Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pascal's Wager

One argument for belief in God is this: if God exists, then we have everything to gain by believing in Him (i.e. eternal bliss). But if God doesn't exist, and we believe in Him, then no worries - since death ends all anyway. However, if God exists, but we didn't believe in Him, then we lose everything (i.e. eternal damnation). Therefore (the argument goes) you'd be better off just believing. Better safe than sorry! This pragmatic argument for belief in God, called Pascal's Wager, originates from the 17th century mathematician (and theological hedger) Blaise Pascal.

However, I see a few problems with Pascal's argument.

First, it's not even an argument for God's existence. At best it's a tepid hedging tactic, and at worst it's nothing but a scare tactic.  Fear is a great motivator, and without the threat of eternal punishment, religion would lose much of it's clout. It was Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher, who said "Fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods." However, there is no evidence of an afterlife. And even if you believed that anecdotal near death experiences are evidence of an afterlife, there is no evidence of God's wrath in an afterlife. We just don't need to be scared of something that there's no evidence of. This is something I'm trying to teach my 6 and 8 year old, when they refuse to go upstairs alone because they are scared of a nonexistent Bogey-man. You don't have to be scared of the Bogey-man upstairs: or another one who sends people to hell (sorry, the Telestial Kingdom).

However, most believers will not consciously admit to having a belief in God that is motivated by fear. It is a poor reason for belief, and believers and nonbelievers alike will usually admit this. More commonly, believers will be motivated to believe in God based on an eternal reward of some kind: everlasting life with God, everlasting life with loved ones, or everlasting life free of worry, pain, and grief. However, just as there is no evidence of eternal punishment, there is also no evidence of eternal reward (Wouldn't it be nice though?). Belief in these unsubstantiated rewards is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Next, Pascal's Wager assumes that you lose nothing by believing in God - even if it turns out the God doesn't exist. You would be dead after all (and things can't trouble you when you are oblivious). However, is this right? Do we risk nothing by choosing to believe in God? What about all the time, effort, and money spent trying to please God - if it turns out this God is nonexistent? What about all the the opportunity cost of belief? Just think of all the other things you could have done with your time and resources instead of devoting them to a religion that makes false claims? I would argue the opportunity cost of religion is huge, and that these costs cannot be recouped. If we are lucky, each of us gets about 3 billion heart beats in life. Time is what our lives are made of, and if we squander it in devotion to a God who doesn't exist, I would argue that there is an opportunity cost involved. If you disagree, then ask yourself how you would feel about someone who worshiped Zeus daily, preached the gospel of Zeus in foreign lands, shunned family and friends who didn't believe in Zeus, and gave 10% of their money for the support of the "Kingdom of Zeus" on Earth. I'd say that person was missing out on something.

And speaking of Zeus, how do we know HE wasn't the god that we should worship? Yahweh is a relatively new God - as far as the gods go: the new god on the block.  The pantheon of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods number in the hundreds. How do we know we shouldn't worship one of them? What if people were wrong to trade in these gods for the jealous God Yahweh? And what about all the other gods that were worshiped by pre-civilized societies: gods of the Sun, moon, rain, thunder, ocean, harvest, fertility, the hunt, war, volcanoes, diseases, pestilence, etc, etc, etc. Maybe humans were wrong to stop believing in them? We just can't be sure.

But let's just assume, for argument's sake, that the Christians worship the right God. Which one of the 30,000 different Christian variant churches is right? Most of these religions espouse mutually exclusive means of salvation. Since most Christians (ie. Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) believe you have to practice their version of Christianity to be saved, not only do you have to choose the right God, but you also have to choose the right religion.

And what makes you think Christianity is the right religion? Let's face it: if you are Christian, you are Christian because you were born in a Christian society. If you were born in Iraq or Pakistan, you would probably be Muslim. There are over a billion Muslims who believe that Christians won't make it to heaven. However, Christians believe Muslims won't make it to heaven.  And even within Christianity and Islam, believers think that believers in the different sects will not be saved (ie. Sunni vs Shia or Catholic vs Protestant). Seems like everyone is going to hell according to someone. And yet, Christians don't worry about the hell that Muslims think they are going to. And Muslims don't worry about the hell that Christians think they are going to. Is it so surprising then that atheist don't believe in the hell that Christians and Muslims think they are going to? Shouldn't be since we all dismiss, out of hand, the religious claims of billions of religious people.

If we really wanted to be safe, then we should probably worship all the gods that have ever existed, and belong to all the churches that currently exist. The problem is that we don't have enough time in the week, nor years in our life to learn about and worship each and every god, in each and every religion. Surely the real God (if He/She/It existed) would get a little jealous about you worshiping all the other gods out there, and would see through your insincerity, and withhold reward from you.

Finally, even if I wanted to accept Pascal's gambit and believe for eternal security reasons - could I? Can I choose to believe in something, or is belief beyond my ability to control? Well - can you choose to believe Mohammad was the one and only prophet of Allah? Can you choose to believe in the visions and revelations of Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen G. White?  Can you make yourself believe in strange doctrines such as transubstantiation or virgin birth?  I can't, and I don't think you can either (unless you were raised in a religious tradition where you were indoctrinated to believe such things). Similarly, whether you are Mormon, Muslim, or Methodist, relies more on where you were born, rather than what you want to believe.  Therefore, belief is beyond believers control as much as it is beyond non-believers control. Neither I, nor you, nor anyone else, can make themselves believe something that makes no sense to them.  And would God (if God actually existed) reward me for faking belief in Him? Of course not! Shouldn't an omniscient God (assuming I don't tick Him off by believing in the wrong God) know I was just feigning belief in order to get a reward from Him? Of course so!

Therefore, it appears that Pascal's Wager is a pretty worthless wager to take. Seems like there is really no way to play it safe. If you don't believe in any God or gods (nor any religion) this shouldn't trouble you in the least.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The God Debates and the Burden of Proof

Debates between believers and skeptics are all over on the internet. They are usually entertaining and informative dialogues between philosophers, scientists, theologians, and authors who are trying to sell their books about the existence or non-existence of God.  One of the important points in these debates is to establish who has the burden of proof. Usually, it's the person making a claim who needs to present evidence for their claim. This is paramount.

So who is actually making a claim during a debate about the God's existence? The believer usually tries to say that it's the atheist who is making the claim that there is no God. When the atheist fails to prove God's nonexistence, the believer then claims victory - as if God exists by default if His existence can't be disproved.

However, there is something illogical about placing the burden of proof on the atheist. To understand why, ask yourself if you could disprove the existence of an invisible unicorn? Could you prove that fairies do not exist? Could you prove that Zeus or Jupiter do not exist?  Despite the fact that you don't believe in these mythical creatures and once-revered gods, you also can not disprove their existence. Nobody can. Why? Because you can't disprove something doesn't exist. You can't disprove a negative. Whatever it is (a God or ghost), it could always exist in some undiscovered part of the universe - or better yet, it could exist "outside of nature" all together - safe from any possible examination.  Or maybe we just don't have the right tools to locate God with (such as the skeptics lack of faith).  Maybe God doesn't want to be found, and therefore makes it impossible to do so. But this doesn't mean He doesn't exist. Although this is not very convincing, God (or Zeus) could theoretically still be out there. Therefore, you can't disprove the non-existence of something; even something as improbable as invisible unicorns, fairies, or the parody God who goes by the name The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Bertrand Russell, the great 20th century philosopher, used a famous analogy (sometimes called Russell's teapot) which is pertinent to the issue of who has the burden of proof for the existence of God:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Just as one cannot disprove something as improbable as an orbiting teapot between Earth and Mars, similarly, one cannot disprove the existence of God.  Even though there is not the slightest evidence for the existence of such an invisible celestial teapot, you could not disprove it. But belief in God (or orbiting teapots) would make sense if, as Russell points out, it were drilled into your heads from the time you were small children by parents, society, and preachers, reinforced at weekly worship services, and affirmed in holy scripture.

It should now be obvious that it is an impossible task (and a sneaky debate tactic) to try to get an atheist to disprove the existence of God. The burden of proof does not lie with him; it lies with the theist who is making a claim of knowledge! This is an important principle that operates in any respectable court of law. For example, could you imagine a court of law where the burden of proof lies with the defendant to prove his innocence, rather than with the prosecutor to show beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty? Clearly this would be absurd (and reminiscent of the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition).

Next, just because one cannot disprove god's existence, it does not logically follow that the default position is therefore belief in God, or that there is somehow a 50:50 probability for God's existence. Similarly, just because you can't disprove the existence of orbiting teapots doesn't mean that they exist by default, or that the probability of them existing is somehow 50:50. And yet this is what many theists seem to say when they claim that their belief is somehow equiprobable since it cannot be proved to be false.

It must finally be said that atheists are not even making a claim of knowledge to begin with! Atheists (well, at least weak atheists like me) are just saying that we don't BELIEVE in God.  Atheism literally means "without belief in God or gods." We're not claiming to KNOW God doesn't exist. We just don't believe in God or gods. That's it!  Nothing more. Atheists will argue that there aren't good reasons to believe in God. However, this is not making a claim of knowledge; it's just refuting the evidence that believers give.  It's really the opposite of a knowledge claim. Very few atheists go any further, as some positive or strong atheists do, to claim that God does not exist. This claim, as we saw with Russell's teapot analogy, is not tenable. But neither is the existence of God (like Russell's teapot) probable just because it can't be disproved.

So why don't those damned atheists believe like everyone else? There is a long answer to that question. But the best short answer was given by Stephen Roberts, who said "When you understand why you disbelieve in all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Early Christians were even called atheists because they rejected the contemporary pantheon of gods that most people worshiped.  In a similar vein as Roberts, the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins said "We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

In sum, atheists don't believe in God or gods because there is a significant lack of evidence - or at least evidence that is convincing.  When Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say to God, if he were hypothetically to meet him at the pearly gates, his response was "Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence." The burden of proof, or requirement of evidence, lies with the person making a claim of knowledge. And in the case of religion, the claimant of knowledge is the theist. What that evidence is, (and it's validity) is a topic for another post.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


One of the most appealing ideas of religion is the idea that we will live forever. Death surrounds us all and touches everyone. We can all think of a loved one who has died - whether it is a friend, a parent or grandparent, a sibling, or maybe even a spouse or child. Death is as much a part of life as is birth. And yet, the fact that all of us will die, and cease to exist someday, fills us with the greatest sense of dread. 

How comforting it must have been when humans first began to believe that death was not the end - that some sort of life existed beyond the grave. Evidence of a belief in an afterlife can be found in ancient burial sites, dating back 30,000 years into our human past, in which religious symbols adorned the bodies of the dead. Indeed, it seems that as soon as symbolic language evolved, one of the first ideas to spread among humans was the notion of an afterlife for an immortal soul. It must have been a terribly infectious and comforting notion to our ancestors, who, like us, were also natural animists and dualists

The idea that through certain beliefs, behaviors, and rituals we can appease God or gods, and thereby earn immortality in an afterlife is a fundamental driving force in religion. Without the notion of a soul, along with a good and bad place for this soul to live forever, religion would lose much of it's appeal. 

But is there any evidence for an afterlife or a soul? In short, no there is not. There is simply no reliable objective evidence of an afterlife, despite the fact that nearly 80% of Americans believe in it. If we think that the sheer number of believers is a good reason to believe, remember that 30-50% of Americans also believe in ESP, ghosts, hauntings, telepathy, UFO's, witches, and astrology. Belief in weird things, for which there is not any evidence, is ubiquitous because it's human nature to do so. 

So given the nearly universality of belief in an afterlife, the question atheists get asked is "If you don't believe in an afterlife, then what do you believe in? What do you think happens when we die?" The implication is that if you don't believe in an afterlife, then how can we be happy, or how can we be motivated to be productive members of society? Or, as the most ignorant sometimes ask, what stops you from committing suicide?   

First, the fact that atheists believe this life is the only life they have, serves as a daily motivator to make the most of it. Emily Dickinson wrote "That it will never come again Is what makes life so sweet."

In a similar vein, Carl Sagan added: 
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. 

Second, letting go of the idea that a vindictive God awaits you on the other side (with the potential of eternal punishment) lessens the fear of death. Although not stressed in Mormonism and other mainline religions (with the exception of Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestantism)  the idea of eternal hellfire is a cruel and false motivator. Yet, nothing motivates quite so well as fear (something Priests and politicians both tap into on a regular basis). But even if you are one of the lucky ones who make it to heaven, what are you going to do for an eternity? Frankly, I think it sounds incredibly boring: well, at least after the first 10,000 years or so. I mean, what are you going to do after 10,000 years? A million years? A trillion years? I'm sorry, but that doesn't sound very motivating.

More appealing to me is the idea of death being a long and permanent sleep of total oblivion. If we are not conscious (and there is no reason to believe we would be without our brain that creates our sense of consciousness) then we don't have anything to worry about. Isn't that part of the appeal of heaven: a place where all our fears and worries come to an end? Sounds like oblivion to me. When I induce general anesthesia on people during surgery, they are oblivious to their surroundings (and a good thing too, given all the sharp scalpels and burning electrocautery knives about to be used on them). Oblivion during surgery is exactly what my patients are after when they come to me for my anesthesia services. What is so scary about the thought that death is an oblivion, similar to general anesthesia, that you don't wake up from?  Mark Twain said "I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit." The same can be said when we are dead after we die: it won't inconvenience us a bit.

But if the idea of immortality is still appealing to you, and the thought of annihilation terrifying, then there are real ways we live on after we die. These ideas of immortality were not invented by superstitious soothsayers in our ancient past, but are based on current and objective scientific facts. When I think that someday my life will end, these facts can take a little of the sting out of death. But it is not from a denial of death that I draw comfort as the religionists do, but through an acceptance of it.

I was comforted the first time I learned about the event that created every single atom that exists in my body. It was also the event that created every single atom inside your body, the bodies of every living creature that has ever lived on this earth, and every single atom in the entire solar system. I am talking about the incredible
supernova explosion that occurred over 4.6 billion years ago. It was in the hot furnace of this supernova that the atoms within me and you were created. As Carl Sagan said, "We are all star stuff contemplating star stuff." This is an incredible idea that helps me feel connected with all life on the planet. What is even more awe inspiring - is that it's true. 

I am currently reading Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. Like Sagan, Dawkins is a master of using scientific facts to invoke a sense of wonder and awe within the reader.  In addition to Sagan's supernova born atoms, Dawkins teaches us that our genes can also be though of as being immortal. Genes are small segments of DNA that ultimately determine the structure, function, and behavior of all living creatures. Our own genes that make us who we are, can be traced backwards in time billions of years to our common evolutionary ancestors which preceded us - just as you can trace each twig on a tree or bush back to a common trunk. Also, our genes (or at least the information they convey) will live on, nearly inviolate, through our progeny, and their progeny after them, etc, etc. Even though our chromosomes (which are just long strands of individual genes connected to each other) will repeatedly be shuffled up like a deck of card during the process of sexual reproduction, the genes themselves, like the cards in a deck, will remain constant during this shuffling process. Individuals and populations will come and go since we are, in a crude reductionist sense, fleeting gene-replicator machines. However, our genes will remain constant as they copy themselves, with incredible fidelity, over and over and over again. These genetic information packets can therefore be thought of as being immortal. And since genes, unlike atoms, can influence the actions and behavior of my own living progeny, I can therefore think of myself living on forever: immortality, science style. 

I think that is pretty amazing. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Club: The God Delusion

We started a book club with some friends who enjoy reading some of the same books we do.  For our latest selection we read and discussed Richard Dawkins's lightning rod book The God Delusion. It was a religiously eclectic group consisting of two Christians, a Muslim, and two skeptics. 

Over some of the best grass-fed steaks in town, complimented by a great red wine, we got down to business talking about religion and The God Delusion. First of all, I just thought it was fantastic that they even read the book. Not many Christians or Muslims would do this. But they did - which speaks to their open-mindedness to new ideas (remember they are all philosophically liberal). 

No surprise: not everybody loved the book as much as me. One book club member had to stop reading it since she was reading it over the Christmas holiday and was having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. Another finished it and actually liked it, and the third member was about half way through, but had enjoyed what she had read so far.  I've read the book twice, but I actually have some criticism of the book - which is that Dawkins's tactics suck. 

But before I criticize "the Dawk," let me first sing his praises. The God Delusion is a timely and well deserved critique of religion, and it exposes the general public to the arguments against religion. He is especially critical of religious fundamentalism. His criticisms of fundamentalists religion are well-deserved given the threat it poses to stable societies everywhere. His arguments and prose are both devastating and beautiful.  He, in my opinion, eviscerates all of the rational arguments for religious belief, and he does it in such a well-written English polish, that it's difficult not to be convinced and entertained. 

OK, now for some of my criticisms of the book. My first is that  people are usually not convinced out of their faith based on the devastating logic that Dawkins uses. Why? Because most people don't believe because of theological arguments for the existence of God. Therefore, atheological arguments don't normally destroy their religious belief; which is usually grounded upon subjective religious experiences, family tradition, social group cohesion, and personal meaning. Carl Sagan agrees when he said, "You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, but a deep seated need to believe."

Second, Dawkins can be just a bit derogatory - at times he even uses the pejorative "faith heads" for believers. This may be appropriate when aimed towards New Earth Creationists or other varieties of fundamentalists. But to apply it to those of a more liberal religious belief is inaccurate, misplaced, and not very helpful. Given the insults, it's not surprising that believers feel talked-down-to while reading the book; this, probably more than his criticisms of their faith, cause people to close the book. 

On the other hand, remember that Dawkins is just using words. He's not saying believers will burn in hell for eternity, nor is he calling for a fatwa, murder, or persecution of them (something believers have done to unbeliers in the past, and which continues in some parts of the world today.) 

But let's be honest: atheists can be big ol' jerks sometimes. Atheists like Dawkins are correct to feel threatened by religious dogma and faith because it is anti-rational, it can cause people to believe strange things and reject well-established scientific facts about cosmology and evolution (Dawkins's big bone of contention). But "New Atheists" such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens need to remember how believers feel about their religion and at least try not to offend others (as Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, Paul Kurtz, John Shook, and Guy Harrison do in their books on religion). Perhaps they could learn from the example of Charles Darwin who was married to a believer, and was much more sensitive to others religious sentiments. He was also once a believer, and could probably remember what it felt like to believe. On the topic of religious beliefs he says: 

It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follow(s) from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.
 In contrast, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (although I agree with many of their arguments against religion) lose the battle for peoples' minds early on because they come off as being insulting and arrogant. Therefore, they preach mostly to the choir of already convinced atheists. But what needs to happen instead, is for bridges to be built between skeptics and believers. What really changes people's minds about atheists are for them to know one. There is much more that unites believers and skeptics than divides us. But believers won't know this, until they know you.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

When A Spouse Leaves the Church

It's tragically ironic that in a Church which claims to be so devoted to loving marriage relationships, when one spouse changes their mind about the validity of the Church,  this can threaten a previously healthy and happy marriage. It was a challenge in my marriage, when I learned the Church wasn't what it claimed to be, just like it is a real challenge for other people I've talked to about this issue.

How could a change of opinion threaten the stability of a previously healthy and fulfilling relationship? If you look at it logically, at least from a Mormon perspective, it makes perfect sense.  For example, if the purpose of life is to make it back to heaven as eternal couples, and if temple marriage and faithfulness in the Church is necessary for salvation, then if one spouse leaves the Church, the need for the other to separate from the heretic is obvious. The spouse, who has detached themselves from the blessings of the Church, cannot go to heaven, and neither can you if you stay with them since eternal marriage is required to salvation in the highest level of the celestial kingdom. In a conversation my spouse had with her Dad, he admitted that the option of her divorcing me over my loss of faith "had crossed his mind."

Despite the fact that the premise of this argument is false (there is not a shred of evidence that "eternal life" exists, or that marriage in a Mormon temple is required to get there) this belief is ingrained and widespread in the Church. It's Mormon doctrine that we accept on faith. And if a Mormon has been indoctrinated since they were children about the need for temple marriage and enduring in faithfulness to the end, then having a spouse leave the Church can be one of the most challenging events in their marriage - on par with becoming unemployed or losing a child. Although I don't have any data to validate my suspicion, I suspect it's a common cause for divorce in the Church.

This, of course, is a tragic event: to throw away a loving and fulfilling marriage because your spouse changed their opinion. Think about it: all that happened is that someone changed their mind! No sin has been committed, no affair has occurred. The husband may still be a wonderful father and provider, the wife may be a devoted spouse and mother. But if someone doesn't think the Church is what it claims to be - the Kingdom of God on earth - then divorce may ensue because you can't make it to heaven being married to a heretic.

Part of the shock to my wife, when I changed my mind about the truth claims of the Church, was that I had somehow become a different person. This is also a very common reaction among extended family. If I could go from being a member of the bishopric one day, to being an apostate the next, then what other surprises could I spring on her? If I could suddenly leave the Church (it may have appeared sudden to her, but was much more gradual to me) then could I suddenly leave her and my kids too? As crazy as this sounded to me, this is how she (who is extremely intelligent and rational) sincerely felt at one point. Such is the power of religious faith and fear.

Of course I wouldn't!  I still loved her and my children just as much as I did before (and I would need their support and understanding more than ever). I was the same person I was before. I had only changed my mind about the Church based on the facts I had honestly discovered through sincere and open minded research. But in the absolutist, black and white world of Mormon dogma, there are some things you just can't change your mind about. And the validity of the Church is one of them. It threatens everything.

However, our story  has a happy ending. Two years after I told my wonderful companion that I didn't believe in the Church anymore, we are still happily married, and we respect each other's religious opinions - of which we mostly agree, but not completely.  We largely agree on the big points, and appreciate the subtler differences of opinions we have. That is what makes conversations and relationships interesting after all.

We have always been good at communicating our differences, and this event tested our skills of communication to the breaking point. We stayed up many nights, talking, pleading, debating, and crying with each other over the truthfulness of the Church and how to raise our family when parents don't agree about religion. We went to bed many nights frustrated and dejected. Sometimes I didn't know for sure if our marriage was going to make it. We had some tough times - the divorce word even came up once. I think this scared her so much, that the spell the Church had on her was broken. She saw that she might just throw away everything we had built together, over something as unimportant as whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or a charlatan.  My extreme sorrow at the prospect of separating from the love of my life, and my best friend in it, reassured her that the most important thing in the world to me - was her. I remember feeling that the Church was more important to her than I was, and she remembers feeling that "the truth" was more important than she was. This is how the Church conditions you to think: as long as we both put God and the Church first in our marriage, then our eternal relationship was safe. But if you question the Church, or God, then suddenly your marriage may be undermined. How messed up is that?

In retrospect, my big problem was that I thought I could convince her with logical arguments and historical facts. I remember thinking: "If I could just get you to know what I know, you would understand." The problem is that you can't do this. People must discover it themselves, at their own pace. I was trying to convince her with what was most convincing to me. Really what I needed to do mostly, was reassure her more that I loved her unconditionally and that I would never leave despite our differences of opinions. Although my faith in religion was dashed to pieces, my faith in my spouse was as strong as ever, and I needed her faith in me to stay strong too. I needed to be patient, and allow her to process my decision at her own pace. I needed to let her discover the truth about the Church on her own timeline, not force her to discover it on mine. It wasn't until I was deployed to Iraq, and she had some time to explore the books about the Church on her own, that she could think and discover what I knew already.

And she did.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Paradox of Church History

Growing up in the Church, I was taught a faithful version of Joseph Smith and Church history.  Mormons all know this version since it is the one they all grew up with.  However, this faithful version is very different from the historical version I later learned about.  It wasn’t so much the historical facts that caused me so much heartburn. Rather, what was so disconcerting was the differences between the two versions. 

The first issue where I discovered a large discrepancy between faithful and historical accounts concerned polygamy.  It was during the 2006 news coverage of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS polygamists debacle in Texas that I first gave polygamy some serious thought. I had never been comfortable with the official explanations given by the Church about why Joseph Smith introduced polygamy.  The history of polygamy, that I first learned about while reading “Mormon Polygamy: A History”, is much different than the version I had been taught my whole life. I learned that Joseph had about 30 wives. The Church puts the number at 24 on their Family Search website, although the exact number is probably 34.  About 1/3rd of the women Joseph married were teenagers, while another 1/3rd were already married.  I learned these marriages were likely consummated. I learned that Joseph lied to his wife Emma, the Church, and the public about his involvement with polygamy. Despite his efforts, Joseph couldn’t hide polygamy; it caught up with him and was the major factor that led to his arrest and murder at Carthage Jail.  I learned that polygamous marriages were secretly performed by members of the 12 Apostles well beyond the 1890 manifesto that was supposed to end polygamy. The Reed Smoot hearings were a particularly embarrassing chapter of Church history, in which LDS leaders were on full trial during a sensational four-year Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.. President Joseph F. Smith pled guilty in 1906 to violating Utah anti-bigamy laws (having approved of plural marriages after the 1890 manifesto), three Apostles ignored subpoenas to testify in D.C., and two Apostles later resigned (John W. Taylor was excommunicated). Polygamy, as practiced by the LDS Church, had striking parallels to the FLDS drama occurring around this time in my life. 

One of the other main discrepancies between faithful and factual history, is the events surrounding the translation of the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price.  I learned from reading Richard Bushman’s “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” and D. Michael Quinn’s landmark book “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View” that Joseph and his family were involved in a common type of frontier-religion where there was a strong fusion of religion and the occult.  This was especially common in the New England area where Joseph came from. Joseph used a stone to look for buried treasure, that he found while digging a well.  He apparently had a good reputation as a scryer or “gold-digger” and was sought out for employment. Joseph used this same stone (or a similar stone) while dictating the Book of Mormon. He placed the stone in a hat, buried his face in a hat, and then claimed to read illuminated words revealed in the darkened hat. The gold plates where usually not even in the same room, and if they were, they were covered up. He used a similar “stone-in-a-hat” technique to look for buried treasure (although he never found any). 

The Book of Abraham is the only text Joseph Smith translated that we can test for accuracy.  However, I learned that it has no relationship with the original Egyptian papyrus that Joseph used for his translation.  The Egyptian papyrus was later discovered in a New York Museum in the 1960’s and translated by Egyptologists.  It’s actually only a common Egyptian funerary text called “The Book of the Dead”.  And yet Joseph claimed to have translated the papyrus which he said contained the writings of Abraham. 

These are just a few of the handful of discrepancies between faithful LDS history and historically factual LDS history.  We don’t always like what history teaches us, but it exists whether we like it or not.  My main point is that there is a huge gap between these two contradictory versions of our LDS origins. What is a person like me, or anybody else, to make of this gap in faithful and historical accounts?

One of the best LDS historians today, Richard Bushman, discusses most of these troubling aspects in his recent book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”.  He is a Harvard educated, emeritus professor of history from Columbia University in New York, a past Bishop and currently active Stake Patriarch, who tries to account for the historical facts of Joseph Smith and weave them together in a faithful way.  The Church doesn’t usually deny this history, but they leave it out of their seminary and institute lessons, they skip it in their Church manuals, or they fail to mention it in their General Conference talks. They use art depicting Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon which show him looking ponderously at gold plates; no hat, magic stones, or urim and thummim present - a scenario which, based on multiple eye-witness accounts, likely never occurred.  The leaders seem as uncomfortable with the historical version of Joseph Smith as many members of the Church.  Instead, we accept a much-sanitized version of Joseph Smith that bears little resemblance to who he actually was. 

I know of some people, scholars like Richard Bushman and many active members of the Church, who are able to square the facts of the historical Joseph with the mythical Joseph they grew up believing in.  Bushman is an advocate of the Church being more forthright about Joseph Smith, because of the damage it can inflict on someone’s testimony when they discover the history on their own.  I know people sometimes briefly look at Church history with an “eyes-wide-shut” approach: exploring Church history only from LDS and apologetic sources.  This is what I did for some time as well, but found these sources to be very biased.  Once I felt that all the pieces of the “prophet puzzle” were in place, I could no longer simultaneously believe in the two contradictory views of Joseph Smith.  The cognitive dissonance I felt, the insurmountable paradox of Joseph the man vs. Joseph the prophet, was just too much.  To me, the two views of Joseph were irreconcilable. But to others, they are. 

Maybe it’s the scientific paradigm I see the world through that makes it impossible for me to believe Joseph Smith now.  If believing Joseph Smith makes you happy (as it once did for me) then I’m genuinely happy for you.  I also feel happy where I’m at now, and have no desire to try to make it all fit in my head again the way it once did.  My blood pressure and cholesterol are much better now. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Science vs. Religion

A family member  asked why I believed what scientists say instead of what scriptures say.  The reason I usually trust science is that it works, it’s consistent (eventually), and it corrects itself when it’s wrong. 

First, science works for us everyday in ways we sometimes take for granted.  We use the internet, we communicate with cell phones, we use GPS devices to avoid getting lost, we travel in computerized automobiles and airplanes, we develop new medical cures for deadly diseases, we diagnose illnesses through medical tests and procedures, we take medications to treat chronic illnesses or infections, we immunize ourselves and our kids. When we are really sick, we go to the hospital and trust the doctor and all the latest advancements of medical science to heal us; and it usually does. So, in a sense, we all “believe” in science. 

Second, I believe in science because it is consistent and convergent.  Initial attempts at discovery may be marked by error, debate, and disagreement among scientists about what is factual. However, there is an eventual convergence toward a singular understanding of how the world actually works.   All this happens because that’s the way the scientific method works.  As scientific facts continue to pile up, scientific knowledge gradually becomes more certain, alternative theories are discarded, and consensus is formed - regardless of whether you are a biologist or chemist, physicist or psychologist.

Revelation, on the other hand, is not consistent.  Various revelations, various scripture, and various religions have mutually exclusive ideas about what is true.  Granted, there is much overlap in different religious beliefs. But saying that the thousands of different religions in the world today are all consistent with each other strains the limits of credulity.  Nobel winning physicist Steven Weinberg said “The insights of thousands of individual physicists have converged to a satisfying (though incomplete) common understanding of physical reality.  In contrast, the statements about God or anything else that have been derived from religious revelation point in radically different directions. After thousands of years of theological analysis, we are no closer now to a common understanding of the lessons of religious revelation.” 

Third, I believe in science because it corrects itself when it’s wrong.  At any point, a scientific theory can be discarded if it’s proven wrong through the discovery of new evidence.  Every hypothesis and theory in science is falsifiable - meaning it can be proven false.  The theory of evolution (to take one example) has been falsifiable since its formulation by Darwin 150 years ago; yet the evidence has continued to pile up from various fields of science - all in support of the theory.  However, at any time, and in any number of ways, the theory could have been proven wrong.  But it hasn’t. 

On the other hand, religions usually don’t make claims that are falsifiable.  It is therefore difficult to amend or discard religious doctrine.  Religious beliefs can even be held onto firmly when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The reason for this, I think, is that questioning the literalness of revelation, prophecy, or scripture can appear to threaten the very foundation of religious belief.

One of the first examples of how religion was resistant to change in the face of scientific advancement is the Galileo affair.  Utilizing the newly invented telescope, Galileo showed that the earth orbited the sun.  The problem was that Galileo’s idea contradicted scripture and religious tradition, which held that the sun moved around the earth.  Galileo was eventually convicted of heresy in 1633, and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. The Church banned his work and ideas, and it wasn’t until 1992 when Pope John Paul II made an informal apology saying “The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture...”  An official apology vindicating Galileo was later made in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.  

A current example of religion’s difficulty in adjusting to new scientific knowledge is its resistance to Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Resistance usually comes from religions which believe in a more literal view of the Biblical creation account.  The most recent battleground between science and religion has been attempts to introduce “Intelligent Design” (or jazzed up creationism) into the science classroom.  

Religion was mans’ first attempt to explain the natural world around him.  First attempts at anything usually need to be revised in light of discovery (which is why I’m waiting until next year to buy the iPad). Ancient religions saw God as a causative agent of everything from disease to natural disasters to planetary motion.  Moderate religions have gradually gotten out of the business of trying to use God to explain the natural world, and have focused more on faith, ultimate meaning, and values.  This ceding of causal explanations to science is a good thing for science and religion. When people are forced to decide between religious authority and the facts of science, it can create an unnecessary crisis of faith. For example, I remember being very troubled by official LDS statements against the evolution of man. This black and white view of things set up an unnecessary conflict between faith on one hand, and science on the other.  When this happens, it is usually religion that eventually has to admit defeat, as with Galileo and Darwin. It is the faithful person trying to make sense between the two who may be disillusioned.

However, I think this “either science is true or religion is true” view presents a false dichotomy.  Science and religion really can get along - but it takes some flexibility and humility from both the religious and scientific communities.  Scientists need to learn how to communicate what they know within the religious community, so that it does not offend religious sensibilities (more light, less heat). They also shouldn’t use science as a weapon to bludgeon religious ideas to death - because it doesn’t work.  Conversely, religious people need to remain flexible, and less dogmatic, in light of new scientific knowledge about the natural world, and adjust their religious views accordingly. If both sides can do this, then religion and science can get along just fine. If not, then I think the unnecessary conflict between science and religion will continue into the foreseeable future.

The Varieties of Religious Experience

My sister asked what I thought about one of her friend’s personal religious experiences. The same question could be asked what I think about anybody’s religious experiences, including my own. Didn’t I have powerful religious experiences? Yes, I had religious experiences just like you and millions of others. Like you, my experiences were meaningful, they seemed to confirm my religious beliefs, and I didn’t make them up.  In retrospect, however, I view these experiences differently than I did before. 
Personal experiences are one of the most common reasons people believe in God. It’s hard to question the seemingly obvious meaning of these personal and powerful experiences.  However, there are valid reasons to doubt that these experiences are what they seem. 
The first problem I see with religious experiences is that other religious people have contradictory experiences.  I remember talking to sincere people on my mission who would describe their own religious experiences that contradicted my own (ie. an answer to their prayer that denied the Book of Mormon, or confirmed their belief in the authority of the Catholic church).  I have talked to many people since then, and it has always been difficult to make sense of these contradictory experiences.  My only explanation was that they had to be deceived, since they couldn’t have veridical religious experiences that contradicted my own. 
Today’s Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians all have powerful religious experiences that happen to confirm their own particular religious faiths.   However, their religious beliefs, supported by their religious experiences, fundamentally contradict each other.  When you include the religious claims of aboriginal cultures in Australia, central Africa, and Native Americans, the disparity of religious claims grows even greater. Then you need to include religious experiences of people who worshiped long ago in ancient Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, and Rome.  The religious experiences and beliefs of people in different religious traditions stand on identical footing - a justification based on a powerful subjective experience.  However, not all these beliefs can be valid since they are mutually inconsistent.  The problem with supernatural beliefs is that they come in so many incompatible forms, all of which are grounded in just the same way. 
Another problem with personal religious experiences, is that they are, by definition - personal. They can’t be shared with anybody else.  I think we’ve all sat through one of those testimony meetings (the ones you were glad you didn’t bring an investigator to) where some colorful religious experiences are shared and we have a hard time believing in the truth of their experience.  Since our subjective religious experiences cannot be shared with anybody else, they are not evidence to anyone else.   There are very strong skeptical philosophical arguments against believing with certainty in the reality of any of our perceptive experiences (ie. what we can see, hear, and even touch).  It is even more difficult therefore to be certain of our religious experiences since they seem to occur only in our imagination or inner feelings.  Religious experiences, therefore, only count as evidence to the person who is having it. 
Also, our senses can frequently mislead us in our perceptions of reality.  For example, we have all been fooled by optical illusions. And our hearing can be just as easily fooled since we hear what we expect to hear many times.  Visual or auditory hallucinations are extremely common phenomena that can be explained by purely natural means.  Also, religious experiences are more commonly described by troubled individuals whose emotional lives are disturbed, and whose sense of reality is altered - such as individuals suffering from severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.  I’m not saying that you are mental if you have religious experiences (I had them too, remember).  I’m just saying that since we’ve all been fooled by our perceptions of reality,  we ought to be careful about the conclusions we draw from them because they can be unreliable at times. 
A final problem with religious experiences that ought to make us treat them with caution is that they can be manufactured chemically.  For example, certain drugs such as peyote or psilocybe mushrooms, have been used for centuries by shamans during religious ceremonies to induce profound religious experiences that last as long as the drug is active in the brain.  These hallucinogenic plants, called entheogens, have been used by ancient Egyptian, Greek, Inca, Maya, and Aztec societies, and are still used today by native Amazon cultures.  
Religious experiences can even be reproduced artificially in the laboratory.  For example, when neuropsychologist Michael Persinger stimulates the temporal lobe of the brain in volunteers with a powerful electromagnetic stimulator, it will induce a religious experience in about 80% of people (the experiment has been repeated in hundreds of subjects).  People who are more religious, are more likely to have a religious experience than people who are not.  Also, people usually describe their experience in the religious context they grew up in: Christians usually experience Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or God, while Muslims experience Allah or Mohammed, and Jews might experience Elijah or Yahweh. Some people even experience darkness or Satan.  Believers of UFO’s may have experiences similar to accounts of alien abduction.  But all these experiences were singularly caused by a modified snowmobile helmet, or what has been dubbed “the God helmet.” 
This suggests that the temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex may play a role in religious experiences.  Consistent with this idea is the fact that patients who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder caused by intense electrical activity in the temporal lobe, will often describe profound religious experiences during their seizures. Epileptics describe  being in God’s presence, being given a mission by God, being in heaven, seeing a bright light, experiencing cosmic oneness or utter peace and happiness; all the stuff of powerful religious experiences. 
This idea, that our religious experiences are caused by our brain, is also supported by research from Andrew Newburg. He had Franciscan nuns, Buddhists monks, and even an atheist (who was expert in meditation) pray or meditate while their brains were being imaged in a CT scanner that measured blood flow with a radiologic tracer. What he found was that although each participant described their experiences very differently (Nuns describe being in the presence of God, Buddhists, who do not have a concept of God, described transcendence, while the atheist described peace and connectedness to the universe), they each had similar changes in specific areas of brain activity during their experiences. This suggests that religious experiences occur as a result of similar activity in our brain, but that the experience, depending on the context of the individual, is interpreted differently. 
Does this mean that religious experiences are not valid?  No, it doesn’t. There is definitely still room for faith in religious experiences.  For example, a religious person could say that this is how God works - by natural means in our brain. This may very well be true.  But the previous examples suggest that that assumption may not be necessary, and that these religious experiences - although meaningful, important, and life-altering to those experiencing them - do not have to originate from a supernatural presence outside ourself, or a nonphysical spirit within us.  I think it’s more sustainable to view religious experiences as personal experiences that we generate in our brain. The fact that my brain causes me to feel love, and the fact that this experience is explainable by natural means, does not cheapen the experience for me.  However, if we remain convinced of the literalness of religious experience, then how do we account for the variety of contradictory religious experience? How do we account for the fact that religious experiences can be reproduced artificially, or as a result of pathology in the brain?  It seems more parsimonious to explain religious experiences as perceptual experiences generated in our own incredibly complex brains.