Friday, April 29, 2011

Why We Believe: Part 2 (Pragmatism)

In Part 1 of "Why We Believe" I talked about the role that socialization plays in the formation of our religious beliefs. Here in Part 2, I will discuss how religion provides many useful benefits for the believer, and how this is a powerful motivation to believe and evangelize. Solomon Schimmel, whose book I mentioned in Part 1, sums up the benefits of religious belief here:

“Religion satisfies many human needs: social, emotional, psychological, and intellectual. This reinforces its hold on someone socialized from birth into it and attracts new converts to it. It can provide, for many people, meaning and purpose to life, hope and support in the face of adversity, transcendence of the finality of death, occasions for joy and festivity, alleviation of existential uncertainty and anxiety, a moral code, a strong sense of individual identity meshed with group identity and cohesion, and, particularly in scientifically ignorant societies, explanations of the mysteries of the universe and of life on earth.”

Religion is useful because it serves these basic human needs. The believer has a need to find meaning and purpose in life; religion teaches that our lives have meaning and purpose. The believer has a need to deal with the fear of death; religion denies death's existence. The believer has a need for social community; religion provides churches and close-knit congregations who share common beliefs. The believer wants answers to the mysteries of life; religion provides the answers (albeit not very accurately) about where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.

If religion wasn't viewed as useful to the believer, then it wouldn't be around for very long.  The laws that govern the evolution of the living organisms (replication, mutation, and natural selection) also apply to self-replicating ideas. A self-replicating idea is called a "meme" because it operates much like a gene (they rhyme on purpose) in that a meme contains information as well as a motivation for people to spread it. The theory of self-replicating ideas, called memetic theory, and was first posited by Richard Dawkins in his famous book The Selfish Gene. Meme theory has advanced since then, and is now applied to many self-replicating ideas including democracy, capitalism, viral YouTube videos, viral marketing ads, or those silly playground jokes that never go away.

Religious ideas, or memes, have been one of the most successful memes in history, to the point that they are nearly universal.  Memes that are good at replicating become more prevalent in the population, while memes that are not good at replicating eventually die out. An idea that is useful provides a very good motivation to propagate itself.  If an idea becomes outdated and useless, then it usually dies out because it serves no purpose and people will not spread it. "Survival of the fittest" applies to ideas just as it applies to species. The idea that religion is a meme (or a related group of memes called a memeplex) that spreads because it's good at survival, relates to the socialization argument for religion's ubiquity that I discussed previously. Our parents (and their parents before them, etc) had practical reasons to share the religious meme with us. People today have good reasons to share the religion memeplex with their children and neighbors. This is how religion spreads horizontally through societies (by missionary work) and how it spreads vertically through families (by indoctrination of offpspring). There are many reasons why religion spreads, but the utility of the religious meme is one of the best reasons.

However, many pragmatist philosophers, such as the great William James, take the usefulness of religion one step further, and claim that the usefulness of a religious belief is evidence of its truthfulness.  This is the point made in Alma chapter 32 where faith is compared to a seed; if the seed grows and is useful, then it's a sign that the seed is good, or that the belief is true. We are told in Alma 32 that "your knowledge is perfect" and your "faith is dormant" of this thing.  I see this argument pop up a lot in the online LDS community. In fact, just the other day, a very intelligent friend on a Mormon facebook community that I'm a member of, compared religion to a car or a fridge (functional items we use a lot): if the car or fridge works for you, then it's evidence that it's true for you. This is simply a variation of the "faith as a seed" argument used in Alma 32.

But . . . the skeptic would argue that the fact that something is useful only means that it’s useful - not that it’s valid or true.  I have no problem with admitting that religion is useful to people. If it works for you, then by all means, use it, as long as it doesn't hurt somebody else. But saying something is true because "it works for me" is a non sequitur (does not follow) and an example of the pragmatic fallacy. To bastardize a quote by Elder Packer: “Many things that are (useful) are not very (true).”

If religion is true simply because it's practical, then we would have to accept a number of other bogus ideas as true simply because they are also practical, including: homeopathy, numerology, astrology, psychic readings, and a host of other pseudoscientific practices.  Homeopathy treatments - just to take one of these examples - work for the simple reason that they rely on anecdote and the placebo effect, not because there is any effective medicine in the diluted "water memory" cures practitioners sell to their patients. Homeopathic cures have not been shown by objective, peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials to be effective treatments for any illness.  And yet, despite the complete lack of any scientific evidence, millions of people spend billions of dollars every year on homeopathy treatments because they believe it works.

Religion may rely on a similar placebo-effect for its usefulness; it works because people believe it's supposed to work. However, if we lose faith in religion, then it usually stops "working" for us as well.  A similar phenomenon occurs with medicinal placebos: realize it's a placebo, and it stops working for you. Placebos can be useful, and their effects can be real (a fact that every scientist knows and has to take account for in their randomized controlled study designs in which they compare a placebo to the real treatment under study).

But does the fact that placebos have real effects mean that they are valid medical treatment?  No. Similarly, just because religion can be useful, does not mean that it is valid or true. Making that claim is overstating the argument of usefulness. Also, what is useful to somebody may not be useful to someone else. Religion may be very useful because it provides meaning, purpose, values, social community, and answers to life's challenges for many people. This is one of the major reasons why the religon meme spreads so well both horizontally in society and vertically in families. However, usefulness is not the same thing as truthfulness. Claiming that because religion is useful, that that somehow makes it truthful as well, simply does not follow, and is an example of the pragmatic fallacy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why We Believe: Part 1 (Socialization)

Recently I finished reading a fascinating book titled “The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth” by Solomon Schimmel. Schimmell is quite a paradox: he is a practicing Orthodox Jew who loves his religious community, a professor of psychology and Hebrew studies at Hebrew College, and a self-described agnostic/atheist.

I found so many similarities between Schimmel’s experience as a skeptic within Orthodox Judaism and my own experience within orthodox Mormonism.  In his book, which I highly recommend, he explores some fascinating aspects of religious belief. An aspect I want to highlight here is how people acquire their religious beliefs.

Understanding how people acquire religious beliefs helps me be a little more understanding towards others who have a different opinion.  The reason why is that our beliefs have little to do with free-will  (in fact, it is doubtful we even have free-will).  Like many things that we feel free about, religious beliefs bubble up from environmental, genetic, and subconscious psychological factors that are beyond our ability to consciously control. And because a large measure of our religious belief is beyond our ability to control, we shouldn't judge too harshly.

So why do people believe that certain religious myths are literally true? Where do our religious beliefs come from? Why do we hold certain religious beliefs when there is no objective evidence for believing them? And why do we hold onto them so tenaciously in the face of disconfirming evidence? In Part 1, I want to focus on one of the reasons we hold religious beliefs. I will examine other reasons for belief in subsequent posts.

First, we are socialized to believe certain religious beliefs when we are young.

Socialization is why children raised in Pakistan or Afghanistan are usually Muslim who believe that Mohammad was Allah's true prophet who revealed His word in the Koran. Socialization is why kids from Utah usually believe Joseph Smith was God’s true prophet who translated gold plates into the Book of Mormon. Socialization is why many Catholics believe that the sacramental wine and wafer literally become the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ inside their bodies (transubstantiation). Socialization is why a child of an Orthodox Jewish home will believe the Pentateuch was inerrently revealed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  These people wouldn't hold such different and unsubstantiated beliefs without the socialization and culture they grew up in.

Could you imagine hearing about certain religious myths for the first time when you were an adult? Would angels and demons, Gods and Satan, Heaven or Hell, or prophets and revelation really be plausible if you never heard about them until you were thirty? What about gold plates, white Native Americans who were Israelites, and a transcontinental visit by a resurrected Jesus?  These ideas are as implausible and irrational as believing that crackers and wine magically turn into Jesus's body and blood inside your stomach. None of these ideas would be plausible unless you had them repeatedly reinforced by your parents, your church authority figures, and your society at large.

And it's not just religious myths that we are socialized into believing. The same phenomenon works for holiday myths as well.  For example, Western children believe in Santa Claus, while Aboriginal and Mongolian children do not for the simple reason that one group was socialized to believe in Santa, and others were not.  In fact, holiday myths (like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny) die out sooner because our socialization of them stops sooner - not because they are any less rational.

And like holiday myths, religious myths work better when we are taught to believe them when we are children. While we are young, we are unable to think critically about such abstract ideas.  The reason we are unable to think critically is because the parts of our brain responsible for critical thinking don't mature until we are in our mid-twenties.  If we want our children to accept something irrational, then the time to get them to believe it is when they are incapable of rational thinking.

Socializing children to believe certain religious ideas sheds a different light on the scripture in Proverbs: "Train up a child in the way he will go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Well of course they usually won't!  But is it right to do so?  Is it right to socialize children to believe in religion? Why not expose your kids to lots of different religious beliefs when they are young so that when they grow up, they can choose their own religious beliefs?  Why do many Mormon parents think that religious belief is a choice that parents should make for them?

I think it's telling that many Mormon parents think that if you don't teach your children to believe Mormon doctrines, then the parents are guilty of the child's sins. What a great idea to scare parents into indoctrinating their children! It seems to reveal the fact that most people know that if they didn't socialize their kids into believing certain religious beliefs, that they wouldn't ever believe in them. I get a sense of this when concerned family and friends sometimes asked my wife and I what we were doing to teach our kids about the church.  I think they realized that our children won't believe it unless we socialize them while they are young. What a damning indictment of the irrationality of religious belief; that it is largely unbelievable unless you indoctrinate your children before they have the ability to think for themselves.

However, before I get too judgy here, I need to remember that our parents and leaders, who socialized us, were also socialized themselves by their parents and church authorities.  And the people who socialized them were socialized themselves, etcetera, etcetera.  So can we really get very upset at our parents or leaders when they were as free to choose their religious beliefs as we were?  It's nuanced, but we really shouldn't. We just don't have as much freedom (nor did our parents) to choose our religious beliefs since we have them, in large measure, because we are socialized into them before we can think rationally for ourselves.

There's more to the question "Why we believe?" that I will address in subsequent posts. So until my next installment, my beloved brethren and sisters, I bid thee "adieu."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Letter to My Ward After My Resignation From the Bishopric

This is the letter I sent to my ward the week after I resigned as a member of the Bishopric.  The week prior to this,  I had told my wife, Bishop, and Stake President that I no longer believed the church was what it claimed to be, and that I could no longer serve as a member of the bishopric in good conscience.  It's an interesting snapshot of someone who had just come to the painful realization that he no longer belonged to the community he came from, is uncertain of what lies ahead, and cognizant that this transition would be both visible and painful:

Dear Ward,

Since my absence from the ward this Sunday will be visible, I wanted to explain to you what is going on.  I do this so I can be completely honest with you, and to minimize any rumors or speculation that may arise.

I have doing some serious thinking, pondering, studying, praying, and soul-searching about the church and Joseph Smith for about 5 years.  The concerns about church history that some people dismiss as off-base or wrong since they can be threatening to one's testimony, I researched thoroughly to determine their accuracy.  The history caused me some doubt, and I wanted to know the truth since there are discrepancies between the way church history is presented in church and the way it actually happened according to primary sources.  I studied with the intention to resolve my doubts and sustain my faith so that I could fully commit myself to the church.  I suspended any judgment during my study and let the chips fall where they may.

All my research was done from unbiased historical sources - either from honest historians sympathetic to the church, or from active Mormon historians themselves.  Most of the books can be purchased at Deseret Book.  The history I studied is based on primary sources (journals, letters, discourses) of the actual participants.  This is real history that discusses events as they actually happened, and people as they actually were.  I did not use any anti-Mormon sources since these are biased, mean-spirited, and can be untruthful.

I know this is shocking for some to hear, and I understand your feelings since I felt the same way about people who "lose their testimony."  But I have concluded that Joseph Smith was a good man and a religious reformer much like Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, or Huss who tried to reform the religion of their day to what they believed was right.  My integrity was too important to stand before you anymore and pretend that I believed Joseph Smith was more than this.  I have asked Bishop X and President X to be released from the bishopric. This will occur this Sunday at Church.

This conclusion was extremely painful for me to make, and it was not made hastily.  I still believe that our church is good, its teachings are moral, and the people in the church are some of the greatest people in the world, in terms of service to God and man. I cherish our church's emphasis on family and Jesus Christ.  I have a testimony of Christ and his gospel and the power of the atonement.  I will still look and act like I always have because of all the good the church has taught me.  I am not planning on "going off the deep end."

I did not lose my testimony of Joseph Smith because of sin, inactivity, fear to sacrifice for the church, or being offended by anyone.  I am not bitter towards the church or anybody in it, including our leaders past and present.  I have done nothing wrong which caused me to run from the church, or feel guilty about associating with you or serving in my callings.  I have always been very active. I am a fifth-generation member of the church, and plan to stay that way.  My story defies the stereotypes, and I don't want you to apply them to me.

 The rest of my family will still attend church, and I wouldn't want it any other way.  This is obviously difficult for them, and I would ask you to understand and be supportive of them.  I don't want to convince my family or any of you what I now believe, since our faith is extremely important and personal.  For this reason, I don't make any arguments or list any of the reasons for my conclusions. I don't want to get into a debate, as this just causes people on both sides to become more firmly entrenched and dogmatic.

I am planning in attending church again when it feels appropriate.  I know you will accept me with open arms when I decide to come back because that is the kind of great people you are.  However, I know I will be judged for my decision by some, and that's okay.  I understand.  I know my decision will disappoint many people.  However, I hope you will accept my decision without trying to convince me I am wrong.  I have mulled over this for a long time and have examined the issue from all angles.  I am well informed.  I feel very strongly I made the right decision, even though I know you feel just as strongly that I didn't.

Maybe someday, people like myself will have the freedom to remain in the church as active participants, but voice different opinions about the founding stories of our faith based on historical fact.  However, I don't feel I could do that now.  Hugh B. Brown, Counselor in the First Presidency to David O. McKay said the following which summarizes my feelings and hopes.  He says:

"I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should of course respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent - if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression... This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences. We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it."


Friday, April 22, 2011

Why I Choose To Speak Out

Last week I had a facebook exchange with an old high school friend about why I feel the need to talk about religion so much. She accused me of being “a critic” and “hater” who is obsessed with “trying to convince Mormons that they are wrong.”

This exchange stung a little because I genuinely liked this person.  Also, there was some truth to the fact that I tend to talk, read, and write about religion a lot. (I guess I’m supposed to assume there is something wrong with that.) But I questioned her about how I was “a hater” - since I had done nothing to encourage hate. To her, however, I had criticized her religious beliefs. Sometimes believers identify so closely with their beliefs, that criticism can feel like a personal attack.

However, I am not criticizing religious believers. I’m only criticizing religious ideas. There is a difference, and believers need to stop acting like there isn’t. We live in a pluralistic society where we have freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We have the freedom to  criticize ideas from politics to economics.  Ben Franklin said of critics, “Critics are our friends. They tell us our faults.”  I have no problem with religious people criticizing my own ideas. I gladly invite their respectful criticism by having an open blog. But criticize their own religious beliefs, and they sometimes cry foul.

So with that as preamble, here are the reasons why I choose to speak out as a critic of religious ideas:

1.  I am justifying my new belief system to others. 

This is probably one of the main reasons we ex-Mormon/post-Mormons read and blog so much about why we left the church, but it is rarely admitted. However, there is nothing wrong with admitting it. I had good reasons for leaving the church. There is a mountain of historical, scientific, and logical evidence for concluding that the church is not what it claims to be, and is founded on pious lies and fanciful myths. We should justify these reasons with logical arguments and facts.

Mormons, including some friends and family who know me best, tended to assume certain things about me when I left: that I left the church because I was sinful, lazy, uncommitted, unreasonable, or unconverted. It’s understandable why Mormons, especially those who are closest to you, or who may be harboring doubts themselves, attack the messenger. It’s a cognitive defense mechanism and is taught to them by their scriptures and church authorities in order to protect religious belief. However, there is nothing wrong with speaking out and saying these sorts of ad hominem attacks are false and hateful. I know it’s hard for orthodox Mormons to imagine that people leave the church for good reasons, but it cannot be said too often that most people do.

2.  I am expressing my resentment of fundamentalist ideas, leaders, and institutions.

Nobody admits to being a fundamentalist, and fundamentalism clearly exists on a spectrum. Mormons are by no means extreme fundamentalists like their FLDS counterparts (who are a like a modern reincarnation of the LDS church during their theocratic and polygamist era of Nauvoo and 19th century Utah). However, most Mormons clearly believe that LDS scripture, as well as modern-day revelation through prophets, is somewhat inerrant and infallible, and universally authoritative. Religion is not just personal to the Mormon; it applies to everyone. This is one of the definitions of religious fundamentalism.

However, I disagree with the central dogmas of Mormon fundamentalism. I disagree with their leaders for perpetuating them. I disagree when lay members accept this spoon fed religious pablum. I want to counter these universal claims of truth because I think they are false and can be harmful to people both within the faith and people outside it as well. I want to try and prevent Mormons from inflicting their fundamentalist version of reality onto others. This would include those effected when Mormons try to legislate their theology onto nonbelievers (like California’s Prop 8, and other state measures banning gay marriage). It could also include religious indoctrination of children before they have the ability to reason for themselves. Children are sometimes saddled with an unrealistic view of truth by their well-intentioned religious parents and community, that can stifle the adherent personally and intellectually, and can be painful to shed once they discover the facts of history or science that are readily learned from books, the internet, or college courses.

In many ways, my speaking out about religion is similar to people telling others about a harmful product on the market: If you have been harmed in a business scam, or bought a product that was defective and falsely marketed, I think you have a duty to tell others. That is why we have the Better Business Bureau, Consumer Reports, and the FDA - to prevent bad or harmful products being on the market, to hold the manufacturers responsible for their product, and to encourage manufacturers to make better and safer products. I see the criticism of religious ideas similarly.

3.  I want to try and persuade fundamentalist Mormons to give up their unreasonable dogmatic cosmology, and accept a more rational one instead. 

I think that moderate and progressive religion can be a good thing for people and society. My issue is with fundamentalism.  If I can generate some rational thought and doubt in the minds of more fundamentalist Mormons - to the point where they don’t feel the need to apply their religious views on everyone else, including their own family members who are hurt by their ostracism and rejection - then I will have succeeded. Adopting a more rational attitude that “my religious beliefs apply only to me,” or adopting a “live-and-let-live” attitude about other’s religious views would be a step forward within Mormonism. It harms the religious believer in no way because they can still get the personal benefits from their religious views, but it prevents harm to those who they project their religious opinions onto.

4.  I want to offer support for other individuals who have similar doubts, or who are making similar journeys away from Mormonism.

The process of religious de-conversion can be an extremely painful and lonely process. I remember feeling very alone and scared during my own “faith crisis.” Listen to French philosopher Jeoffroy as he describes the emotional pain he experienced following his loss of faith in Catholicism:

“This moment was a frightful one; and when towards morning I threw myself exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, sombre and unpeopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought which had exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse. The days which followed this discovery were the saddest of my life.”

And here is author Alan Mintz in his book Banished from Their Father’s Table, describing Orthodox Jewish students sense of loss from their religious community when they concluded that Orthodox Judaism was not tenable:

“It was not so much that they world of faith had been purposely rejected but that at a certain point its plausibility had simply collapsed. . . . The world that had once been thick with symbols and texts, sacred times and covenanted obligations, providential signs and redemptive promises was, suddenly, not there. . .  This intellectual and metaphysical negation was deepened by the loneliness that resulted from the break with family and community.” 

I felt this way for a time too. For a time I perceived my journey in negative terms, rather than positive ones, because that is how my fundamentalist community framed the issue for me. I was taught to fear the intellectual exploration of religious doubts because it could lead to so much loss. According to LDS teachings, if you lose your faith, you can lose it all.

However, in our journey of faith, there can be much to gain as well; a light at the end of the tunnel; a mountain peak view at the end of an arduous climb; enlightenment where before there was only doubt and guilt. Not all is lost when losing one’s faith. Much is gained in terms of personal growth, intellectual honesty, personal integrity, and a more realistic (and very humbling) view of our place in the universe. The natural universe we occupy, as well as the social and emotional world our mind operates in, is even more full of rewards, wonder and awe than we could previously imagine. But, along the way, we sometimes have to give up cherished ideas and beliefs that may be holding us back.

This is why I choose to speak out.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How the Future Church Could Prevent the Exodus of its Members

While we were attending the Mormon Stories conference in NYC (held the day after watching The Book of Mormon Musical on it's opening weekend) John Dehlin asked the group what the church could do to hold onto more of its members, while at the same time maintaining its tithing income.

I assume the tithing criteria is included because the church wouldn't want to make any changes that would threaten the billions of dollars it earns in tax-free tithing donations. A fair assumption. It is also assumed there that a mass exodus of church membership is occurring. Good statistics are not readily available (since the church would not want this to be known) but sociologists Armand Mauss estimates that 50% of US converts are no longer active within one year and 75% of foreign converts are inactive within one year of baptism. And it's not just converts who are leaving. Many lifelong faithful members are leaving after becoming disaffected with the LDS church for various reasons related to church history, church doctrine, and current church practice.

I've been thinking about the question John asked, and here are some of my suggestions. I am, of course, under no delusion that the church is likely to do anything I suggest. But wouldn't it be nice? Here's to wishful thinking:

1. Widen the Umbrella
Use a big tent approach with church membership. Stop making people who are not white, conservative, republican, straight, and orthodox feel so alienated. Allow for a greater inclusive body of members: people who are liberal or take a metaphorical approach to doctrine or scriptural texts. Allow cafeteria Mormons to take part and speak their mind. There is nothing wrong with picking and choosing which religious ideas make sense to you. Every Mormons does it since belief is not something you can make yourself do: I can't make myself believe something if all the evidence and logic contradicts it. Similarly, Mormons can't make themselves believe in half the crazy stuff the Bible condones (slavery, rape, genocide, death penalty for adultery or homosexuality) or the prohibits (eating lobsters).

2. Come to Terms with Church History 
I'm talking about the real history. Let's be open and honest about it. Stop making Joseph Smith a monogamous mythical demigod who did nothing worse than engage in "levity" and "unbecoming" behavior as an adolescent.  Talk about magic peep-stones.  Talk about mummies and papyrus and the invented Book of Abraham translation of them. Talk about polygamy. Talk about the real reason Joseph was murdered was not because he was persecuted for his faith, but because he tried to stop the truth of his marital fecundity from coming to light.  Stop pretending that the Book of Mormon is literal history.  There is not a shred of any scientific evidence to support it, and a mountain of evidence to refute it. Let's just stop emphasizing this idea and let people find value in their own interpretation of the textual source. Does it really matter if we believe in gold plates and anachronistic iron age, sword wielding, white Hebrew Native Americans that rode pre-Columbian horses and used imaginary cumons and cureloms as beast of burden? Or could we just think that a BOM character named King Benjamin said a lot of universal truths about serving other people?

These truth claims, and many others, are simply not sustainable in our information age. The truth is just too readily available in print or online. People will continue to access it, read it, and believe it because it is much more probable than the made up history the church presents as fact. If the church was just open and honest about its history, then people wouldn't feel duped by learning the truth.

The church would never do this sudden history change all at once. It would need to happen gradually so as not to upset its tithing contributing base. But they could introduce the ideas slowly in Conference talks and Ensign articles. If there is one thing Mormons do well, it is following the prophet and leaders. Just have the prophet tell people the truth, in a gradual manner, and I'm sure Mormons would be square about their history within the rising generation (the one that is suppose to meet Jesus at the 2nd coming anyway).

3. Stop the Prophet Worship
To be fair, no active LDS member would admit that they worship Joseph Smith or Thomas S. Monson. But they would never criticize them. They would never disagree with something they taught (or at least voice their disagreement). They would never say - after hearing President Monson say that Mormons should get married even sooner - "Oh, that's just his opinion. I don't have to agree." In short, they would never say that what the leaders teach them the pulpit or Ensign is just human, fallible, opinion (and sometimes nonsense).

But, really, we need to be able to disagree with our leaders if we are to hold onto the people who do disagree (and there is so much to disagree with these days of Prop 8 and City Creek Center). And how can members disagree with what leaders say if they continue to pretend to get their ideas from revelation?  However, if leaders were honest about the fact that they get their ideas just like everybody else - that they teach their opinions, and that they teach things that are sometimes wrong - then members would start thinking for themselves, they would start disagreeing from time to time, leaders would be held accountable for mistakes they teach, and (importantly) people would stop leaving the church as readily.

Why wouldn't they leave? Well, I'm a member of the military. I know that military leaders get things wrong all the time. It doesn't bother me so much, since they don't pretend to get their occasionally bird-brained ideas from God. I realize that mistakes are going to be made all the time; in fact, I expect them to be made. I don't question their integrity and honesty when they make a mistake if they can apologize and try to correct it. But our church leaders don't do that. Instead they obfuscate, ignore, or rationalize past and present mistakes because they cannot admit they are just as fallible in what they teach us as anybody else is.

4. Make Religion Personal, Not Universal
The church needs to stop making its religion applicable to every human being who has ever lived, is living, or will yet be born. Instead, religion should be applicable only to the believer. In the philosophy of William James, religion should be practical and useful. If it is useful, it doesn't mean it's true - it just means that it's useful. There are lots of reasons that religion can be helpful: it helps people find meaning and purpose in an apparently purposeless universe. It helps people deal with the ubiquitous challenges of life. It helps people come to terms with (or at least deny) death. It helps people form communities of friendship and support. All this is great. People can find these same things without religion, but religion is very good at these things, and if it works for people, then I say use it.

But it doesn't mean that the religion that works for you is applicable to everyone else. It doesn't mean that we have to ostracize people who are raised in the church but then change their mind about its validity. It doesn't mean we have to convert everybody living and baptize everybody who is dead. And it certainly doesn't mean it's the one true church. It just means that it works for you. That's great. Let's just keep it that way by keeping it to yourself. Why feel the need to convert everybody else? The church will not go under if it stops proselytizing. Other churches don't proselytize and they have been around a lot longer than Mormonism. Most Mormon converts don't stick around for too long anyway. Maybe that is why President Monson is worried about all the unmarried who could be getting married younger and having more Mormon babies? They tend to stick around since they are socialized in the church.

5. Stop Using God to Explain What We Already Know About Nature
When I learned about evolution, and compared it with what the Bible, the Pearl of Great Price, and modern LDS leaders have taught about it, it caused my first "crisis of faith." This was totally unnecessary. If religions would just stop teaching that God created everything, then I would have no reason to doubt God when I discovered the facts of astronomy and biology during my education.

Stephen J. Gould wrote about NOMA, or the non-overlaping magisterium of religion and science. Whether or not it's a good idea in principle, I will admit that it helps keep the peace between religion and science. Religion sticks to religion, which I would characterize as comprising a search for personal meaning, purpose, values, spirituality, and forming religious community, while science continues to use its methods of research to explain the natural world around us, and within us.  If science and religion could just live and operate within their scope of practice, they would get along a lot better.

The problem comes when one strays into the other's territory. For example, when atheist scientists use a scientific truth to bash a religious idea (even if they are right and the religionist may need to be roughed up a little), it hurts religious sensibilities and just makes them hate science all the more. On the other hand, when religions cling to outdated and disproved notions of religious myth (i.e. creation myths, mind-spirit duality, or religious notions of consciousness and free-will) and refuse to yield ground to scientific explanations of nature, then religion is trespassing on sciences turf.

Scientists are not out to disprove religion. That's not why they get PhD's and devote their lives to the advancement of human understanding and knowledge. But when they discover something that contradicts what religions teach, they shouldn't back down either. And religion shouldn't get in the way.

Religious notions were the first attempt by man to explain the natural world around us, with all the apparent miracles within it.  Science is many things, but it is not intuitive in the same way religious myths sometimes are.  Ideas like the origin of the universe, the earth, animals, and man use to escape our human understanding. Religious myth was our best initial attempt to explain these mysteries. But now, through the advent of science over just the past few hundred years, we have better answers based on empiric observation, a mountain of facts, and supportive evidence that continues to pile up.

If religion continues to create "God in the Gap" arguments to explain nature, and scientists continue to explain these mysteries away by naturalistic means, then where does God go? Why is God needed? What does God do? God soon becomes a God who has nothing to do. So instead, what religion needs to do is let science do its thing, remove God from the natural world, and instead put God firmly within the safe and unfalsifiable realm of the supernatural where scientists don't go. It may still be improbable, but at least it's non-refutable, and therefore possible to retain faith in the idea of God.

So, in short, in the future the church could adopt a "big tent" philosophy for church membership, be honest about its history, focus on the personal and practical aspects of faith, and back away from using religion to explain natural phenomena that science does a much better job at explaining anyway. If the church did this, it could prevent the current exodus of people leaving the church for these very reasons. it will take some growing pains. But this is what young religions do. They evolve. The church has done big changes in the past and survived. I have no doubt it will be around in the future too - after some evolutionary changes have taken place.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Book of Mormon Musical

The Book of Mormon is part coming of age story that chronicles the attempts of two naive Mormon missionaries as they share the Mormon message in Uganda, and part hilarious religious satire which Parker and Stone describe as "an atheists love letter to religion."

As the crafted, yet nonchalant official Church statement about the show predicts, I was definitely "entertained for an evening." I have never laughed so hard in my life. But like a New Testament parable, The Book of Mormon goes beyond pure entertainment; it has deep themes (and some not-so-subtle messages as well) that Mormons would be better off for listening to, rather than ignoring or denouncing.


When Elder Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham get to Uganda, hoping for Mormon converts, their rosy religious notions crash into Africa's harsh reality: poverty, warlords, murder, female circumcision, disease, AIDS, and "raping babies." To make themselves feel better about their terrible life, the Ugandans sing a song, reminiscent of The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata," called "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (in English, "Fuck you, God").

Cursing God is appropriate if He really does exist in a world with so much evil in it. If God is all knowing, then He knows people are suffering. If He is all powerful, then He could stop such suffering from occurring. And if He is all loving, then he should care enough to stop it - but He doesn't. Then why does so much suffering, caused by war, genocide, murder, abusive parents, disease, earthquakes, and floods, occur? Theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil for hundreds of years. They still haven't found an adequate answer.

If God exists, He must either want us to suffer, not care if we suffer, or else He's a bungler of a God who created us without knowing that we would suffer so greatly. So why not say "Hasa Diga Eebowai?!" Sorta makes you feel good just saying it.

Ridiculousness of Religious Beliefs

Parker and Stone have always ridiculed religious beliefs from Scientology to Islam to Mormons. Nobody is spared.  An L.A. Times review says "Sacred cows, let’s just say, are there for the riotous milking." In the songs "I Believe" and "All American Prophet," the musical ridicules Mormons beliefs like Joseph Smith finding gold plates in his backyard that were made by white Christian Native Americans, that Joseph translated these gold plates into English with magic rocks, that Jesus visited America, that God lives on a planet near Kolob, and that "in 1978 God changed his mind about black people." When you compare these beliefs to any other religious beliefs (like antediluvian floods, talking snakes, creationism, godly insemination and virgin births, resurrection, angels and devils, heaven and hell, salvation, immortality, and all other miracles) are Mormon myths any more ridiculous? Not really.

The New York Times review finds something nice to say: "when looked at from a certain angle, all the forms of mythology and ritual that allow us to walk through the shadows of daily life and death are, on some level, absurd; that’s what makes them so valiant and glorious."

This brings us to our next point: religion as myth, and whether or not there is some utility in this idea.

Religion as Myth

Everybody likes Santa Claus. Kids usually believe in him until they are about 10. But then, when your parents feel that you are old enough (or else your questions are becoming too difficult to lie about) you are let in on the great secret: Santa doesn't really exist! He's a tradition, a myth, an idea. Kids understand myth. They play make-believe all the time. It's healthy for them when they are young. But not when you are 34 years old.  That's how old I was when I finally realized Mormonism and Christianity were great big myths. I must be a late bloomer because I didn't figure out about Santa until I was about 12. Mormonism encourages mythical and magical thinking for way too long. That isn't healthy.

The problem is that Mormonism, in all its ridiculousness, is taught as literal history. The Book of Mormon parodies the idea of literal religious belief when Nabulungi, the dewy village heroin who is constantly trying to get to "Salt-a-Lake City," believes in Elder Cunningham's slightly modified version of Mormonism and is baptized. After realizing that what she had been taught was wrong, she had a brief "crisis of faith." Others in the community chide her saying, "You didn't think Salt-a-Lake City was a real place did you?" or "Didn't you know that religion is a metaphor?" She didn't - and neither do a lot of religious people. Most Mormons believe our founding stories are literal history. That's the "correlated" official doctrine. To believe otherwise is to commit heresy.

But I don't think it has to be. Does it really matter that you believe Joseph Smith really had gold plates, or that the Book of Mormon story is actual history, or that he literally translated the Book of Mormon with magic rocks? What if you just appreciate it in the same way people appreciate Jesus's parables? Learn the lessons of how to be a better person from the stories it teaches. Use the myths to try and be a better person. Focus on actions rather than beliefs; orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy. Someday, the church will need to come to terms with its own founding myths, stop teaching them as literal, and let people think of them as pure myth.

It might also help staunch the exodus of disaffected Mormons away from the church when they realize it's not real history. How could it be when Joseph's claims are patently bogus? Gold plates, white Nephites, transoceanic journeys in wooden submarines with honeybees and magic glowing rocks, cureloms and cumons, etc, etc, etc?  As one of the villagers tells Nabulungi (regarding one of their more outlandish doctrines): "People don't really believe that. . . That is crazy shit."


Literal religious belief is almost crazy. The only thing that separates truly crazy beliefs from many religious beliefs is that lots of people believe the religious doctrines. But is there some utility in religious myth? Sure. I think myths can help people unite and form community. Founding myths is what helps Americans feel a sense of pride and unity when we talk about our founding fathers or the Revolutionary War. It's what helps people come together on Thanksgiving and Christmas and celebrate in communities and families. As long as we focus on the community, and not whether there really is a bearded omniscient man in a red suit who gives gifts to everybody in the world (I'm talking about Santa and not Jesus), then myth can be healthy.

Community is what we really need anyway. Kids may need myth and make-believe for developmental reasons. (Note: I'm not saying kids need religion. They create myth naturally without the indoctrination.) But adults don't. We need community. The one thing I miss after leaving the Mormon church - is community.

After the new Ugandan converts perform a religious skit for the Ugandan Mission President that showcased their unorthodox beliefs, the Mission President sends all the missionaries home. But the people had been brought together as a community, rallying around the new myths, and overcame some serious problems facing them.  In the finale, you see the Ugandans singing the same "Hello" song that the LDS missionaries sang in the opening act.  But this time they are using their own myths, written in "The Book of Arnold," sharing them with others. It was a great finale that brought tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat.

Sure - it's still a myth. But as long everyone knows religion is just myths and metaphors, communities can be formed around them, and nobody has to leave the community when they discover the myths are not true. That disillusioning moment never even has to occur when you are taught it as myth from the very beginning.

"Turn It Off!" Or in Scientific Jargon: Cognitive Dissonance

In order to keep their "literal" myths from being exposed, Mormons use lots of psychological tactics. One of the most commonly employed tactics is cognitive dissonance. In a hilarious song called "Turn It Off," the musical parodies this Mormon tendency. "Turn It Off" advocates shutting down mentally and emotionally when you discover or experience anything that doesn't conform to what you have been taught to be true by religion. Just "Turn It Off."

When the bright-eyed and fresh-faced Elders first land into Uganda and see the poverty, crime, and suffering of these people - and begin to realize their message is not what these people need, the solution is to "turn off" those feelings. When repressed gay-tendencies start to surface with Elder McKinley, the Ugandan District Leader, his solution is to "imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes. Find the box that's gay and - CRUSH IT!" When Elder Price starts to notice that his message is impotent to solve the Ugandan's problems, he's told to "Turn it off. Like a light switch. Just go flick! It's a niffty little Mormon trick."

The song perfectly describes cognitive dissonance, which is the conflict you feel when you hold two conflicting ideas in your brain. We want our perceptions of the world to match with what we already believe about it. When we hold two dissonant ideas (like the idea that Joseph Smith translated gold plates and the idea that angels don't give gold plates to people to magically translate with rocks) then we have mental uncomfortableness - or in fancy psychological terms: cognitive dissonance. But in order to quell those disquieting ideas we discover in life, the LDS church advocates "Turning It Off" instead of acceptance of the facts.


 I don't think I have ever laughed so hard in my life as I did while watching The Book of Mormon. What made is so hilarious was that it hit so close to home: I use to be that idealistic missionary, Elder Price, who thought he had the most important message in the world. I use to believe it all. Then, like Nabulungi, or a 12 year old who still believes in Santa, I was let in on the secret. I was disillusioned. I felt duped. However, now I can appreciate peoples need for myth in their lives. I can appreciate that certain types of nonfundamentalist religion is not always bad. I just don't think that myth and community and truth have to conflict. I wish more Mormons didn't either.