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BOB MCCUE - SECTION 6
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| The power of example has been so over worked that I hesitated to compose this note. However, recent experience has revived this concept for me in a way worth recording. So here I go.
Almost 20 years ago I began developing knee problems while attempting to train for what I thought was to be my first marathon. I was in my early 30s, and well past my serious athlete days. Exercising without chasing a ball or playing some kind of sport had never been a favorite activity, but the taut schedule of a father of five children, trying to work up the partnership ladder at a large law firm while serving as Mormon Bishop, made jogging an attractive form of exercise. A taste of running was quickly turned by my type A personality into a desire to run marathons.
After a few weeks of training, my left knee began to throb. I tried the usual things (or at least what I thought were the usual things) to alleviate the discomfort, but each time I tried to run again the pain came back. This eventually led to arthroscopic surgery to repair what the doctors thought was probably cartilage damage caused by my years of playing basketball and other sports.
When I came out of surgery, I was told that the good news was my cartilage was not torn, and the bad news was that I was in the early stages of osteoarthritis, which basically meant that my cartilage was wearing out far too quickly. I asked the doctor whether it was something I had done, not done, etc. such as failing to take the right kinds of vitamins and minerals, or whatever. He said no, that I just drew the short straw in the genetic lottery when it came to knee architecture. "Put it this way.", he said. "If you were a horse, you wouldn’t be breeding."
The doctor told me that I didn't need to modify any of my activities. He said that the discomfort I would experience after playing basketball and doing other things would gradually increase until I just didn't want to do them anymore. He was right.
Six or seven years later I had arthroscopic surgery on the other knee, and the diagnosis of advancing osteoarthritis was confirmed.
After a longer than anticipated recovery from each surgery, I tried to run a few times and on each occasion felt the same kind of discomfort in my knees. Running, therefore, was over for me.
I started to cycle and for years did a fair bit of that, but found it harder to fit into my schedule and that it was more weather dependant than running. Cycling petered out.
I also continued to play basketball and other sports occasionally, but found that true to the doctor's word, the amount of pain I experienced gradually increased until I seldom wanted to play. If I play a hard game of basketball now, it takes a couple of days on anti-inflammatories to get the swelling in my knees down. For better or worse this is kind of like child-birth - we quickly forget how bad it was and are hence willing to give it another whirl.
So, for the past almost 20 years I have not done any running.
I was at a conference recently, and ended up sitting for lunch at a table with an extremely fit looking fellow with whom I had a great conversation. It soon became apparent that he was a serious runner. He has finished eight marathons, including three Boston Marathons. He says he's not very fast, and certainly not an elite runner, but he enjoys running and probably puts in something like 20 or 25 miles per week.
I quickly summarized for him my bad knees tale of woe. He responded by explaining to me that he did not start running until after he had serious cartilage problems that resulted in the removal of much of the cartilage from one of his knees. He assumed that he could not be able to run after that, but was told that if he started slowly, he probably could do some running, and that this would be good for his recovery. He accordingly got involved with a running program that basically forced him for the first three months to run at what felt like an old man shuffle. He was required to wear a heart rate monitor and stay below 70% of his maximum heart rate. He could power walk as fast as this so-called run.
This training program (which is utterly pedistrian - sorry, couldn't resist) is based on the idea that it takes a long time for bones, joints, tendons and muscles to catch up to lung capacity, and that if we run anywhere near as quickly as we feel we are able at the beginning of a running program, we will damage something. So, for three months he shuffled along, and gradually began to run faster while staying at 70% of his maximum heart rate. After the three months were over, he entered a more serious training regimen, and to his surprise before too long was running close to marathon distances at a slow pace. He then stepped up his training again and after a while qualified for the Boston Marathon.
“Amazing and wonderful”, I thought. I didn't really believe that this would apply to me, but since there was no downside and lots of upside decided to give it a try. "An experiment", I told myself. Lots of good things start out for me that way.
I already owned a heart rate monitor, and late the same day I met this gentleman I left my hotel to go for an extremely slow jog along the canal system in Ottawa, Ontario - my first run in at least a decade. He was right about the old man shuffle. I was embarrassed to have anyone see me running as slow as I had to run to keep my heart rate below the required level, which for me is about 130 beats per minute.
I won't bore you with the details regarding how I felt so good after a few of these shuffles that I decided the rules didn't apply to me, ran faster than I should have (do you have any idea how humiliating it is to be passed by mothers pushing their babies in strollers?), pulled some tendons or muscles, had to take a couple of weeks off, and then humbly returned to the training program. However, I will report that it has now been six weeks since I picked up this idea, and I'm comfortably running 5 km three times a week at between a ten and 12 minute per mile pace, which is a bit better than the 14+ minutes per mile shuffle I started with. Even growth from one stage to another that would be embarrassing to a real runner feels great to me. And so far I've had no knee pain.
I've also read several books (or parts of books) with regard to running. Ironically, I owned most of them already. I just had to go down stairs and take them off my bookshelves. There I found a description of precisely the program my new friend explained to me over lunch. I had probably read about it before, but assumed that it did not apply to me because of my osteoarthritis and so the information did not register.
I don't expect to become a marathon runner, but there is something different about the kind of workout I get while running that is better from my point of view than what happens when I ride the exercise bike or otherwise work out in the gym. I am outside where I can feel the wind, sun, rain and see a wider swath of life. It is more social. I can feel my metabolism quickening. I feel more energized when I get home, as a result of the nice little endorphin high that comes from even a slow half an hour run. This all makes it easier to get my lazy butt out the door more often to work out.
For some time I've been in the stage of life where I have been saying goodbye to physical abilities. I can't tell you how good it feels as my capacity increases.
Numerous times during the past six weeks I've thought about the transforming impact a tiny bit of information had on my ability to do something important. It renewed me in a meaningful sense.
All I had to know was that someone in a situation similar to mine had done something important to me, and I immediately became more capable than I thought I was and wanted to try what moments before I would have dismissed as impossible. Then I did it, with ease. Utterly amazing.
Ironically, it took someone else to reveal myself to me. While my potential did not change, my reality did, solely as a result of being shown something about my potential. My revelator hence became part of me, as much as if he had given me a lung to replace one of mine as it failed.
This has to do with faith. Faith is the motive force of most of what we do, and in order for it to work we must believe that the investment of effort required of us in order to do something has a reasonable probability of paying off. Given what I had been told by the doctors and the experience I had while trying to jog (too far and fast, as it turned out) and play certain sports made me believe that it was unrealistic for me to expect to ever run again.
In particular, I experience terrible knee pain after playing relatively slow paced three on three basketball. It didn't occur to me that jogging would cause significantly less stress on my knees than old man style three on three basketball.
And so, with the books explaining exactly what I needed to do sitting on the shelf in my library, and already having read those books, I spent close to 20 years not doing something that would've significantly increased my well-being.
Not running and playing the sports I love made me feel and act old. I felt ackward, and was becoming more ackward became of the "use it or lose it" principle. Six weeks later I feel like I have a new lease on life.
Again, I am stunned and grateful, for the transforming power of a bit of information about another human being's experience.
I can think of many other cases in which something similar has happened to me. Just before going into what was then called the Language Training Mission to learn Spanish on my way to serve a Mormon mission in Peru, I found out that one of my friends had broken the LTM’s record with regard to learning the Navajo language, one of the most difficult languages for English speakers. This guy was no genius. He was a jock like me. Up to that point in life I had not done anything to indicate that I had even average ability to learn. And, I had been an abject failure when it came to learning French. I was worried about my ability to learn Spanish. However, when I heard about my friend’s experience, I decided that if he could do that with Navajo I could master Spanish. I assumed that the fact that he was a missionary, and therefore had God’s help, had a lot to do with his success. Since I was going to be in the same position, I assumed that I would have the same opportunity.
To again make a long story short, I became much more proficient with Spanish during my stay at the LTM than most Spanish-speaking missionaries, and to this day attribute that largely to the fact that I had the idea in my head when I arrived there that it was possible for me to do this. I later discovered that the ability to learn is one of my strengths, but that I have to put in a lot more effort than some before I see results.
On my way out of Mormonism, I ran across a number of people who demonstrated crucially important possibilities. Without the Internet, this would have been impossible. Without them, I would not be who, what and where I am.
I met people who had faced the terror of losing their families, their friends, and other important aspects of their social environment, and nonetheless acted in accordance with their deepest beliefs; refused to accept the gag orders Mormon authorities attempted to impose on them; left Mormonism; reinvented themselves. In most cases they did not lose anywhere near as much as they thought they would respecting marriage, families, friends, etc. And they gained far more than they could imagine. Because I found them, my imagination had some help.
I also met people who demonstrated that beliefs that seemed unshakeable – part of my very being; impossible to let go of – would dissolve into ridiculousness after a relatively short period of time (some in weeks; other in months; others in years) of being subjected to careful scrutiny.
Once outside of Mormonism and embroiled in conflict with certain family members, I met people who gracefully dealt with similar conflicts. These people demonstrated that while it may not be possible to restore our intimate relationships to their prior status, it is possible to create new forms of relationship that will satisfy our basic needs.
The common denominator in each of these and many other examples is that our capacity to do is galvanized by the knowledge that someone else in circumstances similar to our own has been able to do what may have seemed impossible to us the moment before we heard of them. Knowledge of these others is among the most empowering forces known to humankind.
I think about this in terms of the so-called butterfly effect -- that principle from complexity theory that shows how a miniscule force within a complex system (such as the single flap of a butterfly's wing in Brazil) can produce a massive force elsewhere in that system (such as a tornado in Texas).
Many people who have left Mormonism and other fundamentalist leaning religious belief systems struggle with a perceived absence of meaning in their lives. I believe that this largely results from the way our brains have formed around the Meanings that are emphasized within Mormonism – becoming a God; getting to the Celestial Kingdom; etc. Compared to these, the meanings that drive most human lives are so small that they are hard to notice. Giving up the Mormon Meanings and learning to get along with regular meaning is like living with (and loving) to Death Metal until middle age and then being forced to transition to the philharmonic. It takes a while to learn to appreciate sublety.
Consider, for example, the way in which our seemingly insignificant actions contribute to the creation of human reality. Like the tiny organisms whose secretions build coral reefs, our day to day living builds and maintains the base on which future generations of humanity will rest, as well as occasionally acting as the butterfly's wing. Even more rarely, something we do or say may empower another human being in the way my mundane conversation over lunch six weeks empowered me, or the way in which reading something someone had left on the Internet gave me the courage to take difficult steps while I was leaving Mormonism, or while attempting to rebuild shattered relationships with family members. In most cases, we will not know this has happened, while knowing that given how human beings function, it must happen many times during the average life. We are drenched in meaning that we rarely see.
Note what people have done to empower me. These were not acts of heroism or even the result of strenously setting a difficult and noble example. Rather, it was just people living their lives and sharing their experience. The guy from lunch six weeks ago has no idea how he affected me. Likewise for most of the people a tiny part of whose trail of interactions with others I have read on the Internet or elsewhere.
What made all the difference for me was the fact that these people exist, and that I became aware of them. Our very existence – each of us, one by one – is the key. We are embodied meaning. And the Internet makes it a lot easier for us to become aware of each other.
We thus paradoxically become acquainted with ourselves largely through our reflection in other lives. The more authentic and less muffled by corrupt authority these lives are, the more varied and true the mirrors they hold up to us, and the more of ourselves we are likely to see.
But in any event, we are they; they are others; others are we. All connected; interdepent. Largely moved by a collective intelligence into which we each unconsciously contribute. Gloriously beautiful. Sometimes terrifying.
Awe completely stills me when I think about this as Celestial glory never could.
| While contemplating life the day after an historic US election, I decided to jot a bit about basic, ironic, differences between political liberals and conservatives, and how small group dynamics (in particular, religious group dynamics) play into this. For background, I highly recommend Jon Haidt’s TED talk at http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jo.... Haidt is one of our most consistently insightful social psychologists. I look forward to his soon-to-be published book with regard to religion.
We consistently hear conservatives, such as many Republicans, talk about the importance of individual rights and liberties, and therefore the importance of electing governments that will leave the people alone to the greatest extent possible. This sounds like an individualistic stance, but as Haidt points out and I will explain below, conservatives tend to be more community oriented in some ways than liberals. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be more individualistic and yet end up supporting minority rights and other similar social issues such as universal health care that are foundational to strong national communities. What follows is my attempt to explain this paradox.
Before going further I should define my terms. In the United States, Republicans are generally conservative and Democrats generally liberal. Conservatives tend to favor retaining the status quo in social terms (keeping the traditional definition of marriage, for example), reducing the size and influence of government, and therefore lowering taxes. Liberals, on the other hand, are generally more prepared to innovate socially (and otherwise), and believe that government intervention in a variety of ways is a lesser evil than what would occur without that intervention. A larger government influence, such as would be required to create a publicly funded health care system, publicly funded educational systems, etc. inevitably leads to higher taxes.
As Haidt and others have pointed out, liberals tend to be more individualistic than conservatives, and conversely, conservatives tend to be more community oriented than liberals. This is what causes liberals to emphasize individual choice, and to protect the rights of minorities. The gay marriage issue exemplifies this. Liberals also tend to be more oriented toward continuing exploration of various kinds. In fact, one of the best ways to predict whether a person will vote liberal or conservative is to measure her openness to new experience. The more open to new experience, the more likely that person is to be individualistic in orientation, and to vote liberal.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are not as open to new experience and are more orientated toward a particular community -- their small tribe. They often like the beehive or choir metaphors as ideal community descriptions. This means that the emphasis is on the majority -- those who make a choir a choir. Discordant voices – minorities, for example -- are viewed more as threats and less as sources of creativity. “Stand on your own two feet” and other individualistic slogans are, ironically, commonplace in conservative communities. Conservatives tend to fear forces that will disrupt their closeknit communities, and tend to fear change in general. Many of these behaviors can be explained in terms of their collective relatively closed stance when it comes to new experience.
Big picture social behavior is easier for me to understand if I think of social groups as organisms, co-existing and competing with each other in an environment. Once using the organism analogy, the next step is to remember that individual organisms tend to cluster together into macro organisms. For example, our bodies are comprised of a multitude of individual organisms. At the most macro level possible with regard to the human species, that species itself is an organism. It competes against other species and life forms for resources within our ecosystem.
As we move from one level of macro analysis to another, wonderful irony often appears. Within our bodies, for example, the integrity that we experience as human individuals is made possible by a multitude of tensions. Cancer is an example of what happens when one of our physiological processes becomes inadequately constrained by others. Many of our vital functions are performed by organisms that were once separate from us -- and often were parasites -- that through time and close association became part of "us". They continue to create a dynamic tension with other parts of us that allow us to function. Creative conflict and competition between integrated parts is one of life’s most common themes.
So, it should not be surprising that when we look at life from the perspective of the human species as a whole, the differing attributes of liberals and conservatives look a lot like part of the human toolkit that helps us adapt to varying environmental conditions. Those who are less open to new experience, and therefore more oriented toward maintaining stable small group relationships, are particularly valuable during times of strife and scarcity. Think of how the Mormon pioneers survived in 19th century Utah, let alone how the Hebrews got along in the desert before taking over their Promised Land.
Conservatives, however, are less likely to innovate and therefore find ways to solve their problems. For this, the individualistic and more-open-to-new-experience liberals are more likely to be of use. And, in times of plenty, liberal individualism and creativity will produce a blossoming in the arts that will be both pleasing and disturbing, and a plethora of other behaviors. The liberal tendency toward chaos could, if unconstrained, lead to the disintegration of society. A conservative counterbalance in this regard is useful. So, as is so often the case, the dynamic tension between opposing forces facilitates long-term growth and creativity.
Within a large, pluralistic group, there will be conservatives of many stripes. Each of these forms a separate tribe within the larger group. And within these tribes, allegiances are felt primarily with regard to the small group, not with regard to the nation and other larger groups of which is a part.
Words like "God" and "patriotism" are used liberally within these groups. However, these words are so vague that they can be used for many purposes. Hence, radically different notions of God and patriotism are used to strengthen the walls around individual tribes, instead of applying to the large group as a whole. This is particularly ironic when it comes to patriotism. The patriotism, for example, of a literalist Southern Baptist in Texas has little in common with the patriotism of a gay couple in San Francisco. However, Southern Baptist patriotism has a profound effect in terms of strengthening the Southern Baptist community.
Vague concepts like patriotism and God are basically social mirrors into which we look. When we see there our most important values, highlighted for us by our group’s history, our group is thus strengthened. This is a classic self reinforcing feedback loop. And, as Goethe put it:
As man is
So is his God
And thus is god
Oft strangely odd.
Understanding the nature of the small tribe conservative orientation makes sense out of the paradox I outlined at the beginning of this note. That is, if conservatives are so community-oriented, why do they tend to consistently elect governments and vote against initiatives that would strengthen the communal fabric of their nations? Countries that tend to be more conservative, for example, tend to be less supportive of universal health care, have weaker employment retraining systems, have weaker welfare systems, provide less funding for public education, and tend to have more social unrest and distress than countries that tend toward more liberal political systems.
The answer to this conundrum is found within the conservative definition of community. The conservative orientation is toward the small tribe, not the large, pluralistic group that comprises a nation. Therefore, conservatives tend to maximize the influence of the small tribe. They do this by electing governments that promise not to interfere with individual rights, which means that the small group will be free to exercise maximum influence over its members. Think of Brigham Young in Utah's early days. His explicit objective was to establish a theocracy. Once Utah was part of the United States, that goal had to be modified. So, within the US system, the Mormon Church tried to maximize its influence. The larger the influence of federal, state and local governments, the smaller the influence of the Mormon Church. Hence, Mormon politics tend to be conservative.
This can get a bit ugly. For example, in places where there are universal health care and generous unemployment and job retraining funding, individual reliance on small social groups (such as religious institutions) is radically reduced. This weakens tribal influence.
Within Mormonism, for example, a 10% tithe is extracted from the membership. Part of the rationale for paying Mormon tithing is that in times of trouble, a strong Mormon social institution will be there to back you up. In the United States, where health insurance is often difficult to get and frequently coverage is denied, this is of particular importance. However, financial assistance from the Mormon Church in the case of medical emergency, loss of job, etc. is only available to fully participating members. Dependency on the religious tribe in this way is a powerful incentive to obey. This contributes significantly to the strength of the membrane around the social organism.
I would never accuse the Mormon institution, or individual Mormons, of voting against initiatives with regard to things like universal health care on the explicit basis I just outlined. The fact remains, however, that the tendency of social organisms like the Mormon Church is toward maximizing their influence, and this means minimizing government influence. As the regrettable consequences of this social dynamic become better understood, it will hopefully moderate.
The conservative tendency to weaken national communal strength is not the end of our irony. The individualistic liberals, whose tendencies are feared to lead us toward chaos, end up championing minority rights and hence strengthening national institutions. This is a result of the liberal orientation toward self-determination – a strong form of individualism -- combined with the democratic ideal that the rights of every individual should be protected. It is as simple as this -- liberals take individual rights more seriously and apply those rights to larger groups than do conservatives.
Therefore, liberals are the ones who tend to back universal health care, public education, workers rights, job retraining rights, etc. This creates a communal fabric that spans a nation, thus creating a powerful economic platform on which small groups of a conservative nature can prosper. And, the larger group orientation of liberals will likely be crucial as we move into an unprecedented period of international cooperation. The primary problems facing our species are now global. Environmental issues; terrorism; pandemics; overpopulation; global financial crises; etc. None of these can be solved on a small group basis. Precisely the same kind of principled one protect-the-minority orientation that leads to the establishment of universal healthcare within a nation, is required to make the individual sacrifices in Canada, for example, that will ultimately be necessary to slow the melting of the Antarctic ice fields.
But then, the ironic screw continues to turn. Those liberals are a difficult bunch to herd around. They will come up with the ideas, but in terms of coordinated action, they may well deliver too little, too late. On the other hand, once the leaders of important small groups choose to define global problems as problems for a particular small group, the communal orientation of these groups will instantly marshal potentially massive resources.
The bottom-line is this. Our liberal or conservative tendencies appear to have genetic roots, and this appears to be yet another part of mother nature's genius. The human species has been endowed with different capacities that will come to our collective aid in different ways as our environment changes. The dynamic tension between these orientations is useful in many ways. However, we tend to tribally cloister so as to hear as little of the irritating views from other tribes as possible. This is unwise. Organizations that foster dialogue across tribal divides are far more likely to create wisdom than organizations that follow traditional paths. And civility while in dialogue is crucial to learning.
It behooves us all to devote more energy to listening, and understanding points of view that differ from our own.
Wisdom is found in the strangest of places, for both liberals and conservatives.
| So, what if the non-Mormon academic community agree with these wordprint studies in more or less the same fashion they did the Mormon related DNA research? Here are a few of the strained arguments in support of the Mormon position that I expect to see trotted out before the Book of Mormon is eventually acknowledged to have been fictional, and Mormons begin to read it metaphorically, if at all. Consider in that regard how often you hear reference to the Book of Abraham in Mormon circles, and most of them don’t even know how flawed that document is.
Feel free to add the many I have no doubt missed. Those folks need all the help they can get.
• The wordprint analysis selects the most probable of authors from among those offered. Though the match is very high in some cases to Ridgon and/or Spaulding and it is unlikely that a more probable author could be found for some chapters, this is still possible. So, it is possible that if J. Smith’s authorial voice could be composed he would be found to be the more likely author. OJ got off a murder charge on this kind theory. Why shouldn’t it work for J. Smith’s authorship of the BofM?
• Once J. Smith’s voice has been composed from his most recently released personal writings, and that is found to be a poor match for the BofM text, it could be pointed out that he “translated” the BofM when he was nearly illiterate, and hence his wordprint as a relatively mature person who had learned an immense amount should not be expected to match the revelatory voice he used to dictate the book. So this disproof of Smith’s involvement is far from conclusive.
• The revelatory process God used in Smith’s case re. the BofM was less precise than previously believed. Smith may have gone into a trance like state, and channelled voices that may have been in his consciousness as a result of various influences. God would not care about a detail like this, and as pointed out below, may His reasons for allowing this to occur. This might come to be called the “Multiple Author Channelling Theory”, or “MACT”. I think I copyright that before anyone else uses it. I tried to make “Channelling Revelatory Authors Perspective” work (“CRAP”), but couldn’t get there.
• Rigdon’s voice may be similar to a typical preacher’s voice from Smith’s day, and there is evidence that Smith spent a lot of time as a young person listening to this type of preacher. So, it is not surprising that one or more of the voices Smith channelled sounded a lot like Rigdon. Smith may have been attracted to Rigdon and vice versa because of the natural resonance they had for each others voices and ways of thinking. God may have put this Rigdon-like voice in Smith’s head to create the attraction that eventually brought them together.
• The way wordprints that match various authors show up in the book in material attributed to one person, such as Mormon, could be explained by MACT, and Smith not having control over which showed up. The voice is not important. The truth of the concepts is important. The much maligned (by Mormon apologists) literature regarding automatic writing could be used to support MACT.
• The conceptual truths in the book should not be discounted because the voices used do not correspond to what we would expect from normal human interaction and writing. This was an inspired process, and hence subject to different rules.
• The stronger the evidence against the BofM, the greater a test of faith this is for God’s elect. Therefore, the more non-believers and apostates are convinced that the BofM is not true, the more important it is for believers to maintain their belief on faith. This is like Mother Teresa. He clung to her faith in what appears to be the almost complete absence of spiritual or other confirmation for decades. And she did not even have the truth we Mormons have (warning – don’t think about that example too carefully if you want to hang onto your Mormon faith).
• And finally (drum roll), with a tip of the hat to the young earth creationists, God caused Smith to use different voices in his translation to test the faith of believers.
Believe it or not, I could keep going. There is no end to this garbage. But I am out of time.
So, after increasingly bizarre arguments are trotted out for a while and most of the few faithful Mormons who look at the issue decide it is just too hard from them to figure out what is going on, the BofM will gradually fade out of use with Mormonism. Kind of like the Book of Abraham already has. Eventually, some obscure papers will be published by people at BYU about how the BofM is not reliable from an historical point of view, and nothing will be said about that by the Mormon leaders who in a round about way told them to write the articles. And a generation later, when the issue comes up again for some reason (maybe one of Mitt Romney’s kids runs for the US presidency), the BofM will be remembered and a prophet will mention on Larry King Live (with Larry still barely alive and running the show) that the Mormons “don’t really teach that any scripture is literally true. There are many kinds of truth, and each is as important in some ways as the others.”
And that will be the end of that.
| The recent psychological literature has noted a striking increase in depression rates at more or less the same time as the psychological community has turned its eye, and pen, toward what makes people happy. It seems, to an extent, that the more aware we become of our potential for happiness, the more depressed we are. This makes sense, since one of the key findings with regard to happiness is that it is a byproduct of other meaningful activities. In essence, happiness cannot be our main objective. Therefore, the more consciously aware we are of our desire to be happy and our pursuit of it, the less likely we are to find it. This is one of life's many paradoxes. There is, however, another way to look at this issue.
One of our greatest needs is for the perception of security, and therefore certainty. The literature with regard to cognitive biases and denial makes this crystal clear. During the course of the last couple of decades, but in particular during the course of the last five or so years, the Internet and other information technologies have become widely used, and have exposed humanity more than ever to vast amounts of information. At the same time, information continues to multiply exponentially. The more access we have different perspectives, the more aware we become of how little we know, and how often our beliefs are incorrect. Thus, our awareness of our fallibility, and insecurity, increases. This increases psychological stress. It makes sense that depression would increase as a result of this, if nothing else.
Scholars working with regard to intellectual and social history have noted that this kind of phenomena and regularly occurs. We almost always say that we want more freedom. However, the evidence strongly suggests that we do not. The more choice we have, the less satisfied we are in some ways. For example, we would rather choose between three or four high quality types of olive oil than a dozen. Choice beyond a certain degree creates stress. The happiest societies tend to be highly structured, and therefore secure. Countless other examples could be put forward.
Nonetheless, after our environment changes and provides us with greater choice, we adjust to this to an extent, and find ways to limit the choices that practically speaking we need to make, and hence become comfortable in our new environment. Thus, increasing choice tends to create the possibility that we may become better off, while causing stress. Over the course of time, we generally find ways to be better off, while limiting the choices that we need to make for practical purposes, and therefore reducing our stress. There is no reason to believe that this process will continue with regard to our current environment.
This brings me to the real purpose for writing this note. The fact that we are in an information rich environment with greater than ever access to information, while still having roughly the same intellectual capacity as our ancestors thousands of years ago, means that we tend to rely upon each other in new ways.
We no longer, for the most part, need each other for physical security. Most of us in the West, despite media reports to the contrary, enjoy more safety than ever. Violence within human groups has been on a downward trend since the beginning of recorded history. However, when it comes to knowing how to create new things, to entertain ourselves, to get along together, to love more effectively, to become better off in any way, we are awash in such a tide of information that each time we encounter another human being we have greater reason to believe than ever that we may learn something profoundly important, or simply fun. This reality should empower each of us with regard to our own personal sifting through the information available to us in experimentation with life, as well as in the interest we take in the perspective of each person with whom we come in contact either in person or through the Internet's vast asynchronous hallways.
There is something immensely exciting about this new reality. Participating in group activities has played an important part of humanity's development, and survival. We are small herd animals. Until recently, our prospects for survival and reproduction were largely determined by the success of our small group. Therefore, we find participation and coordinated group activities particularly satisfying. This is the root of ritual appeal, within religion or elsewhere. This also explains our attraction to spin classes, yoga classes, marching, the miracle of intricately coordinated teamwork in certain sports, choral singing, being part of a crowd as it roars at an athletic event, and a host of other activities.
Now, we are offered the opportunity to participate in new kinds of coordinated human activity. Look at Wikipedia for example. Had it been suggested 20 years ago that the common riffraff could produce an intellectual monument of this kind, the idea would've been laughed off. The various manifestations of the post-Mormon diaspora over the Internet are another small example in this regard. We now have the means to coordinate our activities with people in remote places, at different times, in order to achieve intellectual and social feats that until recently were unimaginable. This is a profoundly exciting, an important development, at the scale of human history. What a pleasure to participate in a small way.
 A number of fine books have been published during the past few years in this regard. These include Jon Haidt “The Happiness Hypothesis”, and Daniel Gilbert “Stumbling on Happiness”.
 See http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.... for a primer in this regard.
 See Steven Pinker at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinke... in this regard.
| Trevor Southey is one of the greatest living Mormon or post-Mormon artists. You can see his work at http://www.trevorsouthey.com/ . His "Dark Light" has come to have significant meaning for me. You can find a picture of this work at http://picasaweb.google.ca/bob.mccue4... it is an approximately 3' x 5' mixed-media piece. A bronze figure, about 3 feet in height, hangs from a wooden cross, embedded within the painting. Clear resin wedges appear to extend the trunk and arms of the cross from the top and sides of the work. Nails and thorns are embedded within the clear wedges.
Trevor is a South African origin, and converted during his youth to Mormonism. He eventually taught fine art at BYU, married, became the father of six children, and acknowledged his identity as a gay person. He was one of the individuals featured in the recent PBS broadcast with regard to Mormonism.
I had the opportunity to meet Trevor in person at last fall's Affirmation conference in Los Angeles. He is a remarkable individual -one of those from whom most people feel at a distance the emanation of human warmth. As an aside, I had the opportunity to spend quite a while chatting with Mike Quinn at the same conference. This is the second time I've had the opportunity to chat intimately with him. He and Trevor have a similar ability to project immense human warmth.
The following is a summary of some thoughts I had with regard to "Dark Light", and shared with Trevor. He was kind enough to respond, and so his ideas and feelings are found below as well.
First, here is what I had to say:
‘Some people may perceive this piece to be a barely modern take on crucifixion. I enjoy the fact that my many still religious family and friends would read it that way, and feel moved by it within their own belief system. But of course, death and resurrection are a near universal theme. Your piece represents beautifully the way in which most of us experience, at some point in life, the death of one aspect of ourselves, and the birth or a resurgence of another. Many of us pass through several iterations of this regenerative process.
Here are a few of the details that stood out to me. Why is the male in agony and the female so peaceful? The process of letting go is, terrifically, painful. The sense of new growth within is similarly enlivening and peaceful. The juxtaposition of these two images captures that aspect of the process to near perfection.
Why is the dove prostrate on the ground instead of flying, and why is it surrounded by what looks like blood? One type of "spirit" or overarching architecture, philosophical foundation, worldview, or what have you must die in order for another to take its place. This is what Schumpeter referred to as "creative destruction". It is part of biology, sociology, economics, as well as many of the physical sciences. A disordering precedes new ordering. Again, the dead or dying dove, presumably representing the Holy Ghost, captures that wonderfully.
Where is the darkness and where is the light? Notice the panel of light near the dying male figure. Notice the way in which geometric lines are found only on the male side of the image, and how that implies the passage of time. The male figure is time bound. The female, representing growth, is suspended in the eternal realm. She can come back for us as many times as necessary, to renew us as we passed through time. I like the imagery of the female being involved in her own world, and focused on that world, instead of looking wistfully or in any other way toward the male figure.”
And here is part of Trevor's response:
“One of the greatest values in any work of art that is significant is the variety of interpretation that it allows.
As I worked on the piece I focused on the paradoxical and excruciating joy that exists in the confinement of the beloved and familiar, one’s culture or religion. The context of any particular faith adds many levels of pain when one realizes the confinement is on the one hand nurturing and consuming in its embrace but it is on the other suffocating and perilous to the souls of those who become aware of the fact that they live within a lie. Of course that is a gross oversimplification since there are so many subtle shades of grey in that awareness. After all, it is not all “a lie” which is a sad position many adopt in the moment of feeling betrayed. And all this occurs within the strange aspect of the human creature to the things of the spirit...at least for most humans.
For me the female figure in the work lives within the world I lay out above. She is awakening. She becomes aware of her confinement. She is born again as she still remains an unwinding embryo within the geometric womb. She rises from her kneeling faithful familiarity, and touches the edges of her known spiritual world, inherited as was your case, assumed as in mine. She is on the cusp of loss, the safety of the womb and a broad frightening new reality of a world that exposes her confinement as such, but at the same time a world rich in potential growth. It is both exhilarating and terrifying, combining explosive new vision and great risk.
I was intrigued by your talk [at the Affirmation conference] when you spoke of the need of chaos. That is the last thing on earth the church would have its members experience. They choose the cocoon of safety and warn of the dangers of chaos with too much intellectual probing. This woman I see is on the brink of chaos. I liked your thought of her reaching down to the dove...the Holy Ghost perhaps, wounded? Dead? I see that possibility. This spirit is the victim of abuse of extremism and lies, used to create a false haven for the faithful. The moving of our souls by the Holy Spirit I read as an emotional response to stimuli. That could be a church meeting, a symphony, a painting, an emotional connection to another. But it must always be seen as a multiple experience including perhaps all of the above and always mysterious, certainty being precluded. The woman down in grief perhaps not yet knowing that spirit will yet be found again.
Also, abuse of the spirit now reaches to the crucified figure which could be Jesus floating away from the cross, and the abominations perpetrated in his name. At last free from distortion and unspeakable acts of the faithful, the pain floats away also in the spikes and thorns embedded in the resin at the ends of the cross. It could also suggest our suffering which I believe is the huge attachment that we have to the image, one so deliberately shunned by the Protestant tradition including Mormons.
The abstract nature of inner suffering which I believe to be the greatest, is implied by the double symbol of a three dimensional and colourless form of a bronze imposed over a painting. And above the red cross the light, always suggesting hope and transition, beams as an abstract form. But within this work I have the feeling absolute light or dark hardly exist.
The title comes from the notion of light that is shrouded in confusion or delusion or dogma. It is named light but generates dark. How? By making claims that have broken the souls of humans from time immemorial, by cruel domination and frequent horror, physical springs first to mind but the prison of false faith is universal. Yet the work is positive: in the rebirth of the woman, the releasing of the lie of Jesus or us from the cross, by the light form and gold leaf, the floating forms of torture and pain...the work is essentially optimistic and for me implies enlightenment.”
There is something about seeing a great piece of visual art, or a great performance, in person. That is the only way to capture what we can of its emotional resonance.
I am grateful we have people like Trevor Southey who pour their hearts and souls into work like “Dark Light”. They are our prophets. Oh that it were possible to get them a bit more “tithing" so that they would have greater liberty to do what they feel most inclined toward.
| Today's Globe and Mail has an interesting article with regard to the recent upsurge in church attendance. See http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servle... No news here really. Religious belief and behavior are to large extent a response to perceived danger. That is not to say that this is all religion is. It is a complex social phenomenon that performs many different roles in different lives, and does a lot of good as well as a lot of bad. Importantly, some religious organisms perform a far healthier role in the lives of their adherents than others. However, a common denominator and distinguishing feature of virtually all significant religious movements is the way in which they exploit basic human existential and other fears, and create a wide range of additional fears in order to enhance their palliative appeal.
The worst part of religion is a bit like a golf coach who makes his client so insecure that he can only play well with the coach’s help. Better yet, think of a massive weight loss clinic that prescribes inefficient exercise programs while surreptitiously slipping its patients sugar and fat, and keeping them impossibly busy and otherwise doing all it can to prevent them from comparing their weight-loss program to others that are easily available. The ultimate in this regard are the human batteries in a vat, as portrayed by “The Matrix”.
In this regard, fear and desire are opposite sides of the same coin. If you don't attend church and do the things your religious leaders say you must do (including giving your time and money to them), you face both the prospect of losing out on incredibly wonderful blessings in this life, and after death, as well as running the risk of terrible punishment, again, both during this life and after death. Religious groups are social organisms. They need food, which mostly consists of human energy. Money is a form of stored human energy.
I again note, to fend off the inevitable criticism I will receive from some of my religious but liberal friends, I am not critical of all religion in the terms just mentioned, just most of it. I am happy to debate the point if necessary. With few exceptions, the problem with religion in this regard is one of degree, not of kind.
Interestingly, the nexus between perceived risk and human behaviour can be generalized even further. There is a strong correlation between the perception of risk and superstitious behaviour in general. Michael Shermer nicely describes this at pages 294 and 295 of his excellent book, "Why People Believe Weird Things", which despite the casual nature of the title is an elegant summary of academic research.
Shermer first notes that religious believers tend to have, in general, a high "external locus of control". That is, they believe that they have less personal control over what happens to them, and instead are subject to external forces that are beyond their control. This leads to greater anxiety across-the-board. People with a high external locus of control tend to believe in things like ESP, witchcraft, spiritualism, reincarnation, precognition, and are in general more superstitious than those whose locus of control is more internal. Internal locus of control people are generally, "... more confident in their own judgment, skeptical of authority, and less compliant and conforming to external influences." As already noted, they are less superstitious in general, and this means less inclined toward religious belief.
If you want to find out whether your locus of control is external or internal, don’t ask yourself or look in the mirror. Go to someone who can assess you in this regard or at least try a survey like the one you can find at http://www.dushkin.com/connectext/psy... We are virtually incapable of self diagnosis (or treatment) when it comes to things like this. But I digress.
Shermer then went on to generalize this point even further. He summarized research conducted by the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who discovered that there was a correlation between how far certain South Seas Islanders had to go offshore to fish, and the degree to which they used superstitious rituals prior to embarking.
"In the calm seas of the lagoons, there were very few rituals. By the time they reach the dangerous waters of deep-sea fishing, the Trobianders were also deep into magic. Malinkowski concluded that magical thinking derived from environmental conditions, not inherent stupidities: ‘We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We did not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.’"
I pause here to again emphasize that it is the perception of risk, not real risk, that causes superstitious behaviour. Accordingly, institutions that depend upon religious behaviour to get what they need to survive will inculcate the perception of risk in order to keep the donations of time and money rolling in. This weakens their adherents in some ways. Other predators in the social environment take advantage. Here we find the explanation for Utah's world leading record in terms of financial fraud and multilevel marketing organizations. It is not that Utahans (and accordingly Mormons) are stupid. Rather, they have been systematically weakened by the religious belief system within or around which they were raised. Their locus of control tends to be more external than normal. They are accordingly more susceptible than usual to being tricked by apparently authoritative people. If they can be induced to feel "good" about a "business opportunity", they will tend to suspend disbelief much more quickly than most similarly educated people, often on the basis that “things happen for a reason” – a clear belief marker of high external locus of control people.
Shermer then extends the fishing analogy to baseball. He says,
"Think of the superstitions of baseball players. Hitting a baseball is exceedingly difficult, with the best succeeding barely more than three out of every 10 times at bat. And hitters are known for their extensive reliance on rituals and superstitions that they believe will bring them good luck. The same superstitious players, however, dropped the superstitions when they take the field, since most of them succeed in fielding the ball more than 90% of the time. Thus, as other variables go into shaping belief that are themselves orthogonal [RDM note - unrelated] to intelligence, the context of the person and the belief system are important."
So, back to religion and the economy. An uptick in religious belief and behaviour of the type described above is as predictable in our current circumstances as it is in cases where someone has become seriously ill or is going to war, both of which have been clearly demonstrated by scientific study. There is some truth in the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes, though this is an indication of a tendency, not an absolute rule.
In light of all of this, here is an investment tip. In these difficult economic times, relatively inexpensive products that play on fear and feel like a form of insurance will do well. Religion is just one of these. Another is, I suspect, lottery tickets. But the big winner, for those who have the stomach for it, is the self-help industry. It uses many of the same tools as religion, and we should expect to see an upsurge in that regard for the same reasons that cause people to go back to church as their stomach’s churn. And of course, as is the case with religion, there are better and worse self help gurus. The best provide sound advice and do not exercise the influence they could to take advantage of their adherents. The bad act just like the worst of religious leaders.
If you want to determine whether your self help guru or religious institution is “bad”, don’t trust your own judgement or ask your fellow believers. We can’t self assess here any more than we can with regard to our own personality type. Go find someone who has studied lots of religious groups and ask her to help you see the big picture and locate yourself in it.
This reminds me of a seminar I attended a little while ago. A bankruptcy and insolvency lawyer was presenting a case study, designed to help the rest of us understand the basics of insolvency law, and some of the practical difficulties we should expect to encounter as some of our clients face potentially business ending financial turmoil. He described a company that in June of 2008 had a market capitalization well into the billions of dollars, and filed for bankruptcy last December. A small group of senior managers saw their personal net worth decline by hundreds of millions of dollars in the course of several months. The insolvency lawyer noted that this company’s circumstances were significantly worsened by management’s inability to face the reality of their situation. He said this is a common problem. People generally speaking are slow, or unable, to recognize painful realities, he told us. He indicated that one of the professional advisor’s important roles is to bring objectivity, and sometimes painful reality, to bear on internal management. In addition to professional skill, one of the huge advantages a professional advisor has in this regard is a lack of the kind of financial and other ego related investments in the company. These tend to limit the manager's ability to perceive, whereas the professional advisor is not similarly handicapped.
The same principles apply when it comes to religious belief. The longer a person has lived within a particular religious community, the more social capital they have built up as a result of providing service to other people within the community, the more often they have expressed publicly their belief and commitment to a particular religious point of view, etc., the less likely they are to perceive shortcomings in the institution to which they belong and beliefs that form a good part of their life's foundation. Accordingly, anyone interested in reality in this regard needs to find objective help. The best source of objective helps is the academic community, which has studied a wide range of different kinds of religious and other belief systems, and is in a position to provide the most accurate comparative information available. Of course, the information available here is far from perfect. The first step along the road to recognizing religious reality is acceptance of the fact that imperfect information is the best we have. There is no perfectly reliable source of "truth". All we can hope to do is identify the people with the best track record when it comes to accurately describing how things work, and predicting behaviour in that regard. Again, the academic community is the clear winner in this regard.
| Brothers and Sisters, I want to bear you my testimony this morning...
I know the world is true. I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt. I have had so many experiences that have made this belief unshakable, and I want to tell you about one of them this morning.
My 14-year-old son and I went skiing a few days ago. It has been unusually warm in the Canadian Rockies for the past few weeks, and so very little snow has fallen in an already bad snow year. The previous weekend we had also skied, and the conditions were terrible. So, this this last time out our expectations were low.
We wonderfully surprised. It was sunny. There had been some fresh snow, and so the skiing conditions were pretty good and the environment was spectacular. There is something about getting up near the tops of the mountains, even on a chair lift surrounded by many other people, that makes us feel wonderful. What immense forces caused those mountains rise up? They inspires awe. Those mountains are true.
And my son is becoming a snowboarder. He can almost beat me down the hill, and is so proud of the skills he is developing. We had fun together. True fun, not just ordinary fun. A debt doesn't get that kind of opportunity very often with a teenage boy. Our moments together, enjoying a beautiful day, some jokes and some challenges, were true.
However, that was not the greatest part of the trip. We were with two young couples -- part post Mormon and part never Mormon. After a great day skiing, we stayed overnight at a cabin not far from the ski hill. We cooked dinner together, tried three new kinds of beer, and talked late into the night. I don't usually say grace over meals anymore, but occasionally it seems appropriate. This was one of those times. We held hands around the dinner table and I looked each person there in the eye as I told them how grateful I was for their friendship, and in particular, for their companionship that day. I expressed gratitude for the many wonderful aspects of life that we enjoy. The spirit was strong. We all felt it. That was another true moment.
And the beer. Talk about true beer. One was from Germany, and I can't remember what it was called. It was pretty good. But those Québecois (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Fin_d...) -- they make true beer. 9% alcohol. And they give their beer true names. The two we had were, ironically, “Don De Dieu” (Gift of God) and “La Fin du Monde” (The End of the World). I won't say that I felt the spirit after drinking it. That would be sacrilege. But it's pretty good stuff. We had a pretty good debate about whether it was appropriate to drink the Gift of God right before The End of the World, and whether it was metaphysically possible to do the reverse.
The spiritual highlight of the evening came later, as we were talking about the economy, the way education works, and a little bit about religion. Religion didn't dominate the conversation by any means, but it came up once in a while. This little group seem able to talk about anything. There were no taboo subjects. It was all about learning. Reality is what it is, and with few exceptions, the more we can find out about it the better off we will be.
This reminded me of so many other social situations in which I have found myself where certain subjects make people seize up. Those often have to do with their religious beliefs, but belief with regard to politics, sexual practices and anything else that acts as the foundation of a social group will do it. When I now occasionally find myself in situations like that, it reminds me of what life used to be like, and I feel sad for all those years I spent in fear. I also mourn for many people whom I love and respect who continue to live that way. These people, sadly, are bound by a delusion -- what has been rightly called a mind virus -- that makes them believe that they have the truth with regard to many things that are impossible to know. Whenever they run into information that threatens these beliefs, it has a paralyzing effect on them. This blinds them to the importance of more simple truths – like the truth of live moment or Québecois beer – and so makes it impossible for them truly live.
I am more grateful than anything else that I now know that most of what affects my life cannot be known with certainty. Oh, it is easy to identify a true mountain, a truly awe-inspiring day or moment, or a truly fine beer. Most other kinds of truth are much harder to discern, and once we admit that we allow certainty to bring us to life. As a result, true mountains, true moments and true beer become much more meaningful.
This made me remember a couple of things I came across years ago. The first is an interview with the great scientist John Maynard Smith (see http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?spe.... He talked about his youthful conversion from dogmatic religion to agnosticism (he doesn’t like to call himself an atheist because this indicates too much certainty on his part) and acceptance of the scientific point of view. He indicated that he felt a powerful kind of freedom once he did not have to believe that reality was anything other than what it gradually disclosed itself to be. I highly recommend listening to him. This is a true talk. Not that everything he says is true, of course. Its just that listening to him speak is a true experience.
The other person I found most helpful in this regard is Robert Ingersoll (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_G... and http://www.infidels.org/library/histo.... He was a contemporary of Brigham Young. Reading what he had to say on a variety of topics makes one wonder what it means to be a "true prophet". But in any event, I didn't want to talk about that. I simply wanted to share with you what Ingersoll said about the feelings he had when he stopped believing that reality had to be anything other than what it is. He said:
“When I became convinced that the universe is natural; that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world; not even in infinite space. I was free; free to think, to express my thoughts; free to live to my own ideal; free to use all my faculties, all my senses; free to spread imagination's wings; free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope; free to judge and determine for myself; free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the "inspired" books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past; free from popes and priests; free from all the "called" and "set apart"; free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies; free from the fear of eternal pain; free from the winged monsters of the night; free from devils, ghosts, and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought; no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings; no chains for my limbs; no lashes for my back; no fires for my flesh; no master's frown or threat; no following another's steps; no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.
And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain; for the freedom of labour and thought; to those who proudly mounted scaffold's stairs; to those whose flesh was scarred and torn; to those by fire consumed; to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.” (Robert. G. Ingersoll, "Why I Am Agnostic", 1896)
That is, pretty much, what I experienced as well. I don't think I should say anymore than that, but rather should leave you with Robert Ingersoll. I've already taken too much of your time on this beautiful Sabbath morning. We should be of experiencing truth instead of sitting here talking to each other.
So, I say these things in Reality's name, Amen.
| What Will Happen When You Tell Your Intimate Partner That You Are No Longer Going To Be Mormon? |
Friday, Feb 13, 2009, at 08:01 AM
Original Author(s): Bob Mccue
Topic: BOB MCCUE - SECTION 6 -Link To MC Article-
| ↑ |
| This question was put to me the other day over lunch by a close friend who I had not seen for a number of years. I hasten to add that he is not about to tell his wife this. They are both still Mormon. However, we had a great conversation about all kinds of things, and this question came up. I could tell he was moved by what we talked about in that regard, and so decided to record the essence of our conversation.
Here are the guts of the essay for those who like short as opposed to long reads.
I suggested to my friend that if he ever decided to leave Mormonism, that he try something like this. He could look his wife in the eye, tell her how much he loves her, and tell her that he chooses to be with her. He wants the kind of life they have together. He knows that he could have a short term hormonal rush if he had an affair or left her to start a relationship with another woman, and that he chooses not to do this because he wants the long-term intimacy that he has with his wife to continue to grow, and he does not want to be with any other woman. He has decided what he wants, and that is his wife. No one else will do because of who she is and their history together. He is not doing this because he is afraid of punishments that might come to him after death. He is not afraid of losing any rewards after death or during this life. He has studied the nature of relationships in general and his marriage in particular as carefully as he can, and he is absolutely committed to her and her alone.
Then, I suggested that he promise his wife that he would dedicate a significant amount of the additional time, energy and money that they will have outside of Mormonism to her. He can tell her that he wants to learn how to love her and enjoy her company more than ever before. This is not just making love. This is the whole deal – regular weekends together in interesting places; taking classes together (dancing classes if she insists); exploring a wonderful world together. He wants to both of them to choose to focus more energy on the things that will build their relationship, and he is more excited about this than anything else in his new world.
He can remind her that they are still young and energetic, but not infinitely so. Time is slipping by more quickly as each year passes. While they have their youth and energy, he wants to direct that toward her, and learn how to love her more completely. And he is doing that because that is what he has decided he values. Our behavior, including our choices, are driven by what we value.
I told my friend that he should expect his wife to be skeptical. He will need to endure a period of time where he proves the value of what he has promised by the way he treats her. Over time, however, by acting in a manner consistent with what he has told her, he can mount a very persuasive argument. I told him not to attempt to fight emotional battleships with an intellectual rowboat. She will probably not be convinced by the books he asks her to read. But there is a reasonable chance that she will be swayed by the experience of being part of a more positive, energetic and loving marriage than she has ever experienced.
For those who prefer a more meandering path, read on.
The concern re. marriage breakdown post-Mormonism is related to what I call the "chaos issue". That is, most people believe that if they leave Mormonism (or any other close-knit, conservative religious group), everything will fall apart. The marriage will fail; they might become alcoholics and lose their jobs; the kids will probably start having indiscriminate sex, and maybe eventually decide to go to law school; etc.
The origin of this perception is in our small herd biology. We evolved with an intimate connection to a small social group. Throughout most of human history, if we were pushed out of that group or marginalized within it, the probability of death would go way up. We therefore have an existential fear with regard to anything that will put us sideways with our most important social group. This is the case even though our social environment is now so safe that we can, with impunity, change social groups. Our biology evolves much more slowly than the social environment, and so we still have these existential fears, as well as many other dysfunctional instincts (google “cognitive bias” or see http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.... for more information in this regard). The best known of those is our instinct to eat as much sugar and fat as we can, because throughout most of human existence these were scarce substances and whenever we came across them we were well advised to consume as much as we could. In our current environment of abundance, this instinct causes many problems.
Of course, if you happen to have been raised within a close-knit, conservative social group such as Mormonism, the nagging instinct that leaving your herd is a bad thing will be supercharged. Groups of this kind go out of their way to make us feel fearful of anything outside the group. That is part of how they maintain their institutional strength. Large defection rates are obviously bad for groups. No one plans this defense mechanism. It just happens as a result of the “hive mind” that operates within human as well as many other living groups. It is safe to assume that virtually all of the people involved are well intentioned.
In any event, back to problems caused within an intimate relationship with one person decides to leave the tribe, and the other person is not ready to go. Since this was my case, and it was the case my friend and I talked about over lunch, I will speak in terms of the husband leaving and the wife staying.
The wife's fear is that without the structure of Mormonism and the belief in an eternal marriage, the marriage will fall apart, the husband may start to cheat, etc. And, she will often say that the husband is breaking promises. He promised to be faithful to Mormonism. He promised to take her to the celestial kingdom. He may have made other promises as well. The answer to this first issue requires a bit of background.
Marriage has been traditionally a three party contract. That is, the public nature of marriage and the way in which marriage covenant is typically made at least genuflects in the direction of society, and often involves an implicit contract with society to keep the family together, raise the kids, and contribute to society instead of becoming a burden on it. The more traditional the society, the stronger this tendency and the less important romantic inclinations are with regard to marriage. Think of Hindu marriage in that regard.
In the West, we have moved more toward an individualistic conception of the marriage contract, and have increased the importance of romantic love and personal attraction relative to marriage. This applies to choosing a mate, making the marriage covenant, and the terms on which the marriage covenant will be maintained, or broken, as times passes.
Mormonism is clearly in the traditional camp in this regard. The Mormon church is an explicit party to the marriage contract. Both parties promise obedience to the Mormon institution as part of the marriage covenant. Everyone understands this.
However, most Mormons do not appreciate the fact that the Mormon church makes important implicit representations in exchange for the obedience covenant. One of those is that the basic truth claims made by the Mormon institution are true, or at least justifiable. As a matter of contract law, once fundamental representations of this nature have been found to be false, the contract has no further force. And I should note that contract law, and other aspects of law, are generally speaking far below moral standards. If someone has breached the law, it is probable that they have breached moral standards long before they reached the relatively loose moralities (a kind of lowest moral common denominator) embodied by the law. Therefore, the Mormon church's fundamental breaches of its part of the marriage contract constitute a terrible moral violation (see http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs... for my thoughts in this regard). Both the husband and the wife have been violated in this regard. They are both justified in breaching the part of their marriage covenant that relates to the Mormon church. If one of them chooses not to do so, that does not affect the legal and moral rights of the other.
Think of, for example, a case where two friends, Bill and Joe, agreed to purchase a vacation property together. It is a wonderful piece of vacant, but developable, land in Arizona that they developer assures them is near a nice resort. Their families have vacationed together in the past, and they decided to make this a regular event. After lots of discussion and excitement about this, they found what looks like the ideal spot for them in Arizona.
Bill goes down to have a look at the land just before closing the purchase. He finds that it is located in the middle of the desert, with no access to water and no likelihood of access ever being provided. It is close to worthless. The nearest resort is miles away. Many fundamental representations regarding the property are demonstrably false.
Bill calls Joe in a panic, explains the problem, and tells Joe that he has spoken with a lawyer who advises that given the nature of the broken promises made regarding the property that they are not obliged to complete the sale. Bill says that he is going to back out, and try to get their deposit from the developer by suing, if it comes to that.
Joe is horrified. He has literally seen a vision and had various other spiritual experiences with regard to this property. He is sure that it is going to play a huge role in raising his kids the way he wants them to grow up. He will not believe that the developer lied to them, and says that even if they were lied to, he is absolutely certain that everything is going to work out fine. God sometimes works in mysterious ways.
The idea of suing the developer, who Joe has met and found to be an amazing, insightful, spiritual individual, makes Joe feel sick. After an increasingly difficult discussion in which Bill insists that he will back out of the purchase and Joe continues to try to explain how important this particular piece of property is to him, Joe finally accuses Bill of breaching the agreement between them. Joe says the Bill promised that he would buy THIS property, and that they would enjoy together. If Bill won't go ahead with that, their friendship is over.
Bill is stunned. How can Joe not see what is going on here? "God works in mysterious ways"!? The Joe he knows does not talk like this.
Trying to calm things down, Bill assures Joe that he still wants to buy a vacation property with him, and suggests that they go out looking again, and this time that they make sure that they investigate the properties that sound interesting to them more thoroughly before committing to purchase. He reminds Joe that when they made their agreement to purchase A (not THIS) vacation property, the main point was to get something that they and their families could enjoy together, not about any particular piece of dirt. This is about a relationship, he insisted, not land. Bill pleads with Joe to think carefully about this, and makes it clear that he is still fully committed to their friendship, and wants to go ahead with their agreement to purchase a place together.
Joe will have nothing of this. He must have the property he has fallen in love with. The ideas and feelings he has had about it have become more important than anything else.
The discussion takes a turn for the worse. Bill accuses Joe of breaking promises far more important than refusing to buy one property instead of another. Joe is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, says Bill. What about their friendship? That is where this vacation property thing started. How did a silly piece of Arizona desert come between them?
Joe can’t see this angle. Bill promised to purchase a piece of property that Joe has come to love, and now Bill is walking out on him; leaving him high and dry. And to make matters worse, Bill is now trying to blame him.
Their friendship is over.
How do you feel about Joe’s position?
So, the real problem is that we sometimes can't see things the same way (see http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs....). The example above with regard to land is perhaps strained, but serves to illustrate that point. We often are unable to see things the same way when it comes to religious beliefs as a result of the odd way in which our brains are wired. This goes mostly back to our small herd biology, as noted above. For example, I am sure that many marriages have been broken up over a difference of opinion with regard to whether the Earth is a few thousand years old, as some religious people still believe, or billions of years old. For most of us, that would seem to be a simple question. For most people outside of Mormonism, it is likewise fairly easy to determine whether Joseph Smith spoke face-to-face with God or not. The nature of our tribe and its beliefs make some things that are obvious to everyone else difficult for us to see.
So how does the husband get out from between the rock and a hard place where he finds himself? If he continues to hunker down and keeps the peace, it feels like his soul will rot. And he worries about his kids. They are being effectively conditioning by a powerful conditioning mechanism. He some ways he thinks he should act to “save” them from this. But, if he stands up and does what he feels he should, he may end up divorced with all of the nasty emotional, family and financial consequences that go with that. There is no easy answer in that regard, regrettably. However, the approach I outlined below may be of help to some people.
I apologize for another digression, but a bit more background is required.
Religion uses the stick and carrot related to life after death to ingrain certain kinds of behavior. If you believe in the afterlife posited by your religion, and all of the punishments and rewards that go with it, that gives your religious leaders great power over you. Again, we can recognize the silliness of this belief in other religions, but not with regard to our own. Become a martyr for the Muslim Faith, and you get 70 virgins. (Personally, having been married and had a large family for many years, I would want to find out exactly what my relationship to the 70 women was going to be like before I venture down that path.) Or, how about the way in which Catholics can pay money to their church and simply buy a loved one’s place in that condo in the sky?
Mormons think these ideas are ridiculous, and yet will donate large amounts of money and most of their spare time to the Mormon church in order for the benefits promised to those who make it into the Celestial Kingdom after death.
So, what can we know about life after death? Not much. Are we justified in making significant investments now with regard to promises anyone makes to us with regard to what will happen to us after death? Simply, no.
Once this idea sinks in, a lot of our decision-making changes. We become more focused on the present. That is not to say that we ignore the future entirely. Much of our success and enjoyment in life is related to our ability to defer gratification – to educate ourselves; to save; to work hard; etc. I have not changed much in that regard. However, I think as clearly as I can in terms of whether the effort or sacrifice I'm making in the present is worth the potential future reward. If not, I enjoy the present, and if the future reward toward which I am working finally appears, I enjoy that.
In general, I spend much more time and energy in the present than ever before. With things like a nice cappuccino, a glass of wine with dinner, etc. the decision is simple. These are healthy for my body, enjoyable in the moment, enhance social experience, and the only reason I ever avoided them is because of their potential to produce problems for me after death. No longer believing in the after death problems opens up a huge realm of additional experience during this life.
With regard to personal relationships in particular, the fear of chaos outside of Mormonism leads some people to believe that if they (or their spouse) leave Mormonism and abandon their belief with regard to eternal marriage, this will mean that their marriage will end. They think that the eternal carrot is a big part of what keeps their marriage on track. Once you get a little perspective in this regard, that is either indicative of the weak marriage or more probably, a simple misunderstanding of what makes your marriage worth having in any event.
So, I suggested to my friend that if he ever decided to leave Mormonism, that he try something like this. He could look his wife in the eye, tell her how much he loves her, and tell her that he chooses to be with her. He wants the kind of life they have together. He knows that he could have a short term hormonal rush if he had an affair or left her to start a relationship with another woman, and that he chooses not to do this because he wants the long-term intimacy that he has with his wife to continue to grow, and he does not want to be with any other woman. He has decided what he wants, and that is his wife. No one else will do because of who she is and their history together. He is not doing this because he is afraid of punishments that might come to him after death. He is not afraid of losing any rewards after death or during this life. He has studied the nature of relationships in general and his marriage in particular as carefully as he can, and he is absolutely committed to her and her alone.
Then, I suggested that he promise his wife that he would dedicate a significant amount of the additional time, energy and money that they will have outside of Mormonism to her. He can tell her that he wants to learn how to love her and enjoy her company more than ever before. This is not just making love. This is the whole deal – regular weekends together in interesting places; taking classes together (dancing classes if she insists); exploring a wonderful world together. He wants to both of them to choose to focus more energy on the things that will build their relationship, and he is more excited about this than anything else in his new world.
He can remind her that they are still young and energetic, but not infinitely so. Time is slipping by more quickly as each year passes. While they have their youth and energy, he wants to direct that toward her, and learn how to love her more completely. And he is doing that because that is what he has decided he values. Our behavior, including our choices, are driven by what we value.
I told my friend that he should expect his wife to be skeptical. He will need to endure a period of time where he proves the value of what he has promised by the way he treats her. Over time, however, by acting in a manner consistent with what he has told her, he can mount a very persuasive argument. I told him not to attempt to fight emotional battleships with an intellectual rowboat. She will probably not be convinced by the books he asks her to read. But there is a reasonable chance that she will be swayed by the experience of being part of a more positive, energetic and loving marriage than she has ever experienced.
This is not empty salesmanship. Once we have studied how the world and relationships work, and we have chosen to commit ourselves to one man or one woman because we value that kind of relationship more than any other kind of intimate experience, this commitment is probably more reliable than any commitment made with regard to Mormonism. It’s uncertainties are recognized and planned for. It is not prone to fall apart because its foundation suddenly disappears. It's benefits are far more demonstrable and tangible. And there are many contradictions within the Mormon culture, and some of those concerned marriage. The "Family First" is, for example, a ridiculous proposition for those who understand how Mormonism works. This only makes sense, for people in Mormon leadership positions in particular, if you count what Mormons think comes after death.
On the other hand, when we decide to invest our precious personal time and energy from moment to moment in only what makes sense given the possibilities now and that are reasonably foreseeable, everything changes. On that basis, we can establish values that are consistent with what we experience on a day-to-day basis, and what the most knowledgeable people on the planet with regard to how intimate relationships work tell us their studies of many other people indicate.
For example, there is nothing the matter with a man or a woman feeling attracted to other people. These attractions are a natural part of life. They can be transitory in the form of walking by an attractive person in a store or having an enjoyable chat with someone in an airport or at a party that you know you'll never see again. Or they can be more enduring, such as the associations we sometimes develop with people with whom we work. We would not be normal if we did not feel these things. They are a natural part of life, and to be enjoyed. And as long as we understand this, and choose to limit the kind of influence this sort of relationship has in our lives while being completely committed to our primary intimate relationship, truthful with our intimate companion, and keep the promises that we have made to him or her, every other kind of human energy we are privileged to share is a blessing.
The more we understand about the way intimate relationships work, the nature of the forces that we feel pulling us in one direction or another, and the need to keep our primary intimate relationship growing, the more likely we are to be happy and successful in our pursuit of intimacy, while dealing with the inevitable pain and disappointments that come along with that part of life.
Life is good.
In Reality’s name, Amen.
The statement "All religious beliefs should be respected!" or the question "To what extent, and how, should I respect religious beliefs other people have?" come up often enough in my correspondence that I have finally decided to record a relatively succinct response that I can send instead of dictating more or less the same thing over and over again.
Should All Religious Beliefs Be Respected?
I will start with the so-called new atheists or unholy triumvirate (Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion"; Sam Harris, "The End of Faith", and "Letter to a Christian Nation"; and Daniel Dennett "Breaking the Spell"), which became the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with the addition of the bombastic and entertaining Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great"). These gentlemen stridently lay out the case against extreme, dogmatic religious belief. While they make many valid points, their books are full of strawmen argument, false dichotomies and many of the other tropes that characterize the arguments made by the dogmatically religious. This has regrettably exposed their position to justified criticism. I prefer Daniel Dennett's approach considerably over the rest, but even his fails in many respects to take account of religion belief’s varied, nuanced reality.
That being said, I agree with one point each of these fellows makes – that religious belief has been granted an unjustified immunity from criticism. This is particularly the case within North America. We don't hesitate to disagree with people who express political, economic, social, scientific or other views that from our perspective seem flawed. We accept that, in general, ideas and the social attitudes are improved by scrutiny, criticism, and debate. Religious beliefs are not treated in this way to the same extent as others. The idea that being faithful to almost any religious tradition is a good thing has taken root in our society. This, the new atheists indicate, has much more downside than upside. I wholeheartedly agree.
At its root, the insistence that religious beliefs should be per se respected amounts to little more than a kid in grade school saying "Leave me alone!" to anyone (teachers included) who tries to get him to do something he does not want to do. That is, the insistence that all religious beliefs should be respected means that, practically speaking, MY religious beliefs will be respected. There are many problems with this position. The two that occur to me first are "They Don't Really Mean It", and "Social Pressure is Responsible for Constructive Evolution in Religious Groups”.
They Don’t Really Mean It
In virtually all cases, it is easy to demonstrate that people who take the position that all religious beliefs should be respected don't really mean it. What about religious beliefs that encourage people to strap bombs on themselves and kill themselves while committing mass murder? What about religious beliefs that require the sexual molestation of children, genital mutilation? Or religions that teach belief in demonstrably false versions of history (there was no Holocaust), reality (the Earth is about 6,000 years old) or social ordering principles (males or white skinned people should always be in charge)? What about religions that require adherents to cut themselves off from all non-believers, including family members, and follow without question the dictates of a religious leader?
When examples such as these are pointed out, the defender of all religious beliefs quickly begins to draw distinctions drawn between "good" or "legitimate" religious belief and others that should be discouraged if not disrespected. And after some discussion around issues of this kind, it becomes clear this area is far too complicated for blanket rules to be seriously proposed.
For example, if religions that require the complete submission to religious leaders are bad, at what point along the spectrum of required submission to religious authority do we draw the good versus bad line? Oddly enough, the defenders of religion invariably draw this line so that their particular brand of submission to authority is on the "good" side.
Social Pressure and Criticism is Responsible for Constructive Evolution in Religious Groups
Evolutionary principles apply to social groups. The expression of disapproval with regard to beliefs and social practices is one of the main drivers of this process. Since my inherited religious tradition was Mormonism, let's use that as a case study.
Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, secretly instituted polygamy. He had occasional, clandestine sexual intercourse with many women, including underage girls and women who were already married to, and continued to live with, other men. When confronted with regard to this practice, he insisted that it was a form of “spiritual wifery” required by God, and then expanded his activities in that regard and extended the right to participate to others within Mormonism's elite. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, institutionalized what became the Mormon practice of polygamy on the basis of what Joseph Smith did.
Mormon polygamy eventually became a political flashpoint, and under extreme political, economic and even military pressure from the United States Government, mainstream Mormonism eventually abandoned it. As a result, Mormonism quickly morphed from the American into an uber-American international force.
But for social opprobrium, and tremendous pressure of various kinds exerted by American society on Mormonism, this change would not have occurred and today's mainstream Mormonism would probably resemble the Old Order Amish or fundamentalist Mormonism. In fact, there would be only fundamentalist Mormonism, which tries to be what Mormonism was before it abandoned polygamy.
Something similar occurred with regard to Mormonism's position, up until 1978, that men of African ancestry could not hold the Mormon priesthood. Without the pressure brought to bear on Mormonism in various ways throughout the 1960s and 70s, it is difficult to imagine that Mormonism would have granted blacks the right to hold its priesthood.
Many other aspects of Mormonism's evolution can be explained in this fashion. Faithful Mormons tend to insist that each and every step along this path was inspired (if not mandated) by God. There is no way, of course, to disprove God's existence or his involvement with Mormonism in this way. However, if the God in which Mormons believe exists, the historical record of the way in which Mormonism's leaders fought tooth and nail to preserve polygamy, including the way in which they consistently misrepresented what they were doing and told outright lies under oath in U.S. Senate hearings with regard to Mormon polygamy, provides arguably the best example ever of how God works in mysterious ways.
Similar examples can be provided with regard to many other religious traditions. The difference between Muslim practices in North America v. the Middle East is a great example. Western social attitudes regarding tolerance and plurality of belief have penetrated Muslim belief here to such an extent that the concerns regarding Muslim violence that are justified in other parts of the world are unjustified with regard to the vast majority of North American Muslims.
Overall, the pattern is more or less as follows. In any given period of time, many small religious groups are created. The initial members tend to be high energy, exploration oriented individuals. Most of these groups disappear after a short time. The few that survive to become large, bureaucratic organizations, go through a predictable lifecycle. As they become larger, their members become less exploration oriented and more conformist and dogma bound. Early in their life cycle, religious organizations tend to be aggressive, missionary oriented institutions (“We are God’s only true followers! You must join us and obey our principles in order to please Him and earn the right to live in Heaven after death!”). They also tend to have high standards, and to exclude anyone who refuses to toe the line. The larger they become, the more difficult their standards are to maintain. And, the more contact they have with other religious belief systems and social perspectives, the more quickly they evolve toward the dominantsocial forces within their host society. This explains the difference between North American and North African Muslims.
Over long periods of time, religious beliefs and practices may change radically under the same name. Again, Mormonism is a great example of this because its history is so short and well documented. Mormonism today has little in common with Mormonism during its first couple of decades, or Mormonism during its Utah period until it abandoned polygamy. You can perform the same sort of analysis with the Jewish faith, Catholicism, the older Protestant denominations, and different strands of Buddhism, Hinduism or the Muslim faith.
In summary, overt and implicit forms of criticism with regard to religious beliefs and practices perform a crucial, positive role with regard to the evolution of religious groups. That being the case, we should not truncate that practice. Rather, we should try to understand more about how it works and how it can be better used to create the kind of society in which we wish to live.
Is It Necessarily Disrespectful to Question Someone Else's Religious Beliefs?
In short, no. What I have tried to do, with varying degrees of success, is to make a distinction between individual human beings or groups of human beings, and their beliefs and practices. I can respect, like and even love individuals while criticizing the beliefs and practises of the group to which they belong.
However, both social theory and my personal experience indicates that it is extremely difficult to maintain intimate or even friendly relationships over an extended period of time where a significant percentage of the communication involved is critical or negative. John Gottman’s research elegantly establishes the fact that unless we maintain at least a five positive to one negative communications ratio in our intimate relationships, they are almost certain to end. A similar principle appears to apply in all significant human relationships.
Accordingly, the rule of thumb in marriages and families tends to be to avoid all discussion with regard to contentious issues. This applies to religion, politics and other similar concepts which are fundamental to the operation of social groups, and hence important. Similar dynamics are responsible for the "no religion or politics" conversation rule that applies at most parties and family gatherings.
If one feels impelled to raise a potentially contentious issue, it is wise to remember the 5 to 1 rule. As long as at least five positive communications have been given, this may provide the opportunity to raise one potentially critical point without endangering the relationship. However, even on this basis, it is risky within our important relationships to venture into the potentially explosive domain of religious belief. One negative in that regard may be so painful for our loved ones to deal with that much more than five positives as will be required to create the relationship strength necessary to deal with it.
Outside of our most important relationships, however, a completely different set of rules applies. It is my experience that as long as one is polite and respectful, it is possible to discuss the empirical foundations of religious belief (Are the Book of Mormon and the Bible accurate historical records?; Was Joseph Smith a trustworthy person?; What is the approximate age of the Earth?; Is a homosexual orientation a matter of choice, or biology?) and the practical implications of living by certain principles (How do social groups that exclude women from positions of real authority tend to function and how do they affect young men and women raised within them?; How are gay people affected by being raised within religions groups that regard homosexuality as deviant behaviour?; What are the practical implications of encouraging large families, or discouraging the use of birth control?).
We all tend to be inconsistent in the way in which we apply principles. For example, religious conservatives consistently defend their own positions using rules that would justify positions taken by countless other groups with whom they vehemently disagree. The most significant of these is the idea that certain beliefs do not need to be supported empirically, and cannot realistically be questioned by empirical data.
The empirical justification of belief is the only way to separate reliable from unreliable beliefs. We tend to apply this rule automatically to other groups. We do not accept the miracles that are at the foundation of their belief systems because there is no evidence to support the assertion that these events probably occurred. Consider, for example, the Muslim belief in miracles related to the Prophet Mohamed and the way in which the Koran came into being. And, if one of their beliefs is inconsistent with well-established empirical data (such as the Young Earth Creationist belief with regard to the age of the Earth or the Alien Abductionist belief in extraterrestrial lifeforms), the unjustified nature of the belief in question tends to be obvious to us and we refuse to take it seriously. At the same time, we are not troubled by the absence of evidence in support of our foundational miracles (such as the Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and if you were Mormon, the apparition of various divinities and angelic personages to Joseph Smith), or the mountains of data that disconfirms certain of our basic beliefs (such as, if you were Mormon, the historical nature of the Book of Mormon or the biological nature of sexual orientation).
The most important rule with regard to belief formation is that the strength of our beliefs should correspond to their empirically justifiable probability. Are human beings a product of biological evolution? There is a massive amount of evidence indicating that we are. Did any particular form of God cause this? There is no reliable evidence to support this proposition, and also no way to definitively disprove it. Therefore, people who wish to hold this belief on a justified basis must acknowledge its extreme improbability on the basis of all evidence available to us. The evidence in favour of God, as understood within the Christian tradition, being responsible for all biological evolution is precisely as strong or as weak as the evidence in favour of Zeus, Brahman, or the Pink Unicorn Hiding Behind the Moon in that regard. And, there is much evidence to suggest that no one and nothing need to be responsible for this. Nature is to an extent self-organizing.
If a religious believer abandons the “belief strength must correspond to empirically justified probabilities” principle herself, she cannot justify applying it to other people’s beliefs. This means that each is as good, or bad, as the rest. I don’t know anyone who is comfortable with this position.
On the other hand, many adherents of the atheist or agnostic position do not understand the scientific or empirical basis for beliefs well enough to be fair when it comes to describing probabilities related to various religious positions. For example, the proposition that it is impossible that a god of any description exists is empirically untenable. Many thoughtful, religious people will (at least after being pressed a bit) describe God as the mysterious, creative force that operates at the base of all reality, about which we can say little more than that with any degree of certainty. This position, and many others similar to it, are defensible from an empirical or scientific perspective.
The process by which many religious believers have moved from more dogmatic positions regarding the nature of God to what I just described is a great example of how science has gradually winnowed demonstrably false belief out of religion, starting with Galileo and how the solar system functions. The Internet is accelerating this process, and producing a lot of stress within religious groups as a result of the rate at which belief and behaviour change is occurring.
Many of the stridently atheist or agnostic seem blissfully unaware of the metaphoric possibilities within religious traditions, and the extent to which many people who may appear to be (and even present themselves as) dogmatic believers in fact base most of their faith on metaphor. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have, in particular, being criticized for the way in which their books come across in this regard. Dawkins, at least, has moderated his position in interviews given following the publication of his book. This has been lost on many of the less well informed who read his book, had their prejudices about religious believers confirmed as a result, and have not kept up with the ensuing discussion.
Christopher Hitchens, regrettably, for all his intellectual firepower comes across as more of an entertainer, debater and gadfly than a serious student of social or any other reality. This makes him hard to take seriously. Dan Dennett, as I indicated above, is my favourite of this bunch. In particular, he argues for broad changes to our educational system designed to create understanding in coming generations of how different religious groups work. This, he suggests, may be an important long-term antidote for the tension currently experienced along the borders of many dogmatically religious groups. I agree completely.
Why Discuss Sensitive Issues With the Other Side?
Not only is it possible to have discussions of religious differences across tribal boundaries, but this kind of discussion is crucially important. First, as already indicated above, this is a powerful driver of constructive social evolution. And at the individual level, it is clear that we don't tend to learn as much when we exchange information with people whose views we share, as when we exchange information with people who are well-informed, polite, and committed to positions that differ significantly from our own.
The Internet has opened up a vast world of opportunity with regard to discussions of this kind. It is not, however, this point easy to find polite, well-informed discussants. One of the regrettable consequences of remote (let alone anonymous) communication is its tendency to reduce civility. However, as the information and communication opportunities made accessible by the Internet continue to expand exponentially, the fraction that qualifies as well-informed and civil is also expanding. I have found, for example, through the auspices of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (see www.iras.org) one of many groups within which civil and highly informed conversation with regard to potentially explosive issues has occurred over a long period of time. I expect more of this to become available as time passes.
One of the most important points regarding the possibility of communicating with people whose basic views differ from our own is that although we tend to perceive ourselves as teachers, we in fact have much more to learn than teach. This is one of those basic human ironies. Our need for security inclines us – almost always, everywhere, and everyone – to believe that our understanding of reality is much more accurate than it is. Since our biological constitution makes it difficult to grasp this and live by it, we should at least commit ourselves to pretend to be students more trying to learn than teachers intent to teach. Again, ironically, the better we become at this deceptive practice the more likely it is that we will learn, while occasionally having the chance to teach.
As Jon Haidt has pointed out (see http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html), our tendency to exchange information exclusively within our tribes dramatically limits the rate at which constructive social evolution can occur, as well as the rate at which we personally learn. He also points out that the tendency of religious and political conservatives toward community and stability is a probably an important counterbalance, at the species level, to the tendency of the religious and political liberals toward individualism, energy and creativity.
The human species can be thought of as one organism within our ecosystem. At different times and places (such as scarce resource environments of the kind that produced both the Old and New Testaments), stability and communal effort will be important to human survival. In other more abundant times, individualism and creativity will be far more important. These largely opposing forces probably evolved within our species to allow it to adapt over the long term to different social and ecological niches. We should not expect (or hope) that either of these tendencies will be eradicated. Rather, we should seek to better understand the most basic underpinnings of the communal and individualistic forces within humanity, and encourage them to dance in a more peaceful, productive fashion as they do the job they evolved to do.
To return to the opening question, it is crucially important that we do not simply hold our tongues each time we run into what appears to us to be an unjustified religious belief. As we engage in polite, constructive dialogue with regard to these socially and personally important issues, we should expect to see our own positions change as well as to occasionally exert a positive influence on those with whom we communicate. And finally, the more regularly we venture into what seems like dangerous territory in this regard, and keep our emotions under control as we attempt to understand other points of view, the faster we will individually learn and the greater will be our contribution to social progress as a whole.
Helen Fisher’s latest book, "Why Him? Why Her?" is yet another excellent, informative read. I bought it for my late adolescent – twenty-something children, but have thoroughly enjoyed reading it myself.
This note's purpose is to briefly describe one issue related to Mormon mate choice that jumped out at me as I read this book. That is, certain personality types tend to mate best with other particular personality types, and strong social influences such as Mormonism tend to cause individuals to falsely identify their own personality type, and therefore to make ill fitting mate choices. This has helped me to understand a number of things about Mormon coupling that have puzzled me.
Who Is Helen Fisher?
Before getting into that, let me indicate that I highly recommend Helen Fisher's work in general (see http://psychjourney_blogs.typepad.com... and http://www.chemistry.com/relationship... for a smattering of her recent ideas). She is one of the world's leading anthropologists of human mating behaviour. This book in particular, is a powerful tool not only for people who are trying to understand mating behaviour, but as an exercise in general self understanding. Fisher breaks down personality type in a way that is for me new and highly informative. I will come back to that briefly after describing the issue that brought me to the computer this morning.
As an aside, I understand that Fisher's work in this area was inspired by consulting she was asked to do for the match.com people, which led to the creation of the chemistry.com dating service. She designed the personality profile test for that website on the basis of the research summarized in this book.
Fisher’s Personality Types
I need to provide a little background with regard to Fisher's theory before returning to the human engineering issue I described above.
Fisher's research indicates that the personality types identified by the Myers-Briggs and other commonly used personality profile tests are probably a function of our dominant neurotransmitters. For example, the Explorer type is dominated by dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Explorers tend to be highly open new experience, adventuresome and creative. They need lots of stimulation to avoid boredom, toward which they have a powerful aversion. They are the personality types most likely to leave their inherited religious group or cultural tradition. They also tend to mate with each other, because other types of mates do not provide enough excitement. They tend to be more sexually adventuresome, and have more mates than the other personality types. They look for a playmate -- someone to adventure with through life.
Builders, on the other hand, are dominated by serotonin, our hormonal anchor. They are tradition upholding, rule keeping, community and family oriented. They have the lowest sex drive of all the personality types, have fewer mates and the highest prospects of long-term, stable monogamous relationships. They are the pillars of most social groups, and of all the personality types, are the most likely to be actively participating members of organized religious groups. They seek stable, predictable companionship. As a result, they tend to mate with each other.
Directors are characterized by a high testosterone levels. They tend to be hard-driving, intellectual, focused individuals who are sometimes so good with detail that they have a hard time seeing the big picture. Intellectual stimulation and achievement are important to them. They look for a mind mate, and often find their best match in the Negotiator personality type.
This brings us to the Negotiators. Their dominant neurotransmitter is estrogen, with a significant dose of oxytocin as well. These hormones perform important bonding and comforting functions. Negotiators tend to be big picture thinkers, peacemakers, highly flexible and intuitive and therefore capable of navigating more social and interpersonal complexity than usual. They tend toward high degrees of introspection and emotional intimacy. They are stimulated by Directors intellectual firepower and purpose, and have the skills required to calm or ride out the storms Directors tend to tow around with them. Negotiators look for soulmates, and often find them in other Negotiators, and Directors.
Fisher does not mention John Gottman's research (see http://www.gottman.com/marriage/self_...), but what's she suggests is consistent with it. For example, Gottman points out the importance of at least a five positive to one negative communications ratio in order to make a long-term intimate relationship prosper. Amazingly, on the basis of primarily this measurement and half an hour of video, Gottman has a 95% batting average when it comes to predicting which couples will remain married, and which will divorce.
When Fisher's personality type analysis and her observations with regard to how they work for mating purposes are considered in this regard, they make additional sense. Explorers will find much in each other to admire, as will Builders. However, put a Builder and an Explorer together, and you should expect a strong tendency to criticism that will make the five positive to one negative communications ratio difficult to maintain. On the other hand, there is much about your typical Negotiator that Directors tend to admire, and vice versa. And, just about all the personality types will find the easy-going, flexible, graceful Negotiators to be pleasant companions. These matches maximize the probability of the strong tendency toward positive communication that Gottman has conclusively demonstrated is almost always required for successful intimate relationship.
Fisher points out that none of us are a single personality type. Rather, her personality profile test is designed to indicate the degree to which a person is influenced by each of the personality types, and their neurotransmitters, described above. Some people are equally balanced along the entire continuum. Most, however, have a dominant and a strong secondary personality type. Fisher nicely describes the way in which these various first and second combinations relate to each other. She then reviews a wide variety of additional factors that influence mating choice. She makes it clear, of course, that all she can point out are tendencies or general rules. Life is full of exceptions, and human creativity often finds ways to turn weaknesses into strengths. However, if given the opportunity it makes sense to take high probability instead of low probability opportunities. Her research is helpful in this regard.
All in all, this is a great book.
Socially Engineered Mating Mismatches
I will now return to the issue described above, which I should note is not a Mormon issue, but rather an issue related to strong social influences.
Other researchers have noted the way in which strong social groups can influence personality type. See, for example, http://www.somis.org/TDD-02.html, which describes a study conducted with regard to the Church of Christ and its discipling movement in that regard. As people became more embedded in that social group, their scores on the Myers-Briggs test moved toward characteristics that were important to the group.
In any event, I doubt that we need empirical support for the proposition that within social groups such as Mormonism that emphasize conservatism, the sanctity of authority, and rule keeping that the Builder personality type would be encouraged. Each of us has at least a small Builder component. We should accordingly expect that within a social group such as Mormonism, any tendencies that we have in this regard will be amplified. In some cases, those tendencies could be called out of thin air by way of our mimetic nature. That is, we tend to imitate the behaviour we see around us, and for that reason sometimes squeeze ourselves into boxes that pinch.
Fisher indicated that one way to identify a misfit between environment and personality type is how tiring certain activities or environments feel to us. For example, a Builder will often be more than capable of keeping up with an Explorer, but will feel exhausted by the effort, whereas if the Builder were permitted to gravitate toward his preferred activities, he would spend much more time feeling content or energized instead of exhausted. Exactly the same would be true of the Explorer who forced herself to live in a Builder world.
This explains an important part of my experience upon leaving Mormonism. I had the sense of a massive burden being lifted. The Builder environment was stifling me to the point of nearly killing an important aspect of my self. Out from under its influence, I was able to explore a much broader segment of the world and was amazed at how good some parts of it felt. I was able, for the first time as an adult, to get to know my own personality type. The research with regard to the Church of Christ referenced above, and other similar research, indicates that we should expect it to take a significant period of time for our natural personality type to emerge after we distance ourselves from the strong social influence that has moulded our character. In fact, some of its influence will be permanent as a result of the way in which we have neurologically grown around it. The older we are when our social environment changes, the more true this last statement will be. This is not surprising, and is consistent with how I perceive my own experience.
In highly traditional societies, such as the Hindu, the primary purpose of marriage is the formation of stable families, which form the basis of stable communities. Doing what is required to make a marriage function is a social and moral duty, not part of a self-fulfillment process. As a result, personal happiness is not an important part of the marital relationship. Conservative communities such as Mormonism tend toward that end of the scale.
However, try as they might to be "in but not of the world", Mormons are strongly influenced by Western social trends, including particularly the trend toward seeking individual fulfillment. Even their theology is schizophrenic in this regard. For example, one of Mormonism’s central tenets is "men are that they might have joy". It is therefore not surprising that Mormons have high expectations with regard to personal fulfillment in general, and with regard to this aspect of marriage and family life. The fact that they choose their "eternal companions" in the manner described above sets them up for disappointment. And divorce is strongly discouraged within the Mormon community.
On the basis of what I just indicated, I hypothesize that within Mormonism, we should find many more mismatched, uncomfortable pairings that stick together than would generally be the case in Western society. When you combine that fact with Mormons generally high expectations with regard to personal fulfillment you have a recipe for depression - wonderful, well-intentioned, committed people who are married, and consistently either chew each other up or deaden each other, decade after decade. Not a pretty picture.
This reminds me that Utah was recently anointed the happiest state in the United States (see http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090311/a...). This was the result of what a scientist friend of mine told me was a superficial survey in which people were basically asked to indicate how happy they believed they were. Accordingly, all this study indicates is that people in Utah are more likely than most to say that they are really happy. Remember, "Men are that they might have joy", and if you don't have joy, something must be the matter with you. However, on the basis of another much more comprehensive survey conducted by the Mental Health Association (see state by state data, table A3, page 37 at http://www.nmha.org/files/Ranking_Ame...), it appears that living in Utah has a much higher than average (and perhaps US leading) correlation with depression. It is also well known that Utah leads (or nearly) the United States in a number of other unflattering categories, such as antidepressant consumption, white-collar fraud (that is, Utahns are taken advantage of far more than most other Americans - the inference is that they are rendered naïve, and manipulable by their religious beliefs so as to be more obedient to their religious leaders, and then this is taken advantage of by other wolves), tax evasion, multilevel marketing participation (more being taken advantage of), and various forms of domestic and sexual violence. The picture that comes into focus is that of a social group many members of which are having trouble coping. The root causes are probably a tendency toward magical thinking that causes wide variety of poor decisions, and in particular form a choice.
So there you have it. Yet another problem with which Mormonism saddles its well intended, hard-working, community-oriented, and generally speaking fine people. I don't have a solution that seems workable enough to be worth discussing. Nonetheless, understanding is better than not understanding. This is at least a step in the right direction.
More Understanding Causes More Compassion and Better Choices
Let me try to conclude on an upbeat note. One of the most encouraging aspects of research such as that provided by Helen Fisher is the compassion with which it encourages us to look at ourselves as well as others. Builders, for example, are for the most part wonderful people. They are crucial to the long-term prospects of our species. They also have certain predictable traits that are often negative, one of which is an affinity for organized religion and other highly structured social environments, and the regrettably dogmatic attitudes that characterize many of these groups. Lamenting this while trying to force changes is the equivalent of banging one's head against the wall. In any event, we could conduct the same sort of analysis with regard to each of the personality types Fisher describes. Each of the dominant personality traits comes with upside and downside.
The upshot of this research is that much of who we are is not determined by our choice, but rather our biology, and that the prospect for material change in that regard will in many cases be remote. Once we accept this point of view, we tend to be humbler with regard to our strengths, and less inclined to beat ourselves up with regard to our weaknesses. And, we tend (to a lesser extent) to extend the same charitable hand toward others.
Perhaps most importantly, we also come to understand the importance of a few of the choices we are able to make. One of those is who will be our long-term intimate companions, and the type of environment in which we will stand most of our time, whether at work, with family or socializing.
A large part of the trick to living the good life is learning how to spend as much time as possible in environments that allow us to use our strengths, while finding ways to protect ourselves and others against our weaknesses.
Choices with regard to where, with whom and how we live make the most significant difference with regard to the resonance, or dissonance, that will characterize our life experience. In the end, this will largely determine who we are and what we pass on to those we love the most.
| Some time ago, I wrote my usual long, verbose, redundant, meandering, biased, ad hominem, misleading analysis of how Mormon and other apologetic groups work. It was, of course, described this way by a Mormon apologist. You can find it at http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.....
For reasons unclear to me, I woke up this morning with a few things to add to this analysis. In particular, I felt the need to atone for the sin of describing Fanny Deterson (I am changing names for the hell of it) and his ilk as "fog machines" who kick up dust and otherwise create intellectual and information barriers around Mormonism that make it harder for people to find their way out of the maze. By using only one metaphor, I probably gave the false impression that these folks have only one function. I should have also referred to them as puss. Let me explain.
We humans are a strange mix of the conscious and the unconscious. Our behaviors are motivated by unconscious factors to a far greater extent than we generally appreciate. In particular, our social groups function in ways highly analogous to biological organisms. This can perhaps best be seen in the behavior of highly social insects, such as ants and bees. Their hives display a collective intelligence that emerges from the interaction of very simple parts, and that cannot be explained by the properties of any of those parts. It is the way in which they are organized, and interact, that creates the intelligence. See http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/deborah_gordon_digs_ants.html for example.
Similar phenomena are found within human groups. Perhaps the best-known example is Adam Smith's "invisible hand", that on the basis of selfish individual action allocates resources with amazing efficiency in most cases (present financial crisis excepted) within human society.
The so-called invisible hand is a great example for my purposes because it indicates the way in which conscious objectives (to get the best deal for me) at the individual level have nothing to do with the very clear function of the collective behavior (to move resources around more or less efficiently within society).
We see something similar with regard to Mormon and other apologetics. Think of the Mormon institution and its members as an organism. It needs energy, in the form of human resources such as time, money, intellectual talent, etc. It gets this in a variety of ways. And, importantly, it needs to defend what it has because there are other organisms out there that would love to take its resources, just as over its relatively short history it has prospered by taking resources from other religious organisms.
The allocation of human resources between various religious and other organisms is determined by how individual human beings choose to spend their time, and contribute their talent, money and other resources to one institution instead of another. A lot of this is determined by instinct, and so religious organisms are set up to take advantage of our cognitive biases (see http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.denial.pdf starting at page 51). For this reason, they make heavy use of prominent authority figures, get people to publicly commit to the institution, get people to publicly express their beliefs, obtain small commitments first and gradually increase the severity of commitment, expend enormous resources to create strong teenage peer groups, monopolize time so as to limit interaction with competing groups, encourage the flow of faith promoting information, and discourage the flow of faith disconfirming information, etc.
When an organism is attacked, it defends itself. We all understand what that looks like in terms of an individual animal fighting another. However, that image does not convey the difference between the conscious and the unconscious. So, let's use a biological metaphor instead.
When irritants of certain kinds penetrate the human body, white blood cells are marshalled, surround the irritant and attempt to kill and/or expel it from the body. In severe cases, this leads to the formation of puss, which can burst through the skin taking the irritant with it.
In the essay linked above, I indicate that the apologetic function is largely to kick up so much dust around the perimeter of religious organisms that it will be difficult for those on the inside to find their way out. There is no question that this is an accurate description of what a Mormon apologist does. However, the white blood cell analogy is informative in a different way. As irritating information penetrates the Mormon body, apologists swarm around in a pussy (be careful with pronunciation) sort of way, and attempt to force it out of the body, or least dilute and otherwise weaken the information so that it has a smaller impact inside the body. This includes, of course, swarming the source of the information to the extent it also enters the body. Have a look, for example, at what happens when people like Tal Bachman show up on one of the Mormon apologist bulletin boards. It is the equivalent of tossing a piece of raw meat into a piranha tank.
The swarming, pussy behavior I just described is a classic example of individual behaviors that are performed for conscious objectives that have nothing to do with those behaviors macro effect. Of course, apologists tend to see themselves as defenders of the faith. However, this is always characterized as the defence of abstract properties, such as truth. The fact of the matter is that when you move from religious organism to religious organism, you see precisely the same behavior. Truth has nothing to do with it. If the foundational principles of the organization are that the Holocaust did not exist or that the Earth is 6000 years old, that makes no difference whatsoever to the nature of the apologetic behavior. Just as white blood cells to the same thing from human body the human body, apologists do the same thing from religious organism to religious organism. They defend.
The analogy between Mormon apologists and puss is entertaining, but more importantly it draws attention to the unconscious driver of this behavior. From my perspective at least, this makes understanding and empathizing with these individuals easier. This might be best illustrated by reference to non-Mormon apologist, such as those who defend a 6000 year age for the Earth. The tendency is to dismiss these people as ignorant, mentally unbalanced, or simply evil. That does not do justice to the power of the human subconscious. In fact, when we recognize that good hearted, intelligent, well-educated, highly moral people can easily be found defending the young Earth hypothesis, this should help us to recognize our own propensity to be driven by subconscious factors relative to our own psychological weak spots to maintain certifiably crazy beliefs. We each need to be much more skeptical of our own ability to separate truth from falsehood, and be prepared to rely more upon the most well-informed, reliable people wecan find with regard to the important aspects of life. The most reliable group, by far, in this regard is the scientific mainstream.
So, I again apologize for referring to Fanny and his buddies as fog machines. I should have called them pussy fog machines.
| I don't know why, but I'm on a bit of a posting jag these past few days.
I was driving in the car this morning with my two teenage sons, aged 18 and 14, and for some reason the Skull and Bones Society came up in our conversation. One of the boys described how part of the initiation rite in that society is the disclosure of the kind of deep, dark secret that could be used by other Society members to hurt you if you ever broke their code or did other members dirt in some way. People who study initiation rites have shown that if you endure pain in order to get into an organization, the membership means more to you and you will be more dedicated to the organization. Hence, most long-lived organizations require a significant entrance price to be paid.
I explained to the boys that having to disclose some of your worst moments in public fits into that category, as do the crazy things otherwise sober, respectable Mormons do during their temple ceremonies. The boys were, respectively, 12 and eight years old when I left Mormonism, and so they were never really socialized as Mormons. They consistently have trouble imagining how the wonderful Mormons they know and love believe and do the things they sometimes hear about with regard to Mormonism. Our discussion of the temple ceremony this morning was one of those experiences from their point of view.
I went through the temple ceremony in some detail with them. We talked about the clothing, secret handshakes, the secret names, "the wave" during the prayer circle while saying "Paye lay ale", the promises that I would allow myself to be killed if I ever divulged any of the sacred secrets involved in the ceremony, etc. I described the way in which as a trusting 19-year-old, I was taken into that ceremony by parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts each of whom behaved during the temple ceremony in a way that at the time I regarded as bizarre, but since they were all doing it with confidence, I went along. I mouthed the promises in a state of shock, wondering what they really meant. I described my initial stunned reaction at the nature of those promises, and how I assumed that that everything must be alright because people who I knew loved and cared for me were leading me through this. I also described the peace, and feelings of sacredness, that I eventually came to associate with the temple ceremony after having gone through it many times, and how this type of feeling is caused by many types of ritual behavior in virtually all cultures. By the way, I attended the temple more than a dozen times prior to my mission, and well over a hundred times in total. I was in also authorized to officiate at the veil (that is, play the role of God in ushering people into the celestial room) before going into the mission field, and continued to do that after my mission until I stopped attending the temple about seven years ago.
The boys appeared to have trouble believing what I was telling them. I promised that sometime soon I would get out my temple robes, and show them in greater detail exactly how the process works, and why it was at least as bizarre as the way in which I described it.
The main point I was trying to make is that the Mormon initiation process involves a kind of psychological pain that is similar to what we had been talking about with regard to the Skull and Bones Society. This pain is the result of being required to engage in a humiliating, unsettling if not frightening (the first time or two at least), ridiculous public ritual, dressed in a funny clothes, prostrating oneself in a variety of ways before a religious institution in what outsiders would regard as a foolish fashion. This constituted committing myself to an organization in a very unusual way, and cause psychological discomfort.
As indicated above, many studies have shown that enduring this kind of pain causes people to value the experience or status they earn as a result much more than otherwise would be the case. Women, for example, who were recruited into weight loss and fitness programs tended to lose more weight and keep the weight off longer if they were required to take a series of strenuous tests and believed that they had been chosen from among many applicants before being allowed to enter the program. Other people who went to precisely the same program after having simply applied and were immediately accepted did not treat the program with the same seriousness, and did not benefit in the same way from their membership in it. Countless other studies have demonstrated similar things. You can find those by googling "cognitive dissonance". If you add my name to the Google search, you will find some of the things I have written in this regard.
In any event, at the end of a probably 15 or 20 minute conversation in the car, the boys asked me if I could remember any of the secret handshakes, signs, etc. from the temple. I gave them the main secret handshake, which creeped them out immensely. That is, the "sure sign of the nail". I told them my "new name", and then surprised myself by being able to repeat verbatim the last, long passage necessary to get into the celestial room. They were, again, amazed at the idea that their father would've been doing this kind of thing on a regular basis as recently as seven years ago. Their reaction to this helped me to appreciate at a deeper level how bizarre these behaviors are.
For the record, here's the last bit. This occurs after a relatively long sequence during which the rest of the signs, tokens etc. are repeated by the person attending the temple to another person who is pretending to be God, and standing on the inside of the curtain that separates the celestial room from the rest of the temple.
First, the person attending the temple has to receive the most sacred handshake, and identify it. It is the "second token of the Melchizedek priesthood, the patriarchal grip, or sure sign of the nail". The boys were really rolling their eyes at this point, and were amazed at the nature of the handshake. The last thing the person attending the temple has to learn, and memorize so as to be able to repeat, is the name of this handshake.
One would have thought that the name was “the second token …” as just indicated, because when the handshake is given and the temple attender is asked “What is that?” he is required to answer “The second token of the Melchizedek priesthood, the patriarchal grip, or sure sign of the nail”. But that would be far too logical and straightforward.
In any event, when the temple attender is asked, after having properly identified this handshake, “Has it a name?”, he is required to answer:
God then asks, “Will you give it to me?”
The temple attender has to say "I cannot. I have not yet received it. For this purpose, I have come to converse with the Lord through the veil."
God then says, "You shall receive it upon the five points of fellowship through the veil." (The five points of fellowship are a form of embrace that is given through the veil)
The temple attender then leans forward, clasping God in the required embrace through the veil, and God whispers the token’s name into his ear.
Then, God says, "What is that?"
The temple attender says, "The second token of the Melchizedek priesthood, the patriarchal grip, or sure sign of the nail."
God says, "Has it's a name?"
Temple attender: "It has."
God: "Will you give it to me?"
Temple attender: "I will, upon the five points of fellowship through the veil."
They again embrace, and the temple attender repeats verbatim what God whispered a few moments prior to him, which is:
“Health in the navel, marrow in the bones, strength in the loins and in the sinews, power in the priesthood be upon me, and upon my posterity, through all generations of time, and throughout all eternity.”
This is all, of course, certifiably crazy mumbo-jumbo, and my boys recognized it as such. They could barely believe what they were hearing. From their point of view, this was straight out of South Park or The Family Guy. And ironically, it is the ceremony's bizarre nature that in large part makes it effective, for the reasons noted above.
For my part, the fact that I can still remember this stuff verbatim produced an involuntary tremor as I was walking the boys through the last part.
I thank whatever odd features of reality are responsible for the fact that the social tentacles that for a long time had me playing this ridiculous game lost their strength.
| It is Sunday, March 22, 2009. I'm sitting in my living room at eight o'clock in the morning, staring through picture windows across the prairies and foothills toward the Rocky Mountains about 30 miles away.
I can’t see the mountains. We're in the middle of a spectacular spring snowstorm that started late last night. Snow is piled 10 inches deep on the ground, and up to 6 inches on many tree branches and bushes. And, it is still falling heavily. This is the kind of day to not go out unless you have to, or have a good four-wheel-drive vehicle and feel like adventure.
For some reason, today is also one of those welcome days on which I feel overwhelming gratitude. They usually come on Sundays, and I haven't had one for a while. During the first year or so after I left Mormonism, this was regular event. Probably every two or three weeks I would have a strong dose of the feelings that are with me right now. But, no matter how good or bad things are, we quickly habituate. So, I am enjoying a rare pleasure.
Why today? That's why I'm writing this. These feelings surprised me a few minutes ago, and so while enjoying them I will pick at them a little bit. Perhaps I'm odd in this way, but introspection heightens positive experience for me, and seems to make it last longer.
This is a spectacularly beautiful morning. That seems to have a lot to do with why I feel as I do. These feelings are often associated with being moved by great art, nature's power and beauty, and other aesthetic experiences.
It is Sunday. As I indicated above, I feel like this more often than not on a Sunday morning when I am going somewhere or doing something that would not have been possible while I continue to be a fully participating Mormon. I am now accustomed to this freedom, but it still sometimes feels surprisingly exhilarating.
My wife and I had a great dinner last night with good friends (one Mormon couple and one non-Mormon), and then enjoyed a thought-provoking, mildly funny play with them (Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband"). I'm still probably glowing a little bit because of that.
We got to bed fairly late last night, but I still woke up early this morning feeling rested, and as I walked out of a dark bedroom into the vaulted roof and picture windows of our living room, I was welcomed by the spectacular scene of heavily frocked trees and fences, and snow coming down so hard that I could only see half way across the pasture behind our house. I'm glad that this kind of thing so easily moves me.
I have a number of hours of work this morning to which I'm looking forward. I'm working on an interesting project right now, and this is the kind of thing I intensely enjoyed.
I know that this afternoon I will either go skiing with my 14-year-old son, or have a good long workout in some other way. I am 100% confident that either of those will make me feel great.
I will be with my wife and a few of my children off and on all day today. That is enjoyable.
And then this evening I will attend a book club meeting for the first time with some people who sound interesting. That is the kind of thing I almost always enjoy, and so I'm looking forward to it.
My life is far from perfect. I often feel incomplete, inadequate, etc. Those feelings are part of life’s normal run, as far as I can tell. Because of how they contrast with moments like this, they are also a big part what makes right now so important and enjoyable for me.
I occasionally communicate with people who have changed their religious beliefs more or less as I have, and are not able to feel positive with regard to their new circumstances. This often has to do with conflict within their families regarding faith related issues. I still deal with a significant amount of that myself, and that is in part responsible for some of the feelings of difficulty and inadequacy I regularly have. But these problems do not overshadow the kind of wonderful moment I'm enjoying right now.
I have no idea why some people are able to anchor themselves in the occasional moments of clarity and lightness of being we experience while others appear dominated by life’s dross. I'm trying to learn how to spend more of my life in positive space, and use my knowledge that I will have regular experiences like what I'm enjoying right now to help me through the inevitable dark moments. I also remind myself that if I felt as I do right now all the time, but I would soon lose the ability to savour this experience.
In a few minutes I'm going to grind some fresh coffee and make a cup of my favorite high tensile espresso. I only drink that roughly once every two or three days. I find that I enjoy more that way. If I drank this stuff every day, it would not give me the lift I experience shortly.
Life is good. Today is going to be a great day. I wish you each the same, or better.
| So, here I am sitting in my bathrobe, ready for bed and checking my Internet messages before hitting the sack. I've had a wonderful, relaxing evening. My wife made a great salmon salad, garnished with all kinds of things I can't even identify. That was washed down with a large glass of wine while watching American Idol (I had told my kids that the are watching the birth of a star in this Adam kid). And then, what watching a comedy program, I enjoyed one of my first homemade martinis. My horizons are expanding. As a result, I am way mellow at this point.
And for some strange reason, I'm reminded of a story that feels like it needs to be told before I go to bed. So here goes.
I was on a business trip recently that involves stops in Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. The most hectic part of the trip was Houston. I had to make four meetings, scattered across different parts of town, during the course of one day. I picked up a taxi at the airport in the usual way. A somewhat hard to understand Indian gentleman who drove the taxi gave me his business card, and implored me to call him the next day if I needed a cab back to the airport. I ordinarily don't do that, but because I was so pressed for time between meetings, I decided to give him a call and see if he would be prepared to meet me at my last meeting downtown, take me to a meeting out on the fringe of the city, and then wait for me so that I could make my plane at the end of the day. He agreed to take me out of town for my last meeting, and said that he would arrange for another cab to take me to the airport. He had something else that he needed to do that evening.
So, my Indian friend picked me up at my last meeting downtown. We headed out to the outskirts of Houston for the next meeting, and during the course of an approximately 45 minute drive, he began to ask me questions about my religious beliefs. I can’t remember how we got on this subject, but it seems that I am a lightning want for this kind of thing. I need to analyze my behavior to figure out what it is that I do or say that invites this kind of conversation.
In any event, my taxi driving friend ended up explaining to me that his wife and children live in India, he is a devout Muslim, and he does not want them to live in the United States because of the potentially corrupting nature of the environment there. So, he gets to see them once every two or three months.
He then started to ask me questions about my beliefs. I told him a little bit about my upbringing, the issues that caused me to change my point of view, and how I currently believe (agnostic/atheist). This led him to ask me questions about the nature of agnosticism and atheism, how those terms are defined, how people who used to believe, as I did, could come not to believe anymore, etc. He told me a story about someone who he had helped to convert -- a computer scientist -- and who sometime later had renounced his belief in the Muslim faith. This puzzled, and deeply troubled him. I did my best to explain how perspective can change, and how the emotional experience related to being part of a close-knit religious group can sometimes make people temporarily feel that they have beliefs that are certain, and will never change. We had what seemed to me like a pleasant discussion in that regard. So pleasant, in fact, that he missed our turnoff from the freeway, and I ended up being 15 minutes late for my meeting.
As we pulled up to the building at which I had my meeting scheduled, he apologized for the fifth or sixth time for making me late, and said that he had decided that in order to make things right, he should wait for me until I finished my meeting, and then take me to the airport. I thanked them for that, and without hesitating left all of my luggage, including a number of valuables, in his cab. I didn't realize what I had done until I was on my way into the building. And then, I had no inclination to reverse my intuitive decision. I trusted this man. Our beliefs radically differed, but during the course of a 45 minute cab ride, and intense conversation, I had come to both trust and like him. It was obvious that he had the same feelings with regard to me. He told me two or three times during the course of the trip that for some reason, he felt inclined to talk to me about things that he ordinarily did not talk to anyone about. He said that I felt like a kind of spiritual companion, or fellow traveler, to him. This puzzled him, because I was an atheist.
In any event, I finished my meeting and came out to find my luggage, and cabdriver friend, waiting in the parking lot. He drove me to the airport. That took another 20 minutes. On the way, he attempted to convert me to the Muslim faith. He bore his testimony, in essence. He wanted to give me a copy of the Koran. I told them that I already had a copy, and had read most of it years ago. I told him that I understood that the Koran, when sung in Arabic, is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry on the planet. I've heard that described by people who understand Arabic, and the Muslim culture, and who are not Muslim.
In any event, when he finally dropped me off at the airport I had to politely cut short ourconversation. I was almost late for my flight, and my friend wanted to continue passionately explaining to me the virtues of Muslim belief; the beauty he had found as a result of living in accordance with the Muslim faith; and most importantly, the importance of faith itself. He was concerned about my lack of faith. He felt that I was missing much of what life’s wonder. And what of my family? How could I raise children without faith? I had already explained the nature of my faith filled life up until about age 45, and so politely smiled as he continued his impassioned plea. Finally, I told him for the second time that I really had to go, we shook hands, and I hustled into the airport.
The fact that I am dictating this story, late at night after a long day at work, indicates the impact this brief encounter had on me. There is something about people who believe passionately, and live passionately, that impresses us. This man was full of energy. He was full of purpose. His point of view is sure to be attractive to those who are somewhat unsure with regard to their own path. And though I could not disagree more with his beliefs, and much of how he lives, I liked him. I enjoyed his company and he enjoyed mine. This, clearly, puzzled both of us.
Life is strange -- strangely wonderful and surprising in strange ways.
| Twice during the last week I've been asked the same question by successful, highly educated people who are at this moment peering with trepidation through the fog around the edges Mormonism toward the unknown (for them) beyond. That question is whether I could provide them with a list of the pros and cons with respect to removing children of various ages from Mormonism, and attempting to raise them in an on Mormon environment. I have been asked something similar more times than I can count, and until now have not felt motivated to attempt to systematically compile a response. I invite anyone who wishes to do so to help me with that. If you don’t want to read further, just note your ideas with regard to the pros and cons below.
As some of you know, I am a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd. See James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” for more in that regard. One of the best ways to access the wisdom of the crowd with regard to the topic I described above is to, simply, find a knowledgeable crowd and ask for help. That is what I'm doing here. I am also going to post this message in a few other places, including one where I know many faithful Mormons will see it. It is important that we consider the broadest perspective possible, and it would be foolish to attempt to address this question without inviting the more thoughtful of those who have the strongest possible incentive to disagree with us to have their say.
I believe that there are two basic categories into which this question should be broken - pre-teenagers, and teenagers or older. In a nutshell, it is my view that Mormonism and other similar organizations don't do much harm with regard to young children. In fact, I think that kind of secure, loving environment Mormonism tries to create is close to what small children need. However, as children begin to question, and therefore attempt to develop their critical thinking skills, social attitudes that discourage questioning or suppress information begin to cause damage. Santa Claus is the example most of us use. When children are old enough to seriously question whether Santa is real, it is counterproductive in a variety of ways to do anything other than assist the child to figure out reality. The same thing applies with regard to the Easter Bunny, God, and the myth our heroes (including people like Barry Bonds, Bill Clinton or Albert Einstein) never do anything wrong. So, while Mormonism is far less than ideal for small children, it is not toxic.
The damage caused by the Mormon and other similar institutions becomes severe when children reach their teens. This is because many of our most important neural networks, and therefore long-term behavioural patterns, are formed as our brains are bombarded by hormones, and therefore loosened up for extraordinary growth during the age between puberty and 17 or 18 years. Research indicates (I am going from memory here, so don't hang me if I get the percentages a little wrong) that the way children develop into adults is influenced first of all by genetics (roughly 50%); second by teenage peer group (something like 25%); third by sibling influences, including birth order (something like 10%); and fourth by parental and other influences. There are not many percentage points left by the time we get down to direct parental influence.
This means that, generally speaking, the most significant influence parents can have (after contributing their genes) on their children will be to help to determine their teenage peer group. That means that the choice as to where we live, the schools our children attend, where (or if) they go to church, the extracurricular activities in which our children engage, etc., are the big choices we make. What we believe, how we communicate our beliefs to our children, and even how we behave, have relatively minor influences in the big scheme of things. I am not, of course, talking about extreme abusive or that kind of thing. I'm talking about the ordinary family in which parents make the usual effort to do the right thing for their children.
I should also say, as I said to each of the two individuals who recently contacted me, that I don't believe it is justifiable for any person to tell anyone else what they should do with their life. Our natures and circumstances are too complex for that. It is helpful, however, to share the most accurate information we can about how social influences tend to work, and on that basis construct general rules. We each are then in a position to judge, as best we can, how those general rules apply in our situations. This is how I wish I was treated while coming to maturity, and so this is how I tried to treat other people.
My basic position with regard to younger children is that attending church and otherwise being involved with Mormonism is not a bad thing. There are no doubt better environments that could be found, but if all of my children were eight years of age or younger, I would not feel pressure from that point of view to immediately exit Mormonism. Once the oldest child is past eight, I would begin to feel pressure. And once that child is approaching the Mormon youth system, I would feel a lot of pressure.
Having said that, I know a number of families who for various reasons have chosen to remain connected to Mormonism in the long-term while one or both of the parents no longer believed Mormonism's truth claims. In some of those cases, some of the children turned out spectacularly well. In others, the results from my perspective were disastrous. I likewise know many families who have completely left Mormonism. In many cases, their children have turned out fabulously. In some others, the results have been disappointing.
On balance, based on my observations and not on empirical research (I don't believe there has been any done in this regard), the probability of our children turning out to be the kind of strong, independent, self-actualizing people we would like them to be is better if they are raised by confident parents living outside the confines of Mormonism, than within it.
With that overlong intro behind me, the remainder of my comments are addressed toward the pros and cons of remaining within Mormonism from the perspective of parents trying to raise teenage children. Again, I invite comments both with regard to the content of each of my bullet points below, and by way of adding additional bullet points.
Pros (put as a Mormon would, with room for a critique to come later in square brackets):
1. Mormonism creates a safe environment for our children, and so protects them against dangers related to things like sexually transmitted diseases, the psychological trauma of premature sexual activity, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. [ ]
2. Mormonism emphasizes simple, strong moral values. This is more likely to produce well adjusted, happy children and adults than the chaotic environment outside of Mormonism. [ ]
3. Mormonism emphasizes commitment to family and community, and provides a good foundation for a stable, traditional family life. [ ]
4. Mormonism emphasizes education and achievement. [ ]
5. Mormonism encourages the traditional role of father and mother, and as a result creates greater opportunity for mothers in particular to spend time with their children, and for fathers to provide the kind of guidance that produces well-adjusted children. [ ]
6. Mormonism encourages an international point of view as a result of how many missionaries serve outside of North America, and return to become integrated within the Mormon community. [ ]
7. It is difficult to find any community that offers as many high-quality programs for families and young people as Mormonism does. It is a great one-stop shop. [ ]
1. Mormons are taught to think magically. This results from the Mormon belief system, and it's literal understanding of the Biblical miracles, that angels etc. appeared to Joseph Smith and other prominent figures in Mormon history, and that worst of all, that God actually communicates in understandable terms to each human being so as to help them make important decisions. One of the most important, and dysfunctional, Mormon ideas in this regard is that we can "know" by way of what we feel. This form of knowing overrides knowledge based on empirical evidence and rational thought. A host of bad decision-making habits arise from what I just described. Many of these slop over into business and non-religious life issues. However, Mormons are at their worst when making decisions with regard to their religion, and aspects of their family life related to their religion. It is emotional knowing that, for example, leads people to dedicate unreasonably large amounts of time and money to Mormonism. It causes young peopleto marry in many cases when they should not. It causes young married couples to have more children than they are able to financially and emotionally support. The morality from an environmental perspective of having large families does not even hit the radar screen.
2. As noted above, peer group influence is second only genetics in terms of how our children turn out. This will trump, in many if not most cases, parental teaching. The Mormon Church invests heavily in its youth programs for this reason. Mormonism is, in this sense, a huge extended family that has as one of its objectives to reduce the influence of parents who are not fully faithful to the Mormon way.
3. Mormons are raised in a simplistic environment where too many decisions are made for them. This causes them to not develop the instincts required to successfully operate in the complex social and other environments of the "real world". This is one of the explanations for the way in which fraud artists take advantage of more people per capita in Utah than any other State. In this way, and in many others, mainstream Mormonism is a watered-down version of the FLDS. Being raised Mormon systematically weakens individuals so that they will be less inclined to attempt to leave the Mormon community. This effect is stronger with regard to girls than boys, since boys must be prepared to earn a living.
4. Young Mormons are encouraged to marry far too early, and to make that decision on the basis of the "spirit". This is usually done after a boy has been away for two years on his mission during precisely that period of time when most males are more sexually active than at any other time. They are then told that they cannot have sex until they get married. The girls, on the other hand, are told to save themselves for those wonderful returned missionaries. It is no surprise that the returned missionary almost immediately feels "inspired" to marry one of the first girls to whom he becomes emotionally attached. The source of this inspiration is clear, and it has nothing to do with God. Many poor matches are made as a result.
5. Young Mormons are made to feel guilty about their bodies, their sexuality, and many other healthy and natural aspects of being human. "The natural man is an enemy of God". The guilt and shame this produces creates self-esteem issues, increases the probability of depression, and in a variety of other ways is dysfunctional.
6. Pity the young Mormon who is genetically oriented toward same-sex attraction. The Mormon shoe pinches particularly hard for this kind of person. They will be taught to hate themselves, in a particularly perverse, passive aggressive kind of way. That is, while being told how much they are loved and should love themselves, they are in fact taught that some of their deepest instincts are evil. This breeds self hate. I'm not aware of statistics having been gathered with regard to this point, but I would be astonished if the suicide rate in the Mormon gay community was not orders of magnitude above that of the general community. This has been shown to be the case with Orthodox Jews, and I believe evangelical Christians of certain kinds. It is surely also the case with regard to Mormons.
7. Our personality types determine to a large extent the environments in which we will feel most comfortable, and are most likely to thrive. Some people need a lot of structure in their lives. They will probably gravitate toward a system similar to Mormonism. However, many such systems will not encourage magical thinking and the kind of dogmatism that marks Mormonism and other similar literalist religions. So, the people who need structure can do better than Mormonism. Mormonism is particularly unhealthy for other personality types who do better in environments that encourage exploration and individuality. Consider, for example, the case of a girl who is highly exploration oriented and not inclined toward the domestic life offered by the wife and mother role. How is that kind of person likely to get along within Mormonism?
8. While this is somewhat repetitive of the point immediately above, I note that young Mormons are presented with a range of career and lifestyle options that is unrealistically narrow. For example, the percentage of intelligent young Mormon males who aspire toward earning a lot of income as a result of careers in business or the professions is extraordinarily high. This is the result in large measure of the expectations within the Mormon community. To be successful by Mormon standards, you will have a large family and a wife who stays home and raises your children. This requires a single breadwinner to earn a lot of money. Making fundamental career and lifestyle choices on this basis is nonsensical in our circumstances of abundance. As indicated above, different personality types need different kinds of environments. I think it is far better to give our children the opportunity to experience as many different environments as possible, and to encourage them to gravitate toward the people and environments withwhich they naturally resonate. Mormonism's narrowness is in part responsible for the high rates of depression in Utah.
9. Mormons tend to have an undue deference to authority. This is largely the result of the way in which they are taught to subject themselves to personal interviews, and the authority of various family and religious community figures. This probably accounts in large measure for the sky-high rates of financial fraud in Utah, and the way in which Mormons routinely taken advantage of by multilevel marketing organizations. That is, Mormons are made manipulable by their religious beliefs so that they will be better Mormon worker bees, and once that is discovered by other people, they will take advantage as well. This also is part of the being-raised-in-a-too-simple-environment problem.
10. Mormons tend to have poorly formed personal boundaries. This is, again, largely the result of the way in which they are taught to subject themselves to personal interviews, and the authority of various parties. Being obedient is close to equated with being good within Mormonism. This means that Mormons are inclined to be too involved in others people lives (too nosey) and accept other people nosing into their business too easily. This is a form of emasculation that is common in close-knit community groups, like the traditional Hindus. It causes a variety of problems, including the extensive use of passive aggressive behavior to control other people. This happens because overt control tools don’t work. So, rather than (or after) screaming at you to repent, loved ones usually express their sadness, distress etc. at your unfaithful behaviour, and in other ways indicate that real intimacy with them is conditional on Mormon belief and behavior. It is particularly ironic that are Mormons pride themselves on having intimate family relationships. The requirement that everyone obey the same rules and behave in the same way seems to create intimacy of a sort. However, just like strong fences make good neighbours, strong personal boundaries facilitate intimacy. For example, the fact that Mormon parents think that it is their duty to keep track of how faithful their children are to Mormon standards, and gently (or not) call their children and grandchildren to repentance as required, means that as soon as children or grandchildren begin to colour outside the Mormon lines, they will feel the need to keep this behavior secret from their parents and grandparents. This destroys intimacy, and at its worst, encourages deceit. See my comments below with regard to weaken the moral fibre in this regard.
11. Mormons, ironically, tend to have weaker than average moral fibre. Mormons fare poorly in various kinds of honesty tests. Utah, for example, has more tax evaders than any other State. This is in part due to the fact that Mormons are put so frequently in positions where they are under a lot of pressure to promise things that they know they have virtually no chance of doing. (“Do you masturbate?”; “Will you get your Home Teaching done this month?”) This has a corrosive effect on morality. Having to teach kids to in effect pretend to believe so as to avoid conflict at church would make this problem worse. And if you don't teach them this, some will do it anyway because no one likes to be out of step with their peer group.
| One of Mormonism's, and organized religion's, fundamental premises is that the basic elements of our lives must be as they are. God created the cosmos, the Earth, and us. God mandated certain types of relationships. God mandated certain forms of social institutions. Etc.
As reality comes into better focus, one of the first things we realize is the miraculous nature of most of what we thought had to be just as it is. For example, why is there something of any kind, instead of nothing at all? The wisest among us cannot answer that question. Far from being travelers at a routine way station, each and every one of us is a flat-out miracle.
The same applies with regard to many of what we regard as life's mundane aspects. What about the feelings created when two people fall in love? What about the radically different, but no less amazing, feelings that slowly form over the course of a long life shared with others in various ways - with an intimate partner while raising children and contributing to a community; with the arts or other causes? What about the feelings we have as we watch the lives of those for whom we care the most unfold in their unique ways?
After considering the miniscule probability that any of these particular, and utterly wonderful, feelings would come into being, we should regard them as miracles.
Compared to this, many aspects of my Mormon existence felt at the time, and feel even more with the benefit of hindsight, like tight rope walking. The endless series of rules that had to be complied with, theoretically to perfection, in order to get to the Celestial Kingdom. The Herculean task of raising children so that they would defy the odds, and each and every one of them would walk that same tight rope.
There was nothing wonderful about that tight rope, despite how hard I tried to convince myself that it was a great deal. In fact, it was only a great deal when compared to something far worse – the loss of our ability to choose. And ironically, I now realize that the entire story of the pre-existence, life is a test, our role as soldiers in the continual battle between good and evil, the Celestial Kingdom, etc. was a big part of the mechanism that cut off my choices, and forced me into a that long rope over the black chasm - an exercise profoundly ill-suited to my exploration oriented nature.
Now, I see life as an astonishingly beautiful and complex web of opportunity. Each part of it that resonates to my core is a miracle.
If given half a chance, almost all of us have the ability explore this fecund environment while feeling for whatever will make us more. This search is more about discovering who we are than anything else. I am still occasionally astonished at what I find out in myself in this regard.
Few things make my happier than watching my children engage in this process. I have no idea where they are headed. How could I? How could my parents have foreseen what I am today?
I have no desire to constrain what my children do. I feel privileged to occasionally be consulted as they make their decisions, and am pleased that at most, what I have to say plays a minor role in their thinking.
Watching them evolve - each becoming the miracle only she can be - is one of my greatest pleasures.
| This meditation is inspired by an article from the NY Times a friend recently sent me that was written by an intellectual, “born again Catholic”, who eloquently described the paradoxical nature of her re-acceptance of her childhood faith. I have cut and pasted the article at the end of this piece. It is worth reading. I can’t say the same for the paragraphs that immediately follow.
I have not been a fan of those who revel in the “living on the cusp of paradox” paradigm that attracts many religious people who are intellectually oriented. That has always seemed a cop-out to me. It did while I was Mormon, and until recently still did. Things either make sense, or they don’t. Or perhaps better put, there is a continuum on which an item or belief’s sensibility, workability, functionality, etc. can be placed. If something is nonsensical or doesn’t work well enough, find something that does. That may be a pain in ass, but we can get over a lot more than we think we can once we get at it. So as I have told many of these folks, stop bitching about how paradoxical your life is, and find something that works for you. What I had missed is that for some people, whether they can admit this or not, the paradox works.
That is, in our world there is a basic conflict between the felt reality of the small group religious experience and the real reality disclosed by science. As a result, living with paradox is for some people is as good as it gets. The alternatives are to either ignore science, which the more conscious among us cannot, or to reject some of life’s deepest perceptions, which certain people cannot.
As William James put it (and I paraphrase), certain religious experiences bring with them a peculiar sense of having experienced the “more real than real”. Brain science has recently explained why this is. It has to do with how certain kinds of experience, including some religious experience, suppress the part of the brain that keeps track of our body’s separateness from all that is not us. When this happens, we feel like we have merged with some greater whole. The same thing happens during lovemaking, for the same neural reasons. This is a pretty compelling experience. Whatever we associate with it takes on a special significance – kind of like what happens when a baby goose automatically attaches to the first animate object it sees upon hatching, whether that is its mother or not. This experience can be induced by bombarding the brain with certain kinds of radio waves; by taking some drugs in certain kinds of safe, nurturing environments; by engaging in certain kinds of closely coordinated group activities(military style marching, for eg.); etc.
For folks like me, once the science is understood it is a relatively straightforward (if painful) matter to change how we believe and the way we live. For other personality types, this is not so straightforward. In fact, it may be practically speaking impossible. For them, embracing paradox may be the best way to go. No one has to tell them this. They don’t have to think it. In almost all cases, their subconscious will see to it that they perceive and believe what they need to in order to stay sane. And I am thinking particularly of highly group oriented people.
Recent personality type research has indicated that some people are highly exploration oriented while others are highly oriented toward stability, structure, and connection to kinds of conservative groups that tend to be stable in the long term. We will adopt Helen Fisher’s terminology and hence call these two types “Explorers” and “Builders”. Both personality types are crucially important to the continued functioning of human society. In some environments (scarce resource or military environments in particular), the Builders will be particularly important. The careful coordination of group effort is more important here than usual. Without this, survival is in jeopardy. In safer, more abundant settings (like what we now enjoy), more Explorer behaviour is not only tolerated, but will tend to produce innovation and hence abundance more quickly than could otherwise be possible. Yet, the Builders are still important. The most exploration oriented groups still need some Builders to contain and focus the creative force exerted by the Explorers who dominate the group.
Explorers and Builders react quite differently to the collision between the world of emotional experience that binds groups together and the science that often deconstructs that experience, as neurology has the perception than one has encountered Truth in the manner noted above. The Explorer trapped in what is for her an uncomfortably constraining social group says “Of course! These feelings don’t indicate that I must do a whole bunch of stuff that does not feel right to me. I can choose my own path!” She is hence set free, at least intellectually, and if she can navigate the treacherous hurdles her social group has set up to prevent defection (maybe she has to leave lifelong friends, family or a spouse behind), she will in fact be far more free than she has ever been.
For the Builder, the scientific explanation for the experiences that may hold his community together is a completely different proposition. This threatens to dissolve a good part of the glue that holds the community together. It threatens his ability to continue to believe, and if he loses belief he will spin out of control into the chaos that he (usually) perceives to lie beyond the border of his little group. In short, he needs the connection to his group (not any group will do – remember the gooses imprinting) or at least a similar group. This need is deep and strong enough that for most Builders that it will bulldoze any evidence or reasoning that gets in its way. However, if a Builder has a strong intellectual orientation, the emotional bullbozer may hit the mental equivalent of another bulldozer. Here, paradox and ambiguity become the Builder’s allies. This allows the emotion and reason bulldozers to eye each other with suspicion, but for the most part to employ their prodigious energies in productive ways that have little to do with each other instead of engaging in a fight to the death, with clinical depression or other form of insanity being a likely outcome.
This is the kind of thing I think about while reading about religious paradox in the lives of people like Michele Somerville (see below). Something else I think about is how far Mormonism has to be before it will allow a place for people like her. Had she been raised Mormon and really needed a connection to group of the kind she described, she would probably have remained Mormon and suffered with depression and other dysfunctions as so many Mormons do. Had she been able to get out of the Mormon social trap, her path would likely have been to become Evangelical Christian since many aspects of that system resonate with the Mormon. It is not likely that she would have become Catholic since the Mormon imprinting leaves one with distaste for pageantry, crosses and many other Catholic acoutrements. Builders are far more constrained by where they come from than Explorers.
I finally note that the division between Explorers and Builders may also explain the conflict on post-Mormon and other similar internet bulletin boards between those who have left all belief in deity behind and those who have maintained it in some form.
In any event, the understanding science is slowly giving me of how our brains and social groups work causes me to accepting paradox as a legitimate tool in other lives. I hope you enjoy Michele’s description of her paradoxical relationship to the religious cards she was dealt.
Born Again in Brooklyn
By MICHELE MADIGAN SOMERVILLE
About a decade ago, moved by a convergence of my longstanding fascination with religion and a time of great personal loss, I embarked on a search for a church and wound up a born-again Catholic. It was not a straight or untroubled path, guided as it was by both my attraction to and enmity for the Roman Catholic Church into which I was born and baptized.
Growing up Irish Catholic in New York City put me in a good position to experience the best and worst of the Church. Most of the Sisters of Charity who taught at my grade school were tyrants. In 1971 I knocked on the door of my parish rectory to inquire about becoming an altar server; I was advised that only boys could serve. Brides, said the priest, were the only females allowed on the altar. When my mother became critically ill at age 30, a Catholic priest administering last rites, refused to offer absolution when she, who had given birth to four children by age 25, refused to express contrition for taking birth control pills. People for whom I care deeply have been molested by priests.
In 1985, while working as a high school English teacher in a parochial school, I watched a 19-year student of mine weep in homeroom in response to that morning’s “pro-life” announcement, which included references to “mothers who killed their own babies.” I learned later that this young man’s mother had terminated a pregnancy two days earlier. My gay brother, at the time of his death at 45, felt despised by the Church he had always loved.
But a radical nun was the first person to teach me anything sophisticated about poetry. The Catholic Church in New York has fed, educated and clothed more poor people than any other agency in the city. On most days a logic-defying confidence in the potential of the sacraments to deliver grace persists in me. The beauty of even ordinary churches has never failed to astonish me. While I consider the brutality of the papacy, now and throughout history, a source of shame, Roman Catholic art, often commissioned by those very same bad popes is a source of pride, and comprises a tradition in which I, as a poet, often work.
Roman Catholic, as it turned out, was the language my spirit already knew. Burning hyssop and frankincense, the stark and heart-charging splendor of Gregorian chant, Marian devotion; the iconography, the Latin Agnus Dei and Litany of the Saints, the Angelus bells, the rapture at the crux of Catholic worship have always held fierce sway with me.
As I started to experiment with religious observance, I quickly developed a sense of what I did and did not want. My aims were practical and ethereal, metaphysical and physical. I wanted to transcend, but as the mother of three toddlers, I wanted convenience, too. I craved beauty, musica sacra, social justice work, and maybe a whisper of ancient tongues in my ear, but I also needed a church that would embrace the realities of motherhood. If the celebrant of the mass glowered or gawked when I jammed the baby up my shirt to nurse at mass, he failed the audition and I never went back.
I liked parishes that were racially and socio-economically diverse, houses of worship that were beautiful, the presence of women priests when I was lucky enough to encounter it. I had zero tolerance for folk masses, anti-abortion diatribes, ecclesiastical greed, rote reciters of scripture and congregants who refused to sing. (After all, as St. Augustine said, “singing is twice praying.”) When people in the pews were unkind to my generally well-mannered children, I crossed their church off my list. I preferred my homilists witty, lyrical and learned. A brilliant theologian and Dante maven who used to celebrate mass a few mornings a week in my neighborhood helped hook and reel me in. Most of all it was another – a lyrical priest I successfully hectored and charmed into serving as my de facto guru – who presided over my rebirth a s Catholic. And so I began to regularly attend Roman Catholic mass.
You might wonder how someone like me – a feminist-progressive living in 21st-century Brooklyn – can abide the Vatican’s positions. Well, I don’t. I am Catholic under protest and I’m in good company. The long tradition of radical thinking is alive and well in my Church.
I recently attended an interfaith Gay Pride Celebration in held in a Roman Catholic Church. One of the speakers was a former Catholic nun who left her order many years ago and is currently an Interfaith minister. She spoke of her work as a person of the cloth, her life as a lesbian, her 25 years with her beloved. The honorific “Reverend” precedes her name. She wears a Roman collar. That night, her address was filled with surprises, but only one aspect of her speech shocked me: her fervent recommendation that progressive Catholics remain in the Church – so as to be in a position to create change. She still worships in a Roman Catholic Church.
I love the radical Catholic Church. I love that there are Roman Catholic bishops sticking their necks out to ordain women. That Catholic doctrine places mighty emphasis on the role of conscience in worship and creates fertile ground for conscientious dissent. I support dramatic change as energetically as I can. I withhold my cash from the bishops and hand my diocesan appeal tender to the Woman’s Ordination Conference and to SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). I devote much time and talent to working in the Gay Ministry at my church. I recognize it is my obligation as a conscious, conscientious Catholic to discern – to know that the church no more belongs to the Vatican than it does to me. The power of the Church may rest with the College of Cardinals, but its glory rests with people like me.
Once I accepted that being Roman Catholic did not require that I be a papist – once I understood that it was possible to be simultaneously outraged by and in love with the Church – I saw the obstacles to being a practicing Catholic in a new way.
I certainly do not see religion as essential to an ethical, spiritually rich life. I am married to an agnostic Jew and I educate our three children in two faiths, teaching them to pray, modeling what practicing a religion authentically looks like. “Getting religion” has rendered me neither righteous, nor saved. In April, as I read a Times report about the efforts of Atheist Humanists to organize in South Carolina, I uttered sotto voce, “God bless them,”so inspired was I by the nobility of their cause.
Religion has expanded not only how I relate to “the Divine” – by which I mean the infinite creative force beyond space and time which moves and is moved by love – but also it has expanded the way I think and feel about other faiths. The deeper in I go into my own faith, the greater my appreciation for that of others. The more confidence I gain in my own path, the more certain I am that there are many true paths.
My practice of Catholicism inspired me to step up my efforts to educate my children about Jewish Sabbath observance and Torah, for example. When I light the candles on Friday nights, I do not do so as Jew, but I don’t exactly do so as a Christian either. I do it as the mother of children of the tribe, and when I do so, I enter this ritual fully, as a soul rising to the occasion of something more infinite that the sum of all our ritualistic parts – I stretch – a soul reaching to touch the hem of the garment of the Divine.
It is through practice that I have come to believe that if there is indeed a God presiding over the End of Days, the particulars, the language and myth, various sects employ as means for understanding and revering God will wash away moot in the flood of some unified, unifying light. Practicing provides pockets of peace, soothes me when I am terrified, enhances my appreciation of the created world, helps me to shape who I am into the woman I wish to become. When I’m lucky, practice ushers me toward glints of transcendence.
God is not verifiable, worship can never be wholly rational and men and women can never properly parse the mind of an infinite God. Devotion is built like love; it opens, and it opens up – this, in its own time. For many, religion is a fairy tale. For others, it’s the most real and true thing imaginable. For me, it’s usually both.
Michele Madigan Somerville is the author of “Wisegal” (Ten Pell Books) and “Black Irish,” forthcoming from Plain View Press. Her verse has appeared in Mudfish, Puerto del Sol, Hanging Loose and other publications. Her Web site is Fresh Poetry Daily.
| For the last two Sundays, I attended Sky Church. The meetings involve confronting primal fear, and staring it down. This is done on the basis of a desire to fly, an intellectual understanding of the tiny risks you are in fact facing if you choose to do so. Then, while either staring down your demons, or more likely having pushed them from your consciousness, you step out of an airplane and become a bird.
I celebrated this mass for the first time on Sunday, August 2, and three times again yesterday on Sunday, August 9. My two oldest sons were initiated with me. I don't expect to have a better bonding experience with either of them.
Okay, I exaggerated a bit. It's not quite as simple as just stepping out of the plane and flying. First, you are hit by an 85 mile an hour wind and completely disoriented. Then, you have to do something that seems profoundly stupid, and dangerous. You have to put yourself into the most vulnerable possible position -- head looking up away from the ground that you so desperately want to find; pelvis thrust out as far as you can thrust it; legs and arms spread eagled and trailing behind. Nothing in you wants to do this. Your flight or fight system is screaming -- "Curl up and get ready for the worst, or a least look down and try to figure out where the hell the ground is!". But if you do that, you spiral out of control, and if you do what your instructor has told you to do ("Arch! Arch! Arch!"), and everything that you know about aerodynamics says that you should do when falling out of an airplane, you will fly.
Here's the kicker for post-Mormons, or perhaps people leaving bad relationships, facing major career changes, dealing with bullies, etc. In so many ways, our evolutionary and cultural history has equipped us with dysfunctional instincts. We feel, for example, inclined to eat sugar and fat as often as we can. This made sense while humanity evolved on the African plains. It makes no sense now. Many of our other instincts are similarly dysfunctional in our current environment. One the most of us here are familiar with is the instinct to remain with your social group. For most of human history, leaving the social group -- or being kicked out for disruptive behavior -- meant death. So, we have an existential fear (similar to that of jumping out of airplanes) of even information that could infect us to the point where we might be expelled from our social group. This is, in our current environment, yet another dysfunctional instincts.
Just as many people have done with the food thing I mentioned above, we can deal with other dysfunctional instincts by understanding from a rational, logical perspective the nature of the risks we face if we allow ourselves to remain where we are (in a bad culture, or a bad relationship, for example) and what is likely to happen if we take the steps necessary to change our lives. However, many people who reach the intellectual understanding that they should change, simply cannot get themselves to change. Our instincts are just too strong in many cases to allow that to happen.
So, what if we primed the pump little bit by getting to understand the nature of the relationship between our conscious, seemingly rational choices and these primal fears? There are probably lots of places where that could be done. Skydiving might be one of the best. This, of course, will not work for some personality types. But those who are even moderately inclined toward openness to new experience perspective may find this to be just the thing.
It occurred to me this morning as I woke up that one of the reasons the skydiving experience has been so fascinating for me is that it condenses the "face your demons" process into something small enough that it can be more easily understood. For example, when getting out of the plane, as indicated above, our instinct is to look for the ground and figure out where we are and what to do. Nothing in our evolutionary history prepares us to step out of a plane. Our instinct is designed for living on the ground. To do what we need to do to fly requires overcoming a powerful instinct. We do that by learning about aerodynamics, listening to people who have jumped out of thousands of airplanes talk about their experience, and then practicing on the ground what has been conclusively demonstrated to work. Still, nothing prepares us for what happens when we step out of the airplane's door, reach up the wing strut and then allow ourselves to hang in that position while doing our best to arch, spread eagled. Again, that is the furthest from possible from what instinct tells us to do. In fact, this instinct is so powerful that our conscious mind may actually trick us into thinking that we are arching as we have decided to do, and have practiced doing many times, leaving it for the instructor on the ground to let us know what we were in fact doing anything but that.
So, while getting out of the plane, we engage in hand-to-hand combat with our primal instincts. We pit but we have decided to do on the basis of rational considerations, against those instinct. In this case, the objective is to experience unaided human flight before what amounts to a great hang gliding exercise for the rest of the trip down. However, the skills we pick up here are transferable to other much more important aspects of life -- where we need to face down that same set of primal instincts in order to make life liveable, or to move from surviving to thriving.
Staring down our instincts time after time during the process of learning to skydive, and gradually feeling a sense of mastery over them, is surprisingly empowering. The process of leaving Mormonism generally plays out over months or years. It involves all of the same forces I have described with regard to skydiving, but tends to be scattered across a complex emotional landscape, and a long time. This made the process hard to bring into focus. Skydiving, on the other hand, condenses more or less the same process into two-hour segments, which is roughly what is required to prepare for a dive, execute the dive, and then digest what happened afterwards. By going through this process over and over again, the mechanisms required to face down primal fear come into focus, and I believe that the skills developed in that regard are transferable to many other things: fundamentally changing (or leaving) dysfunctional intimate relationships; leaving dysfunctional belief systems and the communities that relate to them, orchanging those relationships in a basic way; changing careers whether required by circumstance, or because that is something you want to do for ongoing personal development; taking the risk necessary to meet someone new, or engage in a new hobby or sport; etc.
I think this has potentially important implications for a least some personality types (those at least moderately open to new experience). This might be a useful adjunct to the art therapy processes I've also found be helpful (See, for example, http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%20therapy%20for%20recovering%20mormons.pdf). This has to do with the way in which "right brain" or artistic activities help to loosen up the kind of deep neural networks that need to be restructured in order for us to change the kind of habits of thought and action that have developed during the course of being raised within a tradition like Mormonism.
And, I don't think one can jump (tandem or otherwise) would be enough. That certainly would be a nice start -- facing down some fear, once. I found the individual jumps much more challenging in that regard. As indicated above, what I am so for finding to be most useful is feeling of deep, instinctive fear gradually under control. That happened with regard to Mormonism over a long time. I think that if early on in that process I had done, for example, 20 skydives and gotten to the point where I was thrilled but comfortable when climbing out of the plane, and in control as I fell for some distance before pulling the cord, that I would have been able to transfer that skill more effectively to some of the grindingly difficult transitions that I made on the way out of Mormonism.
Perhaps some enterprising soul should organize a group skydiving experience relative to the annual Exmormon Conference, or some other less formal gathering of post-Mormons.
One of the last things I saw last night before going to bed was a text message from my son Brayden which said that our skydiving experience had been "life-changing" for him. I agreed, but late last night had not intuited why. This note is an effort to try to articulate the nature of those doors that I felt open.
What do people here think, or feel about this idea in general -- that exercises in confronting our primal fears may be transferable to the "leaving the fold" process? Has anyone had experiences similar to what I had while skydiving that either supports, or does confirms this idea?
| The following is a lightly edited version of the note I sent to a physicist/neuroscientist with whom I participate on a science and religion e-mail list. I have immense respect for this fellow. However, we have been politely disagreeing with regard to the strategies that are most likely to be helpful to people who want to try to take the sharp edges off religious behavior. My friend has taken the position that some of the insights into fundamental reality offered by quantum theory, quantum mechanics, etc. may be helpful in that regard. I had earlier indicated to him that I did not believe quantum theory to be relevant to the realm of human perception and behavior (he agreed), and therefore did not believe strategies based on the mystery, beauty, etc. of the quantum world were likely to be helpful to changing the way in which the religious aspect of the human world works. He asked me to set out my alternative suggestions for change. I responded as follows:
Thanks Stan. I have several quantum mechanics (QM) for laypeople books at home, but am always interested in hearing recommendations from people whose opinions I respect. You and Helmut both certainly fall into that camp.
A clarification with regard to my view of QM. As far as I can tell, there is nothing speculative about the basic data and theory. It appropriately describes both what is known, and what is speculated about the atomic world. What is clearly speculative (and at this point likely unjustifiable) is any posited relationship between QM and how the brain functions or any other aspect of human behavior. I was referring to no more than that. So, again, in my view it is not helpful to try to use something that is probably irrelevant to the world of human behavior and perception to help people to better understand that world, or build bridges from one part of that world to another.
As to how we might best go about our bridge building, I don't think there is a silver bullet and so favor a variety of approaches. Human social evolution is so complex that many different strategies are likely to have positive effects. As Helmut indicated earlier this morning, thankfully our species is so diverse that many different kinds of people will be inclined toward different approaches in this regard. Some will be more productive than others. It is accordingly worthwhile to evaluate each proposed approach in terms of its potential efficacy, and encourage those that are likely to be effective. As already indicated, I have not been able to find an approach based on QM that will in my view likely be effective.
Here are a few of the approaches that I think are interesting.
- Emphasis on praxis (behavior) as the important attribute of religious (and social) behavior, and de-emphasis of the importance of belief. Karen Armstrong and others have been recommending this for a long time. As religious systems mature, this appears to be a natural part of their evolutionary arc. By focusing on this, we can perhaps accelerate the process. Raising the consciousness within each religious group of respected historical figures with those groups that used this approach is one of the best ways to soften current literalist attitudes. Most members of most religious groups overestimate the stability of belief and behavior patterns within the group over time.
- Emphasis on privileging the scientific view to the extent that it is relevant to any topic. This will entail a movement away from literal religious belief and toward metaphor. Again, demonstrating how this is a part of the history of the religious group in question will likely be helpful. Most religious groups have a history of gradually letting go of literalist beliefs as they are challenged by science. Galileo is usually helpful in this regard. On the other hand, the strident approach taken by the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al) on this point is generally unhelpful, even though they are for the most part correct in principle.
- Emphasis on the importance of moral belief and behavior that embrace the largest possible group and longest possible time frame. This amounts to breaking down small tribe boundaries, and encouraging a large tribe (global, multi-generational) morality and worldview. Again, it is usually possible to show how this has happened already to a degree with the group in question.
- Emphasis the issues that unite humanity, such as what we face regarding the population and ecological crises. Nothing creates alliances among enemies better than a common threat. This will probably be an important strategy relative to the establishment of a large tribe, long-term, ethos. This is also related to the praxis versus belief approach in that praxis will be the large tribe concept, while encouraging metaphysical belief, ritual, small tribe history, etc. as important distinguishing features that enhance the texture of our global social fabric. I like the approach advocated by EO Wilson and others like him in this regard (see http://www.npr.org/templates/story/st...).
- Misperceptions (new false beliefs, for example) are sometimes helpful in getting us off older, and worse, beliefs. Some aspects of QM may work to an extent in this regard. For example, the belief in some sort of fuzzy, QM version of deity may help some people let go of their much more toxic, literalist beliefs. However, this still replaces one false literal belief with another. While this is progress of a sort, I do not believe it is wise to consciously go down this road. Many people will go down it in any event.
- There is a variety of recent evidence, based in social psychology and neurology, that we can change conscious processing and behavior by bringing subconscious processes into conscious view. For example, the more aware we are of the way in which our instincts are affected by historical and cultural factors (like our instinct to eat too much, exercise too little, favour our own race and accept the opinions of authority figures within our group), the less effect these forces have on us. I think this research may be helpful in terms of developing strategies to change individual perception and behavior, and therefore social dynamics, with respect to each of the issues noted above.
- Perhaps most importantly, we should emphasize the way in which group rules and conditions influence individual belief and behavior. For example, there is a strong correlation between the strength of the social safety net, and the declining strength of the dogmatic, small tribe oriented, religious groups. If universal healthcare and better unemployment insurance/job retraining/welfare systems were put into place in the United States, for example, over the course of a generation or two, this would probably weaken to a significant extent the tendency toward which relist religious belief, and allegiance to many now powerful dogmatic religious groups. The more I learn about complex systems theory and what they probably demonstrate with regard to human social behavior, the more inclined I am to focus on attempting to change the foundational rules of our social groups as a means to changing what are perceived to be our deepest and most individual beliefs and choices.
Finally, to sound a few realist notes, there is strong evidence that bridge building works for the most part on a generational basis. Effort directed toward adults will be far less productive than effort directed toward children. In particular, we should try to change the structure of society and the educational system in particular, that will influence the formation of belief and behavior during childhood.
I also think that this is how the emphasis on praxis versus belief, and the privileging of the scientific worldview over dogmatic worldviews, are likely to make their effects felt. In each case, these changes are likely to occur on the basis of a phase transition. That is, we should expect a lot of energy to go into the system without the perception of much change, and then for a large amount of change to occur over a relatively short period of time. And the efforts made now are unlikely to show much effect until, at earliest, the generation of children who are influenced by our efforts come of age.
This is one of the most important points Daniel Dennett has been pushing -- basic change to the way in which our educational system works. I posted here a while ago something with regard to Québec. It is the first jurisdiction in North America to adopt mandatory religious studies courses for high school students. As I understand it, this is common in Europe. This is the kind of change that has the potential to change religious perspectives and behaviors.
My final realist thought is to note the evidence that a multiplicity of social forms are necessary in order to create the material from which social evolution will construct the forms best suited to deal with changing environmental circumstances. This is an application of evolutionary theory at the human group level that is derived from the necessity of creating an abundance of forms, many of which will not survive, so as to provide a sufficient array from which functional forms can be selected by the environment as it changes. This applies, so far as we can tell, to all phenomena that are subject to evolutionary theory. This means that many social groups, and the individuals within them, have a high probability of dysfunction and failure. The forces of evolution care as little about this as they do about the impact of the vast majority of genetic mutations. In each case, the fate of the individual (whether a virus, bacterium, or human being) affected by the mutation does not matter from an evolutionary system point of view, whereas the diversity of form created by the mutations in totality is crucial.
This principle helps to explain the power and ubiquity of our faulty perception (including the cognitive biases and what we call denial) and how this tends to bind human individuals into often obviously (to outsiders) dysfunctional groups. That is, dysfunction at the individual level ironically creates important function at the level of the human species on a long term basis. There are many examples of this. One of the best known is the irrational belief of individual investors (including the best professionals) that they can beat the publicly traded stock markets. Yet if every investor accepted the market's wisdom and stopped investigating and betting on individual companies, the wisdom of the market (the aggregate of all that investigation and betting) would cease to exist. Hence, the irrationality of investors (a lower order dysfunction) creates the market's wisdom (a higher order function). There seems to be a deep, hive kind of intelligence directing our actions in this regard.
Similarly, diversity of human social group form (conformist v. individualistic; communist v. democratic; etc.) and the beliefs that maintain those forms are required in order for a wide range of possibilities to exist as our species attempts to cope with an evironment that changes radically from time to time. A force similar to (if not the same as) what is responsible for the irrational market behavior described above appears to be responsible for the way in which individuals tend to resist information that is rationally sufficient to disclose the dysfunction and/or irrationality of their group's foundational claims and basic behaviors.
Hence, if history is insufficient to make us modest in our aspirations to get people to agree with each other as to the best way to believe and live, the deep forces just described should do the trick.
In short, we face certain basic limitations in our bridge building efficacy.
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