21 September 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part IV)

In a 2007 interview for a PBS documentary about the LDS Church, the late President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “[Our foundation] is either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.” As President Hinckley succinctly stated, Latter-day Saints are taught to accept the Church as a bundled package. There isn’t much middle ground (according to the official viewpoint at least). There is little room for people like me that are inclined to believe about 44% of Mormonism (1).

A lot of modern Christians do not regard belief as such an all-or-nothing proposition. They might look at the contradiction between a literal belief in Genesis in the Bible and current understanding of human history and evolution and choose the latter while enjoying the other benefits of their faith. They may not believe in a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, but rather view that story in a figurative capacity, whose main purpose is to teach spiritual truths. Because of this doctrinal selectivity, they might be called ‘Cafeteria Christians’. Such fragmentation of belief really doesn’t exist in orthodox Mormonism. It isn’t where Church leaders want members to go.

Belief and compliance are pretty central to Mormonism. The LDS embodiment of belief is a 'testimony'. A testimony is both a public affirmation of belief and a very private affair. Any visit to a testimony meeting (traditionally held on the first Sunday of each month), confirms the central role that testimony plays in Mormon identity and mindset. In these meetings, individual Mormons from the congregation volunteer to share a brief witness of their beliefs to the whole congregation. Testimony meetings are a form of encouraged confirmation bias. When testimonies are shared, the verb ‘know’ is usually used in place of ‘believe’. Even young children will share statements before a congregation such as ‘I know Joseph Smith was a prophet’. Mormons are promised that their testimonies will grow as they share them. The testimony is sacred in Mormonism. It is nourished, protected and shared. Its arch nemesis is doubt.

Mixing testimony, LDS social dynamics, and the strong claims of divine Church origins creates a distinct Mormon fingerprint regarding belief. This common pattern of belief (with individual variation, of course) creates a number of interesting phenomena in Mormon culture. The first is an interesting linkage between faith and personal righteousness (typically termed ‘worthiness’). Doubt is viewed negatively, and while perhaps not a sin technically, it is seen in Mormonism as a weakness. Church leaders have taught that faith and doubt do not co-exist in the same mind simultaneously (2). Members seldom express doubt about Church teachings in public settings. A very prevalent adage says that ‘The Church is perfect but the members are not’. The Mormon linkage between faith and worthiness is also manifest in interviews between lay members and ecclesiastical leaders to determine worthiness to enter into the temples of the Church. In addition to questions about sexual purity, honesty, and abstinence from alcohol or tobacco in these interviews, members are asked if they have a belief in the restoration of the Church, a belief in the Godhead (trinity) and if they affiliate or sympathize with views or organizations that are contrary to official doctrine. So even though doubt can be an important prerequisite for refining human understanding, it is given poor treatment in Mormon culture. In my more skeptical moments, I find the heavy emphasis on certainty in Mormon discourse to be nauseating.

Secondly, criticism of the leadership is viewed very unfavorably in Mormonism. Because the upper hierarchy of the Church is seen as the connection between God and the rest of humanity, these men occupy a distinct position of respect in the theology. Their teachings are often seen as infallible because they come from God. Leaders may from time to time encourage this special deference to their position and viewpoints (3). Furthermore, in LDS temples Mormons make a covenant to avoid “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed”. At the very least, this culture of deference to authority tempers public expression of alternative doctrinal viewpoints in the Church. In Mormonism, revelation and doctrinal exposition are top-down processes which are closed to significant debate among the lay membership.

Another interesting effect of LDS belief patterns on member behavior is a tendency for some members of the Church to engage in self censorship (4). Because faith is linked with righteousness and one’s standing in the faith community, there is a strong incentive to protect the integrity of that belief system. Many members avoid reading “anti-Mormon literature”, a term that can encompass anything that speaks negatively about the Church. Other members may avoid specific academic subjects that are likely to contain ideas that threaten their testimony of Mormonism. Those could include anthropology, cosmology, evolution or archaeology. More subtly, much spiritual energy can be spent by some members trying to protect their testimonies. I speak of this from experience, having spent many years putting doubts aside, or giving uncomfortable doctrines the benefit of the doubt. A recent study found that BYU professors in fact, in large proportion, avoided researching topics that may put them into conflict with the Church (5).

A final curiosity about the fingerprint of Mormon faith is the phenomenon of apologists in the Church. Apologists seek to sustain and promote official or traditional viewpoints of the scriptures and Mormon beliefs and history by engaging in scholarship. Organizations such as FARMS produce academic works with the purpose of supporting Mormon ideology and history. While these academics may be trained in scientific methodology and do careful detailed research, they may not always approach their subjects in a scientifically-sound manner. Apologists tend to find evidence for questions for which they think they already have the answer. This type of scholarship can be more of a scavenger hunt that an objective enterprise that starts with more open-ended questions. The answer precedes the evidence, not the other way around as should be the case in science. My brief experience with Mormon apologist writings suggests that they can get lost in a forest of details. They may write lengthy papers abounding in footnotes about a single inscription on an ancient stone in Central America in search of credible evidence for Book of Mormon historicity, all the while ignoring abundant DNA and archaeological data that give little credence to a literalist Mormon view of ancient history.

All of the tough stuff of Mormonism – the polygamy and polyandry, similarities between the temple endowment and Masonic ritual, racist policies prior to 1978, multiple and incongruent accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, Biblical literalism, the historicity of the Book of Mormon – can put the traditional testimony in jeopardy. Of course members try to deal with these challenges in one way or another (as long as they are aware of them in the first place). Apologists may devise convoluted explanations to support implausible Mormon concepts and rank and file members may just put these questions on a mental shelf filed under ‘unknown’. But in all of the effort devoted to maintain the traditional testimony, I’ve come to believe that other mental values like open-mindedness, intellectual parsimony, and even common sense can get pushed to the wayside. If I had not been a participant in these mental gymnastics myself for some time, I probably wouldn’t be so critical about how more orthodox Latter-day Saints sometimes approach questions of truth.

Not all Latter-day Saints are literalists, and certainly not all are apologists. I am acquainted with individuals who express doubts (even if generally only in private conversation). Other people have let those doubts hold enough sway that they have more or less left the Church all together. But I think it is the core population of Mormonism – those who diligently attend the temple and most of the leadership in the Church – that really believes in the whole package. At least they have convinced themselves that they should believe, because a faithful Mormon is a good Mormon.

In my opinion this black and white view of the world, flavored with the supernatural, breaks down for many people with time. The exit from orthodoxy may start as a simple willingness to ask some hard questions about Church history or specific Mormon beliefs. If the skepticism is coupled with investigation, members are likely to encounter a lot of new information that is at odds with official positions of the Church. It can be time consuming (and perhaps impossible in some cases) to thoroughly investigate all the claims that challenge orthodox Mormonism. But for me at least, the list of concerns and improbabilities began to grow so long and comprehensive that it seemed ever less plausible that Mormonism as a complete package could accurately reflect ultimate truth.

I’ve beat up on Mormonism a fair amount in this post. However, I think it is important to discuss these weaknesses because they are seldom articulated in Church settings. I ask my readers to interpret my criticisms as manifestation of many years of frustration finally venting a little in a public setting, not as blanket condemnation of the Church. Personally, I spent too many hours being silent in church when I was uncomfortable with the certainty, skeptical about the miracles, or dissatisfied with the conformity. My cynicism here doesn’t reflect the totality of my experience with Mormonism; I’ve written briefly about some positives here. Optimism, hard work, service, honesty, sacrifice and a knack for attracting highly motivated and generous individuals are the better fruits of Mormonism.

In this series of posts I’ve discussed tensions between religion and science. Both endeavors make positive contributions to humanity. Belief is a powerful force in the human experience. It can inspire acts of charity. It can bring people together and fuel the flames of optimism. But when incongruent with the truth or used as a social or political weapon, it can lead to dark manifestations of human behavior. When religious tenets and empiricism are in conflict, I’ll side with science with the understanding that it too changes and grows with time and new discoveries. More so than the data it uncovers, it is the method of science that I think has the most to offer all of us seeking truth. The scientific method is self-correcting, progressive, and democratic. Because there is the tendency to hold tightly to the past, religion can use some good housecleaning. It is time to refurbish the improbable and unscientific rooms of religion for a less cluttered and more useful place for the soul to take refuge.


1. Somewhat arbitrarily-chosen number. :)
2. See the Lectures on Faith and this article by President Monson.
3. For example, in 1985 Elder Oaks cautioned against “criticiz[ing] or depreciat[ing] a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true.” He stated the following year that, “The counsel against faultfinding and evilspeaking applies with special force to criticisms of Church leaders.” Lavina Fielding Anderson chronicled this and other similar statements by Church leaders that discourage intellectual non-conformity or criticism of Church leadership.
4. Censorship is institutionalized to a small degree in the Church as well. At least when I served in the 1990s, missionaries were encouraged to read only from the scriptures and a few pre-approved religious texts. Church members leading classes are admonished to only use a very limited set of Church-approved materials in their instruction. Such homogenization of Church instruction across the world is known as “correlation”, a somewhat Orwellian term and process that may be administratively efficient but one which may significantly suppress theological diversity within Mormonism.
5. Rose, P.M. 1999. The Zion university reverie: A quantitative and qualitative assessment of BYU’s academic climate. Dialogue 32:35-50. An eye-opening statistic from this report: when asked if “BYU professors should not conduct even sound research that may draw into question church or university procedures”, 66.1% of respondents from a randomly-selected sample of faculty answered that they agreed or strongly agreed.

09 September 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part III)

As I discussed in part I of this post, belief in irrational and improbable stories are part of virtually all religious traditions. Why do many believe in the improbable, the irrational and the miraculous? Does it serve a purpose individually or collectively for groups of believers? What is the mental and spiritual price one pays when the choice is made to no longer believe? Full treatment of these questions requires considerably more thought and discussion that I am able to give presently, but I want to explore a few ideas below.

One general advantage of belief is the social benefits it accrues. Common belief can be a nucleus around which shared identity is formed and maintained. Tight social cohesion is a major benefit of identification with a specific religious group. Belief in a common mythology sets a group of individuals apart from others and gives them a shared social identity. I understand and appreciate this benefit of religion. It is one manifestation of our clannish nature as human beings – much like club membership, sports allegiance, political affiliation, or even sexual identity.

But why are miracles – events that are irrational, untestable, and, for most of us, foreign to our individual experiences – such a consistent part of religion? Why does religious sociality incorporate the supernatural? Miracles seem to be a way for the human mind to deal with the unknown. I suppose there is a natural human aversion for uncertainty. After all, the unknown is unsettling and disturbing. We can easily imagine how unsettling ancient uncertainties were for our ancestors: When and where will the herds return next season? When will a natural calamity strike next? Will this illness kill me or my family? In our modern world, we have exerted such a degree of control over nature that food, water, shelter and safety are consistently available for most of us. But even so, the psychological landscape in our more affluent societies still remains full of unknowns today: employment stability, financial strains, relationship troubles, and health care, for instance.

Of course uncertainty is a certainty in life. But for the religious mind, miracles point to God, who is the lone unassailable place of safety. God is a rock, a lighthouse, a Savior, a refuge, a comforter. These kinds of descriptions of God, devoid of uncertainty, abound in Christian scriptures. God ultimately may not remove the uncertainty inherent in our lives, but rather overshadows it. Without the link to God, the inexplicable can be too unsettling. Linked to God, uncertainties point to a power and understanding greater than our own. God renders death, illness, separation, loss, pain, and cruelty tolerable.

Interestingly, superstition (and religion more generally) may have evolved in connection with humankind’s long struggle over millennia of evolution to wrestle control over an unsympathetic natural world. In a fascinating history, Kirkpatrick Sale outlines the cultural advances in prehistoric Homo sapiens (starting about 70,000 years ago) and argues that art and magic may have evolved out of a need or desire for humans to exert further control over their environment (1). Over thousands of years, loss of prey populations (over-hunting) and continued changes in environmental conditions (a massive volcanic eruption ~71,000 years ago; loss of hunting grounds or prey abundance due to advancing Ice Age glaciers) brought stresses to human populations that were developing culturally and were increasing in population size.

As an ecologist, I find Sale’s connection between the history of human cultural development and external environmental changes intriguing. Here is how he summarizes the religious implications of the explosion of art in southern Europe starting some 35,000 years ago: “Whatever kinds of magic and ritual were practiced with the sculptures and paintings, of which we can only have a small idea today, they all involve some form of human effort to have control over nature … with symbolic art, and particularly the charged rituals in deep caves, humans became involved in a new relationship to the animal world, or at least were attempting to extend their old relationship in a new way … How fateful, that: the attempt to be independent, or to think of oneself as independent, from an ecosystem on whose bounty one is entirely dependent for sustaining life itself is delusional, and can be maintained only by tortuous ideas of self-importance and wrathful practices of self-enhancement.” If Sale’s argument about the ecological context in which religion evolved is reasonably accurate, I find the resulting irony fascinating: though religion’s initial function may have been to increasingly dominate the outside natural world, it eventually became a system of beliefs that emphasized its actual inferiority to even higher powers.

Many thousands of years after the explosion in cave paintings by Stone Age humans, there still seems to be a near universal pull in humankind to the divine. Most Americans today, for instance, still believe in a higher power. While the modern American religious landscape is diverse and complex, a surprising percentage of people, in fact, cannot bring themselves to accept the scientific evidence for evolution. In our scientific age, many of the answers to the ancient mysteries that religion supposedly once addressed can now be found in natural phenomena. Science may not have erased the need for spirituality, but it does offer compelling alternatives to many of the old religious explanations. Why then does belief in improbable miracles persist when such events are more reliably explained by natural phenomena?

Perhaps the strongest reason may just be tradition, cultural inertia if you will. Miracles were born in times when scientific explanations were much less available to most people. They became incorporated into religious texts and became part of the narratives written about the divine. They served some utility too, because they could be a way of enhancing God’s greatness and our ultimate dependence on him. But in more recent times, they may come more as appendages to the more meaningful body of religious ideas – mythology, ethics and self-empowerment – we may tend to focus on today.

Another answer, I suppose, may be provided by a simple psychological phenomenon I learned about as an undergraduate in an introductory psychology class: confirmation bias. This is the tendency to pay particular attention to new information that sustains a person’s belief systems. We all do this. The mind creates a filter on incoming information. We seek out, remember, and transmit information that confirms beliefs that we already have formed. On the other hand, new information that contradicts our current belief structure is dismissed, forgotten, trivialized or ignored. If, for instance, we grow up learning that evolution is an evil and erroneous theory from a young age, we are likely to pay particular attention to any pieces of evidence that confirm our belief in this viewpoint.

But tradition and confirmation bias cannot explain it all. Though there are likely many people who uncritically accept religious claims, many religious adherents are also deeply aware of the contradictions that sometimes arise between elements of their faith traditions and more scientific sources of information. They realize that their religious worldview is not always congruent with our modern understanding of history, anthropology, or cosmology. For some followers, the compulsion to continue belief in the improbable may then come from a deeper need to stay connected with a religion that permeates family life, community life, or perhaps even employment. Any threat to such a deeply held belief structure is more that just a challenge to an academic understanding of some remote facet of the universe; such threats can be threats to family cohesion, individual identity or purpose, or one’s place in a faith community. For a few people, it may be easier to sacrifice some measure of rational thinking than to abandon a belief system that brings other social and psychological benefits.

This thought process presupposes than an individual views his or her religion as a single package that one is to accept or reject in totality. In all likelihood, this may not be a very common way of thinking for most modern religious adherents. I assume that there are many people who are comfortable accepting much of their religious tradition while rejecting ideas that are improbable (like miracles) or otherwise unacceptable (like sexism) to them. But blanket (or near universal) acceptance of religious doctrine is relatively common in Mormonism. I’ll explore this phenomenon more in the upcoming final post in this series.

(1) Sale, K. 2006. After Eden. The Evolution of Human Domination. Duke University Press, (quotation is from p.61).