Monday, May 10, 2010

Knowledge is Satan's Plan

Over at Mormon Matters there was an interesting discussion about magical thinking in Mormonism. There were some excellent comments made by many. One comment I'd like to address in this post was made by Thomas:

I believe that God does intervene in history — but only in a manner by which he can preserve “plausible deniability.” If miracles were frequent & obvious enough that a reasonable person paying attention would conclude that divine intervention were more likely than not to be occurring, then this life would no longer be a test of our hearts, proving to God (or, more likely given God’s wisdom, to ourselves) that we love God and righteousness for their own sake. It would only show that we could be bought.

For whatever the reason, it appears that living through a random, unjust heartless universe is a necessary condition for the kind of ultimate existence God wants us to experience. Faith is really nothing more or less than believing this — that the “broad arc” of a faithful life is ultimately worthwhile.


While it may be possible for the Lord to sneak the odd one or two dramatic physical blessings into the world without spoiling the isolation of the experiment, I think that since it is critical that the just live by faith, as opposed to certain knowledge, there must always have to be a choice to interpret what comes to us as a divine blessing, or something ordinary. I choose to believe that certain experiences, thoughts and feelings are divinely sent — but I recognize the possibility that it could be coincidence, or neurons, or an undigested bit of beef. It’s not obvious — and so there is always the choice available to me not to believe. I think that’s how it has to be, if salvation is not to be just a simple purchase transaction.

I've heard this before. God cannot give us certain knowledge of his existence, otherwise we wouldn't be able to exercise faith. As my home teacher put it, God works through faith and Satan works through knowledge. Why is it that internet Mormons who recognize the difficulty of interpreting claims of divine intervention make the leap from there to saying that direct, unambiguous divine intervention would be the equivalent of Satan's plan to compel everyone into being righteous? It seems to me that Mormonism is predicated on the existence of a humanly identifiable cause and effect relationship between obedience to God's commandments and blessings. If you take this away, I cannot see what there is left.

Thomas posits that this life is a test to see if we will love God and righteousness for their own sake. He seems to be backed up by the scriptures (Abraham 3:25):
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
The problem I see is that if we are not supposed to be able to tell whether or not obeying God's commandments actually results in blessings, then what is the justification for requiring that a person believes in any particular instantiation of God and His Commandments in order to be saved? Our internet Mormon in this case must resort to the spiritual realm, saying that this life is a test to see if we'll follow our feelings (spiritual impressions, whatever you want to call them), which naturally point toward belief in God and perhaps even in Mormonism. So we purposefully can't distinguish cause and effect between obedience to commandments and blessings, yet we can reliably distinguish emotional responses and confirmation bias from a metaphysical objective truth gauge given to us by an external and invisible being. No, I'm afraid I don't buy that for three reasons: 1) people in the church confuse their feelings with spiritual promptings almost as a rule, 2) people from other faiths make the same spiritual claims about completely contradicting doctrines, and if this was an argument by numbers they would overwhelmingly win, and 3) people's beliefs follow the culture and/or religion they were raised in, and not everybody feels drawn to God.

Faith, as defined in the Book of Mormon, is to "hope for things which are not seen, which are true." Since we necessarily cannot rely on our feelings (spiritual eyes) or any other kind of scientific evidence (physical eyes) to determine if God exists, there is no basis on which to declare that God exists in the first place, and this definition of faith becomes self-contradicting.

We are now left with two possibilities. Since we cannot reliably ascertain whether God exists by obeying his commandments, and we cannot trust our feelings to reliably indicate whether God exists, then either 1) God is a big jerk, saving only those who chose to believe the right things for no other reason than that they were in the right place at the right time and kept a sufficiently gullible disposition in regards to their religion, or 2) whether or not God exists, this whole idea of "salvation" as a belief-discriminating principle, requiring "faith" in something spectacular without any distinguishable physical or emotional (spiritual) evidence, is false. In order for a fair and just God to exclude a non-believer for not believing, the lack of belief would have to be dishonest in some way, like a willful rejection of what is undeniably true. In other words, it couldn't be possible for a true non-believer to exist, because if someone truly does not believe, and they admit that they do not believe, they are necessarily being honest. If an honest non-believer were to be punished for it by God, then God is indeed a jerk.

Mormonism, and religion in general, is very reluctant to allow for honest non-believers, at least not the ones who have already heard the gospel message. The Book of Mormon does not allow for it at all, in fact. In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites are given a pass because they "dwindled in unbelief". Their parents never taught them the gospel, and they were bloodthirsty and iniquitous only because that's what they were raised to be. The Nephites, on the other hand, were fully accountable for their knowledge of the gospel, and from there they take one of two possible directions: 1) they remain faithful to the gospel, or 2) they fall into an even darker iniquity than the Lamanites. Korihor, who is the archetype of atheists in Mormonism, was ultimately proven to be a liar who believed all along.

Well, according to Thomas's comment above, God must provide enough plausible deniability to allow for an honest person to come to their own independent conclusion that God is simply not there. This does not require dishonesty or a rejection of an innate knowledge of God. It may, however, require an effort to distance oneself from natural cognitive biases when trying to come closer to objective truths.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chapel Mormons Versus Apologists

In the latest episode of Mormon Expression, John Larsen and Bridget Jack Jeffries interviewed Seth Rogers and Kevin Barney, who are both involved with apologetics for the church to some extent. During the podcast, the following discussion occurred:

John Larsen: The charge has also been levied that the Mormon religion as represented by FARMS or FAIR may be considerably different than the religion that's commonly believed or practiced in the pews, that there is kind of a gulf between say, the Internet religion and the religion that occurs in the chapels. How do you all respond to that charge?

Seth Rogers: I think the chapel views would be more similar to the internet views if they were out there dealing with the same arguments. But they don't have to deal with the same arguments. So they have a different experience with their religion, and a different way of articulating it.

Kevin Barney: Yeah, obviously I (disagree?) with the genesis of that distinction. I think there's something to it. When you say "internet Mormons", it's not just apologists. You look on the Bloggernacle, that's a very self selected group. They tend to be young, they tend to be well educated, they tend to be very knowledgeable about the church. Even though most of them don't see themselves as apologists, you can throw out any obscure issue regarding the church, and most of those people are familiar with it and not bothered by it. That's a very unusual subset. You go into an average ward and that's not the case. You've got a much broader range of people. My own mother doesn't even know how to do email. ...
You've got a huge gap in terms of comfort and familiarity with the resources of the Internet there. So yeah I think there's something to it, but, for example, the apologists I know all consider ourselves faithful and believing. We're active in our church communities, we participate with them, and I don't think we really perceive ourselves as "other" in that way. But it's true that kind of by definition that we have a certain education on these issues that maybe your average Mormon doesn't have.

Seth Rogers: In some ways I find the question interesting but in other ways I'm really not interested by the question of whether there's a distinction between internet and chapel Mormons, simply because this is a faith where you gain your own testimony. You gain your own conviction of the church, and you're (repeatedly?) encouraged to do so. So am I different from other Mormons? To a certain extent I don't really care if I am or not, because ultimately this is my religion and it's my testimony and it's my faith. I have to own it. I have to take ownership of that and come up with the conclusions that I come up with after reading the scriptures, reading the history, (sustaining?) the modern prophets and taking it all together. So a part of me doesn't really care if I'm driving the bus or not, because in some ways we're encouraged to do so. I think there is a lot more diversity of opinion held privately within the Mormon church than people give it credit for. I mean we all wear white shirts, suits, and ties, right? And we all gather in the same conference center and there are millions of us and all that sort of stuff, you know, and it's easy for people to think that the church is basically one big Borg cube from Star Trek. But really on the private level there's a surprising diversity of beliefs. I read one blog post from a Jewish blogger who has a bit of an interest in the Mormon church talking about how they were taking a motorcycle tour through Utah and stopped over in Manti, and they sat in on the local high priests and Sunday school gathering. And they talked about how there was just a wild variety of viewpoints being shot out in that high priests group and in the Sunday school. And the Jewish blogger who was well familiar with Mormonism said in a lot of ways these guys were well off the reservation. But in another sense they were the Mormon (______? something like archetype?), so firmly Mormon and so firmly identified as Mormon that no one was going to question whether they were, based on the (____?), just the ideas they were holding there.

Kevin Barney: You should also be aware that there is plenty of diversity within the ranks of apologists as well. Sometimes people have the idea that that's a single hive mind or something, and that's not true at all. It's a little bit like high priests group sometimes with the various opinions and perspectives on things, so there's plenty of diversity to go around.

I think that the reason why people bring up this difference between chapel Mormons and internet/apologist Mormons is that sometimes when a common chapel belief is brought up as an example of Mormon belief, a more apologetic Mormon will respond with, "Psh, I don't believe that. You obviously know nothing about Mormonism."

In other words, apologists will sometimes use their own unique take on Mormon doctrine as a basis from which to refute claims about what Mormons believe. This makes less and less sense the more their beliefs stray from what an average church attending Mormon might hear every week from the pulpit and Sunday school.

There are many beliefs which I have found in my experience to be standard among chapel Mormons, and which I have seen internet Mormons and even some apologists typically reject. A few examples:
  • Very literal belief in Bible stories such as Noah's ark, talking donkey, the Tower of Babel, etc, etc, etc.
  • The leaders of the church have a direct line to God and can be considered, though still imperfect, still much less fallible than any other kind of leader as a result.
  • The Book of Abraham was directly and literally translated from ancient texts.
  • Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using the Urim and Thummim by looking at the symbols on the gold plates.
  • Homosexuality is evil, people fall into it rather than being naturally homosexual, and Prop 8 was a happy ending.
  • People who leave the church do so because they are iniquitous or offended.
  • Pornography will blast a crater in your brain.
  • Masturbation is a self abusive and sinful act.
  • Joseph Smith was a picturesque and ideal man who had a poignant and beautiful monogamous relationship with Emma.
  • Polygamy was God's doing.
  • Joseph Smith was incarcerated out of pure satanic, anti-Mormon hatred and nothing else. People in the mob's future generations reaped misery and sorrow because of it.
  • Mormons never did and never do anything to warrant such awful persecution.
  • Men and women should all follow traditional roles.
  • The Sunday school manuals and church magazines are like manna from heaven.
  • If you don't receive a testimony through the Moroni challenge, you're doing it wrong. Keep doing it until you get the right answer.
  • The blacks & priesthood issue was God's doing.
  • Wearing two earrings are a solid indication of a morally lacking character. (IT'S NOT ABOUT THE EARRINGS ALRIGHT?!)
This is the kind of stuff that gets preached at the pulpit, the front of the Sunday school class, and even from general conference. It does no good to say, "Psh, I don't believe that." You may not believe it, and you may not be required to believe it, but the majority of Mormons absolutely do believe it and preach it.