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How do Mormons reconcile the contradictions in their religion?

January 21, 2010

Usually, I don’t bring up Mormonism to people outside of the bloggernacle and the greater blogosphere, because I feel like many never-Mormons might not care about the nuances — or, even if they want to care, they might not be able to understand. However, on the few occasions that people have asked me about my religious background, I have either divulged my atheism or my Mormonism — and I’ve had quite interesting (but very different) conversations from divulging either. (I just wish that people to whom I respond “atheist” wouldn’t overwhelmingly turn out to be young earth creationists who want to use every tired anti-science argument in the book. I’m not a science major, but these arguments…need work.)

Anyway, on a forum I go to, I decided to take a topic to be “Mormon” (at least culturally so) rather than just an atheist. And so I got an interesting (although predictable) question:

I’m also curious how Mormons reconcile the contradictions in their religion, the lack of correspondence with known science and history, the fact that it was pretty transparently invented recently, and all the revisions and new relevations it’s taken to make their religion coherent in the modern world. I mean I imagine it’s pretty similar to fundamentalists of all stripes, I’m just curious how they work around it

All seen in context.

What’s interesting about answering questions like this is that I find myself putting on a different cap. I’m not a believer, but even I can recognize that there are assumptions about this question that I feel I *must* dismantle or else I’m doing a disservice to the other individual. For example, I guess I can’t read tone in an answer, but there seems to be this strong implication: “Don’t Mormons themselves see that Mormonism is obviously false? How can they take being absolute idiots?”

I know some people who would say, “Yeah, Mormons are pretty dumb like that…” But I think this kind of dismissive response doesn’t really seek to understand anything but one’s own biases. So, what I said to the person (some parts directly quoted, some parts paraphrased):

I can’t characterize all members, but I would say a few things. First, you need to clarify what you mean by “contradictions,” because what you might say are clear contradictions, others would easily argue they are not. Many apologists try to show how seeming contradictions either are illusory or are simply proof that popular understandings of science, history, and/or Mormon doctrine are incomplete or falsely promoted. (I could probably think of a few thinkers for each group.) But not to promote the idea that all Mormons are geniuses about their religion, I’d say that many Mormons don’t know about troubling aspects of the religion. Many, when they find out, are devastated. *However*, this isn’t to say that all members who find out troubling parts of the religion are devasted and disaffect. Some people insist that contradiction is necessary and crucial to the religion.

But you do have to be more specific. I could say myself that there aren’t so many contradictions, per se, as there are troubling issues (e.g., can a prophet of God, like Joseph Smith, be a bad person? If you think “no,” then it’s extremely troubling to find out that, surprise!, Joseph Smith wasn’t the paragon of virtue. But if you say “yes,” there is no conflict at all).

Finally, whether you like this aspect or not, you should understand that the religion is more flexible than you’d expect. You say “revision” and “revelation” like these are bad things (and heck, many ex-members would agree), but to a faithful member, revelation is expected and a point FOR the religion. To denounce revelation for a Mormon would be akin to saying science is bad and has contradictions because it has had so many revisions and new hypotheses. No, revisions are *expected* as humans receive further light and knowledge. Revisions are *expected* because humans are imperfect. So, instead of being fundamentalist (there are fundamentalist Mormons, but they represent a different sect), Mormon is surprising adaptive, in a sly sort of way.

Not to mention, you’re missing that the bigger issue is not necessarily what religion completes the vexing puzzle, but rather what religion brings one spiritual communion with God. We can discuss the subjective nature of this, but to ignore this factor and focus on “contradictions” would miss yet another segment of Mormonism.

I might post some other things from that topic; it was pretty productive. Other Mormons and ex-Mormons on the site (oh, we few…) also chimed in with different answers, and I was able to bounce things off of those.

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58 Comments
  1. Refereshing to see you put on this cap, Andrew. At the end of your reply to your correspondent, you sound almost Sethian. 🙂

  2. Seth would say something at the end like, “And besides, your worldview is logically bankrupt and has way more contradictions, but you’re just playing lip service to it all anyway.”

  3. Oh, just admit it, Andrew. You’ve sold out. Seth has assimilated you, and you didn’t even notice. Seth Rogers now owns your soul.

    The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. 😛

    • Now, if only I looked like Al Pacino, instead of Ralphy from Christmas Story…

  4. NOOOOO NEVERRRRRR

  5. I like your approach here. It’s so easy to become intoxicated by one’s own sense of what’s right. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and just try to understand where others -especially those who disagree with you – are coming from. I’ve only recently decided that I’m no longer a TBM and I find myself wondering what’s wrong with everyone else who still is. It’s not a good way to be. So props for this healthy course correction.

    • The way I try to avoid intoxication is by realizing that but for my experiences, I could’ve been anything else. Others who have different experiences will obviously come to different conclusions.

  6. I thought this was a great answer, exactly how I would have responded myself.

    Lately I’ve been reading a series of essays by Vine Deloria, Jr. In it he discusses the role revelation plays in Native American cultures. I love his approach, because he takes everything as data. Observation is data; experiments provide data; revelation is data. He points out that the Western scientific method restricts what data can be considered; it throws out tons of data that it considers “subjective.” But Deloria points out subjectivity is how human beings experience life; ALL data is data from a certain perspective. So when you throw subjective data out and reject it in favor of something else, you are in essence predetermining the results in favor of something that may not be completely true. You set a certain standard for truth, and then you confirm it by rejecting whatever doesn’t confirm your standard.

    Deloria agrees that Western science — based on the rejection of subjectivity — HAS given Western culture incredible power to manipulate nature. Actually, he would say, enslave nature. But now it’s in the process of destroying the planet. Western science detached itself from subjectivity, which would have enabled it to relate to nature rather than objectify it.

    He shows how Native Americans were not stupid or ignorant of the workings of nature. They actually had extremely sophisticated ecological understanding (for example, knowing that corn, beans, and potatoes, when planted together, preserved nitrogen in the soil so that the land wouldn’t be depleted the way it was by European monoculture). Truths they received through a combination of observation, experiment AND revelation created a culture and way of life that was sustainable, unlike Western culture, which is currently producing an ecological crisis of epic proportions.

    Sorry for rambling (though I can’t help it because this stuff really engages me at every level). His point is, don’t throw out any data. The problem with Christian fundamentalists (and probably some Mormons who have been influenced by the fundamentalist perspective) is that they reject scientific data because it doesn’t cohere with their nice, tidy assumptions about the world. I knew a guy who refused to go to dinosaur exhibits. Seriously — it was so childish I almost couldn’t believe it. Like covering your eyes and pretending that what you don’t see doesn’t exist.

    I think the more obviously mature approach is the one Deloria advocates: don’t throw out any data. Consider it all. When you do, of course you will have contradictions on your hands. It’s better to wrestle with the contradictions, and perhaps even have to put up with a few mysteries, than to distort your perspective by rejecting data.

    • While I have little problem with accepting the subjective, I think you have a bit of a loaded premise (or rather, based on your summary, the guy has a bit of a loaded premise) and your bias is showing.

      It’s not that science, because it rejects revelation as subjective, is currently producing an ecological crisis of epic proportions. Wow.

      And it’s not that Native Americans, because they had revelation in addition to observation and experimentation, came to an environmentally sustainable position. Double wow.

      Environmental sustainability is scientifically supported (that is the case even if we don’t have the nuances of the science down). If there are causal relations between our actions and the degradation of the planet, then this *can* be observed. It does *not* need to be restricted to revelation. (Or, put in a deeper way, if there is *revelation* that causally links something to the world we live in, then this TOO can be observed, and we should instead be trying to fit it within a scientific framework rather than assuming it is a drastically different sort of thing.)

      In particular, it’s not scientists, for example, who are saying, “Let’s keep polluting. Let’s keep throwing greenhouse gases into the air.” In fact, it is often people who have “revelation” that the earth is ours for the taking (whether they say this in a religious sense or a corporate sense) who balk at the “liberal” scientific consensus/conspiracy and insist that it is our birthright to use the limited resources. Or, it is people who in general *eschew* scientific observations relating one thing (greenhouse gases) to another (bad juju for the world).

      I also think it’s kinda silly to say that science is anti-subjectivity. See, I know that many scientists would hate to be called subjectivistic too, BUT scientific experimentation *is* an inherently subjective pursuit (I agree with Deloria there). Where science goes differently is that it tries to mitigate for subjective bias (in the same way we mitigate for financial risk) by diversifying — we use peer review, repeated experiments, etc., Through intersubjectivity, we come to results that, though they still *are* gotten through subjective means (e.g., observation, experimentation), they filter out the “volatility” of individuality (to continue the financial investment aspect).

      I agree that everything is data. BUT there is also another issue: how we *perceive* the raw data is data itself.

      I think a true subjective perspective, in fact, would then necessarily “throw out some data.” Subjective (as used in a sense of “opposition” to scientific intersubjectivity or in “opposition” of this hyperrational ideal of objectivity) relates to personal perspective…this should make sense…scientific intersubjectivity tries to “negate” personal perspective through peer review, repeated experiences, etc., So, if science is based on a rejection of the subjective, then it’s because we’re conflating subjectivity to some personal quality (that science *does* try to filter out). I can see that, but if that is the case, I also argue that this personal quality — which is also data — requires us to throw out some other data.

      Your *perception* of spiritual experiences (that you’ve written about), for example, requires you to throw out perspectives that they are not “real.” Because the way YOU perceive them is that they are most real. “More substantial and more true,” as you wrote a few days ago. You can say, “Of course you will have contradictions…it’s better to wrestle, but put up with mysteries…” as if this means you have not already distorted your perspective. But I think your perspective is already distorted…that is inevitable, but it is not necessarily shameful. Because you already have a working model here, and it leans to interpret data in some way. “Jesus Christ is real and I have had real experiences with him and the spirit” is pretty nonnegotiable. Everything else must fit that. If you treated that any other way, I’d be sorely disappointed in you for *not* valuing your experiences highly enough!

      • Well, I understand your line of reasoning.

        And let me clarify that while I like what Deloria is says, I’m not necessarily buying it uncritically as much as I’m intrigued by it, and interested in exploring it as a hypothesis for understanding the nature of the relationship between “science” and “revelation” or between “Western culture” and “Native America.” If my willingness to entertain it is a bias, I can live with that.

        But here’s the problem with your criticism of it… This, to me, is something along the lines of saying, You can’t blame science for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all, scientists were just elucidating principles about the nature of matter. And then scientists were only uncovering practical applications of those principles (in a top secret American research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico). But they didn’t actually drop the bomb. That was a political decision that had nothing to do with them.

        But the line of reasoning that exonerates science in this way sounds suspiciously to me like Nazi’s who participated in the Holocaust saying “I was only following orders. Don’t blame me.”

        What Deloria would argue is that segmenting everything into dissociated and disconnected things that are conceived of as being completely unrelated to other things is the heart of the problem. Only in western culture would we conceive of doing “science for science’s sake,” without considering the impact that certain kinds of knowledge or certain kinds of technology have.

        He points out that in Native American culture, it would simply be impossible to create the kind of chain of events that would start with musing about how to smash atoms to bits and end with murdering millions of people (and terrorizing every single other person on the planet, not to mention polluting the environment in ways that it can never be unpolluted for thousands of years). You wouldn’t start at point A without asking probing questions about where are we going with this line of questioning, and without considering what might happen when you unstop certain genie’s bottles.

        Maybe he’s full of it, and maybe Native Americans just never built the bomb because they were “too primitive.” But when I evaluate the data, that hypothesis doesn’t make sense to me either.

        As for my personal experience, I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. But my spiritual experiences don’t incline me to ignore what can be learned from science. I’m fascinated by science and always have been from the time I was a kid. I love evolution (and dinosaurs!) and astrophysics and whatnot. But I don’t buy it when scientists say that because we know how DNA works or because we have a plausible model for how the universe came into being or how life on earth got started that therefore there is no God. My experience is at odds with that conclusion. So I accept the data, and do what I need to do, and look forward to more data.

      • It just seems to me, though, that you’re tending to focus on the bad things (and then attributing “good things” to some other culture…in this case, the entertainment of “Native Americans” vs. “Western culture” or between “science” and “revelation.”) I’m not necessarily saying that there aren’t bad things (e.g., not necessarily saying science doesn’t share responsibility — however diffused it becomes — for nuclear bombing), but I’m saying that pointing out these atrocities with little mention of the ability of nuclear power to revolutionize the energy system in a much cleaner, yet effective way than previous forms (barring nuclear accidents like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island) is a bit opportunistic, coy, or biased.

        Wouldn’t you argue that if someone focused on the failings of religion, the misapplications of faith and understanding, the misapplications of scripture and revelation, but didn’t say anything about the benefits of faith, the proper applications of these things, that they would be opportunistic, coy, or biased in their assessment? I mean, isn’t this the whole issue with new atheists like Dawkins…they account — whether knowingly or unknowingly — for only one side of the picture.

        So, heck, if you want to argue for less disconnectedness, less unrelatedness, then that doesn’t seem to hurt my point. When we reconnect “nuclear technology” to “tremendous positive impact on energy production” instead of connecting only to “horrendous bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” or “horrendous nuclear meltdown accidents), then nuclear technology, and the science behind it, once again seems less inherently or intrinsically devilish.

        I’m not making any statements about the primitivity or non-primitivity of any given group of people, but I’m just saying that huge warning sirens go off when someone says or implies, “X group of people simply couldn’t have done this but Y group of people could have and did.” Like, really? It sounds like everyone’s getting a bandwagon of supporting Native American exotic exceptionalism to get over guilt about the evils of Western culture. Notwithstanding whatever evils and whatever exceptionalism may actually exist, I just dislike this kind of fetishism.

        In general, scientists don’t say things like, “Because we know x, y, z, therefore there is no God.” Even the famous scientist-atheist-all-in-one-box people like Richard Dawkins don’t quite say things like this. Rather, Richard Dawkins is a scientist on one hand. He is an atheist on another. His understanding of certain parts of science give him little personal (there’s that subjectivity) reason to believe there needed to be a God at the helm…but this isn’t the same as saying, “Therefore, there is no god.”

        Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work so well in public. Some people (not you, and not most Mormons in general, I don’t think) so conflate science with godlessness and atheism (because of scientists who do wear multiple caps like Dawkins), and so the miss out on science completely because they think science is an enemy to their God. That’s something I found interesting — as I wrote in this article, when I tell people I’m an atheist, I get a very different conversation than when I tell people I was raised Mormon. When I tell people I’m atheist, they start getting defensive about *science* and start trying to quibble *science*.

        The heck?! Science is not the foe! It’s so amazing how often I have to argue for a system of theistic evolution and show how science — and even atheist scientists — doesn’t say, “We know x, y, and z about the universe; therefore, there is no god.”

        P.S. yeah, these nested comments only go so far down. I really dislike them, and yet I was the one who started using them on this article.

      • Ah, no. See now you’re coming back to where it was my intention to aim all along. Yes, there’s good and bad flowing from Western science, and part of the problem all along has been that Western science was created in a cultural framework that thought it was wise to detach their search for knowledge of the material world from their moral sensitivities. That has solved certain problems (and unleashed unimaginable power), but created the possibility (even the likelihood) that we could be technologically advanced, and morally and spiritually retarded. Enter nuclear war.

        No, I’m not trying to romanticize Indians… Actually, you should read Deloria. I don’t think he does either. On the other hand, they did develop a way of living sustainably in the land that lasted (even by our most conservative archaeological estimates) for tens of thousands of years. That says something when you consider that after 200 years of running the scene, Western civilization is on the verge burning every last drop of oil on the planet and melting the polar ice caps. (Which may solve the problem by inundating half the world’s population centers.)

        And yes, I understand that “science” is now finally taking stock of the damage done using technology developed by “science.” But the problem is “science” is still disconnected from morality in our civilization, and so we have no mechanism for solving the problems created by science, other than writing pesky pamphlets about the Inconvenient Truths we’re all ignoring…

        I think we both agree about science and religion… I DO protest vociferously to Sam Harris-style condemnations of religion… I am not anti-science! My original point all along was actually that we desperately need both… We need to shore up and mature the spiritual and moral aspects of our civilization to catch up with the scientific aspects. We won’t solve the problems of science by pooh-poohing the religious aspect of life.

        By the way… Religious experience is also “inter-subjective.” When somebody bears their testimony in sacrament meeting, and many members of the congregation feel the Spirit, that is inter-subjectivity… Pentecostal speaking in tongues… Native American vision quests… Appearance of the Virgin Mary to devout Catholics at Lourdes… All examples of subjective experiences that are shared by more than one person, and that are validated by the experience of others. Some of the most important religious experiences in history have been experiences that were not just experienced by isolated mystics, but that were shared by many. That’s what makes religious community possible…

      • Oh and you’re right about equating atheism and science being inaccurate. I’m not trying to equate the two… But do you know of any anti-God or anti-religion diatribe that doesn’t appeal to All-Knowing Science?

        But I don’t think atheists are the problem, actually. Actually, I think atheists for the most part are part of the solution because they are concerned with public morality. I think the more rabid atheists don’t help when, instead of building alliances with publicly minded people of faith they just want to lambast faith. I love Richard Dawkins when he talks about science (what he knows), but just get bored and annoyed when he talks about what he doesn’t know (religion). But in general, I want atheists at the table when we try to figure out the best way to build a moral public order.

      • I’m going to make a comment at the bottom of this page to continue the thread…

  7. By the way, I think this is a very Mormon perspective… Accept all truth. Take everything from all sources. Learn what you can from every perspective, looking at truth as a whole with many, many different facets.

    You do this trusting that eventually, everything will be reconciled.

    • I actually think my twist on your perspective is also very Mormon.

      “Accept all truth; take everything from all sources.” (But realize that deep down inside, one place is valued above the rest. Whether it’s your personal revelation or the church with the “fully restored Priesthood keys,” you have some paradigm that serves as the worldview filter so that you can determine what truth is or is not.)

      Even saying this, “you do this trusting that eventually, everything will be reconciled” can have some implications. Who will reconcile these things? Hopefully someone who is amenable enough to your perspective.

      • I agree with your twist so long as it’s qualified in relation to the task of “faithfulness.” The search for truth must always be connected to the moral and ethical choices we make in our lives.

      • You lost me somewhere there.

      • Eh, sorry. I know that was kinda cryptic.

        I think the bottom line for most faithful Latter-day Saints is keeping their covenants. You’re right that no “knowledge” that encouraged breaking of covenants would be prioritized over the knowledge that comes through testimony and the Spirit. I think that’s valid.

        You’re also right that some Mormons will reject knowledge because they see it as conflicting with Church dogma. That’s a weakness… And there are plenty of faithful Mormons who would criticize that.

  8. If you’ve yet to join the conversation re X-Mormon of the Year over at Main Street Plaza, this here is your official invite! ( And all apologies for this spamalicious OT comment ! )

  9. Chino:

    I saw the discussion, was pretty surprised (wow, I should’ve known that Mr. Deity was One Of Us…) but I guess I’m pretty out of the loop as far as knowing impactful X-Mormons other than the ones named

  10. John:

    No, I don’t necessarily think it’s a problem to detach a search for knowledge from moral sensibilities.

    After all, “moral sensibilities” themselves can be quite immoral. You take an overly optimistic view of moral sensibilities otherwise.

    For example, let’s say someone is doubting the church. A leader might certainly advise him not to detach a search for knowledge from moral sensibilities too. Both the leader and the doubter, as a result of growing up in the church and having believed (even if one is going through a rough patch), will mutually understand what “moral sensibilities” means. But the doubter will be trapped by it. This could swing the other way too…for a doubter and the ex-member, the moral sensibilities would lead to a specifically different “impetus” (rah rah rah the church is eeeebil). You have a very specific idea of what it means to be “spiritually retarded,” I would imagine. I would imagine that, whatever that specific idea is, someone else could easily have a vastly different one.

    This doesn’t fix much. The issue is that for a military strategist, “moral sensibilities” justify a couple of nukes rather than thousands of US troops lost in an invasion. The nukes and the nuclear scientists aren’t completely absolved, but still, it’s not so clearcut that there was One True Way.

    I probably should read Deloria. But the rest of your paragraph leads me to believe that I’ll find that there is a twinge of romanticism still there…if not in him, then in you :D. I still am baffled by the comparison. It seems akin to saying, “Wow, those guys in the past were all so great. After all, they never had a war with millions of millions of cruel and unusually inflicted casualties.” OK, yes, but they also did not have billions of billions of people to begin with, only possible to support with the technology that could improve and expand resource capacity, minimize all sorts of immature deaths, etc.,

    For all you say about not being anti-science, I dunno, I think your lines about “science” still being “disconnected from morality in our civilization,” as if it’s supposed to be connected in the first place, or as if it really isn’t, or as if civilization outside of science is moreso connected to morality, or as if some past or different civilization (Na’vi…er…Native Americans) was really speak louder than that. Lines about shoring up the mature spiritual and moral aspects seem to imply a level of valuation to these spiritual and moral aspects and a level of devaluation to the “moral-less” scientific aspects (even as you enjoy the fruits [and, admittedly, poisons] of this “moral-less” science).

    You’re actually trying to play both ways. First, you say, “science” is disconnected from morality in our civilization. Then, you say that it’s really civilization itself that needs spiritual and moral aspects shored up. Which is it?!

    Going on to your final line…I’ll say…if religious experience is also intersubjective, then shouldn’t we really apply it scientifically? In other words, shouldn’t we be able to measure — even if we need to develop drastically different tools — the effects of the spirit? Shouldn’t we seek *this* as a “solution” rather than talking about science and spirituality (if we are committed to both, that is) in separate instances? But then again, shouldn’t we also look critically? Is the sacred so fragile that it cannot withstand this? From the way many people talk about it, it is.

    I can easily think of anti-God and anti-religion diatribes that don’t appeal to All-Knowing-Science, because most anti-God and anti-religion diatribes point out that we *don’t* know everything and it’s silly to walk around so confidently as if we do. They rely on science not being “all knowing,” but science being demonstrably more humble in methodology than religion tends to be. They rely on science being more amenable to change than religion tends to be.

    And don’t forget, many of the angstheists aren’t even scientists! They may be as uninformed and uninterested as science as the average joe! Their quibbles with religion can (and often do) have nothing to do with science, and so science can’t be the backing for them, much less “all-knowing-science.” We are biased because we are used to talking with the people with scientific backgrounds and scientific attitudes…or in Mormonism, we are used to talking to people with historical backgrounds…but it would be as false to say that the only people with an “anti-Mormon” diatribe are those with a “History-Knows-All” nature.

    You mention it yourself. People are really going for a “moral public order.” The more vitriolic people seem to be, all this represents is the more they have reason (however limited it is) to believe that religion represents the enemy to moral public order or that faith — even outside of the organized religion — still represents such a danger.

    But it’s as I was commenting in response to you in the beginning. This represents that *perspective* itself is data. And this kind of data necessarily discounts and ignores and throws out other data. Dawkins can’t get *authentically* inside the religious person’s perspective. This influences his entire message. Same with the others. But in the same way, you can’t get into theirs. (Protip: saying, “I was an angry ex-Mormon for xx years; I was in their position” doesn’t make it so. The fact that you aren’t now means that you have yet a different position and perspective. This is also why plenty of ex-Mormons, though they have been in the church for substantial periods of time, get into disagreements with believers. By virtue of the ending place of one vs. the others, they obviously didn’t have all that similar perspectives.)

    In response to your last comment (regarding the cryptic part), I think this reaches back to what I said about moral sensibilities. Cool; complete the circle!

    • By the way, I really enjoy talking with you, and I really like your blog. I’m not always on the same page with you, but I love how you think.

      OK, love fest aside… I agree that there’s no one moral or spiritual approach. But there IS a moral, spiritual process. There are moral, spiritual ways of knowing and reasoning. Newton and Einstein were both scientists, but they each had dramatically different views of the world and how it functions. Now imagine if Einstein, upon recognizing that there were holes in Newton’s understanding of the universe had simply said “Newton is wrong, therefore science is stupid and we should reject scientific pursuits all together.” Of course there are plenty of anti-science yahoos stalking school boards across the country who have done precisely that… Their respect for science ends some time after Newton and before Einstein.

      All I’m saying is that it’s equally stupid to do the same with respect to religion. There is a moral and spiritual process that has the potential to take us from an insular, infantile, egotistical way of viewing the world, and help us evolve to an expansive, mature, humble way of viewing the world. And I don’t think it is possible to progress, individually or collectively, if we cut that process off at the knees. You have to encourage growth, not can it. It requires engagement, which is why, for example, as homophobic and infuriating as the Church can be sometimes, I know that that’s where I belong.

      Speaking from personal experience, I realize in many ways that during the many years when I rejected faith, I was stuck. In order to progress, I needed to go back and wrestle with the issues that once almost killed me, literally almost drove me to suicide. My husband was really worried for me at one point… He was afraid I would become suicidal again if I engaged with Mormonism. He never could have predicted that going back to the Church would help ground me in unbelievable ways. I was finally able to come to terms with some of the demons by facing them…

      But what’s best of all is, I never would have done it on my own. I came back because of a revelatory experience. It’s not something I can explain. Maybe you can try to explain it in terms of psychology… But my conscious self would NEVER have chosen to go this route. And yet now I can’t even begin to describe how powerful a difference it has made in my life for the better. Somehow the Spirit knew what I needed, if I did not.

      So I know there is real knowing through spiritual processes. My life would be greatly impoverished if I chose only to know what is knowable through the scientific method. So I’m committed to the philosophical position I started this conversation with, of taking ALL the data.

      One final thought, about trying to quantify subjective or “inter-subjective” religious experience. You could do that; some certainly have. I’ve seen various studies for example measuring the effects of medical treatments that are supported by prayer or religious practice, etc. But I’m not sure what it would prove. I think it’s asking the wrong question. Sure, you could put little electrodes on people in Sacrament meeting, and take measurements, and then compare the readings of those who claim to have felt the Spirit with those who didn’t feel the Spirit, and so on… Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if you did find something actually quantifiable. But what would that tell us? It couldn’t really prove whether the physical reactions were caused by something internal or external…

      • By the way, I really enjoy talking with you, and I really like your blog. I’m not always on the same page with you, but I love how you think.

        Feeling is definitely mutual. I’m pretty impressed, and I don’t say that often.

        But back to the meat of the conversation…Einstein *wouldn’t* say, “Ah, all science is wrong, throw it all away,” but he would propose changes to Newtonian ways of thinking which would, seem utterly irreconcilable with classical physics (to which we are still looking for reconciliation.) Sometimes, we get to a point where previous scientific hypotheses, for however well-accepted they were in the past, must be thrashed and trashed so completely that what remains cannot be identified as its former self. But never has science itself (which is a *method*) had that happen.

        I think when people criticize religion (or theism in general), they do something similar. They assert that when religion has changed in the ways that it needs to, when spirituality has changed in the ways that it needs to (and remember that “that it needs to” is subjective), then it will be so utterly different from what it once was that it barely deserves to be called the same thing or treated in the same way. When people advocate for spirituality as a *method* that is not trashed, but its products are, the strange thing is that they produce really weird products. (E.g., Karen Armstrong’s “defenses” of theism doesn’t even *sound* theistic.)

        What all of these people are arguing is that it’s great to move from an “insular, infantile, egotistic way of viewing the world.” But what people would argue is that to do that, we would need to so change religion that it wouldn’t look anything like what it does now. We would need to change theism so much that it wouldn’t look like what it is. And at the end of the process, there’d be no reason to call it “religion” or “spirituality.”

        Or, let’s go a different route. But can you change the church? You think you can through engaging it, but for many others, this is not only an unlikely outcome, but a morally deficient outcome. I think people use some strong analogies that I wouldn’t necessarily use, but just to give an example: If you wanted to change the KKK, would you change it through engaging it? Even if your family was in the KKK or you grew up in it or whatever, would that make it “better” to try to change it by engaging within it and staying “with” it? It’s a crude and terrible example that I’m sure you’ll say misses your experience, but I think that the person I know who brought it up did so because it certainly captured his experience. Again, experience and perspective is data that necessarily rejects other data.

        As you write, your perspective is your own. Your time away was a time for you to be “stuck.” And you couldn’t get out without what you say was revelatory. You say your conscious self would never have chosen to go this route…but I wouldn’t say your conscious self NEEDS to (I think the church conflates conscious choice way too much). Regardless, you are led to interpret this in a specific way. And so you know there is real knowing through spiritual processes. This and the rest of your experiences cause you to assign a discount to some things and a premium to other things. This is *necessarily* so, and yet you still say, “taking ALL the data.” OK, so you take all the data…you just recognize (or do not recognize) that your data is filtered through *your experience* — which impacts and changes your conclusion as it does for everyone else.

        I’ll go to your last line: “It couldn’t really prove whether the physical reactions were caused by something internal or external.”

        Ah, but then, isn’t the goal to find out — or at least hope to find — something that WOULD prove that?

      • I think you’ve very nicely described what I think must happen to religion. It must change so dramatically that — in comparison with what we generally recognize as religion — it will be almost unrecognizable as such. That’s partly why — as you know — I don’t have as much of an issue with atheists as some religious types. Because when atheists point to the big problems in religion, they are actually identifying legitimate areas which — if we wrestled with them from a religious perspective — would start moving us in the right direction.

        But I think that the next stage will be more in touch with the Spirit, not more detached from it. It will bring us more deeply into “inner space.” It will enhance our capacity for awe and worship — and of course love.

        Meh. I really hate that tired old KKK analogy. If the Church were anything like the KKK I would stay far away from it. I remain committed to the Church because the Church remains — however imperfectly — committed to the concept of Zion. Because they remain committed to the spiritual and moral processes which are so crucial to spiritual evolution!! I feel unequivocal in my sense that we share common ground in our testimony of Christ. Some folks in the Church are further along in the journey than others, but who am I to judge who’s more advanced and who’s not? I’ve got enough work to do on myself…

        Of course I filter data, and of course I weigh some data more than other data. That’s what humans do. Our brains / souls / whatever you want to call it are hardwired to do that. But I don’t exclude data from consideration. I’m willing to entertain and wrestle with data that contradicts my preconceived notions. You’ll never hear me say, “Oh X Y or Z shouldn’t be taught in school.” Absolutely never. My position is and always has been, read more, learn more, keep searching. My best learning experiences have always been when I’ve been challenged, so keep it coming…

        Again, I know some folks have a different experience with this, but that commitment to learn everything I can from every perspective comes from deep within my religion…

  11. John,

    I disagree that it would bring us closer to “inner space,” or put us more in touch with the spirit, rather than less.

    I can think of a great deal of positive benefits with a “next stage,” something that would, I believe, lead to a greater capacity for love. BUT I can’t conceive that this would lead to something we need to call “awe” or “worship.” I don’t believe, for example, that we get to your experiences from our pursuit of the next stage. Perhaps your experiences motivate you to seek a “next stage” in religion, perhaps your experiences with the Spirit motivate you to seek a next stage in religion, but I do not see these too as being lock-step related — in either way. For example, your way is volatile. If we are relying on people having spiritual experiences — and then paying attention to these spiritual experiences — then we are going to be waiting a long time. As you said yourself…your “conscious self would never have chosen that route.”

    On the other hand, I believe that even if our conscious self may not choose a route as fantastic as a spiritual experience (so this is a wild card), it can consciously choose mundane things to improve our world (and our perspective of the world) in a slower, deliberate fashion based on observation and experimentation. This may seem weird, but I’d say this: wisdom literature need not arise from revelation. It can arise from common experiences. Some concepts work better for interacting with others. This need not make us spiritually attuned, and we need not feel bad if it doesn’t.

    I think how I was most struck by the KKK analogy when I heard someone use it was not in my immediate sense of being like you — thinking, “I hate this analogy; it doesn’t capture the nuances of the church, etc.,” — but rather it was the overriding consideration I had above that that it’s not necessary for it to capture the church in a one-to-one fashion. Rather, all that’s necessary is that an individual perceives such a relationship and that it causes him the similar grief that the KKK situation would. The person I know who brought this argument up certainly felt like that. I could either discount the data (this guy’s an angry ex-mo…) or I could recognize that I’m only inclined to dismiss (for this discounting would lead to that, no matter how much lip service I paid) the data because of a difference in perspective, and so I must acknowledge *my* perspectival bias *as well as* his.

    What if you fully believed that the church *didn’t* remain committed to the spiritual and moral processes which are so critical to evolution? (Since this is a big deal to you) The numerous people who speak out against Mormons don’t just do it because they have free time on their hands. At the core of whatever their issue is, they may have a strong belief that Mormons *aren’t* committed to spiritual and moral processes, whereas you think they are. This *perception* is critical. You say, “Who am I to judge who’s more advanced and who’s not? I’ve got enough work to do on myself.” I’m certain while nearly everyone would agree on that last part, they would also say that “doing work on yourself” doesn’t necessarily mean “continuing to support and trying to support the church” (at least, to the extent that the church will allow you!) Heck, who are we to judge? No one. But who do we need to be to judge? Apparently, no one. The idea that Mormons are committed to spiritual and moral processes (or an idea that some group is not or some individuals are not), even if not a judgment, is an assessment of advancement. This “advancement” is framed in terms of “commitment to the concept of Zion.” And you measure it based on who is more “in touch with the spirit.”

    If you’re willing to entertain and wrestle with information that contradicts your preconceived notions, but you do admit (as happens to all humans) that you do weigh some data more highly than others (and, might I say, some of these notions are your preconceived ones), then do you think it’s a “fair fight”? I don’t think the strawman “Oh X Y Z should never be taught in school” quite exonerates you. Even if you don’t say things so strongly, or in such a context, you still have ideas about what should be taught, what should be integrated, etc., (e.g., moral and spiritual processes, as you understand them) and even if you challenge them, it’s not that much of a fair fight (how do you fight something that you’ve backed with an experience you describe as “more real…”?)

    Consider that the church does say, “learn everything.” But there are right answers, from the church’s perspective, whether official or unofficial. There are “true but not useful” answers, from the church’s perspective, whether explicitly or implicitly. Again, I think your perspective bears a shadow side (as they all do).

  12. FireTag permalink

    WOW! And I guess I mean Word of Wisdom in both of two possible senses.

    I’ve been so busy blogging and commenting all week concerning the CofChrist’s proposed D&C Section 164 on accepting other Christians into the church without rebaptism and setting policy toward gender and sexual roles in the church on the basis of national cultures rather than having achurch-wide policy that I just got to read this thread.

    Thank you both, John and Andrew, for a marvelous discussion. As both a believer and a scientist, I’ve been over a lot of this ground both here with Andrew and on my own blog (thefirestillburning.wordpress.com). I really do believe that new understandings of science are going to force adjustments (read growth) in Restoration theology as our part in a much larger movement of God to establish Zion.

    But I’m jumping around like I have attention deficit disorder, and will just have to read this several more times before I can comment more fully.

    Right now, I’m trying to get through a 30 page physics paper that was referenced in New Scientist today and purports to derive gravity — and thus both Newton and Einstein theories — from basic information theory and a dab of thermodynamics. :D.

  13. Cool, FireTag, take your time. I noticed you have been getting around (especially with guest posts on MMatters), even though I haven’t had much to comment on them.

    I’d probably fail hard on the physics thing, so I won’t look too deeper in that, haha

  14. Okay, so I only made it partially through your convo with John (grin), but…love the post! Well put.

  15. Andrew – I’ll let you have the last word, as this is your blog! I think your comment was very fair, especially since you don’t see yourself or anyone else being above the issues of bias you point out in my path.

    I’ll only add that I don’t have issues with you or anyone else pursuing the “next stage” however you best see fit. In fact, I think the only way we reach the next stage is through honest pursuit of truth, and a willingness to follow it where it leads (or where we felt led, whatever the case may be).

    • Yeah, my point isn’t that we should try to “be above” the issues of bias (especially not in our personal lives)…When we try to do this or say that we have done this, we probably are missing some critical bias. We so often try to be “above bias” because of our prizing of objectivity…

      But if we accept subjective data is important (and that our prizing of objectivity is cultural bias), then we shouldn’t demonize bias so. (At least, not necessarily for all kinds of bias).

      As I said before, I’d be pretty disappointed if you *didn’t* heavily discount (or even functionally dismiss) certain possibilities with regard to your experiences.

      • I agree.

  16. marmot permalink

    I’m going with stupidity. And I’m going with a culture that encourages stupidity–that tells you again and again to not think for yourself, to follow the prophets, and most importantly, to avoid anything worldly that might change your mind.

    So, not inborn stupidity but learned stupidity. And I say this as someone who grew up Mormon and witnessed first hand the dumbing down of, well, pretty much everything. Don’t think for yourself. Just don’t. That’s the basic message.

    • Well, isn’t that just dandy?

      But what about the enclaves of Mormonism where people don’t “avoid anything worldly that might change their minds,” but they find that even after all that, Mormonism anchors them? Is that still “learned stupidity?”

      I think this enlightenment/ignorance dichotomy is pretty petty, regardless of your position inside or outside the church. Congratulations on learning a grand total of nothing in disaffection.

      • Mormons that you describe, those that ditch the head-in-the-sand culture are wonderful people and fall outside my “stupid” categorization. But there’s plenty in the former category.

      • I’m glad you have partial charity here.

        it seems to me that if you simply choose to focus on the former category and ignore the existence of counter-evidence, then you’re doing the same thing you dislike.

  17. marmot permalink

    So, Mormons reconcile the contradictions in their religion (in my experience) by one of two ways. First, and preferably, they are blithely unaware a contradiction exists. Second, if a contradiction should rear its shapely head, they state that the solution to the contradiction will be revealed in the afterlife. Sweet.

  18. marmot permalink

    Third, I am continually amazed by how thin Mormon doctrine is. You don’t have to go very far in any direction before you run up against that “we don’t know” wall. Learned stupidity.

    • I don’t think someone saying “We don’t know” should be chastised. This isn’t a good case to back up your learned stupidity.

      After all, “We don’t know” is one of the crowning marks of the humility of scientists and of science as an evolving process.

      • For scientists, “we don’t know” is the start of inquiry. For Mormons, it is the slam-the-door end of the conversation. That’s the difference. My Mom was brilliant. But because of her sheltered Mormon background she rejected anything (anything) that didn’t agree with her religious views. She didn’t know much. The world for her was a scary place full of untruths.

        My large family has followed this tradition–they’re all really smart (by those traditional rating methods) but know next-to-nothing about the world because that darn world keeps bumping up against their religious beliefs. I know you know people like this. This is what Mormonism is. Fervent discussions about the evilness of the “world,” the necessity of being in it but not of it…. the list goes on. It’s a bad thing.

      • As you admitted in your previous comment though, you’re basing this on a particular subset of Mormons. So, really, “for Mormons,” nothing is the case, because Mormons aren’t a monolithic group — despite correlation, despite a centralized leadership that produces centralized materials.

        If your family members provide great examples of rationalization, then congratulations, you now have *anecdotal evidence*. Congratulations — we all do, both for and against your point. I’m not going to say I don’t know people who are like that, because surely I do. But I will say that this is something that arises in *every thing*, not something particular to Mormonism or particular to religion in general. Bias, rationalization, selective evidence gathering, etc., are part of the human condition.

      • Well, it certainly is a convenient way to get rid of obnoxious jerks who are just here to call us unpleasant names, and for whom debate wouldn’t make much difference anyway.

        So yeah. I guess you have a point there marmot.

  19. Andrew, on behalf of stupid, blithe and intellectually lazy people everywhere, I thank you.

  20. marmot permalink

    Mormonism is a transparent 19th century fraud. There are tons of protective devices in Mormonism to keep people from figuring this out. These protective devices are what I’m labelling “stupidity” because it was the word at hand. I’m going to say it’s better to call such deliberate blindness “selective ignorance.” Stupidity is way too loaded a word. But people who don’t suffer from such selective ignorance are called New Order Mormons, or ex-mormons, or people who are in the closet about their lack of disbelief for fear of harsh consequences.

  21. marmot permalink

    The Mormon Church has provided a perfect example of “selective ignorance” with their recent command that church lessons teach only from the correlated lesson manuals. It’s pretty close to forbidden to go to materials outside those four small walls of the lesson manual. Why? Because the Church gold standard is ignorance.

  22. marmot, i don’t think you’re thinking the vitriol of your position through. As such, it is intellectually inconsistent at best, but intellectual nonsense at worse.

    For example, if you call the “protective devices” stupidity because that’s the word at hand, that really says more about your feelings and raw emotions than an analysis of these protective devices.

    After all, let’s say these are protective devices to keep people from “figuring it all out.” Then, the more effective these devices are, the more able they are at keeping people from “figuring it out,” that means those devices are *MORE* clever, not less.

    Even if you call it “selective ignorance,” you are being selectively ignorant yourself. Even if such an operation is a knowing fraud (which I don’t think that the Prophet and the GAs believe it is a knowing fraud), then the fraud *cannot* be perpetrated with “selective ignorance.” Rather, those who carry the mantle *must* be expertly familiar with issues and controversies to navigate around them and keep the ship afloat.

    The Mormon church has not provided a perfect example of “selective ignorance” or of “stupidity” with their recent command that church lessons teach only from the correlated lesson manual. If you thought your position through, you’d recognize that this is a genius move for people trying to maintain power. However, if you thought even deeper, you’d realize that this genius move could not work unless people actually *bought it*. The fact that people continue to buy something in Mormonism — whether you think that something is fake or socially engineered — is the true cleverness.

    The problem is that this is just an overtly skeptical approach. Obviously, that is not the only approach to take. Instead, it is just as possible to view the leaders as making guidelines and suggestions in good faith, in taking the spiritual experiences of members on good faith, etc.,

    But you’re just being selectively ignorant by not doing so. As a result, you hurt your own cause and look rather silly and uninformed.

  23. marmot permalink

    Andrew, that last comment of yours seemed to agree with my position, only with considerably more tact.

    Here’s Boyd K. Packer (an apostle–a prophet, seer and revelator) stating that “a lot of things that are true historically aren’t very useful and don’t generate happiness.” Isn’t he stating that, pretty close to directly, that there’s quite a bit of knowledge in the world that you just should not know because they “don’t generate happiness” and they aren’t “useful?” Yes he is.

    Helen Whitney: Is there a conflict between a faith-promoting work of scholarship and factual scholarship? Is there a conflict at all?
    BKP: There can be. Some things that are true aren’t very useful. And there are those in the past who have looked at the leaders of the Church, for instance, and found out that they’re human and want to tell everything. There are steps and missteps that don’t help anything. Some think that to be totally honest they have to tell everything. They don’t. If they’ve got the mindset for that, then they’re always grumbling — they have an appetite for it. They’re free to do that, but it isn’t really productive, it doesn’t really make anybody happy.
    Someone you knew, say when you were in college, made a terrible mistake. You knew about it, and it was forgiven and lived beyond. There’s little purpose in going back and digging that out and speaking of it when their children might be present — a lot of things that are true historically aren’t very useful and don’t generate happiness.

  24. marmot permalink

    Here’s a quote from Apostle Dallin Oaks on the importance of suppressing negative historical information:

    “My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Saviour. Everything may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors”

  25. That’s because my entire point was about tact.

    If you lack it, that is all that matters.

    When Boyd K. Packer makes his point about things being “true but not useful,” this doesn’t highlight selective ignorance. Rather, one can learn many “true” things and assess them as they wish. A faithful member whose life is enriched by the church has more value from that enrichment than from anything else. It is a rather clever statement. To dismiss it misses the point, and misses the enduring nature of the church.

    Ditto my point to Oaks. If you know what they’ve said and why they’ve said it, then you really shouldn’t be saying such things. If you want to disagree with the church for being too clever, that’s one thing. But don’t say that it’s “stupidity” and “ignorance.”

  26. marmot permalink

    All these points–Churchwide, discouraging Mormons from knowing anything about their religion ouside the manuals; Boyd K. Packer telling people that a ” lot of things that are true historically aren’t very useful and don’t generate happiness,” and Dallin Oaks stating “Everything may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts” all speak directly to the point that good Mormons are more than encouraged to remain deeply in the dark about a fair amount. We may disagree on the amount, but it seems impossible to disagree that ignorance is really encouraged. Really. To the point of apostles lying about less savory aspects of Mormon history.

  27. “A lot of things that are true historically aren’t very useful and don’t generate happiness,” isn’t a statement that implies ignorance is really encouraged.

    It’s a statement that a lot of things that are true historically aren’t very useful and don’t generate happiness.

    Oaks’s message clarifies — there what is useful (from the perspective of the Prophets, the Q12, the GAs, etc.,) is the authority of the priesthood, the testimony of the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. So, from here on, it’s really quite reasonable what these people do in their direction of the church to achieve these aims.

    And, the real clincher is in the millions of people who apparently find value from such claims. This is even true (or, should I say, especially true, for New Order Mormons/middle way Mormons, who recognize the usefulness of the Mormon paradigm in such an extent that they strive to continue to find utility despite the discover of facts that Packer accurately predicted would not “generate happiness.” They want to maintain *happiness* first and foremost, and so that is why the church continues to persist.

    If you cannot see this, and continue to think that people who stay — whether they know the details of the history or not — are simply stupid or ignorant, then these descriptors probably describe you more aptly.

  28. marmot permalink

    Andrew, my point is that good, smart Mormons remain ignorant of the less-savory aspects of Mormon church history, encouraged by church lesson manuals and leaders at the top of the Mormon hierarchy. The quote from Packer is specifically about those unsavory bits of history, as is the Oaks quote.

    If you don’t know that, say, Joseph married 20-odd women in the temple before he got around to marrying Emma, then you don’t have to worry about this. If you don’t know that Joseph Smith sent men on missions and then “married” their wives, you don’t have to invent tendentious excuses for his behavior. If you don’t know that Joseph Smith made a pass at Nancy Rigdon and then did his best to smear her character after she rebuffed him, then you don’t have to reconcile that unpleasant fact with your belief-structure. Here, I’ll take that last one. “He was just testing her. Or something.” It’s best not to know.

    How many Mormons do know? Not that many. See? It works.

    • Sealed Marmot.

      Not married. Sealed.

      In this case the distinction actually matters.

      • marmot permalink

        We know, from the affidavits collected during the Temple Lot case, that Joseph Smith slept with his “sealed” wives. The women saw it as marriage. D&C 132 uses the word “marry” when talking about plural marriage.

        What is your interpretation of the difference between marriage and sealing and how do you reconcile that with the aforementioned D&C 132?

      • No sloppiness here marmot.

        Which wives? Be specific.

  29. marmot permalink

    I promise, my last comment. Here’s Boyd K. Packer referring to unpleasant facts about Mormon history as “disease germs.” There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room here–enforced ignorance is the rule.

    “You seminary teachers and some of you institute and BYU men will be teaching the history of the Church this school year. This is an unparalleled opportunity in the lives of your students to increase their faith and testimony of the divinity of this work. Your objective should be that they will see the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now… Church history can be so interesting and so inspiring as to be a very powerful tool indeed for building faith. If not properly written or properly taught, it may be a faith destroyer… There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not… Some things that are true are not very useful… That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith — particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith — places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities. … Do not spread disease germs!”

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