ways to a social system are more strongly affected by cognitive biases than the less intelligent. This has to do with the ability of intelligent people to find patterns in ambiguous data and persuade others around them to their point of view. This applies as much to political, economic, quantum mechanical and other similarly ambiguous fields of scientific endeavour as it does to religious belief.
Furthermore, to frame the question in the way you have poses a false dichotomy. I doubt that you recall the letter I wrote to Jeffrey Holland (see http://i4m.com/think/intro/bishops_letter1.htm), but in that I accused both him and Gordon Hinckley of the same thing. This is a cheap debating trick. Those who see it as such will punish those who attempt to use it in various ways. Such people are not to be trusted, for example.
The issue is not one of black or white. The question is not whether an evil man or a righteous man wrote the book, or whether a righteous man could lie about the book. The motivations that underlie individual human behavior are far too complex for that to be a useful approach. The Rigdon hypothesis (which I of course know is not new) and other psuedepigrapha cases illustrate how complex these things are. And the mechanisms that underlie group behavior are exponentially more complex still. The study of complex adaptive systems, and the way in which they apply to the social sciences (including things like Daniel Kahneman's studies of bounded rationality, and the various reincarnations of Adam Smith's invisible hand and other forms of collective or hive mind), have shed wonderful light on how social groups behave in general. It does not take a rocket scientist to read this stuff, and apply it to Mormonism.
I wrote the foregoing on the assumption that you would use whatever information I provided to you for the purpose of better countering information that is making its way into the Mormon community. While our interests might be construed to be adversarial in that regard, you will note that I have given you a relatively full, and utterly frank, assessment of the issues you presented to me. I think greater understanding on both sides of the Mormon (and other religious) divide(s) is important, and hence I proceed as I do when approached by sincere members of the Mormon faith, or other believers.
I hope that you and other Mormon leaders are making progress toward frank and full disclosure with regard to Mormon origins. I continue to regard the way in which the Mormon leadership deals with its history and claims to authority to be immoral. Not excommunicating people like Bushman and leaving his book on obscure shelves does not go anywhere near far enough. As long as missionary lessons, Sunday school lessons, etc. contain versions of Mormon history that would fail miserably the standard required for even middle school history texts, Mormon leaders should feel ashamed of what they are doing. It was largely my inability to remain associated with deception of this type that led me to distance myself from the Mormon institution. The "We can't tell them because they might disobey/implode/become sex fiend alcoholics etc. likewise does not cut the mustard. There is no justification for this view of which I am aware. The unconscious motivation of Mormon leaders to retain their power over the Mormon group is clear to outsiders. These things are almost never clear to insiders. You can see these forces operating in other groups. They should be presumed to operate within Mormonism. The idea that "our group is immune from corruption because it is God's group" has a long, dishonourable pedigree.
I hope you will use your considerable influence to cause those at Mormonism's pinnacle to come clean.
| Stronger, Better Educated Females -- A Silver Bullet for Humanity’s Current Demons?
Years ago, I ran across E.O. Wilson's wonderful essay "The Bottleneck" (see http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?arti...). Since then, from time to time, I have wondered whether we have available to us a more powerful social medicine than female education and empowerment. I have not found one so far, and was reminded of this yesterday while watching Isabel Allende's powerfully entertaining TED presentation (see http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/204).
What do you think about this? And to be clear, I am talking about the biggest issues we confront -- issues related to the sustainability of life on this planet; the ecological issues related to that; and the way in which our essentially tribal mentality makes it increasingly difficult to get along in our increasingly cozy and interdependent world. And, since I still can't read or hear anything that seems significant to me without running it through my "religious filter", let me ask how you read the tea leaves in this regard re. the world's many literalist religious faiths, including my favorite, Mormonism? These depend to a large measure on patriarchal social structures. Would the education and empowerment of women, in and of itself, gradually bring down the curtain on this aspect of human history? And I don't mean the kind of female education that occurs in places like Brigham Young University. While that is better than nothing, it carefully inculcates the beehive mentality, thus bifurcating minds as they become more conscious, and perpetuating the patriarchal attitudes that offer far greater opportunity for individuation to men than women, while holding both well below the levels available to them in other more individualistically oriented social groups.
As I listened to Allende, I was touched (as I have been often in the past) by the realization that my Mormon difficulties are trivial when considered in light of the plight of females and children throughout most of the world. I feel fortunate to born as, where and when I was, and to hence have a real opportunity to create a better work for my children and grandchildren. This is not the case for a large percentage of today’s humanity. When I write, as I'm doing now, it is still largely an attempt to pound ideas that I consider to be important enough into my thick skull that they will influence my behavior.
For those who have not run across the ideas Wilson sets out in his essay (and are not inclined to plough through it and the related literature) a few of the key insights are as follows.
As women become more financially secure and better educated, they choose to restrict the number of children they have. This has only become apparent during the past several decades, and was a profound relief to population scientists, since many of them were concerned during the middle of the last century that as women in the West became more wealthy, children might be regarded as a luxury good, and therefore family sizes would increase. This would accelerate what was already seen as looming disaster. As noted above, the contrary occurred.
The evolutionary explanation offered for this phenomenon was that throughout most of human history there has been a shortage of human capital, and the larger the family the more workers were available. In light of our historically immense mortality rates, this made it more likely that enough children would survive, and thrive, to care for the mother during her decline years.
Nature forced mother to play an unwitting numbers game. She had to hedge her offspring bets in order to maximize the probability of her own survival. This meant that the weaker of the brood would not have access to the resources necessary for even a reasonable chance of survival, and few if any would have the opportunity to optimally develop their individual talents. Nature is, after all, red in tooth and claw. Mothers never have been capable of seeing their situation in this way. Our subconscious systematically suppresses troubling insight of this type, in the same way that it generally prevents people from seeing the worst problems with their worldview.
I think it was Wilson who also noted that the mother’s life expectancy declined (and still declines) with each child after the first. I am going from memory here, so forgive me if I do not have this precisely right. Historically, this downside appeared to be more than offset by the advantages of having a larger potential pool of providers, as noted above. As the environment within which we live became more secure, this trade-off no longer made sense.
Accordingly, as women become better educated and therefore more aware of their environment, and have more assets under their control, they choose to have fewer children. This allows them to lavish greater attention and resources on those children, thus increasing the probability that each child would survive and thrive. It also allows women to spend more of their time and energy on personal and social issues that do not directly relate to their own offspring. That is, women were given the opportunity to individuate.
I note that what I have just described is, in part, the transition from a collectivist (or hive) worldview to an individualistic worldview. That is, throughout most of human history (and still in the less conscious parts of human society), women devoted more of their life energy to the betterment of the group than tends to be the case in more individualistic societies, which tend to be found in the democratic West. Groups like the Mormons, Muslims and fundamentalist Christians are anomalies in that context.
This is what having children is about at its most foundational level. In general, the more children the group produces, the better its long-term prospects. This factor has been noted as a primary competitive factor with regard to both Mormonism and the Muslim faith.
That is, at a time when birthrates throughout most of the world are declining, they are there not declining as quickly (and in some places, not at all) within the two populations I just mentioned. If you play the numbers out over a hundred years, you find a world dominated by the Muslim faith, with Mormons on the basis of birthrate alone, accounting for a far larger percentage of Christianity than they do now. These mathematics, however, require that Muslim and Mormon women continue to dedicate themselves much more to raising the children that will strengthen the social organisms to which they belong than would be the case were they "regular" members of modern democratic societies.
This concept sheds interesting light on the emphasis of the beehive mentality within certain social groups. Women are maneuvered in this regard into a position whereby they will unconsciously continue to sacrifice their individuality, and that of their children, on their community altar. The use of birth control is suppressed. The act of giving birth is lionized. The traditional, subservient role of the mother is placed on a pedestal, at least in some symbolic ways.
This reminds me of one of the female mantras within the fundamentalist Mormon community -- "Keep sweet!". That is, remain pliant, subservient, obedient -- "Sweet!". Within the Mormon community, the term "spiritual" when applied to women has a similar meaning. Men are counselled to seek "spiritual" lives who will, if necessary "drag the family into the Celestial Kingdom". Once this image of the ideal wife has been accepted, female behavior within the social group is easy to predict.
The relationship between dragging, anchors, inability to move, downward motion, and death by asphyxiation seems to be lost on the people who use these metaphors.
So again, what kind of difference would it make within particular social groups, and the world as a whole, if women became less pliant, more powerful, and more self-determined?
| I watched Lyndon’s you tube presentation to the Red Mountain Community Church near Phoenix, and thoroughly enjoyed it. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECjddl.... He is an eloquent spokesman for the post-Mormon movement. His personal style is folksy, and pleasant. He is the kind of guy that most people would probably love to spend an evening chatting with. I certainly fall into that category. I "felt the spirit" while listening to him.
I was also particularly interested in the way in which Lyndon described his current beliefs. I am not sure whether he was pulling some punches in order to avoid discomfiting his hosts too much. I doubt that. I remember many of my beliefs being similar to his during the first short while after I bolted from the Mormon cloister.
Overall, I found Lyndon’s presentation thought-provoking enough that I decided to make some notes will listening to it, and then dictated the following stream of consciousness set of comments. While I don't always agree with what Lyndon had to say, I want to make it clear that this is not an attempt to criticize him. On the contrary, I applaud what he has done, his courage, and the style with which he conducts himself. I also think that discussing different perspectives with regard to important issues is helpful, and I therefore offer what follows. Given the way Lyndon explained his approach, I am confident that he will not feel threatened by this and hope that he will be inclined to provide additional insight into the process as he is following. The more different examples we have of how people have dealt with the challenges related to crossing a major personal and social boundary, such as that between Mormonism and the rest of social reality, the better served all who come behind us up this interesting pathwill be.
I use voice dictation software, and do not have the time to proofread this carefully. Please forgive the plethora of typos that no doubt follows.
I was particularly pleased to hear Lyndon’s description of the way in which his wife reacted to his change of belief. She is an unusual woman. They are fortunate to have each other. As he put it, their relationship is far more important than any set of religious beliefs. His wife and son continue to attend Mormon meetings, and they are all comfortable with that.
I love the fact that he continues to get along well with all of his brothers. I think he called them a "tribe". He also indicated that within 20 years, most of them will have probably left Mormonism, and all of them at present are well informed with regard to the issues related to Mormonism. However, in some cases his brothers may face the loss of a marriage and/or family in the event they openly disavow Mormonism. This makes the decision difficult. He therefore indicates that we should be respectful of the decisions people make with regard to how they will continue to associate with Mormonism.
I could not agree more. This is particularly the case where people are well informed. I have much less respect for those who cannot bear to inform themselves, than those who go to that point and then make the difficult decision Lyndon identified. I don't believe that anyone other than the individual involved can make the crucial cost-benefit call that must be made when determining how to recalibrate, or completely change, one's relationship to an inherited religious tradition, family and community. I believe that it is somewhere between unwise and the immoral for anyone to attempt to make someone else's decision in that regard or to be unduly critical once it has been made.
I was glad that Lyndon was able to report that for the most part, his Mormon friends and family are treating him well. This indicates the Mormonism has matured beyond the vicious shunning evidenced in the fundamentalist Mormon community, certain aspects of the Muslim community, and the most archaic and tribal of other parts of the religious world. Explaining this to evangelical Christians helps them to understand that Mormons are not so different from them in this regard.
Were I Lyndon, I might have dealt with the questions along these lines by asking what the Evangelicals would do with a family member who converted to Islam, Mormonism, or became an atheist, and showed up on youtube describing how crazy the evangelical Christian belief system was. The way in which Mormons deal with Lyndon might be usefully placed in context against how the Evangelicals deal with that kind of situation. They would likely indicate that there would be a range of responses. The more "Christlike" and mature members of the community would probably deal with the situation better than some of the hard-liners. The same thing occurs within Mormonism.
Over and over again, I will come back to the concept that Mormonism and evangelical Christianity are extremely similar in terms of their social dynamics, belief structures, and other attributes when considered from the perspective of social organisms competing for resources within an evolutionary landscape.
Lyndon indicated that he is "once bitten, twice shy" when it comes to institutional religion. He is going to study carefully before making any other commitments. He believes that spirituality, for the most part, transcends institutional religion.
He and I seem to be on much the same page in that regard. I decided that it was important that I stand apart from all institutional religions for a period of time. Mormonism and other authoritarian religious groups tend to breed an unhealthy dependence on authority and institutional structures. Various schools related to "attachment theory" within psychology described how this works in our most important nurturing relationships as individuals. These patterns appear to extend into adult intimate relationships, and also to our relationships with important authority figures and institutions. As a result, people within religious communities like Mormonism do not tend to individuate in a healthy fashion. Their personal boundaries are more porous than tends to be the normal case within Western society, and they are therefore more prone than usual to unhealthy co-dependent relationships. In many ways that is how I characterize my former relationship to Mormonism -- as an unhealthy co-dependency. Mormonism exploitedthis by causing me to make many unhealthy choices in terms of how I used my time, how hard I was on myself and otherwise how I lived my life. Ironically, the more faithful and committed a Mormon is, the more unhealthy choices of this type tend to be made. The more casual Mormon, the less Mormonism tends to interfere with a healthy lifestyle.
As an aside, I see precisely the same pattern with the Evangelical community.
Having spent a period of time after leaving Mormonism in my mid-40s to individuate as I probably should have should have in my late teens or early adulthood, I now would be comfortable associating with a religious institution. However, I feel no need to do so. I have identified a wide variety of religious groups within the Christian and other traditions that are orientated toward helping individuals come to understand themselves, and to make the most of who they are as they choose to do so. I think that the environmental movement is going to evolve into, among other things, various quasi-religious manifestations, and believe that I could find the same sort of benefits that would be provided by many religious institutions in that, or other similar, social contexts. I am not actively seeking associations of this kind, but if I bump into something that makes sense I would not be shy about pursuing it.
Whether to continue attending Mormon meetings?
I started out thinking that I would perhaps become a force for change within the Mormon institution. I was familiar with what Lavina Fielding Anderson and others have attempted to do in that regard, and believed that that might be the way to go. As I come to better understand the dynamics of change within social institutions, I decided against this. Social change is caused by both insiders and outsiders. Where one falls in that regard is largely a matter of personality and circumstance. I am most comfortable as an outsider, just as some people are more comfortable emigrating from difficult homelands, while others could not consider it. I am reading Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin at the moment, which contains some fascinating material in this regard. Hence it is on my mind.
In addition, my thinking was influenced by one of the ideas that Lyndon pointed toward. That is, anyone who attends Mormon meetings and abides by the requirement that Mormonism not be criticized will be for the most part viewed as endorsing the Mormon way. The better I came to understand what Mormonism stood for, the less comfortable I was with lending my reputation to it in any way.
Even more importantly, I came to appreciate the crucial role our associations with other human beings in social contexts, within the epistemic and other rules that define those contexts, has on our personal evolution. Human beings coevolve as a function of the nature of their closest associates, and their social context. In a very real sense, we make each other. Some of the best research with regard to what causes changes in religious belief indicates that it is the belief of our six or so closest associates that is the most reliable predictive factor with regard to what we will believe. And believe creates behavior. The social science statistics coming out of Utah speak eloquently to the downside of Mormon belief in that regard.
As I thought about these concepts relative to my children, it became crystal clear to me that I did not want to have them come to maturity within the social context defined by Mormonism, having most of their closest associations being within the Mormon community. This is the issue that nailed shut my decision to exit the Mormon community, and to do everything I could to have my children come with me. As a result of the fact that Lyndon appears to be comfortable with his son continuing along the Mormon path, I believe that he and I see things differently on this issue.
While I realize that one off examples are not good guides to life, and that we should seek the broadest possible empirical evidence to support or disprove our theories, let me share a story the underlying principles of which I believe can be substantiated by the academic research.
A friend of mine left are relatively small, close-knit Mormon community at age 18 because she wanted to get as far away from it as possible. She became a professional, married a fine non-LDS man, and raised a successful family. She left her name on the membership rolls, and allowed each of her children to be blessed and named in a Mormon meeting with her father performing the ordinances. This helped her to remain connected to her family, and she did not see any harm in this.
Because her children were “of record” in Mormon Church, and because her parents kept the church up to date with regard to her location, she was from time to time contacted by well-meaning Mormons as her children grew up, and they occasionally attended primary and youth meetings within the Mormon community. The city where they lived had a reasonably sized Mormon population, and her children became acquainted with the Mormon kids in that community as a result of what I just indicated. When her children went away the university, they sought out the Mormon Institutes of Religion because of the ready-made community of friends they knew they would find there.
I note as an aside that this is much of what Mormonism offers these days. At a time when communities of many types are breaking down, Mormons are going out of their way to build cohesive, strong communities that can be easily found in virtually every major city across North America. They love bomb potential new converts. They provide things to do within the community for most participants, which the social psychologists tell us will tend to provide a feeling of meaning, security and connectedness to something larger, each of which is important to human feelings of happiness and satisfaction. In short, the Mormon institution follows the social science textbooks very closely in terms of how to build human groups that will satisfy basic human needs. This is why it is successful. It is successful in spite of its weird history, and our beliefs. The price for admission is, among other things, at least the willingness not to be critical of odd beliefs and to play the social game as Mormons define it. This is similarto the requirement for social membership in smokers group at the office, or the runners group at the gym. Do what they do. It is pretty simple at this level of analysis.
I do not suggest that Mormon leaders pour over the textbooks, and then decide how to do things. Rather, evolutionary forces are present within our social strata, and accordingly the social groups that survive tend to behave in a somewhat predictable fashion. Mormonism is simply another religiously oriented social group in that regard -- man-made from the ground up. The same can be said of evangelical Christians. But it is difficult for any of us to see this with regard to our own social group, but very easy for us to see it with regard to all others. Hence, the evangelical Christians are intellectually hamstrung in almost precisely the same manner in which our Mormons.
Back to my friend's story. Two of her children married very faithful Mormons as a result of associating with the Mormon university crowd, and are now temple attending Mormons who are raising their families in a traditional, conservative Mormon fashion. It is not coincidence, by the way, that Mormons invest heavily in resources located at the crucial life juncture that is young adult and university life. People are malleable at this point, and social connections do most of the moulding.
Anyways, Grandpa and Grandma are somewhat suspect in that context. Their access to their grandchildren and children is much more limited that they would like. This is a source of great pain for my friend. She deeply regrets permitting the tentacles of Mormonism to remain in her life. I have cut those off to the extent I can. They are like creeping vines, and regularly attempt to get back into the house. I therefore regularly patrol the perimeter, cut off the vines that are continually attempting to get in and rip out the roots whenever I can.
Mormonism's crazy beliefs and irrational treatment of those who leave their group
Lyndon was not going out of his way to dwell on these points, but they came up naturally as he answered questions and talked about his experience. He talked about Smith's polyandry, nutty beliefs with regard to the book of Mormon, et cetera. He noted that Mormons seem to need to believe that he had done something terrible, and that this was his real reason for leaving Mormonism. He noted the Mormon belief that since he had left Mormonism, he would probably become an alcoholic, porn addict, immoral person, since it is not possible to expect otherwise if you have left Mormonism. He mentioned that people within his congregation asked his wife when she was going to divorce him. Note that the question was not whether she would divorce him, but when.
My experience was close to identical in this regard. Note the correlation between publicity, and the need within the Mormon community to tear a person apart. People who leave quietly are not treated in this fashion, generally speaking. This is consistent with the hypothesis that religious groups like the Mormon Church are social institutions engaged in an evolutionary struggle for survival. Publicity with regard to a person leaving amounts to a threat against the institution. The institution, through its members, responds to that threat.
Lyndon noted in particular that he had been told that his excommunication was going to be announced from the pulpit. He went to the meeting on the appointed Sunday so that he could witness this. The announcement was not made. The stake president who wrote him a letter indicating that the announcement would be made was at the meeting. Lyndon asked him what was going on, and was told that he had not really made up his mind, and so the announcement would not be made. Lyndon inferred, I suspect correctly, that the stake president had been advised by his superiors not to make the announcement because of the defamation action that might follow from Lyndon. Accordingly, yet again we see the way in which the rights given to individuals within democratic society restrain the actions of a religious institution. Rather than pillorying Lyndon in an explicit fashion, the institution must rely upon rumor and innuendo of the type described above instigated by the membership independently so as to excise troublesome former members from the Mormon body, and neuter their ability to exert influence. Hence, the more publicity a person's departure receives, the more vicious we can expect the rumors and innuendo to be. In my case, the rumors included that I was having an affair with my assistant at the office, and that one of my sons and I have become addicted to pornography. There was no substance to either of these rumors. They were fabricated out of thin air. My wife was also encouraged to divorce me.
Lyndon did not go on to note how common each of the characteristics described above is within human groups, and how these characteristics tend to be stronger in those groups that are more tightly knit. Authoritarian religious groups are among the tightest on the planet, and therefore we should expect to see these characteristics strongly manifested within those groups. For example, virtually all religious beliefs seem crazy to those who do not hold them. Try talking to people outside the Christian tradition with regard to the idea of the virgin birth and the resurrection.
The more conservative, primitive and tribal a group, the more likely it is that the group will differ so radically from the rest of society that its members will have a high probability of failure if they leave their own group and try to make their way in other societies. Think of a 45-year-old African tribesmen who moves to North America. His or her prospects are slim. The prospects of a fundamentalist Mormon, old order Amish or Hutterite who leaves his social group at midlife are similarly constrained. In the case of the African tribesmen, poor prospects in a radically different culture are a simple function of social physics. He doesn't know the language; he doesn't know the cultural customs; he doesn't have a good social network; he does not have social credentials; et cetera. He is therefore going to have a very hard time getting things done.
Cases involving close-knit, nonmainstream social groups that are embedded within a broader culture are quite different in some ways. The social physics noted above are purposefully manufactured. These social organisms are in competition with those surrounding them for the resources that allow social organisms to thrive. Those resources are primarily the human beings that make up social organisms. Those human beings dedicate energy to the social organisms to which they belong. This energy can come in the form of time, or money which is really just a stored form of time and other kinds of human energy. Accordingly, social organisms that are embedded in a broad landscape with many other social organisms are in competition with regard to human resources. They try to hang on to the resources that they have in virtually all cases, and in many cases try to attract new resources by way of conversion of one kind or another. At a minimum they will have developed various means to discourage dissent, mutiny and disengagement. Social isolation, and the threat of divorce, work well in this regard.
This brings us back to the example above. If the education, socialization, etc. within the small group differs radically enough from the larger culture within which it is embedded, it will be more difficult for people to leave. And many of those who do leave will fail. They will drift to the bottom of mainstream society, and become cautionary tales that reinforce the beliefs within their small group. That is, God will punish those who leave. The "world" is an evil and harsh place, ill-suited for the chosen who should remain within the community of the chosen. Et cetera.
Only a few generations ago, Mormonism was what the FLDS are now. Since then the Mormons have moved toward the mainstream of North American society with a vengeance, and the differences between Mormonism in mainstream society are therefore much smaller. However, vestiges of the old system remain, and Mormons are to an extent hamstrung if they attempt to leave their own relatively simple social group, and make their way in a much more complex mainstream society. This problem is greater for Mormon women than for men, since they do not tend to have as much to do with the "world". Mormon men are required to earn their livelihood in the world, and therefore move more comfortably within that environment. They are therefore less afraid of it. They have social networks in it. They are credentialed in a way that facilitates their movement in it. This, in my view, explains most of what we see in terms of many more men than women moving across the Mormon boundary into mainstream culture and completely rejecting Mormonismas they do so. However, those men are still hampered by their Mormon beginnings. This digression is already so long but I will leave that there.
The social statistics coming out of Utah bear this out. Without telling that long story, Utahans on average suffer for more depression, are in their naïveté more preyed upon by financial fraud artists, and participate more in multilevel marketing organizations than do people in any other state. I believe that this is a reflection of the Mormon culture within Utah. One of the first objections Mormons make to this kind of analysis is that Utah is only 70% Mormon, and therefore the Utah statistics are not a good proxy for Mormonism. I think they're probably right. I would love to see a study that limited these statistics to temple recommend holding Mormons. The Mormon Church could do such a study. I would be surprised if it had not done such a study already. I would be astonished if the results of this kind of study were favourable to Mormonism that they have not already been made public. The Mormons are too good at marketing to have missed this trick were it there for the taking.
The fact that the results have not been released suggests that, as I believe would be the case, the statistics with regard to temple recommend holding Mormons are even worse than the statistics with regard to Utahans as a whole.
I also note that when the Utah as a whole statistics work for the Mormon Church, they use them. This happened recently on the official Mormon church website in response to a Los Angeles Times article that was critical of Mormonism in a number of ways. One of the criticisms was that Mormons continue to "bleed like cattle" or something like that, at a time when it is environmentally immoral to do so. The response from the official Mormon church website was that the rate of live births in Utah was not much more than the national average. Again, I would love to see the live birth statistics with regard to temple recommend holding Mormons. I know that those statistics are available to the Mormon church. As a Mormon bishop, I used to help compile them, and they would show a birthrate far above the Utah average.
Accordingly, the response provided by the Mormon Church to the Los Angeles Times article is at best disingenuous, and is more actually described as misleading. There is nothing new in this. The territory between disingenuous and misleading his home turf to those who lead the Mormon church. While saying that, I agree with Lyndon's assessment that these men and women (though women) are probably well intended. They are classic philosopher kings, who believe that lying in order to protect the reputation and prospects of the Mormon Church is morally justifiable as a "lesser evil". The worst evil would be the decline and prospects of the Mormon church. People who hold this kind worldview are dangerous. I believe that many evangelical Christians have a similar mentality with regard to their own faith.
I would say that Mormonism has evolved to pretty much the point now where the evangelical Christians had been for some time. But right now, there is not much difference between these two groups in terms of how they socialize their people, and the difficulty with which these people move into secular culture. I think it would be helpful for the evangelicals to become more accustomed to thinking of Mormonism as a mirror in which they can better see some of their (the evangelicals) less attractive features. Mirrors of this type are extremely useful, readily available to most of us, and habitually ignored.
Differences in belief between Mormons and evangelical Christians
I thought that Lyndon did a good job for the most part in illustrating that the differences between Mormons and evangelical Christian beliefs are not that great. He pointed out that the concept of Christ within the Mormon faith is different in some ways than it is within the evangelical Christianity. I think that he might explain more with regard to the similarities. The sparring between Mormon and evangelical Christian academics with regard to these differences illustrates that the deeper one goes, the more similarities one finds. And I note that the moderator’s concluding comments after Lyndon’s presentation came back to this issue, and reemphasized it. He wanted make a clear that there is a huge difference between the Mormons and the evangelicals when it comes to their belief in Christ, and God.
This issue, and the way in which the moderator framed it, is in my view a red herring. The evangelical Christians are attempting to maintain their tribal boundaries, and will continue to do so as long as Mormons continue to proselytize on the basis that they are the one true church thus appropriating evangelical resources. As soon as the Mormons stop doing that, and begin to play the Christian game on the basis of more or less the same rulebook that the evangelical Christians use, the doctrinal differences will be put aside.
This brings us back to the social organism competing for resources within an evolutionary landscape. The evangelical Christians and the Mormons are at the moment competing. This leads to the adversarial interaction of which Lyndon's presentation to the evangelical church was part. Lyndon was being used to reinforce the organism boundary around the evangelical Christians, and to marshal resources to the defense of that organism against the threat of Mormon missionary work. Lyndon did some good things in terms of breaking down the organizational boundary by refusing to play all of the role they wanted him to play in terms of reinforcing beliefs with regard to how odd and different Mormons are. For example, one of the questioners indicated that in the highest, secret teachings within Mormonism require Satan worship. Instead of dismissing that as ridiculous, Lyndon indicated that he had no knowledge of that kind of thing, and doubted the accuracy of the idea.
It might have been better to point out that this is precisely the kind of belief that circulates within the Mormon community with regard to Catholicism and other non-Mormon groups, in order to strengthen the resolve of Mormons to do their missionary work, and to make sure that none of their loved ones drift into the grasps of the "horrible the earth", for example. This is how Muslims dehumanize Americans, Americans Muslims, etc.
In that question, and in many other aspects of other questions as well as the very format of the meeting itself, including the opening prayer and the moderator’s closing comments, we see the evangelical Christian organism marshaling its resources in defense of its own perimeter.
Consider in this regard what we have seen happen with regard to differences between the Lutheran perspective that emphasizes grace over works, as opposed to the Calvinist and other Christian perspectives that put a greater emphasis on works. Once the fight over resources (converts, along with the time and energy they bring) is put aside, doctrinal differences become less important. This is also a sign of a maturing social organism. Through interaction with other organisms, its rough edges of being knocked off and it has begun to play a cooperative instead of a competitive game. Within economics, this is the natural drift toward oligopoly. Dominant market players can make out far better if they agree to cooperate instead of competing head-to-head. Mormonism, within North America, is knocking on the door of the evangelical Christian oligopoly.
The crucial issues, as far as I'm concerned, relative to both evangelical Christianity and Mormonism relate to epistemology. Lyndon gave Evangelicals a pass in that regard. That is, he did not apply the same epistemic and social standards to the evangelicals as he did to Mormons. Mormonism is crazy, he said, but Evangelical Christianity might be okay.
Would it not have been better to illustrate that precisely the same dynamics within social psychology are responsible for both of these highly similar types of organizations? The primary difference is that Mormonism’s foundational tenets are more susceptible to disproof than are evangelical Christianity's. However, magical thinking underlies both.
It is in some ways better that magical thinking be based on this provable premises. That makes it easier to get rid of. The evangelical Christian system is in some ways worse than the Mormon because its premises are more difficult to disprove. As Lyndon indicated, he is grateful for some of Joseph Smith's most egregious errors, because that made the Mormon system susceptible to disprove in his case. That having been said, once one digs into the literature with regard to Christian foundations, it is easy to find evidence that more than passes muster from my perspective it least with regard the illegitimacy of Christian foundations.
As noted above, Lyndon illustrated the similarities between Christian belief and Mormon belief. This helped to bridge a gap -- breakdown of tribal boundary. I thought that was great. Another useful way to deal with this topic is to use the history of Mormon belief to illustrate the way in which Mormonism started out as a radical innovation with regard to Christianity, and as it has become larger and getting along with the rest of mainstream North American society has become more important, it has moved back toward the mainstream.
Consider, for example, the theocratic and polygamists foundations of Mormonism during its early Utah phase. Or how about the doctrine of blood atonement in general, the blood oath that used to be sworn during the temple ceremony with regard to the people who murdered Joseph and Hiram, the Adam-God doctrine, J. Smith ordaining himself King of the Earth after using his stature of God’s representative on Earth to bed many young teenage girls and the wives of other men, et cetera. The Mormon religion, as is the case with many religions, has truly bizarre origins. It purposefully defined itself as a group apart, created cities like Nauvoo and Salt Lake City in order to establish itself in a position where it could grow to social critical mass (nothing new here by the way -- anthropologists say that in order for a new religion to survive long term, it must have a social growth phase of this kind). Then, having achieved critical mass, it found it increasingly useful if not necessary to interface with mainstream society. After shedding polygamy in order to become a state, the pendulum swung in the other direction and Mormonism became an uber American religion. It's continuing tilt toward mainstream evangelical Christianity is therefore extremely probable.
Mitt Romney's run for the US presidency is only the most recent symptom of this trend. Mormonism as an institution, and the vast majority of individual Mormons, desperately want the approval of both of the worlds they inhabit – the Mormon and the mainstream American. They unwittingly set out to serve two masters who can be predicted to become more similar to each other. This means that the once radically different values within Mormonism are gravitating toward mainstream, evangelical Christian, North American values. This defines spirituality to a large extent in terms of financial success, and the materialist, consumerist ethos that dominates the North American evangelical community.
If you want the Christian analogy to what I just indicated, think about the Puritans and other similar religious groups coming to North America. This analogy does not work completely, but I think there is a lot to it. Social evolution can certainly be seen in both cases, as well as the initial distancing in a radical state, followed by maturation and a reconnection to be mainstream culture.
While this kind of analysis does not make friends within the evangelical community, this is the way in which I approach dialogue across the evangelical boundary. I believe that it is helpful to break down tribal barriers. This is how to do it -- to illustrate common foundations and similarities between groups.
Perhaps more to the point, I refuse to be used as a tool in the hands of the evangelicals to perpetuate cultural war. When I was invited to speak at a evangelical Bible college last year, I made this an explicit condition of my appearance. The pastor who asked me to come agreed to it, and I delivered a lecture that was a significant test of the faith of the young future pastors who attended. They were friendly, and our dialogue was I thought productive. One might say that I was still perhaps used as a form of inoculation. I could be viewed as a germ that was allowed to infect the body in a relatively safe place. After I left, many other resources could be used to shore up the damage I might've caused to the budding faith of these pastors and training. If that is the case, that is fine. That is the way the evolutionary game is played. Given the e-mails I exchanged with the instructor who invited me to come and speak, I know that least in his case I've caused a lot of deep thinking. I doubt that he will leave his ministry, and I also doubt that he will ever look at Mormonism and other similar religious groups in the same way. He now knows much more about the overlapping foundations between his group, and countless others.
Why do Mormons put their head in the sand with regard to the evidence is out there with regard to Mormonism?
Lyndon answered that the issue in this regard was more or less lack of awareness. He described how Mormons were warned against doing the kind of things he had done -- questioning, reading, etc. -- and therefore that they should remain unaware. He indicated that he believes the Internet is going to be a radical force for change within Mormonism, because it makes it so much easier for information to slip through Mormonism is organizational boundaries.
Lyndon did not point out that precisely the same issues apply to evangelical Christianity, subject to the greater difficulty of this proof as I noted above. He alluded to cognitive biases and other aspects of epistemology as the cause of Mormon problems. He used a great analogy in that regard. He referred to each Mormon carrying around with him or her a force field made of Kevlar, or something similar, that was designed to keep out all kinds of information that might cause problems for the Mormon testimony. He did not describe how cognitive biases create these in the religious and other contexts. This is precisely the case with regard to the evangelical Christians, and virtually every other dogmatic religious group. The same thing applies with regard to political beliefs, environmental beliefs, and any other set of beliefs that relates to difficult to assess, ambiguous data beliefs regarding which have for whatever reason become foundational to a religious group.
Many many many examples in this regard could be dredged up to illustrate how historical contingencies have caused certain beliefs to become foundational to a religious group. One of the oddest with which most of us would be familiar is the reorganized LDS Church, one of whose foundation planks was that Joseph Smith did not participate in polygamy. It took decades of scholarly research with regard something obvious (think of the young earth creationists in this regard) before this issue is finally accepted within that community, and simply because of the foundational nature of this single belief, discarding it caused the community to come close to collapse.
Lyndon described the RLDS saga just indicated, and used it as a cautionary tale with regard to Mormonism. He said that for this reason, Mormon leaders would not be able to acknowledge the errors in mainstream Mormon history, and make an overt move toward evangelical Christianity. While I agree with him that it's extremely improbable that the Mormon leaders will come clean, I disagree with regard to his reasoning. The larger and older an institution, the less likely it is that it will undergo radical change. The RLDS group was relatively small, and is now smaller. Hence, discarding one crucial belief was much more probable to set in motion a chain of events that would radically restructure the community. The Mormon group is much larger, and therefore it would be able to handle a lot more ideological change. The study of religious groups indicates that it is praxis -- the day-to-day way of living -- that is most foundational. I believe that if Gordon Hinckley stood up tomorrow, and indicated that the Book of Mormon was a metaphor, inspired by God through mysterious means, and that much of what we had thought was true with regard to Joseph Smith perhaps is not true, that the Mormon church would continue ahead. In fact, I think it might be strategically wise for him to do that, and push Mormonism straight into the evangelical Christian fold. This is what the Mennonites have done, and they have been extremely successful in that regard. I think the RLDS example is probably inapplicable because of the massive difference between the size of the two institutions.
However, I agree with Lyndon that it is extremely unlikely the Mormon leaders will acknowledge the institution's historical problems. Rather, they will allow the academic information to leak out and put themselves in a position where they can say that the information was always out there, but it is not important in any event because the "truth" is what is important, not the mysterious means through which God decided to deliver the truth to the Mormon people. If you feel it is true, is must be true (do the evangelicals differ in this regard?). Mormonism will eventually be regarded as evangelical Christianity with a somewhat odd history, and hence flavor. The same is now said with regard to the Mennonites.
By the way, did you know that Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons", is a lapsed Mennonite? Trey Parker is not quite a lapsed Mormon, but has a significant historical connection to Mormonism. These similar way in which religion is treated in these two shows is indicative, I would suggest, of a post-literalist religious sensibility that these two creative minds bring to their art.
Welcome to post-Mormondom Lyndon. You are off on a wonderful trajectory. I hope we have the chance to break bread at some point.
| Birth Control Causes Divorce; Therefore The Pope Was Right; Therefore The Catholic Church Is True? |
Monday, Feb 11, 2008, at 09:18 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 5 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| If this were five years ago, shortly after my exodus from Mormonism, I would probably be reporting that I awakened this morning in a panicked, cold sweat after one of those crazy mixed up dreams in which I had come to the certain realization that the Catholic Church was God's one true, and only authorized, religious organization on Earth. As it is, I had a funny dream last night and woke up with a smile on my face, shaking my head. The craziness is still fading in the rear view mirror.
I'm certain that last night's sleep entertainment was provided by a combination of some things I reviewed while preparing for the presentation I made in St. George last weekend, and a conversation my brother Rich and I had with Mo and Jannypanny just as our excellent St. George adventure was breaking up.
The back story is this. In the human species, women make the mate choice. Men think they make the choice, but the biological and cultural evidence is crystal clear -- men make themselves available (and are not terribly choosy); women make the choice.
Women are drawn to men that first of all are in the right ball park (similar grade of social standing, physical attractiveness, intelligence, education, etc.). That leaves a lot of potential mates. From there, female choice is driven by a combination of mutual availability, historical quirks (both had independently developed a love for the same obscure punk rock band, for example) and most importantly, subconsciously registered smells and other perceptions.
There is very strong evidence to support the theory that women, through smell or some other means, are able to sense a good genetic match. That is, contrary to what most women think, they are not looking for a mate that will make them happy. They are choosing a mate that will probably produce strong offspring, even if they don't want offspring. And ironically, the very traits that are attractive for the purpose of making strong babies tend to irritate the hell out of us as long term mates.
If there is a God and he/she/it is in charge of this, he/she/it has a wicked sense of humour.
What her sense of smell does not do, a woman's sense of taste does. That is, women are drawn to a man who smells the right way, and after a heavy makeup session or two, the deal has either been sealed or not. It is not that she says "Wow, he tastes good!" but rather that she feels a deep sense of comfort after swapping spit. This is as romantic as it gets. The guy - he is just happy to be swapping spit, and hopes for more.
This female ability to sense the right mate is heightened during ovulation, suppressed during pregnancy, and at other times averages out somewhere in between.
This points to a little problem with the birth control pill. It tips the female organism into something resembling its pregnancy state, and therefore suppresses the female ability to sense the right mate. There is a lot of evidence to indicate that women who fall love with a man while on the birth control pill and then years later decide it's time to have a baby and go off the pill (or go off the pill because they have entered menopause or had a hysterectomy), often suddenly finds that their mates are no longer attractive. It appears that this has to do with a newly heighted ability to smell and taste. Quite simply, taking the birth control pill threw off their mating radar, and they ended up with the "wrong" guy from a baby making perspective, even if they never intended to make babies.
What breathtaking irony and rapacious hilarity this is.
This process, of course, operates at a subconscious level. The conscious mind -- the rider on the elephant who laughably believes that he is in charge -- compulsively makes sense out of everything that goes on and justifies what the elephant is doing, like some kind of sock-puppet narrator up on the corner of your TV screen.
That is, the rider self-justifies in a horribly confabulatory way. Among other things, this means that after most of a life spent investing time and energy in Mormonism (or any other "ism"), few back away while most confabulate and justify their investment. This tendency is at the root of the mechanisms that cause cognitive dissonance, keep people in bad investments, bad relationships, and cause ideas of all kinds to change slowly (Max Planck said that science changes "one funeral at a time"). It has historically been far more important to our survival and reproductive prospects that we be confident in our own judgement and attract resources to us within the social group on that basis, than that we are right in all our beliefs. Witness the continued success of those who promote scuzzy multi-level marketing organizations, questionable investments and other quasi-frauds, not to mention actual frauds.
So, she suddenly doesn't like him anymore and the rider's job is to explain why. The rider does not say, "He smells wrong and that means he won't help you made a good baby so you had better find a way to get out of this, unless you don't want to have babies with him, and in that case just go have fun. He's a good guy." Rather, for reasons beyond her comprehension he suddenly starts to irritate her far more than usual (bearing in mind, of course, that every man at his best seriously irritates the lady in his life).
He leaves the toilet seat up. He doesn't clean up after himself. He does not call when his plans change. He is insufficiently attentive to her. Etc. Of course, this is all true, and it has been true since near the beginning of their relationship. But it is suddenly takes on new importance. When he is angrily confronted and either become unjustifiably defensive or accepts the charges like the pathetic wimp he is, that is the last straw. The rider points all of this out, and the flake is gone within days. He will be angrily (or dismissively) remembered so as to ensure that no questions are raised that might question the wisdom of this landmark life-shaping decision.
So, back to my main point. The moral of the story is clear - the pill is a marriage wrecker and therefore simply wrong. That means the Pope has been right all along against the tide of scientific evidence on this point. And if he was right about that, surely he must be right about everything else. So, there is a God, just as the Pope has always told us, and He communicates to us through Rome. Therefore, the Holy Apostolic Roman Catholic Church is the one and only true church on the Earth today. We know with certainty that those religious groups that claim to be in touch with God but have accepted the use of the birth control pill within their membership are not guided by God.
Whoa! Coming out of my dream state I found a gaping hole in my own theory. Female mate-dar is not thrown off by condoms and other forms of birth control. OK, let's rethink this. The pill is wrong, but other forms of birth control are OK because we do have to get the population under control so that we don't destroy the planet. That means the Pope was wrong, and so were all of the other religious groups. God has not told any of them (to my knowledge) to use birth control, but not the pill.
This leaves only two possible defensible conclusions.
There is a God, and he has a wicked sense of humour. If you believe in the traditional Judeo-Christian God, this point of view is hard to argue persuasively against.
Or, shit happens and we have to learn to make tough choices and roll with the punches.
Isaiah Berlin and other students of intellectual history refer to the latter as part of life's tragic aspect - that we are regularly put in positions where we cannot achieve several good objectives because they conflict with each other.
For example, we cannot enjoy the euphoria of unrestricted sexual behaviour without giving up a variety of goods related to health, long term intimacy and as we have just learned, "mate-dar".
And, we cannot benefit from the clearest available view of reality while continuing to enjoy the comfort of being securely embedded within large and in many ways admirable social groups that are founded on demonstrably false stories that preserve North American frontier social values circa 1800.
| The “Namesake”
As often happens these days, I had a fine experience a few nights ago as a result of tagging along with one of my children. My 17-year-old son brought a movie home -- "The Namesake" -- at the suggestion of his girlfriend's mother. I decided to sit down and watch it with him. Time well spent. You can find reviews at http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20014... and http://www.boston.com/movies/display?.... It pleases and humbles me each time my children teach me.
“The Namesake” is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, and explores ideas related to what it means to be a member of more than one society as a result of immigration. The movie has a variety of interesting subplots, and I won't try to explain those. However, I would like to say something about the main theme.
A young man from India comes to North America to study, and becomes a literature professor. He returns to India and goes through the traditional process leading to an arranged marriage, and then brings his bride with him back to New York. They have two children in short order, and become an American family with strong Bengali roots, which are nurtured as a result of their regular participation in the New York City-based Bengali community. Their first child – a boy – is named “Gogol” after the great Russian writer whose work has particular significance to the father. The role this name – connoting a third cultural influence – plays in the boy’s life and his relationship to his father, gives the movie its title.
Both the father and mother become Americanized, but he much more so than she. She barely speaks English upon arrival in the US, but eventually adjusts enough to hold down a job as a librarian, while continuing to dress in traditional Bengali fashion. Their children, however, are almost completely American. The story eventually brings them back to their roots, to an extent. However, some of the most touching moments relate to the gulf between mother and children. Try as she might, having spent the first two decades of her life in India and then as much time as possible within the expatriate Bengali community in the US, the mother cannot understand what goes on inside the heads of her children, and nor can they understand her.
Some of these painful moments reminded me of my own family. There is an unbridgeable gulf between my parents and me, and an even greater gulf between them and my children. There is significant distance of a different kind between my wife and I, on the one hand, and some of our children on the other. This is, for the most part, a good thing. They are being raised in a non-Mormon world. Having placed them in that world, told them that there are nowhere near as many important rules as we once thought, and encouraged them to make their own decisions, we struggle at times to understand them. Hesitant acceptance of their choices is at times the best we can do. Our upbringing as Mormons that makes it as difficult for us to understand our children’s rapidly evolving non-Mormon social world as for the mother in “The Namesake” to understand her children’s New York.
I am happy with this situation. I accept it as the best of the possible alternatives. I have launched my children as well as I can, and know that my ability to perceive their world is limited. I have adopted Mordecai Kaplan’s statement as part of my credo:
Our responsibility to our forefathers is only to consult them, not to obey them. Our responsibility to our descendants is only to impart our most cherished experiences to them, but not to command them.
I am proud of my children. Most of what they do pleases me, as the introduction to this essay indicates. And when what they do does not please me, I remind myself that for the reasons I am about to indicate, they (as adults at least) have eyes for their environment that I do not. I must trust their judgement ahead of my own.
In virtually every culture there are gaps between generations. This is what has kept the human species alive and evolving, and recently, made it dangerously dominant on this planet.
The human brain does not mature until roughly age 25. This requires a significant amount of brain formatting outside the womb, and therefore causes brains to be shaped by the environment by which children are surrounded. This means that each generation of humans is custom fit to its environment. As ice ages come and go, wars wax and wane and various other massive environmental changes occur, this constant reformatting and the flexibility from one generation to the next that it causes, has been our salvation. Tension between parents and children is a small price to pay for this, in a sense. However, there is little solace in this knowledge as we struggle to understand our children. This illustrates life’s tragic aspect – the price of many goods includes foregoing what is also precious to us.
Immigration between cultural groups exacerbates generational differences. Children quickly and thoroughly format to their new culture, whereas parental lack of brain plasticity prevents them from doing the same. "The Namesake" movingly illustrates this.
Those of us who have left Mormonism, or other literalist religious traditions, are cultural immigrants. Most of us had no idea how isolated we were from a cultural perspective until we left the Mormon cloister. As I try to fit into non-Mormon culture, I regularly feel like the newly blind.
While Mormon, I did not worry about office politics or community affairs. These were at best games – and usually silly games – that in the eternal scheme did not matter. I was above them. I did not hang out with the folks at the office after work, and tended to find excuses to avoid all but the most important work related social activities. I was involved in my children's sports and school activities, but beyond that remained aloof from community affairs. I was so busy with matters of eternal significance that I did not have time to dedicate to these relatively unimportant issues. Not all Mormons are just like me. There is a probability distribution of behavior in this regard in the Mormon community. Some Mormons are socially adept outside of Mormonism. Think of Mitt Romney, for example.
But on average, Mormons are more like the kind of person I just described than non-Mormons. If the average Mormon was raised outside of the tight-knit Mormon community, much more of her energy would have gone into these “silly games”. And, significantly, the more serious the Mormon the more likely this is to be the case. Once again, those who were the most devoted to Mormonism suffered the most damage. There is something profoundly wrong with any organization of which this can be said – the people who adhere most completely to the organization’s values suffer the most damage.
Now that I have lifted my eyes from Mormon eternity, I see social activities as the rich stream of human communication that they are – a social life-blood. These games now have my full attention. However, as I try to play I find that my instincts are underdeveloped. The Mormon social system is relatively simple. Lines of communication and authority are clearly drawn. The play is well scripted. I did not have to have my antenna up or use my communications skills to their fullest in order to get along. I simply did what I was called to do, and that kept me more than busy. I did not very often have to decide what I wanted to do, and then marshal the resources necessary to bring that into being. At about age 50, it is not surprising that I find it difficult to radically upgrade the only way I know to play. I am, nonetheless, trying.
So, I empathized in particular with the mother in "The Namesake". Having left India, she was an outsider on those occasions when she returned. She had become just American enough that she did not completely fit in there. This had a lot to do with her perspective. She saw the old world, her family and their society differently than she did before spending time in North America. This is not necessarily better or worse – it is just a social fact. Exposure to new points of view irrevocably changes what and how we see.
And the children did not fit in India. There were tourists – and reluctant at that – there. Her ties to them meant that even after her husband died and she returned to India, she would always have one foot firmly planted in American soil. But she was never completely comfortable in America. She missed her family. She did not understand to a lot of what was going on around her. Her instincts were, largely, “off”. Her children's behavior baffled her. The best she could do was accept that while still loving them. She demonstrated how to do this admirably, even while Gogol rejected his tradition (and her) for a time.
One of the many important things I’ve learned as a result of the reading I did while re-wiring my Mormon brain is that we are better off focussing on our strengths than our weaknesses. This will make us both happier and more effective. The best research in a variety of fields points to this. We should identify the strengths we have inherited as a result of genetics or circumstance, and spend most of our energy working with those strengths to the extent possible. We should protect ourselves against our weaknesses instead of trying to remedy them. For example, if I am poorly organized, I will be much better off hiring someone or investing in technology to help me to become organized than changing my most basic habits. Disorganized people are often creative, good salespeople, etc.. If I am one of those people, I am likely to be much happier and more successful if I pour my energy into feeding my creative (or sales) talents instead of trying to force myself to become a detail oriented guy. If I employ people like this, I will likely make the organization stronger if I tell them that all they have to do is get their sales (or creative output) up to some defined level and I will hire them a fill time administrative assistant and they will never again have to fill out a form themselves, or keep their offices organized.
So, let’s assume that we have worked through the grieving process, vented our anger to the extent it is productive to do so, recognized that it is dysfunctional to continue to do so, and are trying to move on. We have figured out that the brain’s nature orbit is more negative than positive, and hence that we have to make an effort to stay in positive territory, and that when we do so, lots of good things follow. We have decided to spend more time on the things that promote satisfaction with life. Having recognized all of that, we ask ourselves, “What is it about this new world into which I have been thrust, when combined with my native strengths, that offers me the opportunity to flourish?”
This is an individualistic exercise, and so I can’t do more than offer my point of view and time requires this not be exhaustive. So I am going to mention a few of the opportunities that have presented themselves to me, and I would love to hear about what others have found to be the best of the post-Mormon opportunity in their lives.
Chaos and Growth
See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star... at page 22 in this regard.
Leaving Mormonism broke the main patterns in my life, bathing me in terrifying, life giving chaos. My intellectual life exploded. My desire to learn was insatiable for a time, and continues to be unusually potent. I suspect that this attribute will characterize me as long as I have energy. Not all people react to this post-Mormon experience as I did in this regard, but a large number of people open new intellectual chapters upon leaving Mormonism.
Art and Creativity
Again, my life has literally exploded. I think this has to do with the importance of symbols within the mythic systems that underpin our personal narratives. We all perceive ourselves as characters in a grand story of some kind. We are narrative animals. If we come to perceive ourselves as not fitting into the story comfortably, we usually change the story as well as the nature of our character within it. This can happen for many reasons. Maybe we discover that we are gay when the narrative we inherited from our culture impugns gay people. This requires that we come to perceive ourselves differently, and that new aspects to the foundational narrative be discerned, or that narrative be abandoned. This causes us to re-write our foundational narrative and our role within it, and to seek the company of people with whom we can communicate and be understood on this basis – to find a new tribe. Most of the time, even when we think we are abandoning our inherited narratives, we have kept as much of what we inherited as we can. We do not let these things go easily.
Or maybe we find that as our perspective matures and we learn more about the foundations of our inherited story, it no longer makes sense. Our foundational narratives or worldviews do not need to be true in order to perform their function in our lives, but they must make sense to us in light of all of the rest of what we believe to be true. This is the story of spiritual maturation that when combined with social change drives the evolution of religious institutions.
Or maybe our society collapses, or is overrun by another stronger cultural group and a new story is forced upon us. In the Middle East we can see two kinds of war being waged, with the same effect in this regard. The military action raging in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is re-writing foundational narratives in many ways, and Western culture is riding on slick internet rails into the heart of societies dominated by powerful people who are unsuccessfully fighting to hold it at bay. They play a fools game in this regard, but the tides of history mean little to dogmatists. The important point for present purposes is that the energy invested on all sides in their literal and cultural wars is forcing individuals to re-write their foundational narratives.
As we re-work our life frameworks, symbols play a crucial role. Jungian psychology (or at least metaphors drawn from it) speaks to this. The artistic urge that led Jung to his archetype theory is similar to what I and many other people who have re-worked their worldview from the foundation up have experienced as we groped toward ever-elusive essential meaning. The deeper we probe the more we find ourselves using a language of basic symbols that is probably a function of our biology, including our brain structures, and the common nature of human experience. This is the language of art. Spending more time in this space, and less in analytical activities, helps most people who are re-wiring their brains.
As an aside, many have noted the negative correlation between literalist religious belief and high quality artistic output. This is likely due in part at least to the fact that most good art requires the recognition of irony and life’s tragic foundation. Dogmatic belief creates irony impaired people who tend to see the world in black and white terms. They write hagiographies in stead of biographies. Their attempts at art tend toward propaganda, or as James Joyce put it, “didactic pornography”.
Isaiah Berlin's story suggests something in this regard. He is one of my favorite scholars, who started out as a philosopher and became an intellectual historian. I mention Berlin because he attributed much of his success as a scholar to his outsider status, and hence “The Namesake” reminded me of him.
Berlin’s Jewish family immigrated to London, England from Latvia just before the second world war. He never felt fully part of British society, while being considered by many who knew him well to be quintessentially British. His self perception radically differed from the perception of those around him. His self-perception created the emotional distance that was part of what made him a great scholar.
During the second world war, Berlin played a significant diplomatic role between Britain and the United States, and spent a lot of time in New York and Washington in that regard. His acute observational powers and abilities as a politician and communicator brought him into contact with many of the most powerful people in America and Europe during this period. But he never felt like he belonged in the United States either. He returned to his homeland, as well as spending a significant amount of time in the Soviet Union where his family had ties. Again, he was the outsider. He was a non-believing Jew. Again, an outsider.
Berlin believed that his role as an outsider in every conceivable circumstance gave him the ability to see things within the various social groups of which he was part that the insiders could not see. He yearned for greater connection, while the same time recognizing the fact that his disconnection largely made him what he was. And he revelled in what he was.
Berlin describes something relative to this irony that captures a deep truth with regard to human existence more efficiently than I've ever seen it captured. This idea is so obvious once it is properly stated it almost doesn't seem worth stating. However, the more I think about it and use it to explain what I see on a daily basis, the more powerful it becomes for me.
The idea, as Berlin put it, is that life has an essential tragic aspect that provides much of the emotional force we feel. This is most easily visible in the fact that we are often confronted with many good things that cannot be simultaneously achieved. This forces us to make decisions that cause pain to ourselves and others. These forces operate at the macro (societal, species, etc.) as well as personal levels. His life illustrates this tension – as noted above, while longing for the full social embrace most members of society feel, he recognized that his inability to experience this made him what he was. There are countless other examples of this tension. Here are a few that are on mind this morning.
· As I noted above, generational gaps and the pain they cause are the price we pay as a species for our tremendous inter-generational flexibility. The family that left India for the opportunities North America offered could not have these, as well as the comfort of remaining embedded in their native culture.
· When leaving Mormonism, I had to choose between hurting my parents and others I love by publicly rejecting beliefs they hold sacred, or hamstringing my children by allowing them to continue to be influenced by a social system I had decided was extremely dysfunctional.
· One of the best descriptions of intimate relationships I have seen captures this tension with the following words:
THE ACHE OF MARRIAGE by Denise Levertov
“The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.”
In our most intimate moments we feel a simultaneous ebb and flow. We want both merger and independence. Both can’t be satisfied.
The same concept can be explained in terms of complex adaptive systems terms using the concept of the “adjacent possible”. We (and social institutions such as Mormonism) can be thought of as social organisms that exist on an evolving landscape much as do biological organisms. As the landscape changes, the organisms roll into different valleys. In all cases, these organisms automatically seek the most efficient alternatives available to them – those that require the smallest expenditure of energy. This means that moths may change color to better protect themselves from predators as their environment changes, but won’t turn into elephants. In graphic terms, it means that the balls won’t suddenly roll up to the top of a hill. However, with the expenditure of a bit of energy or as a result of a small random change in the landscape, they may roll over a low pass into the adjacent valley. The different environments represented by neighboring, accessible valleys, are “the adjacent possible”. However, each time we roll from one valley into another, our adjacent possible changes – what was adjacent and accessible before each move is different afterwards. This means by taking advantage of one opportunity, many others are foreclosed.
Returning to intimacy, Kahlil Gibran memorably told us that “For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.”
When I think of this process in evolutionary terms, I see more co-evolution than one partner pruning the other. I think this is the concept toward which Gibran groped as he juxtaposed growth and pruning.
We evolve to fit our environment. Our closest human companions are a major part of that environment, and have more influence than any other factors on what we are from moment to moment, and hence what we will become. I noticed this first during my mission. My personality changed significantly on the basis of the personality of my companions. And I liked myself more in the form I took with some companions than others. The same dynamic is at work in our intimate relationships. It is not that one prunes or shapes the other, but that they both change as a result of the presence and therefore influence of the other. It is a mutual grinding, or refining, or perhaps better yet, intertwining growth. The shape and growth characteristics of each influence the other. Kind of like the way in which each little valley in France has managed to produce at least one wine and cheese that go together incredibly well. This is co-evolution.
I will not become anything like Isaiah Berlin, but have seen something that evokes him emerge in my life. As noted above, my cultural immigration has made me an outsider. I have chosen to leave the only culture to which I fully belonged. Late in life, I am trying to become a secular North American, with full knowledge that my brain will not allow me to make this transition. This gives me a perspective few people have. Like Berlin, I know a tremendous amount about many social groups – Mormons; literalist religious people; secular westerns; law firms; etc. while having a degree of emotional detachment from each of them that allows me to see things that are going on differently (if not more clearly) than most other people. I can use this ability in a variety of ways, and since I am more than out of time today, I will stop here.
Most cultural immigrants have not chosen their path, but rather suddenly found themselves thrust into an initially terrifying world. The better our perspective, the more beauty and utility we are likely to find as we continue along this way.
 Mordecai Kaplan, “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, at page 98.
 Quartz and Sejnowski, “Liars, Lovers and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are”.
 Language learning is one of many areas in which studies related to this have been conducted. There is a clear correlation between language and cultural proficiency that is possible and the age at which immersion occurs.
 See Seligman, “Authentic Happiness”, for example.
 See again “Authentic Happiness”.
 See Jon Haidt, “The Happiness Hypothesis:, and various works by Daniel Goleman, some of which is summarized at http://www.affirmativeactionhoax.com/.... Here is a sample Goleman quote:
“Good moods, while they last, enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity, thus making it easier to find solutions to problems, whether intellectual or interpersonal. This suggests that one way to help someone think through a problem is to tell them a joke. Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise---a mental skill important not just in creativity, but in recognizing complex relationships and foreseeing the consequences of a given decision.”
 Like meaningful work and other activities that allow us to use our strengths, active leisure, developing long term relationships, promoting social causes important to us, meditating, becoming more healthy, etc.
 Some of the foundational studies in narrative psychology relate to the acknowledgement of sexual orientation. See Dan McAdams et al, “Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition” and “Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative” in this regard.
 See Fowler, “Stages of Faith”; Farmer, “Neurobiology, Stratified Texts and the Evolution of Thought: From Myths to Religions and Philosophies”, at http://www.safarmer.com/Farmer.Beijin...; Boyer, “Religion Explained”; Atran, “In Gods We Trust”; and Rue, “Religion is Not About God”.
 History has not treated kindly social groups that shut themselves off from the world. Islam circa 1100 CE led the world in most ways scientific and cultural. A religious resurgence then occurred, and Islam’s leaders turned it away from science and international relations, and toward more important “spiritual” matters. As a result, Islam was soon a scientific and cultural backwater. By the 1400s, China was far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of scholarly knowledge, navigation, military power, culture and wealth. The rudder on the huge Chinese trading ships of this era were almost as long as the entire flagship Columbus used in his landmark voyage almost a century later. The Chinese imperial library included over 4,000 printed volumes at a time when the two of Europe’s most power figures – England’s Henry V and Florence’s Francesco Datini – had six and 12 handwritten books respectively in their libraries. Printed novels were routinely sold in Chinese markets; Europe would not discover the printingpress for decades. Then, a change in Chinese domestic and foreign policy occurred in the mid-1400s, caused by purely secular considerations, and China turned inward. It is only now beginning to recover. See Menzie, “1421 – The Year China Discovered the World” at page 62 and 63, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing. For a smaller scale example, consider the difference between mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons. While Mormons are backwards in many ways, they are positively urbane when compared to their FLDS cousins.
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archetyp....
 See “Art Therapy for Recovering Mormons” at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%....
 See Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, and “Does Religious Belief Affect Creativity?” at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.crea... .
 See Michael Ignatieff’s masterful biography with regard to Berlin, titled "Isaiah Berlin -- a Life".
 As an aside, among the many ideas Berlin traced is that the greatest exercise of freedom is the making of the decision to be bound by a powerful social authority. He illustrates how this idea’s modern incarnation occurred in the late 1700s and shows how it influenced the fascists of the 20th century. Though he did not indicate this, it is easy to see how this idea, being dominant during the early 1800s, became foundational to Mormonism and was then freeze-dried. See “The Mormon Conception of Freedom”, at http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.the%..., which compares ideas Berlin collected from the late 1700 and early 1800s to statements made by Mormon leaders up until as recently as a few years ago. The late Enlightenment philosophers (such as Rousseau) who came up with these ideas, fascist leaders and Mormon leaders were all dipping their buckets into the same stream. Mainstream political philosophy continuedto evolve, and either completed abandoned or substantially re-worked Rousseau’s ideas. Mormonism did not largely as a result of being conservative (we have the truth and the truth should not be changed) and not being subject to the forces of democracy and the information transparency that it requires.
 A fascinating sidebar in Berlin’s story, from a post-Mormon point of view, is the difficulty Berlin and other expatriates had in understanding the intellectuals who chose to sacrifice themselves – in many cases submitting to what amounted to a death sentence – by refusing to flee places like Russia. On the other side of this divide, those who remained committed to their countries of origin could not understand how anyone could leave. Along the same lines, Berlin was criticized for not becoming more passionately involved in many of the burning issues of his day, including the conflict between socialism/communism and capitalism. Her remained the aloof and incisive observer, while many of his colleagues gave their lives to these causes. Similar differences – often passionate – can be seen in the ways in which the people react to the post-Mormon phenomenon.
 Interestingly, after studying Berlin's life for over a decade and writing the biography I mentioned above, Michael Ignatieff (a Harvard professor at the time and now a Canadian politician ) continued studying the theme I just mentioned and eventually gave a series of influential lecturers and wrote a book titled "The Lesser Evil" (see http://press.princeton.edu/titles/757...), the roots of which are found in Berlin's work. As an aside, I note that I am proud to be a citizen of a country (Canada) where those who wish to have a chance to be elected to high office do not have to declare their belief in the functional equivalent of the Great Pumpkin.
 See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star... at page 9.
 See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star... and the diagram on page 10 in this regard.
 Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”.
| At this time of year, it is still dark when I arrive home from work each evening. A few nights ago, I pulled up to the garage in the usual manner, hit the door opener, waited the required moments, and then drove slowly inside. Our garage is usually a mess, and is particularly disastrous right now. The leftovers from a kitchen renovation forlornly await their trip to the dump, and make even getting to and from my car akin to walking a mine field.
As I manoeuvred around the one pile that intrudes into my parking space, a bird fluttered past me, hovered as it tried to decide what to do in the corner of the garage, and then shot back past me on the way to the other side. This has happened a time or two -- a bird somehow gets trapped in the garage, and we always have a hell of a time getting it out. A couple have died there.
I got out of the car and tried to shoo the bird out the garage door as I walked toward the house. I was ready to crash, but the thought of finding a dead bird the next morning made me pause. After getting out of my coat and putting my briefcase away, I decided that I would see if I could flush the bird out of the garage before supper. I tried to recruit Ayden, our six-year old grandson, as my assistant. Television was far too interesting for that, and so I went out on my own.
We have a three-bay garage, and at this point all but one is filled with junk. This made my bird chasing task more difficult.
After three or four trips from one side of the garage to the other, it became clear that the bird was terrified of the wide-open, huge dark spaces that meant its freedom. It occurred to me that the lights in the garage might be tricking it. It kept trying to fly out a window that that I could not open. The glass reflecting light back into the garage made the bird think that this was the way out. It flew into the window time and again. Whenever I tried to steer it out the garage doors, it veered wildly away.
This reminded me of something I read a long time ago about moths. They have an amazing navigational system that allows them to find their way by reference to the moon and stars. Ironically, the same system causes them to fly in ever smaller circles around an open flame, or light bulb, often causing their death. Evolution designed them over a long period of time in an environment where the lights were generally speaking so far away that they could be used as fixed navigational points. The kind of lights human beings use fool them into suicide.
I thought something similar might be happening with the bird. Its eyes were acclimatized to the light in the garage. It makes sense to me that birds would prefer to fly where they can see, instead of in the dark. It might be as simple as that.
Many human instincts appear to be dysfunctional in ways that are similar to what I've just described. In particular, our instinct to remain with our inherited tribe, even when it is sucking the life out of us, produces behavior strikingly reminiscent to moths flying ever closer to a flame or birds flying terrified away from dark doors.
In any event, it became clear to me that I was not going to be able to chase the bird out of my garage as long as it was light on the inside and dark outside. I knew that I would leave home in the morning before light, and therefore decided to try one more strategy before leaving the bird to fend for itself for another 24 hours.
By this time, I had several good looks at the bird. It was a medium-size sparrow; brown feathers, with delicate blue markings on each wing; a beauty. It was designed for short, quick flight as opposed to hovering. It laboured to stay aflight inside the garage. And, I recently heard a story about a fellow who ran down a deer. Apparently, you don't have to be as fast as a deer to do this, but rather have to be able to keep the deer moving for long enough to exhaust it. I thought the same strategy might work with this bird. So, for the next several minutes, I scrambled around the garage staying close enough to prevent it from landing and resting. After the bird seemed barely able to stay in the air, I allowed it to alight on its favorite spot, beside the window against which it crashed at every opportunity. Odd, I thought, how much it likes that damn window in spite of the pain it has suffered there.
As the bird landed, clearly exhausted, I gently scooped it up. It did not resist until I had it in my hands, and then it fluttered wildly and released its bowels. I quickly walked the few steps to the nearest garage door, stepped out into the dark and gave the bird a gentle toss upwards. It rocketed out of sight.
What a series of disasters from the bird’s point of view. It had somehow ended up in a bad place. It was trapped, struggling to get out and smashing itself up in the process. However, what appeared to be an opening was barred by something invisible to the bird. Over and over again it ran into this barrier, no doubt injuring itself, but unable to behave differently. As always, it took special care to stay away from the dark places where it could not see its way. Then, one of those terrifying predators chased it to exhaustion, and caught it. This meant certain death, which seemed about to occur as the bird was dragged from the light into darkness, where it inexplicably found itself free. Go figure. That bird and its descendants will be telling this story in testimony meetings forever.
Life is weird. For birds, apparently, as well as the rest of us.
| The following is something I will send to my clients shortly. It is still in draft form, but I thought some here might find it useful.
Happiness Hypothesis letter – April 2008
Re: Jon Haidt's "The Happiness Hypothesis"
I thought you would enjoy the enclosed book on CD. Please accept it with my best wishes. This had been intended as a Christmas gift, then a New Year's gift, then a Chinese New Year's gift. One thing after another delayed this letter. So, now "The Happiness Hypothesis" ("THH") is an April 30th (tax filing day in Canada) gift. I hope that it will make those of you writing large cheques that day feel a bit better.
THH’s author, Jon Haidt, is an up-and-coming social psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia. THH is one of several books that were published during the past couple of years that treat this topic, and is head of the class.
As its title suggests, THH is about what makes us happy. However, it covers a lot of territory while telling that story. Most of us will find something here that is useful when dealing with customers and colleagues at work, loved ones at home, or looking in the mirror.
This review is long and dense enough that you may want to save it for reading on a plane, or for putting yourself to sleep at night. It is set up so that the main ideas are captured in the section immediately below, plus the conclusion. This amounts to about eight pages. The remainder of the letter summarizes THH in its entirety as well as setting it in context. That amounts to an additional twenty pages and enables my personal objective with regard to a book of this quality – to summarize a lot of useful information in a conclusion I can remember and hence use to influence my behavior.
Ten Ancient Ideas – An Overview
THH is organized around 10 ancient ideas with regard to what makes us happy and the current social scientific research that is relevant to them. Haidt indicates that the first two ideas are foundational to the rest. They are: (1) that the mind is divided into parts (the recently evolved conscious and the much older unconscious, which Haidt calls the "rider" and the "elephant"), and that these often conflict, and (2) to what extent does "thinking makes it so", as Shakespeare, the Buddha and many other sages have said?
Next, Haidt analyzes two important ideas related to the social aspect of our lives. They are (in their order from the ten ancient ideas) our tendencies: (3) to reciprocate and (4) to be hypocritical.
Having dealt with foundational ideas, Haidt summarizes the research with regard to what actually makes us happy, as opposed to what we assume will make us happy or remember making us happy. He does this by addressing four questions. They are: (5) Does happiness come from getting what we want?; (6) Does it come from our relationships?; (7) Do we need adversity to be happy?; and (8) Does happiness come from being virtuous?
Haidt concludes with a consideration of how two “big” questions: (9) How does happiness relate to the Sacred or Divine?; and (10) How does happiness relate to the meaning of life?
Before summarizing a few of the concepts that caught my eye with regard to these ideas, I will cut to the chase for those with limited time to read this kind of material.
The Bottom Line
We first need to digest and accept the fact that we do not perceive or remember accurately due to our “cognitive biases”. Until we do that, we are not likely to make much progress toward being happier.
Most of our cognitive biases are tooted in our elephant and its need for security. This causes us to have trouble admitting that we or our social group are often wrong in what we perceive, remember and believe. This includes many of our foundational beliefs. If we can’t trust our judgement, we will be paralyzed by fear and indecision, which throughout most of human history would have quickly killed us, and now will at least spoil our golf game.
So, the elephant screens the rider from a lot of disturbing information, regardless of how accurate it may be. The rider, after all, evolved to make the elephant more effective. The rider’s illusion of control and reliable judgement (also caused by the elephant’s need for security) does just this. As a result, however, the rider cuts a tragically comic figure as it rides through life supremely confident in its finery – our own personal Emperor in New Clothes. That parable illustrates many aspects of the rider on the elephant as well as any. And, our difficulty accepting this unflattering reality with regard to ourselves is itself also explained by our elephant’s security deficit, and perhaps best summed up by “Flatland”, another classic. There, two dimensional figures struggle to grasp and then explain to others in their world, the third dimension. The moral of the story is that our difficulty in understanding has nothing necessarily to do with a reality that once grasped suddenly seems childishly obvious.
Basic paradigm shifts, such as that illustrated by “Flatland”, are among the most difficult and painful to achieve, while often offering life’s richest payoffs.
Many of our cognitive biases lead to what Haidt calls “happiness traps” – behaviors to which we are instinctively drawn and that make us consistently unhappy. Training our elephant to avoid these is crucial to our happiness.
One of the most efficient ways to remember the important concepts related to happiness is through the use of a formula:
Happiness = S + C + V
That is, happiness depends on our: Capacity for happiness that is set (S) by our genetics and history; the relatively hard to change conditions (C) of our life, and the choices we make with regard to particularly important voluntary (V) or discretionary activities.
Our set happiness range refers to the fact that some of us are naturally more morose, and others more bubbly. The somewhat depressive also tend to perceive reality more accurately than their cheerful peers. We can choose to live so as to move toward the top of our set happiness range, and things like meditation, cognitive therapy and anti-depressants help in this regard. But it does not appear that we can change this range, no matter how much we will this or how many exercises we do. Understanding this helps us to establish realistic expectations, and to identify the strengths which, if developed and regularly used, will enable us to spend more time near the upper end of our happiness range.
The conditions of life relevant to happiness are relatively difficult (and in some cases impossible) to change, and include things like our race, sexual orientation, and the nature of our family and community. For example, a person born into a stable family in a stable democracy with adequate opportunities for education, health care and meaningful employment has a much higher probability of living a satisfied life than an orphan in an impoverished, war-torn country. The gargantuan effort necessary to leave abusive relationships, escape from unstable communities or drag oneself out of poverty pay massive dividends from a happiness point of view.
It is important to note that we are often far more capable of changing the basic conditions of our lives than we believe. THH sheds light on why we tend to unnecessarily stay in unhappiness producing circumstances. On the other hand, the massive effort required to drag oneself from the middle class into the super wealthy category or achieve other significant social status markers, appears to pay negligible happiness dividends unless the process by which these symbols are obtained is itself enjoyable. That is, happiness is about the journey. Those who endure the journey in hope that the destination will pay off are almost invariably frustrated. And continuously arriving at seemingly desirable destinations (buying as opposed to earning, for example) is ironically depressing. Many major life events, such as moving to the climate that seems most desirable, winning the lottery, or becoming a paraplegic have surprisingly small happiness effects.
Understanding how the conditions of our life affect happiness will help to bring into focus the cost-benefit equation with regard to some of our most important decisions. The bottom line in this regard is that for most of us living in the developed part of the world, the "big" issues (race, health, education levels, wealth, etc.) have a much smaller effect on happiness than most of us assume.
Our voluntary or discretionary activities have a much greater effect on happiness than we tend to appreciate. We can choose, for example, to spend more time cultivating our most meaningful relationships instead of accumulating status symbols; we can choose to reduce our commuting time; we can identify our strengths and choose to spend more of our time using them; we can identify the causes for which we feel passion and spend more energy there; we can choose to spend more of our time in environments that are more predictable or over which we have more control; the jack of all trades can choose to master something at a level she has not previously experienced; the expert may push himself out of his comfort zone into a period of chaotic personal and professional growth; etc. Taking action of this kind tends to improve our happiness. However, most of us consistently choose not to do these things.
So, to the extent that we are involved in a relatively intense way in activities that we enjoy because of their nature, not where they lead, we will be happy and things that interfere with this (like long commutes; consistent exposure to irritating noise and unstable or out of control environments; etc.) will reduce our happiness. Happiness is in this small stuff, not life’s seemingly big issues or the achievement of the elephant’s goals.
Haidt is at his best when explaining why we continue to do what has consistently made us unhappy while assuming that this time things will be different. Even more interesting is why, after we have had all of this lucidly explained and have decided to change our ways, so few of us are able to do so. Our elephant and the cognitive biases it inflicts on our rider are largely responsible for much of our tragically errant judgement.
Haidt's overview of what makes us happy (as well as what depresses us) provides important insight into a host of important business, family and personal issues. How can office environments and career paths be made more attractive to the increasingly "post-materialist" younger generations? How can middle aged people at the peak of their productive capacity be enticed to remain fully engaged in their business or professional endeavors? How can marriages and other long term intimate relationships be continually revitalized? After earning money declines in importance, what kinds of activities are likely to provide fulfillment?
Most importantly, Haidt explains why the richer and hence more focussed on happiness humanity has become, the more depressed we tend to be. Among children and teenagers in particular, clinical depression is now called an epidemic by some medical practitioners. Haidt explains this by noting (as indicated above) that happiness is a by-product – it results from our progress toward goals, not their achievement. Today we effortlessly obtain more than any prior generation dreamed possible and are faced with a supreme irony – we have reached the Nirvana toward which our ancestors climbed, and it turns to dust as we grasp it.
The solution? There is no silver bullet, but it is a good start to understand more about the nature of happiness and why our instincts formed in a radically different environment long ago are not designed to make us happy. Just as overeating every time we had the chance made sense throughout most of human history but does not now, many of our instincts run contrary to our conscious objectives. An increased awareness of why we do what we do makes it more likely that we can train ourselves to behave more functionally.
Importantly, during the last decade or so we have finally accumulated enough evidence with regard to what actually makes people happy, instead of what they think makes them happy or remember having made them happy, to identify the best guide to happy living. Instead of relying upon the typical survey data, social scientists began contacting many research subjects multiple times each day by cell phone, finding out what the research subjects were doing at that moment, and asking questions designed to measure various psychological states. Many hundreds of thousands of data points have been collected in this fashion with regard to a wide variety of different types of people in varying circumstances. This still growing database enables us for the first time to compare what similar people tend to remember feeling in certain types of situations, or think they will feel in that type of situation, to what they actually reported feeling while in that situation. The actual reports differ radically from the remembered or the anticipated experience. However, when confronted with this evidence, our tendency to feel that we are special generally speaking causes people to ignore whatever conflicts with how they either remember they felt, or think they will feel.
For example, the evidence is clear with regard to the stress and unhappiness that results from many aspects of child-rearing. A large percentage of divorces occur near either the birth of a couple’s first child or that child’s thirteenth birthday. However, people tend not to remember the extent to which they struggled with child rearing, and have a difficult time accepting the probability before becoming parents that they will struggle. This misperception is to some degree responsible for our species’ survival. But in any event, the same psychological tendencies that are responsible for most people feeling they are above average also appears to be responsible for how most people react when confronted with research findings that summarize how the population reports their actual, in the moment experience. That is, if what is reported disagrees with what we expect (that is, being a happy parent), we tend to feel confident that we will beat the odds. We can radically upgrade the happiness we experience by accepting that we are likely to react as most other people do in similar situations, and train our elephant to accept and be ready for that.
I suspect that this introduction will be more than enough for most recipients of this letter. Those who want to stop reading here should skim the conclusion and then enjoy THH itself. However, largely for selfish reasons I have written a substantial overview of THH and include that below on the chance that you may find it useful. I often produce documents like this when I discover books that offer insights so important to me that I want to make them part of my worldview. This is part of how I try to train my elephant.
I picked up THH because I wanted to learn more about happiness. To my surprise, however, I found that THH ties directly into one of my favorite topics – cognitive biases – and came at it from an angle that helped me to answer questions I have been chewing on for a long time.
The study of cognitive biases maps our mental blind spots. Those who sell us things and control us in other ways routinely exploit many of these. For example:
· We tend to seek confirmation for our beliefs and to avoid or suppress the perception of evidence that questions them. That is, we are not truth seekers, we are confirmation and affirmation seekers. The more people around us share our beliefs, the stronger this bias is. Our memories, perceptions and judgements all bend to this and the other forces noted below. This has to do with our need for security. This need explains most of our mental foibles, as well as the happiness traps Haidt describes.
· We underestimate the importance of the natural probability of events and so tend to see meaning were there is none. This likely also has to do with our need for security.
· Reality is often more complex than our ability to comprehend it. Since we don’t deal well with the fact that we are often wrong, we unjustifiably simplify what we observe so that we can believe that we understand it. The culprit here is, again, our need for security.
· We are more persuaded by stories, metaphor and analogy than data. We are narrative animals. This is part of our tendency to simplify, and so is also related to our security needs.
· We tend to trust people perceived to be experts more than can be justified. For example, a man dressed in a business suit will tend to be believed, and obeyed, more than the same man dressed casually. Again, this has to do with our need for security. I have likely made the security point by now and so won’t tie the rest of the points into it.
· Vague, distant sources of authority tend to sway us more than present sources. (“You must do this because (science, the Government, God, etc.) says you must” v. “You must do this because I say you must”).
· Our beliefs tend to change in the direction of the things we say (“The Chinese brand of Communism is better than Western democratic capitalism”), even when we speak solely for the purpose of participating in a classroom exercise. If the elephant said it, the rider is under pressure to believe it even if the rider “knows” that it is not true. This tendency is used by sales organizations that have their sales people memorize and publicly repeat their sales messages even if they do not believe them. Over time, sales person buy-in to the message has been shown to go up dramatically as a result of this technique. The “saying is believing” bias illustrates a counter-intuitive connection between our physical actions and our mental states that has been shown to exist in a wide variety of circumstances.
· We tend to reciprocate in unexpected circumstances. For example, a waiter’s tips tend to go up if mints are delivered with the restaurant’s bill.
· Our actions are influenced by context far more than we think. For example, we are more likely to make a donation if we are first asked for something enormous (“Would you be the overnight supervisor in our homeless shelter for the next two weekends?”), and when we decline are then asked for a donation. We also tend to pay more for an item if during the sales process we are shown something very expensive and similar to what we plan to purchase. This explains why stores stock expensive items that they never seem to sell.
· We react far more strongly to the appearance of others than we like to believe. For example, people tend to sue barely negligent doctors who don’t smile a lot, but do not tend to sue grossly negligent doctors who are at the friendly end of the spectrum. In general, physical factors like the height of a male, the attractiveness of a male or female, or how much a person smiles, are far more strongly correlated with social, financial and other forms of success than most of us in the meritocratic West believe.
Much unhappiness is the result of frustrated expectations. So, if we are consistently wrong about reality we will tend to be unhappy. An understanding of how cognitive biases work helps us to establish more realistic expectations and to get more of what we want from life. That is only part of the happiness story, however, and this brings us to where Haidt and his unruly elephant can take over.
The Ten Ancient Ideas
I will now return to Haidt's ten ancient ideas. First, the two foundational ideas, that the mind is divided into conflicting "rider" and "elephant" parts, and that to an extent "thinking makes it so".
The Divided Mind
Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the recently evolved conscious part of the mind has limited control over what the elephant does, and the elephant's tendencies (our instincts) were for the most part developed in an environment that differs radically from the one we must navigate today. For example, the elephant pursues the security and status that will help it win the evolutionary contest to pass as many of its genes as possible on to the next generation. The rider evolved to help in this regard. From a survival and reproduction point of view, confidence in self and one's group is often more important than accurately perceiving what is going on around us. That is, it is better to be wrong and alive than right and dead. Even today, many contests go to the most confident and loudest self-promoter instead of the most talented. For this reason, an important part of the rider's job is to justify whatever the elephant happens to do, and the rider does this while believing that it is an accurate perceiver in pursuit of truth and justice. To perform its function, the rider must be unaware of much of what is going on, like sales people who are most effective while unaware of their product’s shortcomings.
The rider's tendency toward inaccurate perception and overconfidence explains a lot of human behavior that seems irrational. This is why most people believe that they are above average and that their perceptions are accurate and objective while other people are strongly influenced by emotions and biases. It also explains the ease with which most people can pick out flaws in other people's belief systems while being unable to do so with regard to their own.
The elephant is like tried and true hardware, and the rider like recently developed, buggy software that is under the powerful delusion that it is in control. In contests between the two, the elephant tends to win. It operates automatically and wears down the rider's will. The elephant can be trained (a laborious process), or manipulated by taking him into environments where his behavior is predictable. Elephants are highly mimetic. For example, if I want my elephant to exercise more and eat less I simply need to get him to spend more time in gyms with other elephants who have been trained to workout, and less time around food.
Haidt uses the rider on the elephant metaphor throughout THH to communicate the tension that exists between our conscious and unconscious selves. Much of what we experience as unhappiness is the result of this tension, and much of what we perceive to be irrational behavior in other people and they in us (but not generally us in ourselves or they in themselves) is the result of what our elephants automatically do on the basis of eons of adapting to an environment that has little in common with our current reality. For example, current research suggests that most people would be happier if they lived closer to work, spent less time commuting, worked less, spent more time engaged in activities related to their most important relationships and causes, and spent their discretionary income more on experiences and less on objects. This would require, however, that we give up the type of status symbol the elephant instinctively pursues, such as higher incomes, larger houses and other visible status social artefacts. As noted, the elephants win most contests of this type, and as a result we tend not to find the happiness we seek.
The elephant, and the automatic processes it represents, is relatively easy to predict. Think about what kinds of behavior are most probable to enhance survival and reproductive opportunities in a primitive environment, and you can predict the elephant's impulses. This boils down to a simple attraction and withdrawal system that Haidt calls "yuck and yum". Anything that is likely to improve prospects for survival or reproduction will feel good and attract the elephant (the nice smell of food cooking; the sight of an attractive potential mate). Anything that might prove threatening will repel the elephant (the bitter taste of toxins or a sound in the bushes that might be a predator). And because it's much more serious to miss a threat than an opportunity for a meal or sex, the elephant has a negative bias. That is, if you don't notice a ripe piece of fruit, you've missed a tasty treat, but if you do not react quickly enough when you hear the sound of a potential predator, you might be dead. So, our brains arewired to react much more quickly and dramatically to potential threats than opportunities for food, sex, etc.
Thinking Makes It So
“There is no reality, only perception.” “As a man thinketh, so is he.”
Countless self-help programs, and many religions and quasi-religions have been built on principles like these, including the recent "Law of Attraction" and "What the Bleep Do We Know" phenomena. There is no doubt that people feel empowered by these ideas, and that they are as literally false as they are metaphorically true.
Current research indicates that we are limited in a variety of ways by our genetics, not to mention the laws of physics. To the extent that we can cultivate a positive attitude, this will enable us to do more or differently than would otherwise have been the case. However, we have limited control over our moods and no matter how positively we think, there are many things we will not be able to change. As Einstein put it, reality may be an illusion, but it is very persistent.
Recent research has taught us a number of significant things about the negative bias mentioned above, and as a result we now know more than ever regarding what we can realistically expect to change in terms of our general attitude toward life and what we should plan to accept.
For example, our negativity bias explains why the mind at rest tends toward depression. By day three of a long weekend or vacation of planned "down-time", most people feel somewhat depressed unless they've kept themselves busy, which would mean they did not have downtime. Watching a lot of television does not create enough mental activity to short-circuit the negativity bias, and accordingly the more television a person watches, the more likely it is that she will be depressed.
One of the best ways to overcome the negativity bias is to spend many hours a day in a "flow" state. This is the mental state that accompanies being engaged in a challenging activity that you regard as meaningful. If the challenge is too great, you will become frustrated and feel stress. If the challenge is not great enough, you will be bored and eventually depressed. The immediacy of feedback is important. It is hard to stay in flow if you have to wait hours to find out if each step you take is on track. Flow is that ideal combination of challenge, feedback and meaning during which time seems to disappear. Evolutionary forces seem to have shaped us to need hours of flow activity per day. This makes sense in light of the tasks our ancestors needed to perform in order to survive.
Ironically, both adults and children tend to believe that they will be happier if they have more leisure. The data indicates the opposite. Children who are permitted to do what they want to do (spend more time watching television, playing video games and hanging out at the mall with their friends) tend to be significantly more depressed than their peers who spend more time doing homework and engaged in active hobbies such as learning to play a musical instrument or participating in competitive athletics. Adults who take early-retirement without finding significant challenges, and hence flow, outside the workplace similarly report increased levels of depression and health problems, and tend to die sooner than their more engaged peers.
So, is the solution to depression remaining busy all the time? While that helps in some ways, it has also made many in the Western world uncomfortable in their own skin. A synthesis of Eastern and Western wisdom appears to be helpful in this regard when it comes to elephant training.
Meditation, whether combined with yogic practices, deep relaxation techniques, cognitive therapy or otherwise, correlates powerfully with reduced levels of depression and increased happiness. It seems to loosen up our mental systems so that they are better able to identify, and adapt to, reality. In fact, a combination of meditation and cognitive therapy has been shown to be as effective as pharmaceutical antidepressants with regard to a wide range of mental illnesses, while providing many other benefits and avoiding the side-effects that often accompany the use of anti-depressants. Cognitive disciplines like meditation, that have their roots in Eastern spiritual traditions, tend to orient us toward the present and its peaceful acceptance, and accordingly provide a healthy counterbalance to the Western tendency to continually look over the horizon. At the same time, ideas with regard to the importance of striving for improvement and passionately embracing life are moving from the West to the East, with many positive as well as negative consequences.
History and literature are full of stories of people who achieved some important insight into their life's condition, and were changed forever more. The research indicates that while this is possible, it is unusual. Generally speaking, our epiphanies have short-lived effects. This is because they are a conscious (rider) phenomena, and therefore do little about the nature of our elephant. If we want to change the elephant, we have limited tools at our disposal. As already indicated, if we can change the elephant’s environment we can often change its behavior. If the environmental change lasts long enough, this may retrain the elephant. Meditation and cognitive therapy also work, as already noted. Initial positive effects are felt quickly, but significant and lasting change requires consistent effort over long periods of time. Think of this as a life-style change. Pharmaceutical antidepressants are also effective for some people, but have many side effects. Haidt tells the story of how he determined that he hasa moderately depressive personality type, and decided that he should take antidepressants. He encourages their use for people who are positively affected by them. In his case, however, the antidepressants had a side effect -- they impaired his memory. As an aspiring academic, this was intolerable. He accordingly, and with great reluctance, gave up the wonderful feeling of calm the antidepressants gave him in order to recover his ability to recall and process information.
Next we consider two important ideas related to the social aspect of our lives. They are our tendencies to reciprocity and hypocrisy.
Virtually every long-lived human civilization has something resembling the Golden Rule near its foundation. It is therefore clear that this principle is of tremendous importance to human society. It is important, however, to distinguish the Golden Rule from the "turn the other cheek" principle, which is prominently featured in the New Testament, and to subject the Golden Rule to a variety of other exceptions. For example, there is a great deal of evidence that something more closely resembling the Old Testament’s "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is the required for successful social groups.
It has been demonstrated, for example, that the most productive behavioural rule in most societies is what has been called "modified tit for tat" and that this is our most common social behavior. That is, when someone cheats us we will not immediately cheat or punish them, but rather we will give them one or two opportunities to reciprocate our fair behavior, and then we will reciprocate their cheating behavior and/or punish them in other ways. In countless social simulations this strategy has been found to outcompete others, and it has also been found to closely reflect actual social behavior. In cases where people constantly "turn the other cheek" when cheated, the cheaters continue to cheat and the group becomes less productive and in some cases collapses under the weight of widespread cheating.
The vast majority of people with whom we deal socially reciprocate our positive behaviors and do not cheat us. However, we occasionally run into cheaters and after we have provided them adequate opportunity to play fair, as already noted, we feel compelled to punish them and warn others about them. From a purely selfish perspective, this does not make sense. The time, effort, personal risk and other resources we expend while attempting to punish a cheater and let our friends and others know about him do not make sense in light of what we as individuals are likely to recover as a result of these efforts. However, what we do in this regard makes sense when the benefits to be gained by our group are taken into account. The damage a cheater can do will be limited if news of his habits spreads, and this saves other people from loss. Accordingly, our tendency to gossip and engage in other activities that alert others to cheaters of various types, while reinforcing the conceptions of fairness within our social groupthat will cause other cheaters to be ferreted out and warnings sent in that regard, are more important than we perhaps appreciate. Similar behavior has been observed in other small herd animals. For example, the bird that sees an approaching predator generally sounds a warning that maximizes the probability that the flock will escape, while drawing the predator's attention to the warning bird and therefore increasing the probability that it will die. This type of self-sacrificial behavior indicates the importance of our social connections.
A good part of our mimetic behavior can be explained on the basis of our instinct to reciprocate. If someone smiles at us, we tend to return the smile. If someone gives us a gift, we likewise tend to reciprocate. The more we are trying to impress someone, such as while on a date with an attractive potential mate or in a meeting with our boss, the more we are likely to mimic their movements. They lean back in their chair, we lean back in ours; they put a hand on their chin, we follow; they tilt their head left, we incline ours in the same direction, etc. This physical solidarity says louder than words "I am with you, I like you, and I even want to be like you". When the words we use are inconsistent with our body language, the words are not believed. Studies have shown that body language is much more difficult to fake than words.
Marketing experts long ago intuited what social science has now laid out for all to see, and developed programs around these principles. For this reason, salesmen mirror our movements and requests for donations are often preceded by a small gift, such as the old War Amp keychain license tag and the Hare Krishnas thrusting a flower into people's hands before asking for a donation. Even the salesman’s smile and cheery “How are you today?” are designed to harness our reciprocity instinct. We feel that it is rude not to reciprocate, and once engaged by the salesman it is more likely that we will purchase. Countless goods advertized for sale are accompanied by a "free gift" that we all know is not free. Nonetheless, sales increase once the “gift” is offered. Waiters' tips go up if mints are provided along with the bill for dinner.
When negotiating, if one party concedes a point the other party tends to follow, and if not, the first party will be upset. However, the urge to reciprocate does not require symmetry – a compromise needs to be reciprocated, but something small will often do. The opposite side of the coin is that sales people who distribute moderately helpful information or take potential customers to hockey games are often rewarded with multi-million dollar contracts. As an intimate relationship deepens, the process often involves escalating and reciprocal personal disclosures, such as with regard to prior romantic relationships and why they went wrong. But if you go too fast, this can take the relationship off the rails as surely here as a too large gift from a sales person will “not seem right” and make the sale less likely. So, when negotiating anything from a multi-billion dollar deal to the time at which your 15 year old will arrive home on a Saturday night, it is a good idea to put something on the table that you are prepared to give up so that you can reciprocate the compromises you will probably receive. Our children are as irritated by a lack of reciprocity as any business executive.
The better we understand the human instinct for reciprocity the less likely we are to be taken advantage of by others, and the more power we are likely to have over them. Hopefully, we will resist the temptation to improperly use this power. The odds are against this, however, and we are likely to justify whatever we do, because we tend to be hypocrites.
Yes, we are all hypocrites. This appears to have a lot to do with our need to feel secure, and hence justified in what we do. Our rider exacerbates the problem by acting like the elephant's lawyer. That is, the conscious part of our mind tends to explain our behavior in its most flattering light. We tend to overemphasize the importance of the positive contributions we make in any situation, and to minimize or overlook entirely the negative things we have done while perceiving the positive and negative contributions of other people in precisely the opposite fashion. This means that most people believe that they are better than average spouses, better-than-average roommates, smarter than average, better drivers than average, etc. Intelligence and education levels do not appear to have much of an effect in this regard. A recent study showed that something like 90% of all university professors believed that they perform at above-average levels.
Most of us use something that has been called the "makes sense" stopping rule as we perceive and reason. For example, after we have taken a position or made a decision (such as to buy a particular make of car) we look for evidence that supports it and once we find enough evidence to conclude that our position "makes sense", our analysis stops. However, when confronted with evidence that contradicts a position we have taken (a bad consumer report with regard to our car that we could have easily found while shopping), we tend not to admit that we were wrong until the evidence is incontrovertible. The more important the position we have taken ("I married the right person" or "My religious (or political) beliefs are justified"), the higher the standard of proof we require before admitting that we are wrong. In many cases, we set the bar so high that it cannot possibly be hurdled. It is easy to do this regarding uncertain phenomena, like politics, religion, global warming, personal relationships, etc. This makes it possible, for example, for people to hold PhDs from Harvard and other similar universities in geology while persisting in their life-long belief that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. The most staggering fact in this regard is that most people – and therefore probably you and me – hold important beliefs that are close to as demonstrably false as young earth dogma, and that we do not falsify for the reasons just noted. If you are like me, as you read that last sentence (and as I typed it), the thought “That can’t really be true about my important beliefs” crossed your mind. This means we are normal. We are close to constitutionally incapable of accepting that we have the usual frequency of the usual human flaws.
When considering the position other people have taken, we tend to believe that they are motivated by emotional and personal reasons that distort their judgment, whereas we are objective and rational. As it turns out, we are relatively accurate in our perceptions of others, and grotesquely inaccurate when it comes to ourselves. This emphasizes the importance of relying upon the judgment of objective third parties regarding our personal decisions. Ironically, the more important the personal decision, the more likely we are to suffer from impaired judgment, the more important it is that we rely upon others’ judgement, and the less likely it is that we will do so.
Studies involving the negotiated settlement of disputes have provided interesting material in this regard. In simulations, when each participant knew which side of the dispute they would be on before reading the materials related to the dispute, more than one quarter of the cases failed to reach a settlement. However when they didn't know which side of the dispute they would be on until after they had read all of the materials, only 6% did not settle.
Since this tactic is not possible with regard to real disputes, other attempts were made to find ways to "de-bias" disputing parties. Having participants read a short essay about the nature of biases that affect people while attempting to settle disputes proved ineffective. All the participants seemed to do was use the information about biases to predict their opponents behavior, without changing their own. This caused both parties to dig into their positions further and faster. Even worse results occurred when each party was first required to write an essay arguing the other side's case as effectively as possible. Where this happened, the parties appeared to become better able to refute the other side's case as a result of understanding it more completely, without appreciating the weaknesses in their own case.
Only one strategy appeared to help real disputing parties reach settlement. This required each participant to read an essay about biases as well as writing an essay about the weaknesses in their own case. This appears to address the essential nature of our essential bias -- the inability to see our own case as others are likely to see it.
I've noticed something similar with regard to the tax litigation I do. Tax litigation cases, as well as most other kinds of court cases, tend not to settle until shortly before trial. This may be because as trial approaches, the reality that a judge will hear the evidence and form an opinion about it finally begins to sink in. As both clients and lawyers begin to think about the questions the judge is likely to ask and how the judge is likely to perceive the evidence, weaknesses in the case begin to appear that months and often years of preparation before trial did not disclose. This facilitates settlement.
The less we know about other people, the more likely we are to believe that they cannot possibly be correct when they disagree with us. Our tribal tendencies in this regard reinforce what has been called the "myth of pure evil". That is, we tend to grossly overestimate the bad intentions, ignorance, and lack of moral fibre of those who disagree with us. The less we know about the other people and the more important the issue, the stronger this tendency. Post-9/11, this made it easy for Americans to demonize Muslims, and vice versa. This lack of understanding between groups, coupled with our tendency to be unjustifiably certain that our way is the right way, is near the root of many of humankind's worst moments.
The negative tendencies described above are part of our elephant, and therefore difficult to change. As already indicated, meditation and cognitive therapy are useful tools in this regard. We can also engage in exercises designed to bring us face to face with our own weaknesses. The settlement exercise noted above exemplifies this. As we attempt to do this, our rider (the elephant's lawyer) will likely complain. However, as we digest insights with regard to our often disappointing reality (we often make mistakes; many of our important beliefs are false; we are not always above average; etc.), we tend to feel empowered. Our elephant will recognize that the information we are gaining will make us better able to deal with reality, and therefore constitutes a form of power. Haidt also indicates that doing what is "right" in this regard, especially when it is costly for us, will in and of itself produce a flash of pleasure that is associated with what he calls "elevation" – the experience of witnessing moral and otherwise admirable actions.
The more realistic in assessing our own flaws we become, the fewer will be our disappointments, and the happier we are likely to be. And, when dealing with even the most difficult people, we may also harness their reciprocity instinct. Admissions with regard to our own faults and latent hypocrisy tend to produce similar admissions from others. Admissions of our own biases and hence tendency to misperceive, despite our best intentions and efforts, tend to do the same. The road to understanding, compromise and “win – win” is often paved in this way.
Haidt next addresses four ways to happiness that many people have suggested. They are: Does happiness come from getting what we want?; does it come from our relationships?; do we need adversity to be happy?; and does happiness come from being virtuous?
| “I am not as happy as I used to be while Mormon”
I addressed this in part about with the idea that we will always be restless. However, there is a bit more that should be said.
I posted something earlier that was quite extensive with regard to the current social science of happiness. You can find out by searching the board using the term "The Happiness Hypothesis".
All I will say for the moment is that the straightforward idea that what we think will make us happy should be followed is unlikely to produce a satisfying life. I prefer to think in terms of what will make us better off. This is often the difference between short-term and long-term satisfaction. In the short term, we would rather not know that our spouse is cheating on us or that our religious leaders are systematically deceptive, because that news will make us profoundly unhappy. In the long term, however, we are generally better off if we learn about dangers of this type as early as possible so that we can take corrective action that will minimize the damage we suffer.
One story that illustrates this point very well is told by Elie Wiesel in his classic book "Night". He tells of someone from his village who was captured by the Nazis, machine-gunned along with hundreds of other Jews, thrown into a pit and left for dead. He was not on top, and so was not bayoneted to death (as were many who survived the bullets), and instead of running away spent several months hiding and traveling back to his village so that he could warn his family and friends of the impending disaster. At that time, the Nazis activities were not widely known, and there was still an opportunity to escape.
When he finally made it back to the village and told his story, he was dismissed as a lunatic. For weeks he wandered around the town trying to persuade people that they needed to flee. He had very little if any success. Many of the villagers were eventually taken by the Nazis, and died in concentration camps.
Thinking of the story in terms of happiness, if a villager had believed the survivor, would that have made her happy? Probably not. It probably would have meant she had to liquidate her belongings to the extent possible, and leave the only place she had probably ever known to start life over. But, would she have been better off? Probably so. The likelihood of dying would've been much reduced; the likelihood of creating a new life in another place was far greater than she probably understood.
Let's put the shoe on the other foot. Were the people who refused to believe the survivor happier as a result of their denial? Probably so. But were they better not? Obviously not.
I'm not suggesting that those who leave Mormonism will be unhappy. What I'm suggesting is that we should not think of short-term happiness with regard to a departure from Mormonism or with regard to most other things. Human beings habituate very rapidly to the big changes that occur in their lives. If you were unhappy after leaving Mormonism, you're probably going to within a short time habituate to your new environment, and experience a level of happiness that was very similar to whatever you had within Mormonism. On the other hand, if you react to leaving Mormonism as I did (experience a period of radical euphoria) you'll soon habituate to your new environment of increased freedom and again you will be back to the baseline experience of happiness that you had while Mormon. That is my case.
This leads us back to the real question -- are you and the ones you love the most better off as a result of no longer pouring the energy you did into the Mormon community, and instead directing that energy elsewhere? In my case the answer is clear. I am far better off, and so are the people I love the most. There may be a few cases in which the answer is less clear, and some in which it appears that a person is probably worse off outside of Mormonism than within it.
Some people need be stability of the Mormon environment much more than others. The same can be said with regard to the FLDS and other cults. Particularly once a person has been conditioned within that environment for a long time, in some cases it may cause more harm than good to remove them. The question then becomes whether the personal sacrifice of happiness in one generation is worth what it will produce in subsequent generations.
Before leaving Mormonism, I made the decision that if I needed to suffer a great deal in order to put my children in a position where they would live in an environment where they would probably be better off, I would do that. The same sort of decision has been made by countless immigrants drought human history. That is how we might think of ourselves – we are social immigrants.
| "You Are The One Who Broke Our Marriage Covenants By Disobeying The Church, So If We Get Divorced Its Your Fault!" |
Wednesday, May 28, 2008, at 08:38 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 5 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| “You are the one who broke our marriage covenants by disobeying the Church, so if we get divorced its your fault!” |
One of our companions the other night raised the old notion that somehow when one spouse leaves Mormonism and the other does not, the one who leaves is breaching the marriage contract, and is therefore at fault.
This argument does not hold water. Contacts are based on representations. If a foundational representation is false, the contract is void. For example, what if I enter into a contract to purchase 1967 Mustang convertible in mint condition, and just before paying for it find out that it is a clever reproduction instead of the real thing. This would render the contract void, and release me from my obligation to purchase.
To cast this in religious terms, what of a couple who married and at the same time agreed that they would both be faithful to Jim Jones. If one spouse became uncomfortable with what Jones was doing, discovered the ways in which he was misleading and abusing his followers and insisted on leaving his cult, would that be a breach of a marriage contract or wise behavior based on the discovery that a basic representation (or assumption) on which the marriage was based was false? The same applies to Mormonism.
However, it is extremely hard for people to accept reality when it comes to religious beliefs. This explains why marriages did break up prior to and at Jonestown, with some spouses leaving and others remaining to die. It similarly explains the divorce rate (80% in one study) found in cases where one spouse leaves Mormonism and the other does not.
Having been through the marriage wars on my way out of Mormonism, I have a great deal of empathy for people who find themselves in this situation.
My approach, for what it's worth, was to be up front with my wife regarding the fact that I was no longer prepared to abide by the Mormon Temple covenant. This amounted to me going to her, telling her that I felt that that aspect of our marriage covenant was based on a grotesque misrepresentation, and was therefore not binding on either of us, and inviting her to engage in a discussion with me regarding the kind of marriage we wanted to have. This was an extraordinarily difficult time for us. She was still a fully believing Mormon, and was suspicious of me in many ways. I tried to persuade her, both by what I said and by what I did over several years, but I still loved her; that I wanted to be a better husband and I had ever been before; that this was a result of my own desires and choices instead of out of a wish to qualify for the celestial Kingdom or fear of God or anything else and therefore was more genuine and reliable than anything based on Mormonism’s false representations could ever be; that I believ
ed that our life together could be better than it had ever been. It took a long time, but eventually she was persuaded.
No marriage is perfect and ours certainly is not. However, it is better now than it has ever been.
| “I Am Hutterite” by Mary-Ann Kirkby
I saw this book sitting on a stand in and airport bookstore as I was walking past this afternoon, picked it up on impulse and finished it a few hours later. I highly recommend it. This is not a great work of literature. It is, however, a nicely crafted little book that is somewhere between important and very important for people who have left Mormonism, or who are sitting on the brink of leaving and terrified by that prospect.
The Hutterites are closer to the fundamentalist Mormons and the Mormons. They are the cultural relatives of the Old Order Amish, and live primarily in Canada in a communal environment. "I Am Hutterite" is the true story of a family who left a Hutterite colony. It is written by a women who was approximately 10 years old when her parents took the extremely unusual step of deciding that they could no longer abide by the strictures of their community.
This story parallels the experience many of us have had while leaving Mormonism. However, it is more extreme than our experience in almost every way. Hutterites are raised in the same sort of cloistered environment as the fundamentalist Mormons. They are accordingly hamstrung when it comes to surviving outside of their communities. The cultural adjustment they go through as they attempt to acclimatize to life outside the "colony" is exponentially more difficult than the adjustments post-Mormons have to make.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a journalist, and therefore well-suited to telling this story. She writes from a child’s perspective, observing the stresses in her parents and other community members’ lives and how that affected her experience. She went through the adolescent hell of being an odd dressing, accent speaking outcast after her family left the Hutterite faith and community. She describes in fair, clear headed and loving terms both the strengths and weaknesses of her former community. She emphasizes the importance of forgiveness in the healing process after departing an authoritarian community.
In particular, Kirkby communicates the warmth and complexity of the relationships within her former community, and the relative desolation she initially experienced in the “outside” world. She describes in convincing fashion the iron rule within the Hutterite group, the love demonstrated by the rulers and others, and the ignorance dominated life the Hutterite faithful lead. The book's primary weakness is it lack of comment relative to the negative effect of the Hutterites extreme "beehive" mentality. The price paid for the community's warm embrace is surrender of nearly all opportunity for personal development.
Gradually, Kirkby and her family acclimatized to the “English” world. However, the first year was excruciating and the first several were difficult. For her parents, the difficultly went on for much longer. They made the same kind of sacrifice immigrants make – they gave up potentially everything in order to purchase a better life for their children. This kind of courage moves me.
One of the aspects of this book that I found most interesting was the difference between the way the men dealt with the conflict that resulted in Kirkby's family leaving the colony, as compared with how the women dealt with it. The men tended to draw lines that were much more black and white, and based on principle. The women seemed to be more orientated toward preserving relationships, regardless of principles that needed to be breached in this regard. The women, for example, tended to break the rules in order to maintain contact once family members left the colony. The men tended to be the ones who forced issues, and hence forced change. The women then reacted to contain the energy that was generated in this regard so as to preserve relationships. This caused that energy to remain within the group, and caused additional change because the dissidents could not be excised cleanly as would have been the case had the men ruled with the iron hand they have on paper.
Women are bridge builders who ease transitions and exert an influence outside the formal structure of the Hutterites community.
When Kirby's father finally decided he had to leave the community, he went away on his own for a few weeks to attempt to lay the groundwork. He was well over 40 years old, had a grade 8 education and had never done anything other than farm work. He and his wife had seven children. The prospects for him being able to support his family were minimal.
While he was gone, community members told Kirkby's mother that he had run away and would not come back for her, but that if he did come back she should lock the doors and not permit him into the house. During their wedding ceremony years before, he had covenanted that if he had a crisis of faith and left the colony that he would not attempt to take his wife and children with him. That is, Hutterite marriage is a three party deal - husband, wife and Church.
In the parts of the story that deal with the way in which the Hutterite community is structured, countless parallels can be found to the Mormon community. For example, Hutterites believe that the colony is the "ark of God", and that only those who remain within the ark are safe. All those who refuse to enter, or who leave, will perish. As a little girl, Kirkby was so disturbed by the stories of judgment day she heard, that at one point she concocted a plan to do something really good for her mother and then kill herself. She reasoned that life was so difficult overall, and in particular it was so difficult to get to Heaven, that it would be better for her to do that (her good deed just before death would ensure her entrance into Heaven) than to continue to struggle through life. She was pulled back from this plan by the knowledge that killing herself would hurt her mother and father too much.
I was particularly touched by the author's description of the loneliness Kirkby and her family experienced as they adjusted to life outside of the warm Hutterites community. For example:
"The summer of 1969 was the loneliest summer of our lives. We lived in the middle of nowhere and knew no one. It rained all the time, and the flies and mosquitoes were intolerable. If we went outside to play, we were up to our elbows in muck. If we stayed in, with no television or toys to amuse us, the boys would wrestle or play tag, tearing the house apart. On the colony, we would have been to Essenschul for breakfast and off playing with our friends by 8 a.m., but the social and physical structure that had given order and purpose to our lives had been ripped out from under us. In Faireholm [the colony], we had spent relatively little time with our siblings except for evening prayers and bedtime routines; our new circumstances brought us in much closer contact with each other, and that led to a lot of arguing as we worked to define our new relationships. Mother found herself with a house full of lively children who didn't know what to do with themselves." (Page 123)
"Mother struggled to put meals together. There was no more running to the community kitchen for fresh, home-cooked meals or buns, pies and cakes just out of the oven. In Faireholdm the bell rang at 15 minutes past seven and 11 in the mornings, and 15 minutes past five in the afternoon for what was known as "first call". Those with very young children sped toward the kitchen, for it signalled that the meal was ready and they should come to fill their pails and dishes with a delicious vaariety of fresh food to take home. Older people have the option of having their food delivered to their homes instead of going to the Essenstuben. On the half hour, the bell would rign again and the rest of the community would stop what they were doing and head to the kitchen to eat."
"Since she was a teenager, mother had followed the traditional pattern of work rotation on Hutterite colonies. She was 17 when she was first assigned a cook week in Rosedale, the age when all women step into their adult roles and are paired with other women between the ages of 17 and 45 to spent alternating weeks baking, washing dishes, or cooking. With up to 100 community members to feed, good organization was important; the menu was set out in advance by the head cook, and the supplies were always on hand in the kitchen. Had mother stayed on the colony she would, at age 45, have been eased into retirement as the younger women took over, but now her retirement was put off indefinitely."
"She was an excellent cook and with the proper ingredients could replicate all the mouthwatering Hutterite meals our spoiled palates were used to, but we couldn't afford the ducks for Sunday dinner or the cream for Schmond Wacken or the fresh strawberries so readily available on the colony. All Father could manage on his salary was food at bargain prices. A sympathetic Jewish grocer in Winnipeg who ran a small corner store agreed to sell him produce that had outlived its shelflife." (Page 125)
"We hardly ever saw Father anymore. He was gone most mornings before we awoke and arrived home late in the evenings after everyone was in bed. Mother craved adult companionship, and sometimes I would find her gazing longingly out our kitchen window, watching a single car drive past until it was out of sight. What she would give to share a cup of coffee with Katie Hofer or fold laundry with Oma, who made every crease vanish, and our underwear and towels look as if they had been ironed.” (page 130)
"I sensed her loneliness and started to stay up with her to keep her company. Every night, often until midnight, Mother stroked my hair and told me Bible stories of faith and perseverance while we sat by the picture window looking out into the darkness. I could tell she was trying to shore up our own faith, and the stories were as much for her benefit as mine. On the colony, the family had no worries about food and shelter, paying the bills, or caring for children. In our new lives, far from the security of [the colony], mother had no idea how we would survive if something happened to Father, or what we would do or where we would go. When we saw the headlights of the truck turning onto our deserted lane, we would both be relieved, and I would rush upstairs to my bed before Dad was in the front door." (Page 131)
[Comments with regard to a return visit to the colony without her family] “I missed seeing my mother working with the other women, hearing her laugh and swap stories with her gardening partner, Katie Hofer. During our daily ice cream break, the older women patted my head sympathetically and proclaimed me “innocent". I knew that they blamed my parents for what had happened. I was still too attached to let go, not ready to give up the silky sand beneath my feet, the dusty, winding paths, and the sound of the kitchen bell. I ached for the structure of the days, the familiar, lined faces of the women in the kitchen, the smell of baking buns, and the guttural sound of our language. My heart was not ready to accept that this was no longer home." (Page 150)
Overall, this book is both touching and profoundly encouraging. Those of us who have been through difficult cultural transitions will find the description of the stresses Mary-Ann experienced as a young person attempting to adjust to a new way of life moving. And, if Hutterite families can leap the massive chasm described in this book successfully, Mormon families should cope with the changes required to adjust to life outside Mormonism. We should expect to be frightened by the prospect of this transition. We should also expect it to be manageable, and that we will thrive in the more complex, richer environment outside of Mormonism.
"I Am Hutterite" is about human social evolution - a testament to our adaptability.
| I still receive email on a fairly regular basis from the faithful of various stripes (Mormon, FLDS, Evangelical) who encourage me to take the time to consider their latest theories and evidence as to why they have "the truth".
Early on in my recovery/exodus process, I diligently followed up on much of what I received in this regard, and actively sought out the best informed Mormon apologists in an effort to make sure that I had considered every possible argument in favour of my rapidly crumbling faith. It would have been far easier, after all, for me and my family had I been able to reconsile Mormonism with common sense sufficiently to have remained within the Mormon community.
As time has passed, my willingness to spend time in dialoque with the irrational, dogmatic faithful has declined. The following is representative of the kind of response this type of person now receives upon asking me to, yet again, re-plough dogmatic ground that I have been over in one form or another many times. It deals with Book of Mormon archeology (specifically, the latest geography theory re. the BofM), but could be re-worked for many other similarly low probability theories.
I note, as an aside, that this is the approach I also use with people who suggest that I should spend a bunch of additional time to re-consider my position that is is extremely unlikely that there is life after death on the basis of the most recent non-scientific accounts of near death experiences, or whatever. No matter what our most important beliefs are and how crazy they may look to others, it is really hard to consider the possiblity that they are highly unlikely to be correct.
In all cases, I continue to be willing to consider scientifically respectable material that questions my position. I am not willing to spend time on the latest faint hope for the faithful.
The "sacred land bridge" noted below is worth special attention. It is a great analogy to Book of Mormon historicity. All the same players are involved, including highly educated apologists arguing for what to outsiders is a laughable theory.
Thanks for writing. I have thought a lot about the kind of beliefs you put forward, and have found so little to them that it no longer beleive makes sense for me to spend time studying this kind of thing.
For example, it makes as much sense for me to continue reading the BofM acheological literature as it does the most up to date young earth creationist theories and evidence re. why the earth is about 6000 years old. It is not possible for some people to see that a horse is dead no matter how long they have beaten it.
I now treat Mormon craziness to the same yawns I have for religious craziness of all other types. Hence, as long as the respected scientists studying in an areas pay no attention, I pay no attention.
Mormon theories in favor of BofM historiscity are in more or less the same credibility camp from a scientific perspective as young earth creationism, alien abudctionism, Scientology's belief in Thetans, and whether dredging a proposed shipping channel near India will destroy the remnants of a sacred land bridge created anciently by an army of Monkeys working under the direction of Lord Rama (see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news...).
In each of these cases, zealots (some of them well educated, smart people) will defend the ridiculous to their death beds, and will be hailed as heroes by their fellow dogmatists for this irrational act. They can each see the nuttiness in other religions, but not in their own. What a pathetic waste.
There are too many important things to study to spend time debunking other people's fantasies over and over again.
| I found Jon Haidt's reference in The Happiness Hypothesis to the literature related to ethics of community versus ethics of individuality to be useful. In particular, it was his suggestion that perhaps we would not want to completely eliminate either one or the other that got me thinking about this concept.
There is lots of evidence that the ecosystem is a massive information processor with an immense intelligence. For example, it is teleological in the sense that in many ways it appears to move toward a state that preserves, and perhaps enhances, life. If a certain part of the globe becomes overrun by a particular species of animal or plant, disease and conflict within the population can be counted on to knock it back the point where a more diverse environment can regenerate. These richer, more fecund environments are kept in balance by an intricate series of tension dominated relationships. Predator versus prey; disease versus immune system. At every level, death spawns life and vice versa.
I see the tension between the ethics of individuality and ethics of community perspectives within the human species as analogous to these many other tensions. And, for certain purposes and in certain environments the ethics of community orientation will be much more important than the ethics of individuality, and again, vice a versa. It therefore makes sense to me that the vast ecological system of which we are a miniscule part would wish to preserve both of these attributes of humanity. To lose one or the other would be to lose system strength.
Just as largely undetectable information flows cause Adam Smith's invisible hand to operate, there appear to be for all intents and purposes infinite other information flows around and within us that cause similar intelligent mechanisms to function. It may be that our behavior is governed to a large extent by our subconscious reaction to some of this information. It may be that we subconsciously sense forces around us that cause our perception to be screened, in much the way important social relationships will prevent people from perceiving evidence that could upset those relationships.
The conclusion I am stumbling toward is that even the most seemingly conscious, high functioning ethics of individuality people among us are still part of a hive mind, and part of the role they play within the vast human organism is to keep the largely disruptive, creative, individual driver alive even during periods dominated by something akin to the Spanish Inquisition. Nature will see to it that there will always be some people who are constitutionally incapable of living in any other than this way. On the other hand, we should expect that even in the most liberal, ethics of individuality corners of our planet during times of plenty that encourage maximal exercise of human freedom, that strong pockets of ethics of community oriented people will be preserved. The religious impulse in this direction is one of many, but historically a strong one. Good times will not last forever, and strong communal fabrics are particularly important during times of struggle. I recall hearing a story about one of the Africancountries in which massive conversions occurred to the Muslim faith during war as a result of the way in which that community nurtured sufferers of all kinds.
As the environmental pendulum swings back and forth from scarcity to abundance, people near the middle of the spectrum will swing one way or the other based largely upon the social dynamics dominant within their group. Of course, they will perceive themselves as reacting to "reality" or "truth" as they perceive it, but when their behavior in large groups over significant periods of time is a viewed from 10,000 feet, they will be indistinguishable from ants reacting in predictable fashion to changes around or within the hive.
This reminds me of Larry Iannaccone's fascinating paper called "Accidental Atheists". You can find it at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cf... . There, if I recall it correctly, Iannaccone provides support for the idea that one of the best predictive factors with regard to changes in religious belief is the religious belief of your six closest associates. As people move back-and-forth from the coasts of the United States to the interior regions, you would expect that this would cause a gradual averaging of the theist versus atheist views in those regions. Over a long period of time, that has not been the case. He suggests that this is because (in part at least) that once a critical mass of believers (or disbelievers) has been established in an area, they draw a large percentage of new entrants into their orbit. Of course, the atheist who moved to Utah and has a conversion experience to Mormonism there experiences this as a radical encounter with new truth of some kind, just as does the Mormon and moves to New York City and "loses his faith". The perception of the experience appears confabulatory, just as is the perception of "being hot" is while shooting a basketball. In one study, some statisticians followed the Philadelphia 76ers around for a season and determined that if a player’s shooting percentage was, for example, 45% that the probability of him hitting his next shot was exactly 45% regardless of whether he reported feeling hot or cold either before or after taking the shot. That "can't miss" feeling is probably a confabulatory after the event phenomenon. I happen to know a lot about this particular issue, having been a basketball player until recently. The same thing applies for golf and other physical activities, and in its purest and easiest to identify form is experienced by gamblers.
As you know, I am far from an advocate of the overtly religious path, but the longer I study these issues and more value I see in some of the behaviors they manifest.
Another model that fascinates me is Denmark, and other Scandinavian countries. This illustrates how the ethics of community and individuality work at different levels within the same group. These countries at the macro level are among the most socialistic in the world, and therefore strongly oriented toward the ethics of community at that level. Ideologically and intellectually, however, they are among the most ethics of individuality oriented in the world. One of the ways in which this manifests is the formation of countless robust clubs and community associations, which are in Denmark at least, generously funded by the government.
The more I think about these issues, the more attracted I am to the idea of attempting to study religious groups in a way that will allow us to identify the ideological and behavioral main springs of their community of ethics behavior. The trick would then be to see how these can be recreated in secular environments. I believe that the absence of options in this regard in the United States in particular is a significant barrier to people leaving close-knit religious groups.
Returning again to Denmark, the way in which a massive network of clubs and community associations have been encouraged by the government appears to perform much of the role performed by churches in the United States. Canada, which is much less overtly religious than the United States, seems to me to be much like the United States in terms of its secular community associations. That is, nothing special happens in that regard. It may be that our governments could take a significant step toward reducing the power of institutional religion (and I think that is important) while strengthening our communal fabric if more effort was made to encourage and fund the formation of recreational and other secular groups. In particular, the encouragement of the formation of groups and clubs related to preserving the environment, cultural and language exchange, and other activities orientated toward expanding the average level of consciousness regarding the world around us could pay particularly large dividends. These issuesare big enough that they may have a resonance similar to that of the religious groups, and indeed, I think we will see some religious devolve into something akin to secular clubs. The UU are a small example of that. Mainstream protestants who no longer take seriously the Bible’s ahistorical, miraculous claims are haemorrhaging members and looking for a new source of life blood. It would not surprise me to see them move in this direction.
| There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the probability of changing one's foundational beliefs declines as age advances. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the older we get the less plastic our neural connections become. The second reason, however, is far more compelling from my perspective. Larry Iannaccone explains this using the term "spiritual capital", which is analogous to "social capital", a concept developed elsewhere in the social sciences.
The idea, basically, with regard to spiritual capital is that our brains perform a subconscious cost-benefit analysis with regard to big decisions like changing our foundational beliefs, and therefore probably being forced to change most of our social context. If we do not pass this subconscious hurdle, our conscious minds never have the change to decide whether it is a good idea to change our belief system or not. Why is this process subsconscious? The most likely explanation is that we are not truth seekers, but rather were designed by evolutionary forces to behave so as to maximize our survival and reproductive prospects. Being conscious of deeply troubling issues related to the legitimacy of our primary social group was, historically, likely to reduce our survival and reproductive prospects. Hence, except in the most egregious cases, our subsonscious mind suppresses evidence related to this in the same way it tends to suppress the perception of certain risks and costs related to an attractive sexual encounter.
Changing our basic beliefs usually causes a significant loss of both spiritual and social capital. That is a cost. The benefits must outweigh the costs in order for us to incline in this direction. We generally don’t have the information necessary to assess these benefits, but have had the risks drummed into us throughout life (“Without Mormonism, you would probably be a drunk in the gutter somewhere!!!”). Hence, there is a profoundly conservative tilt in this analysis in most of our cases.
However, some of us are more risk-averse than others, and therefore in those cases the benefits must be perceived to outweigh the costs of change even more than in the usual case. And, most of us are conservative by nature. That is, we are more risk-averse than is optimal from our individualistic perspective. In addition to the reasons already noted, this is probably due to the importance of preserving social groups historically – lose your social group and you die was the rule until recently. Therefore, even for those of us who tend toward the more risk accepting the end of the spectrum, the benefits must be perceived (subconsciously) to significantly outweigh the costs before we will move toward changing our basic beliefs.
Think of social capital in the following terms: The longer we remain within a given religious community, the more people we know; the more people owe us favors; the more we know about how the "system" works; the more hymns, rituals and routines we know and hence the more secure and hence comforting we find the institutional and social environment; the more likely we are to be able to get through the dialogue at the veil in the temple without assistance; the more respect we have within the community; the more secure we feel; etc. It is, obviously, difficult to leave all of this and start over in another community where we are not known; we don't know much about what is going on; we feel less secure; people don't owe us favors; we are not respected; etc. In order to do something drastic of this nature, we must perceive the benefits to be enormous. The younger we are, the more likely it is that we will see the world this way. In our 20s and 30s, before marriage or just starting to raise our children, it is particularly likely that we will be able to justify starting over. We have lots of time to build those new connections, learn a new system, etc. and if we believe that a new environment will be better for our kids, this is a particularly strong motivating factor that will in many cases move us toward a rebuilding project. In our 40s or 50s, it is much less likely that we will see things this way - the costs are greater (marriage locked into Mormonism; kids locked in; maybe career dependant on Mormon connections; etc. with less time to live and hence reap the rewards of a success rebuild project). It is even less likely in our 60s and beyond, though I know a handful of people who have left Mormonism posts 60. Anyone reading this who is in that category should pat themselves on the back. You are remarkably brave, and unusual, people.
The most fascinating thing about this analysis to me is that it is almost completely subconscious. We can tell this by observing the way in which people in different circumstances and at different ages react in large numbers, and then asking them why they behave as they have. The answers they give relate to things like the “truth” of the Book of Mormon or the Young Earth Creation theory, whereas their behavior is explained by the relatively simple calculus just noted.
James Fowler, in his excellent book "Stages of Faith", backs this up. He summarizes the progression many people go through with regard to their spirituality as moving from childlike faith (stage one) through the inflexible dogmatic faith that characterizes most fundamentalist leaning religions, like Mormonism (stage three), through the rupture that occurs when one realizes the inadequacies of her inherited faith (stage four), into what in the best cases becomes an integrative, inclusive perspective with regard to spirituality (stage five). The transition from inherited faith, through rupture, to inclusivity in most people occurs in their 30s, according to Fowler. That is consistent with my experience, and makes sense in light of Iannaccone's and other academics' empirical work.
There are a couple of additional factors that appear to be relevant to this analysis. First, the extent to which one is orientated toward introversion and analysis as opposed to extroversion and emotion may correlate with a willingness to leave one’s inherited faith tradition. On the Myers-Briggs scale, the first letter (introversion versus extroversion) and the third letter (thinking versus feeling) identify this. The literature with regard to Myers-Briggs, as well as an informal survey I did a few years ago, support the idea that introverts will have less social capital than extroverts because introverts are less dependent upon other people than are extroverts. Therefore, introverts will be more inclined than extroverts to walk away from an inherited social system. Likewise, people who are more oriented toward thinking and analysis than feeling will be more likely to see the flaws in their social system, and therefore are also more likely to walk away.
Second, the only real scientific study that has been conducted with regard to the reasons for which inherited beliefs change found that the only factor the correlated strongly with rejecting one's inherited belief system was the psychological characteristic related to openness to new experience, adventuresomeness, continuous learning, etc. The explanation offered was that people of this type live in a conceptual world that continues to expand, and it is therefore more likely in their cases that an inflexible inherited belief system will eventually seem inadequate relative to all with which they become familiar.
Finally, I note that IQ, degree of education, wealth, and a number of other factors that one might guess would correlate with an ability to see through a ruse like Mormonism so far have not correlated to with leaving inherited belief systems. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that at least some of the smartest among us have a harder time than most seeing through the faithful fog. These really smart people have the ability to find patterns in ambiguous data better than most of us, and when they find a pattern that seems plausible, their fellow believers immediately rally behind them and congratulate them for being so smart as to be able to justify the inherited belief system. In some cases, we call these "apologists". This may explain people like Hugh Nibley and many other Mormons whom I know well and respect. It also explains apologists for failed political and economic ideologies, environmental apologists and a wide variety of other similar people.
I left Mormonism in my mid-40s, and feel fortunate that I was able to make that massive change relatively late in life. Kudos to those of you who have done so later. However, those who made the transition earlier should feel doubly fortunate because you have the time necessary to build a new life foundation without having a long-term marriage, teenage children, etc. in tow who have been thoroughly conditioned by their Mormon experience, and whose pain you must share or face further losses.
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