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Conversion for lifelong Latter-day Saints

Over at New Cool Thang, Jeff G has written a post detailing how views on how members of the LDS church can lose their testimony. He bases his comments on his own personal experience leaving the church. In one paragraph he writes:

With hindsight, I can say with absolute conviction that one does not simply lose one’s testimony, even if it genuinely feels as if that is what is happening.  Rather, one actively – albeit uncritically – beats down and erodes one’s testimony.   Through training and practice, we gradually chip away at our testimonies with the hammer of the liberal democratic values we are taught in school, on t.v. and in internet forums.  As we choose to evaluate and navigate the world around us by the tools of liberal democracy rather than those of the gospel, the latter not only atrophy from disuse, but are purposefully displaced by the former in their relentless take-over and re-programming of our minds.  I cannot say it emphatically enough: the tradition of liberal democracy is not neutral, passive or benign when it comes to our religious convictions or any other set of competing values.  It is a god which is no less jealous or hungry for the souls of men (or women) than any other.

Although I would probably disagree on the details of what to call the value system of secular societies, I do not disagree with Jeff that many faith crises occur because of a values mismatch.

But I think that the church has an increasingly uphill battle in trying to inculcate its values in the membership.
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Fowler’s Stages of Faith, Mormon Disaffection, and Atheism

Dan Wotherspoon has his latest two episodes of Mormon Matters up, and this time, the episodes are dedicated to James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Dan holds the stages of faith extremely highly (as is evidenced by the fact that I have listened to several Mormon Stories podcast episodes where they have come up), but I think this might be the first time they have been brought up on Mormon Matters.

One thing that Dan (and co-participant Marybeth Raynes) raised several times in the episode was that the Stages of Faith are not about belief content. Consequently, the stages of faith don’t just apply to Mormonism or Christianity or any one religion, but are broadly applicable.

…at the same time, the common understanding — especially within an LDS context — does assume certain things about the stages.

Certainly, the Wikipedia won’t do justice (and I have yet to read the source book), but I’ll link to the wikipedia instead of trying to rehash the relevant stages. As far as Mormonism is concerned, however, online Mormonism is full of the narratives of those moving from Stage 3 faith to Stage 4 faith. The so-called “faith crisis” of Mormonism feels exactly as it is named — like a great crisis. And yet, in the stages of faith, Stage 4 doesn’t represent the end of faith, but merely a shift from a faith that conforms to religious authority to a faith in which an individual takes ownership for his or her own beliefs.

As I listened to the podcast and thought about my experience with Mormon disaffection online, this raised a question in my mind:

Could it be that many cases of disaffection aren’t actually a complete shift to stage 4?

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Faith separate from Belief; Faith as Choice

A few article ago, I wrote about faith as loyalty, commitment, or an attitudinal stance. I mentioned that what I found intriguing about this world of approaches is that it separates beliefs from faith.

Today, someone linked me to an article on Exploring Sainthood provocatively titled A True-Believing Atheist Mormon.

The first thought that went into my head when I saw that title was — how could any atheist claim to be a true believing Mormon?

But the author, Mike B, quickly explains that his approach is to separate belief from faith, and he brings in thoughts from Adam Miller’s Letter to a Young Mormon in support of this:

For you, the existence of God is so unlikely and runs so counter to common sense that even an earnest kind of wishful thinking is more than you can credibly muster. God is just not given to you as part of how things are. . . . Though this common sense godlessness can make things harder, it too can open a path to faith. – Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon

The interesting part of the article is to illustrate that the choice of faith can be like the choice of mathematical axioms. As he writes:

Mathematical systems are built on a handful of what are called axioms, i.e. unproved assumptions that provide the starting point for reasoning. Most mathematical truths (e.g. 2+2=4) are not axioms, but the logically implied results of the founding axioms. A common misunderstanding is the idea that axioms must be self-evident. While many axioms happen to be self-evident (e.g. x=x), some aren’t. A statement becomes an axiom simply by our arbitrarily choosing it as such. No proof or self-evidence is required.

For illustration, let’s consider the continuum hypothesis. If you tried enumerating all the counting numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) you would of course never finish because the set of counting numbers is infinite. The set of real numbers, which includes the counting numbers and other things like the square root of two, isn’t just infinite; it’s infinitely larger than the already infinitely large set of counting numbers; there are bigger infinities still. The continuum hypothesis speculates that while there are many infinities bigger than the real numbers, there is none smaller, except the counting numbers. There’s nothing between the two.

What’s interesting is mathematicians have discovered that the continuum hypothesis is both impossible to prove and to disprove, given our current axioms. The consequence—and what proved so relevant to my posture within Mormonism—is that we are left with a pure choice. With no compelling reason to declare the continuum hypothesis true or false, the question is what mathematicians call undecidable. But it is precisely this undecidability that allows us to make a pure, insupportable, axiomatic decision. The continuum hypothesis will be true, or won’t be, as we choose, and neither choice will be inconsistent with current axioms. At present, the mathematics community is still split on this decision.

Emphasis added.

This was an intriguing analogy, and I think you should read the rest of the article.

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I just have no stomach for their religious symbols and referents

I had a dream that I just woke up from. Rather than writing it down in the text file that I’ve written interesting dreams in (when I can remember to [which is usually not]), I’m writing it here.

In the dream, I had met several folks. I was happy to meet them, because they were friendly to me, and I thought that we were quickly becoming friends. We spent the entire day together, well into the night.

As I went home, I received the distinct impression that all was not as it seemed. That there was something unsavory about the people. They did not have my best interests in mind and they were plotting something against me.

This was alluded to at priesthood meeting at church (which apparently, I had gone to [and no one seemed to do any double-takes at that].) The church meeting was about deception and betrayal, but with a twist. It featured a fantastic re-enactment of what I think was supposed to be a historical event in Mormonism (here you will learn how ignorant I am of church history [although that apparently doesn't stop my brain from running with certain terms]). I imagine it was supposed to be Mountain Meadows Massacre or something in the early Utah days, but the dream contents were nothing much like it. There was some guy who had come in the community, and he had made friends with everyone, but then the prophet had received revelation that this guy was up to no good, so it was decided that the Danites (hmm, I don’t know if they were contemporary/present at MMM, but whatever) should take him out preemptively.

But the weird thing was that even though we had advanced revelation that this guy was up to no good, and we had a large number of troops, the ambush on this ne’er-do-well was really executed terribly. I remember people jumping from the rafters (and the classroom suddenly turned into this outdoorsy saloon type environment for the play reenactment.) And the “narrator” of the play reported that historically, the day was won very narrowly…pretty much only because the church had a bicycle and this one, sole man, did not.

Anyway, there was a shootout, and I hid underneath a picnic table, using church metal foldout chairs to protect myself from bullet ricochet. The man eventually was killed, but at heavy casualties.

The casualties on the church side were explained due to several things: some people were loyal to fear, and so they fought less effectively. Some people were loyal to avoiding death, so they fought less effectively. And some people were loyal to (some other thing), but the important thing was they had not been loyal to God. (Hmm, and I was hiding under a table, using chairs for protection…and yet I seem to have made it out well enough.)

I guess that was a pretty poor “allusion” to my life circumstance, considering the roles appeared to be switched all up. Or maybe not?

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Faith as loyalty, commitment, attitudinal stance

One of my favorite vantage points to read about in online Mormon discourse is a stream of thought that distinguishes belief from faith. It might just be because this approach is strange, foreign, and a little novel to me, but I have to say that I am bored with the contrasting approach — the approach that bases the validity or invalidity of Mormonism (or any other religion, for that matter), solely or primarily on the factual claims it makes about history, science, or whatever else.

You can see the latter approach in something like, say, Letter to a CES Director. This darling of the disaffected Mormon community presents a series of “issues” that the author faced that were why, as he subtitles, he lost his testimony.

But as you look through the PDF book, you will note that it’s just a laundry list of areas where the factual claims of the LDS church can be cast into doubt by some other fact claim or another.

This is all well and good, but the other thing to note is that, with very few exceptions, these fact claims are utterly irrelevant to day-to-day lived experience. John Dehlin of Mormon Stories is planning to host an interview with author Jeremy Runnells of the Letter to a CES Director, and I think one of the questions an audience member raised is telling:

Why did you ignore LGBT issues?

Why do the Kinderhook Plates even matter? And why do they matter more than what is happening today? 

I suspect that many disaffected folks prioritize these historical/factual claims issues for a number of reasons (which I might go into detail in a different post), but I just summarize this to say that I’m not that interested in those sorts of things. (And, to that extent, I’m not interested in apologists who want to go that route either.)

Instead, I want to go back to the approach from the beginning of this article. I think there are several people who have jumped on board of this, and there are several podcast episodes that go into this (especially on Mormon Matters, which is why I really like that podcast.) One recent podcast was a Mormon Matters podcast with Adam Miller and Stephen Carter on stories.

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A device and method for becoming a man

Earlier this week, I was linked to a project to create patent applications from literary or philosophical texts. I thought little of actually using it, but I chuckled at some of the results. For example, from The Communist Manifesto, one gets A method and device for comprehending, theoretically, the historical movement.

As I said, I thought little of actually using it, but then someone suggested putting The Family: A Proclamation to the World, through it, and I realized…this is something that HAD to be done.

In trying to use this, I realized quickly that there were no executables for this program. Instead, it was a series of python scripts.

I then learned quickly that python does not come natively with Windows, so I went and got Python 3.4.

I then learned that not every app has compatibility with python 3, so I got an older version.

Then, I encountered that no matter what, the app wouldn’t process my text file containing the text of The Family. I reached out to the creator of the script on twitter, and within a day of looking at the text (I’m sure he must have been so weirded out that I was trying to patent such a document…), he said that it wouldn’t be possible to run the patent generator on this document, and that I should try something longer.

I thought that if length was a concern, I could just duplicate the text a few times so that the file would be longer, but it didn’t work.

So, that ended everything, didn’t it?

Not so fast! There are certainly other fan favorite church talks and publications!

Let me just post you one that did work, and you can guess what the talk is:

A device and method for becoming a man

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Is Increasing Acceptance of Same-Sex Marriage Really REALLY Linked to Moral Decline?

ls increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage really linked to moral decline?” John Gustav-Wrathall asked yesterday at No More Strangers.

According to Wikipedia, “Betteridge’s Law of headlines is an adage that states: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Sorry to spoil you on his article, but he complied with Betteridge: his answer is no.

In this article, I am taking a second look…but spoiler: I am also complying with Betteridge.

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Belief In Action – Why Many Self-Professed Theists Might Actually Be Atheist

Nathaniel Givens’ latest post at Times and Seasons addresses the question that many critics of Mormonism often ask of Mormons — what would it take not to believe in the LDS church? Typically, the person asking this question wants the Mormon in question to either admit the weak point of their faith (where they will then try to attack it), or to admit that their faith is unconditionally held.

Nathaniel doesn’t answer that nothing could sway his faith, but rather proposes that in order not to believe, he would have to be presented with a better alternative:

…everyone has to believe something. You don’t get to opt out. As long as freedom is inevitable (which it is), choice is inevitable. And as long as choice is inevitable we will make purposeful decisions that reveal our preferences and also our beliefs. The only possible alternative is to engage in purposeless, random action. But even if that were possible over a long period of time (which I doubt) it is a kind of belief that has a name: nihilism. Therefore: That we will believe is not in question. The question is whatwe will believe in and, even more importantly, why.

Some critics of Mormonism or religion in general seem to discount the inevitability of belief and therefore miss these two key points. Rather than criticize religion in comparison to some competing belief, which is rational, they sometimes engage in purely negative attacks with no alternative belief specified, which is not. This implies that they believe some degree of error in a person’s belief is sufficient to abandon that belief. In favor of what alternative? Some never say, or at least not until they have first attempted to get you to discard your current belief.

But all beliefs are flawed by definition because we, who conceive and hold those beliefs, are flawed. Belief is a model of the world, of what is relevant and what is true, and we know axiomatically all models are wrong. I read somewhere that it is not only banal but vulgar to criticize a model for being wrong, and though I’ve been unable to find the original source I passionately agree with the sentiment. The question is never between erroneous belief and pure, unsullied truth. It is always between different sets of competing erroneous beliefs. Don’t just try and tell me that what I believe is wrong. Tell me what I should believe that is better.

Someone could probably write several posts about just this idea in the post (whether directly challenging whether there aren’t better models than Mormonism or indirectly challenging the idea that because all beliefs are flawed, then somehow there is some sort of equivalence between them all.) But instead, I found another part of the post to be more interesting. In talking about beliefs, Nathaniel raised revealed preference theory. As Nathaniel describes:

…When your life has ended and you look back and see the decisions that you have made along the way, the pattern of choices will imply a corresponding constellation of beliefs. Those facts and principles that you affirm as relevant and true because they are made logically necessary by your actions are the things that you believe.

This perspective is a generalization of the economic theory of revealed preferences, so we can call it the theory of revealed beliefs. It eschews subjective feelings about what is true for the simple reason that we often do not know our own feelings. We sometimes think that we believe in something, but then behave in ways that contradicts that belief. These instrumental or fictitious beliefs are not, in my mind, the genuine article.

For the same reason, Paul Samuelson (who invented the theory of revealed preferences in 1938 and became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics in 1970) didn’t hand out surveys to ask people about their preferences. In his quest to provide an empirical basis for the concept of utility, he determined that the best route was to allow folks to reveal their preferences through their choices. These revealed preferences could then be represented by utility functions, and the rest of the discipline could chug along on top of this new foundation more or less as before.

According to the theory of revealed beliefs, preferences are just one of a variety of beliefs that we reveal (or perhaps create) as we make choices in our lives. The challenging decisions and sacrifices we face in life are there by design to force us to reveal/create our beliefs in a more granular way. If you’re rich enough, then paying tithing doesn’t force you to differentiate between obedience and material comforts. Scarcity of time and resources force us to make meaningful choices, and these reveal what we really believe.

One consequence of the theory of revealed beliefs is that it makes sense to talk about a person’s beliefs independently of that person’s opinion about his or her own beliefs. As long as a person acts in a purposeful way, then the collection of principles required to rationalize their behavior constitute their beliefs.

I was personally very intrigued by this theory because in my mind, beliefs are absolutely about subjective feelings about what is true. Read more…

Responses to 3 Changes for Mormons Against Women’s Ordination

Last week, I published my article, 3 Changes that Mormons Against Women’s Ordination Ought to Support. Now that General Conference has come and passed, I wanted to post a few responses to the post that I got.

From Jettboy:

An ex-Mormon giving advice on how Mormons should do things? Please. That right there is why so many don’t trust the so-called OW movement. They claim “insider” status, but talk like and have the leadership of outsiders. I hear that the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) has a great equality organization.

Also, a comment from Facebook:

 So this is how some would have the Church be led: The ‘enlightened one’s’ create blogs critical of Church Doctrine and Church leaders. They then provide solutions to Church leader’s who listen and agree. They in turn pass such wisdom on to the Prophet, who relays it to God, who then feeds it back to the Prophet in the form of modern day revelation. My oh my, how ‘special’ is that?

It ultimately turns out that I have apparently not been doing these Mormon internets for long enough, because I was not prepared for the entire post to be dismissed simply as exmormons exmorm-ing.

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Dreaming of Money

Avery Coffey

My mom posted an article about a DC teen who is now sought after by five of the Ivy League schools (unfortunately, this guy who was accepted into all Ivies overshadowed him [I will also note here that I have one friend who was accepted into all Ivies years ago who is now highly upset that there is a news article about this event]). I congratulate this guy for all of his accomplishments and his successes — and hope that he has continued success, but there was a part of the article that saddened me:

The local Fox affiliate recently asked this remarkable young man what he wants to do next.

“I guess probably the CEO of an investment (or management consulting) firm. I guess pretty much overseeing acquisitions or transactions between large companies. Hopefully, Fortune 500 companies,” he said.

I posted that this quote, and my sadness, on Facebook, and one of my friends responded:

Why does this make you sad? Some kid is stating a dream.

What does it mean when people dream of investing or consulting?

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