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Changing World, Traditional Religion

February 12, 2012

What makes us who we are? As humans, as individuals?

Is it genetics? (How much ownership do we have of those?) Is it neurology? Is it personality? Is it our upbringing? Is it our choices? (How free are those, anyway?)

What I’ve been thinking about so much recently is this idea that we aren’t as disparate and disconnected as we might sometimes think. It’s nice to think that we have all this will and choice, but if we get to really thinking about it, that will and choice is influenced and bounded severely by all of the above things I’ve mentioned. I think what really was decisive for me was when I was looking at quotes about compatibilism:

Compatibilists (aka soft determinists) often define an instance of “free will” as one in which the agent had freedom to act. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. In other words, although an agent may often be free to act according to a motive, the nature of that motive is determined.

If this is what free will reduces to, then why even call it that?

This discussion, of course, was linked to discussions on religion. How much should we believe from a religious institution? What are the obligations that a religious community has for its members? My thoughts at the time were to point out that even though a lot of people want to pin faith crises on the individual undergoing them, faith crises don’t exist in a vacuum, because an individual and his belief doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Why did she believe certain things originally? (This is an especially pertinent question if you’re talking about people whom you claim “believed too much” and just shouldn’t have believed that much.)

As I said, that discussion tapped into how much of our beliefs are “ours”…but then a different sort of idea was mentioned. Chino Blanco commented:

…I tend to agree with FireTag that external societal evolution kinda makes this discussion academic because it means the LDS church is headed for irrelevance no matter what changes it makes…

and then:

As far as I can tell, the Book of Mormon, on its own, independent of its role as a founding text, at its simplest narrative level, is offensive. And the reality is that it’s only going to become more patently offensive as we continue to become increasingly intolerant of 19th century folk/hillbilly explanations for where Native Americans came from (or Mayans or Aztecs or Incas or whoever the heck “Lamanites” are supposed to be these days in the LDS view).

But maybe that’s what you mean by “radical” changes (and the LDS church disavowing the racist heart of the BoM story would certainly be pretty friggin’ radical — that it would also be the right thing to do is why some of us will remain offended until it gets done). And until then, it’s why some of us don’t buy the liberal Mormon attempt to frame association/disassociation with the Mormon church as some kind of morally neutral, loosey-goosey, vive la différence lifestyle choice. And it’s the j’accuse of righteous exmo indignation that prompts the libs to pooh-pooh and/or police certain discussions with such fervor. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen much in these parts, but I can understand why it happens… nobody likes to be told that there’s no right way to adhere to a religion that promotes a pernicious narrative.

(I would mention here that FireTag later went and commented:

That is not QUITE what I said or believe. The attempts to change are irrelevant to its fate, but the Restoration is not necessarily fated to become irrelevant. Societal evolution will determine whether the church becomes more or less relevant, and evolution can take some very strange twists.

I am very comfortable with a God active enough in history to use either the church’s failure or its success to accomplish redemptive purposes. Who would have thought that there were going to be times in history when the fate of Christianity depended on the faithfulness of the Franks or the Irish?

So I’m still trying to figure out what he means as opposed to what Chino means.)

I then read a post from Daniel at Good Reason regarding the phenomenon of viewing the Book of Mormon or other religious texts as “inspired fiction.”

Call me crazy, but it matters to me if my beliefs are true. If it’s not true, I don’t have time for it.

What about the idea that, although not true, the stories in the Book of Mormon are good moral stories that can help you to live a better life? That’s where it all comes down. The Book of Mormon’s a terrible guide for moral living! Here’s what you’ll find:

and that’s just off the top of my head.

I can forgive the torpid prose after all, but I think that also touches into Chino’s idea that, at a basic level, the Book of Mormon is offensive, and as we as a society “become increasingly intolerant of 19th century folk/hillbilly explanations for where Native Americans came from” (or of “predictably Victorian notions about the chastity of women,” or of many of the things that Dan mentioned), it’s not going to get any better.

With the news of Prop 8’s second defeat in the court system (and the possibility that it could go up to the Supreme Court — if the Supreme Court dares to grant cert, that is), a lot of proponents of gay marriage ask things like, “Why can’t Prop 8 supporters see they are on the wrong side of history again?

I don’t think that supporters of traditional ideas of marriage can’t see where they are and where history is. I don’t think they don’t see the line between them and history. They are seeing much of the same thing that anyone else is seeing, but they recognize — with horror — as something differently.

One side sees it as the steady progression of human rights. From their vantage point, a dark and murky history is zipping toward a brighter future. The other side sees it as the steady decline in public morality and decency. From their vantage point, an idealized, glorious past is slipping further away from a depraved future.

In this sense, I can understand the idea of societal evolution making religion more and more irrelevant. Because regardless of whether it is progress or decline, we’re going to move to see more people seeing things like this as progress. But change is an unpredictable sort of thing…it can bring with it new evils that make us want to go back to the past rather than develop new ways for dealing with new paradigms.

In a slowly tilting planet yet a swiftly changing world, what is the role of religion? Is it to teach us about human truths? But how many of those human truths are rock-solid, never changing from era to era? These rock-solid truths, are they just things that we forgot in pride or arrogance, and have to be humbled to remember every so many years — and the church is there to harbor those truths for when we’re ready to come *back* to them? How many of those supposed human truths are actually truths about us in a particular stage of development, unsuitable to us either before — or after — we’ve entered that stage? How often is the church keeping a snapshot of previous eras, but not deciphering between how much of it is the picture we actually want, and how much of it is static, fuzziness, or artifacts that we actually want to separate?

What is the role of a prophet? Does he navigate the ship of the religion on a straight course through turbulent times to find the promised land? Or is he supposed to modify that course as he learns that the very topography of land and sea has changed since the journey began?

What I’ve been thinking about so much recently is this idea that we aren’t as disparate and disconnected as we might sometimes think. It’s nice to think that we can have an eternal morality that supersedes history and time, but if we get to really thinking about it, that morality and our capacity to observe it is influenced and bounded severely by all of the above things I’ve mentioned.

What are human truths? What are humans?

What makes us who we are? As humans, as individuals?

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2 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    I’m sorry, I think I’m a little too irritated with how stupidly reductionistic the quoted comments were to really engage the overarching point you’re trying to make here.

  2. I hate when that happens

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