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Suspension of Disbelief in God vs. Professional Skepticism

February 21, 2010

Here’s another article where I compare things that ought brook no comparison: religion and accounting.

…Over at Things of My Soul, Ray/Papa D had a great post about the Mormon emphasis on “knowing” the Book of Mormon and church are true — and how such an emphasis could actually discourage and kill faith.

As a bit of a sidestep, I continue to be interested/piqued by his first paragraph.

I have no idea whatsoever if I chose my beliefs or how much control I have over my choices now. I believe I can choose, because I don’t like the alternative – and because I personally feel like I am choosing. What I feel most strongly is that I have made a conscious choice about HOW I reach conclusions – that I sit down, weigh my options, analyze what has brought me joy and decide to make decisions that will enhance and build on that joy. Perhaps that isn’t really a conscious choice; perhaps it simply is part of my inherited, genetic make-up. I don’t worry much about it, since it feels like conscious choice to me.

This idea of choice of beliefs intrigues me.

For me, I perceive a definite distinction between actions and beliefs. Of course I perceive that I can choose one action over another. On the other hand, I don’t perceive that I can choose one belief or another. On the other hand, I recognize that when I sit down (action), weigh my options (action), then some options will make more “sense” to me (feeling), and I’ll agree/identify more with these options (belief). I can analyze what has brought me joy, but I cannot consciously change or choose what does bring me joy.

This distinction has been important to me. I know that in many cases, I can seek more or different data. Look at things from a different perspective. Seek different information. And with that, maybe a different conclusion will make sense or feel right. However, at some point, I am always — always — at the mercy of an internal framework, worldview, and way of processing all the data that comes by. I don’t choose (and perceive no direct, conscious way to change) such framework. So, trying to “believe” something I don’t or to “feel” something I don’t immediately seems out of place, foreign, hostile to myself.

Well, that was a bit of a tangent (although it relates to what I’m going to talk about next). Ray had a commenter who phrased things in an interesting way.

Sometimes I think we have to be willing to suspend our disbelief.Since I’m prepared to do that in a theatre,I feel I should be prepared to give God the benefit of the doubt.

This comment made me really chew over the concept of suspension of disbelief. My thoughts are that suspension of disbelief already have a few “requirements” to begin with, and it also has a few “goals”…these goals, I don’t think, are entirely too consistent for God.

For example, performers are professional liars. Their professional task is to immerse us in a fictive world. Even when performers are performing non-fictional accounts, the performers are trying to immerse us into characters that aren’t themselves.

But they have to lie well, first of all. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

The endeavors of the actor/writer/performer/whomever are to transfer a human interest and a semblance of truth that are sufficient to procure…that willing suspension of disbelief. So, there has to be somewhat of a semblance of truth, or some relatability to some human interest. These are, I think, requirements.

Meanwhile, what are the goals? The goal of this suspension of disbelief is, essentially, to deceive us without us being focused on the deception. (Wow, this essay sounds really meanspirited to artists, performers, writers, and the like…but I don’t mean to make you guys sound like terrible people! [Also, I can feel some literary/film/art expert is going to thrash me soon.]) When writers are poor at this, we can’t force suspension of disbelief further. Instead, we say that the plot or characters or setting is unrealistic and undeveloped, or that the work of art is substandard. We give bad reviews and perhaps tell our friends. However, when the performer has done his task well, we can easily forget that this is all make believe, become immersed in the performance, and be entertained or otherwise emotionally moved.

But is this how everything in life works? Well, as I’ve studied accounting, there are a few things that have been drummed over and over. Suspension of disbelief isn’t one of them. Rather, professional skepticism is tremendous, and when auditors aren’t skeptical enough, bad things happen.

So, in financial reporting, the (lofty/unattainable) goal is to achieve “transparency” (at least, outside of China) and material fairness. Regardless of the improbability/impossibility of creating “objective” or “neutral” standards, one thing is clear: if auditors suspended disbelief about questionable transaction data under any set of accounting principles, then eventually, bad things will happen.

I guess I’m really getting off on a tangent. My question was and is…to the anonymous commenter or anyone…do we really want to place religion in the realm of theatre or in some kind of realm of accounting, or in something else?

For myself, I feel that if I have to suspend disbelief as to the alleged most powerful, knowing, and loving being of the universe, then there’s something very fishy going on.

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  1. Sofal permalink

    That’s funny, I’ve been thinking along these lines recently as well. I watched an hour long talk that Srikumar Rao gave at Google. Basically motivational stuff. His idea is that we’re all living in our own little dream world, and we use confirmation bias not only to reinforce it, but also to create it. He recommends changing your view of reality by actively looking for evidence of a better reality than you are living in now. I guess the gist of it was that you have the ability to change yourself by changing what kind of reality you believe in.

    There was another Radio Lab podcast about lying, and somewhere during it they mention a study that showed how athletes who effectively lie to themselves perform slightly better. It’s like we’re endowed with a certain self-deception power that we can use for good or for evil.

    So your question about whether religion is one of the good fantasies is an interesting one. People willingly stick their head in the sand rather than venture into ideas and discussions that could challenge their reality. I’ve seen it and I’ve done it. It immediately strikes me as a very unwise thing to do, but when I think about it a little more it seems that selective exposure to information can have a powerful influence on what you believe. Even when done on purpose.

    Have you ever noticed that after watching a spy movie, for a little while afterwards you see the world with a faint tint of intrigue? Like everything is some kind of clue; boring routine events are part of some plot, and you look for escape routes and anticipate others’ moves?

  2. Sofal, I guess if I get a free hour, I’ll have to check that out (unless your summary covers the presentation well enough)? But yeah, I can see how that would work. At the same time, I think people are not so completely in control. While in most instances, you can “fake it until you make it,” looking for evidences of a better reality until it becomes habitual and sinks in, I think in other cases, the very pursuit drains us and disillusions us

    My thoughts are that several years of looking for evidence of a “Mormon reality” didn’t make it real, but it drained me.

    I think a general guideline about determining “good fantasy” or not so good is this one: is your life presently down/negative/etc.,? If it is, what will it hurt to try to bring it up?

    My problem was that my life was already going pretty well. But then I thought that if I didn’t believe, then there could be no way it was going well. So I brought myself down — how can someone who doesn’t have a testimony be living life ok? I had to get over that mentality by relooking at the world around.

    After watching movies (like spy movies), I don’t begin to see the world with a faint tint of intrigue for a little while afterward. Rather, for that little while afterward, I have a wish that the world was more (or less) like the movie. I don’t have the sense that everything is some kind of clue, but I have a bit of a wish that things could be. Isn’t that just a bit different?

  3. Jason permalink

    I was introduced to MSP by a friend about 3 months ago and have made it a point to check your blog out when it’s linked from there. This is the first reply I’ve left on any of these blogs. It’s been nice to read the experiences others have had with the Mormon Church and see that people are going through the same thing that I’m going through. Even if I don’t really know any of these people, it’s helped me realize that I’m not alone. It’s interesting that so many of us are having similar experiences.

    Anyway, I had to comment on the comparison you made to accounting since I haven’t seen anybody else bring it up before (hope this doesn’t bore other readers). I began my career as an auditor at a firm in the Midwest from 2003-2008. I started off as a believing Mormon that separated the way I thought about spiritual things from the way I thought about secular things…I’m not sure if that separation/compartmentalization was consciously done in 2003. Maybe it was the 60+ hour work weeks, but the more I audited and saw the value of applying professional skepticism to business and other areas of life, the more difficult it became to continue to separate the way I thought about things. Now I’m an openly non-believing Mormon (after getting clearance from my wife I decided that I wasn’t going to pretend anymore about 3 months ago), and I’m that way because I’ve investigated/audited the church’s claims using the same principles that I used in my career.

    To go just a little further with this, professional skepticism is defined as an attitude that includes a questioning mind and critical assessment of audit evidence. As an auditor you question everything and don’t take anybody at their word. You get as much information as you can directly from outside sources. If a client gives an explanation for something, you’ll need to corroborate it by getting the same story from another source. It’s your job to be an investigator. Once you start doing this with the truth claims of the Mormon Church…well, you run into some problems. It doesn’t take too long to determine that what is being taught through official Mormon sources is materially different from unofficial, but historically-supportable sources. There is no rational reconciliation/explanation for these differences. The Mormon Church’s presentation of its history and doctrine isn’t fair based on the evidence. It’s easy to see this, but extremely difficult and scary to be honest with yourself and admit it…it took me about 5 years to finally say something about it.

    One other business/auditing-related parallel to the church. Companies put all sorts of controls in place to help protect against fraud, and one of these controls is an effective whistleblower policy. Employees need to feel like they can act with integrity and that they won’t be punished if they come forward with knowledge of shenanigans going on in the company. As an auditor, if you interview employees at the client and they tell you that they feel like they can’t be honest about problems/mischief at the company without being punished then that’s a huge red flag. This was part of the problem with some of the financial statement frauds that took place in the early 2000’s – effective policies weren’t in place or the executives essentially told the whistleblowers to keep their mouths shut. This applies to the Mormon Church and what they’ve done with Mormon historians. The Mormon historians are whistleblowers, and the policy of the church is to try to get the historian to keep quiet. If they don’t be quiet, then the church policy is to discredit the whistleblower/historian and punish them through church discipline if necessary. The church acts like an organization that is trying to perpetrate or conceal a fraud! Again, easy to see but tough to admit.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this up. I don’t blog myself and I apologize for hijacking your blog, but I’ve wanted to get these thoughts out for a little while now.

  4. Jason,

    Thanks for the comment! I’m glad that you realize you’re not alone — I think that’s ALSO a common experience among plenty of us…isn’t it ironic that we each have the similar experiences of first thinking we’re all alone? Just a little communication can change that!

    It’s also great to hear another accounting voice too! I love your continuation of the analogy to include internal control deficiencies relating to Mormon historians as potential whistleblowers.

    No need to apologize; these are great thoughts. If you ever decide to blog in the future, please let me know so I can check it out and subscribe!

  5. Whitney permalink

    Wow, am I glad I stumbled across this post. I’m also an auditor, and was just doing some research on the concept of professional skepticism. Andrew, you bring up some great points. Your comparison to suspension of disbelif got me thinking, and it seems to me that the two terms are basically opposites. Professional skepticism says, “I generally and instinctually believe in this claim. I’ve worked with this client for years and feel comfortable with their integrity; however, I still need corroborative evidence. I cannot take them at their word.” Suspension of belief, however says, “I generally and instinctually do not believe this claim. The thing that is happening in this play cannot be real. However, if for two hours I ignore the fact that it’s not real, then I can enjoy the play and appreciate the good things about it.”

    I enjoyed the parallels both Adam & Jason drew between auditing concepts and faith. This is pretty much the way I’ve always thought about faith/religion, even if I didn’t always realize it. I grew up with a best friend who was a Mormon (I was not) so the idea of conduting an audit on the Mormon faith was especially interesting.

    Anyway – thanks for the food for thought and it’s always nice to come across some like minds.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Whitney. It was good reviewing an old (but still good) post.

    I’m wondering what would happen if we were professionally skeptical about more areas of our lives? Would it cheapen our lives or improve them?

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