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The Word of Wisdom: why and why not

December 5, 2008

I think that the Word of Wisdom is just one of those things that separates Mormons from everyone else. It either makes people admire us or think we are absolutely insane. Many churches might discourage certain activities, but the Word of Wisdom gives LDS members a code of conduct that is fit for the least of the Saints. No coffee. No alcohol. It’s not, “Watch out for drunkenness–” as other churches may say. It’s an absolute prohibition. Even sacrament wine is thrown out in favor of water.

The actual Word of Wisdom is a shallow topic for a blog (actually, that is a lie. You’ve got TONS of interesting blogs about what exactly should be abstained from…Diet Coke? Hot cocoa? Iced tea?) This, however, leads to a much more interesting topic…of why the Word of Wisdom is the way it is. If we could decipher *why* hot drinks are prohibited, but in practice this means that hot chocolate is allowed while iced tea isn’t…then we could make sense of things.

There are lots of attractive attempts to reason the WoW. Some people appeal to science — the health benefits and blessings prophesied are supportable by science. This is just another case when the church tries to seem reasonable. But…as one Times and Seasons poster notes, scientific explanations can backfire on us. Specifically, what happens if tea is found to have all kinds of benefits for us? Or some red wine a day will keep cancer away (do you even buy into that? The French paradox certainly is paradoxical…)?

So, back to the drawing board. The church has tried in recent years to make a rational explanation for the WoW…and now it relates more strongly to free agency. The church encourages things that keep you free. Addiction doesn’t keep you free. Caffeine, which is in many of our prohibited drinks, is addictive…but in low quantities, it might not be.

Now, as this second post mentions, this doesn’t make the WoW straightforward or 100% logical. After all, people get addicted to soda, but it’s not 100% prohibited. Some people don’t get addicted to tea, but it is 100% prohibited. However, people reason (see the comments) that now we are playing a probabilistic game of addiction. If something has a higher chance of addiction, it should be more strongly warned against. Low consumption of Coca-cola won’t lead to addiction very often.

This allows a variety of opinions. It placates and justifies those who believe that soda with caffeine in it should be 100% banned. For example, one poster seems to argue that “moderate” use is exactly the trap that leads people carefully to Hell…and that moderate use will inevitably lead to addiction, so perhaps…ban soda 100%!

Others argue that chocolate is 100% ok…it can’t be addictive because it doesn’t pass our caffeine criteria.

It’s still missing the point. I’m no general authority, but it seems clear that basing the WoW on rational, temporal factors is asking for trouble. For example: why is all tea banned? All coffee banned? The GAs have just said that in moderation and without addiction, something like a soda or an energy drink can be ok. Hot chocolate is hot, but it is allowed. Iced tea is cold, but it is not allowed. It would seem like if one used a rationalization (avoid addiction), then one would simply say, “I have avoided soda addiction…I will avoid tea addiction.” a member might say…you don’t choose addiction. But the thing is…if you look at the many people who drink soda…not too many of them are going into frenzies over withdrawal and dependence. Same with tea and coffee (LOL, LOL. ok…just bear with me.) In general, people don’t descend to Hell and chaos from these things. You can’t look at these sins and automatically pinpoint someone whose life is in despair (so a coffee addiction…or some cases of drug use…won’t look as “bad” as DARE wants you to think).

There are a couple of conclusive (yet nonrational) explanations — depending on your relationship with the church. If you aren’t feeling charitable, you can say that the WoW is just some outdated fad health code that doesn’t have any real science behind it…so it’s not rational. Or if you are feeling charitable, I think the correct spirit for members is to recognize that the WoW is a question of faith and obedience. It’s not rational and shouldn’t be because faith is evidence for things not seen. If milk were banned under the WoW, members shouldn’t reason that milk is “bad” and “unhealthy.” They should recognize that this is just a spiritual test of faith that may not have a rational explanation.

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  1. Hi irrational – I agree it’s a question of faith and obedience. I am someone who goes into caffeine withdrawal. I get an amazing headache. I become really grumpy. These may all be psychological (non physical) additions.

    On the other hand, I know people who have similar symptoms when they can’t have their hot cocoa in the morning, or chocolate during the day. I have not met many people (particularly some active LDS) that could easily swear off all refined sugar, and not be grumpy and difficult to deal with.

  2. aerin:

    Thanks for the post! I had actually questioned the line about “not too many frenzies about withdrawal” because I too know some people who do.

    But if someone were to ask me if their suffering is as great as one who suffers from an addiction to hard drugs…I don’t think I could equate the two. If someone were to ask me about the consequences of caffeine vs. the consequences of something worse, I’d say that something worse is…obviously…something worse.

    And yes, I agree: these things aren’t just limited to coffee or tea. Chocolate and sugar in general could do it, but most people won’t forgo these things.

  3. Well, I grew up in a pretty strict orthodox Mormon household. I think I took a sip of wine by accident at my non-Mormon aunt’s house when I was 9 and I once drank half a Coca Cola on my mission in Japan before I realized what it was (after that, I figured it out that root beer is not sold in Japan and you have to go Sprite if you want decaff).

    So I guess I’ve been a pretty strict observer of the conventional WoW.

    I don’t really hold it against fellow Mormons who drink Coke or whatever though. Neither do I think that the mere fact that the “Gentiles” drink various stuff that’s prohibited for me is evidence of their sinfulness or of some degenerate state or whatever. My friends in law school would always get all apologetic for having a beer in my presence (they all knew I was Mormon). But I always assured them it was fine by me. After all, it’s not like they covenanted to abstain from it.

    So it’s cool with me, more or less.

    But I can’t say I didn’t feel just the tiniest bit smug watching all those grumpy faces file into my early morning law school classes gripping their cappuccinos like their lives depended on it (which possibly, they did).

    Maybe its a spiritually macho thing or something…

    I just don’t get why we are so careless about meat consumption.

  4. I too am kinda curious about the absolute scuttling of the admonishment about meat under the rug…it makes me ask, if the Prophet said that we should pay attention to this part of the WoW, what would members do?

    For me, I’m no vegan or vegetarian or anything, but meat just…doesn’t do it for me. I’m not ideologically opposed, but I’d want meat to be a part of something else. And if it’s not available, well that’s fine too.

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