August 26, 2009

The Human Condition

Throughout history, humankind has struggled to find the societal balance between anarchy and tyranny. With anarchy there is no structure, no predictability, no law. With tyranny, everything is controlled; there is no freedom. This eternal struggle is sometimes called "the human condition".

What I find very interesting about the human condition is that societies typically spend much more time under tyranny than anarchy. Historically, anarchy has been very brief, while tyranny can prevail for centuries. In fact, often when anarchy exists, it is quickly taken advantage of by a tyrannical power. One need only look to Africa for several prime examples of one tyranny being taken over by another, with brief periods of anarchy in between.

Perhaps it is that human beings tend to want structure (even absolute) when the alternative is chaos.

I am certain that it is the same with religion; people desire any structure when they feel otherwise threatened with chaos. In other words, people desire some sort of answers to their existence, no matter how flawed, dictatorial, or exclusive, if they believe that the alternative is to have no answers. For example, I repeatedly find that members of the Church feel that if it is not true, if it does not have the answers to life, then there are no answers and life is meaningless.

It may be that deep within these individuals, the faith in a flawed system is at least partially driven by the fear that there may be no system at all. Certainly we all want to believe that life has meaning: that we are useful, valuable beings in a meaningful universe. Unfortunately, throughout history humankind has accepted tyrannical, extremist religious systems to avoid existential chaos. Scarred into history are incidents of human sacrifice, holy wars, slavery, elitism, genocide, and all sorts of oppression and misery brought about by religious tyranny, overzealous leaders, and impressionable followers.

If it is possible to have structure and freedom in society, though, is it not possible to have meaning in our existence while not having all the answers?

I do not know who God is. I have never seen Him (or Her, It, or Them, as the case may be). I do not know what happens after we die. But I believe everyone can have a meaningful life, and not only in terms of what happens after we die, but in terms of life right now, in our specific circumstances. Rich, poor, genius, mentally ill, strong, weak, bond, and free are all capable of discovering this meaning (see an excellent book by Frankl here on the subject). Rather than requiring meaning to come from the top (God) down, what is so wrong with meaning beginning with us?

Just as we do not have to choose between anarchy and tyranny, we do not have to choose between chaos and fantasy. We can explore truth to the best of our ability, and find meaning within the true structure as we examine it.

And so, although it may appear that our only options are meaninglessness or complete acceptance of a flawed structure, I suggest to you that there is much more to this life.

August 20, 2009

A Burning Question

For years, as I've been wrestling with what I was raised to believe and my own conscience, I've had a question I wished I could ask every member of the Church:
If you somehow knew with absolute certainty that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was not true, would you leave it?
First of all, I think a great deal of members could not even answer the question. They would not even be able to wrap their heads around the concept. Even entertaining the possibility of the Church being anything other than God's one, true church would be beyond comprehension.
Of the rest, I would predict that about half of the members would stay with the Church and the other half would leave. The reasons behind the decision would vary. Some would leave because they felt betrayed and lied to, some would leave because the Church demands absolute faith. Some would stay for pure social reasons, some would stay because they feel that the Church is an organization through which they can do some good.

I chose to leave for many reasons, some of which I have outlined in previous posts. Among these, however, is that I concluded that the world in which I was raised, which I had served and defended, was built upon a lie.

I am no movie critic (and I have no intention of becoming one on this blog), yet I can't help but be reminded of a film that parallels this feeling very well for me. If the reader is unfamiliar with The Truman Show, the storyline goes like this:

Truman's entire reality has been fabricated since shortly after birth. The island upon which he lives is actually the world's largest TV set. His family, friends, and wife are all actors. Everything he has believed, and worked and cared for is a carefully structured lie. One day, Truman begins to find that something isn't quite right. He finds it puzzling, but pays little attention to it. He blows it off and then hears an explanation for it later, which he gladly accepts. But then he notices more things that are incompatible with his perception of reality. Everyone he has loved does all within his or her power to keep Truman in the dark: to keep him from questioning the world they fabricated. Eventually, Truman discovers for certain that the world he had known was built upon a lie. He literally stands at the exit, when the man responsible for the chain of lies begins to speak with him. Truman asks, "Was nothing real?" He tells Truman that, although his world is built upon a lie, leaving it will only cause him pain: that even though his world is man-made, it is a good, decent world. He explains how he was always mindful of Truman: how he took care of him for his entire life. He tells Truman that he can't really leave. But still, it isn't real.

Truman finally does make the hard decision and leaves the world that was based upon lie after lie after lie. He had no idea what he was stepping into, but he knew that what he was stepping out of wasn't real, wasn't authentic.

While it is only a movie, the parallels with my experience with the Church are astounding to me.
I wonder how many people in the Church would want something real, no matter how frightening or uncomfortable, and how many people would insist that ignorance is bliss: that comfort and reassurance are more important than reality and authenticity.

As for me, I've been promised several times that leaving the Church would cause me only pain. I've been accused of being ungrateful for the morals I've learned from it. I've been asked, "Wouldn't you want to believe it, though?".

In the end, I am compelled to respond, "But it isn't real."

August 14, 2009


I have found that one can usually tell how strong a person's argument is by how willing he or she is to enter into debate about it. If an individual is absolutely certain that his position is right, he usually has no fear of discussing the topic, and often seeks out someone to debate with. On the other hand, if a person's argument is very weak, he will usually avoid any form of debate or discussion.

Consider this quote by George A. Smith:
If faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak. (Journal of Discourses, 1871, Vol 14, pg. 216)
And yet, click here for warnings from The Brethren about actually examining things from an objective position.

The point I wish to make is that the truth should welcome debate as much as possible, because after all, it is the truth isn't it? Debate cannot possibly harm the truth because any attacks of the truth will be weak in comparison to the supports. Debate can, therefore, harm only untruth. And yet so few members seem willing or able to enter into discussion about their Church. They want to guard their testimonies above all.

Imagine if the legal system were similar. You're sitting in the juror's box and the judge announces, "In the case of the truthfulness of the LDS church, we're just going to listen to the defense. The prosecution is allowed to sit in the courtroom, just so that we know they're there, but will not be permitted to speak because anything they say might cause us to question the defense."

I, for one, would ask myself why? Is it that the defense's argument is stronger? But if it really is, wouldn't I find out the same thing by listening to the prosecution? Shouldn't I, the juror, get to decide?

Think about this: I just decided that the Earth is shaped like a cube. It's not spherical, and it's not flat. It's shaped like a cube. But I'm unwilling to examine satellite photos, I don't want to hear about the curve of the horizon, I won't even look into geology or astronomy. I refuse to see or hear any evidence that might discredit my belief that the Earth is a cube. I'll talk to you if you're willing to listen to my side, but I will walk away as soon as you show a dissenting opinion.

When someone is unwilling to put his position up against another's, it really makes no difference what his position is, whether correct or ludicrous.

August 8, 2009

Weakest Link

As an extension of a previous post, I'd like to continue along the lines of all-or-nothing thinking.
I stated earlier how the Church gives the people of the world an ultimatum to accept everything it teaches as God's absolute truth, or to treat it as a fraud.
Each of us has to face the matter-either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing. (Hinckley, 2003).
An analogy for this ultimatum may compare the Church's doctrines to links in a chain.

The old saying goes, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Once a single link in a chain breaks, the whole chain is unable to do what it is intended to do. It no longer functions. It doesn't matter how strong any other link in the chain is. All that matters is the weakest link.

Similarly, the truthfulness of the LDS church is dependent upon several "links". If any one of these links breaks, the only conclusion left is that the Church is not true. For example, if the Book of Mormon is not a record written by the prophets of the American Continent, then Joseph Smith must not have translated it from gold plates, and he couldn't, therefore, have done so by the power of God, making him a false prophet. And if he was a false prophet, then the things he taught are not direction from God on how to return to Him.

If Joseph Smith was a prophet, that also means that every single doctrine he preached as being from God truly was from God. But the reverse is also true; if one single doctrine he taught was not from God, or one translation he made was not inspired though he said it was, the link is broken.

To give a concrete example, the LDS are doctrinally committed to the notion that the languages of the Earth stemmed from a historical event surrounding the tower of Babel, and that the story of the great flood is actual (source). That means that if either of these things did not happen exactly as the Bible would have us believe, then the chain is broken; Joseph Smith was not a prophet, the Book of Mormon was fabricated by men, and the entire truthfulness of the Church collapses.

So one can go in either direction: Joseph Smith must have been a prophet, so everything that is required to make him a prophet must be upheld, or Joseph Smith's deeds appear to be those of either a prophet or a fraud, and the actions are evidence of either one. For example, if polygamy as practiced and preached by Smith was immoral, then the Church is a fraud. One needs no further discussion. If it was immoral but he said it was godly, then he was never called of God, so he must have fabricated the Book of Mormon, constructed his First Vision story, and lied to thousands of people. That means that Thomas Monson is not a prophet either, that the priesthood is man-made and not the power of God, and so on.

This doesn't mean that everything he did had to be a weak link. If what Smith preached about charity is in line with God, then that is a very strong link. He may have dozens of very sturdy, almost unbreakable links in his chain of authority. But all it takes is one single broken link to destroy the chain.

If God did not command Brigham Young and 9 subsequent prophets to refuse temple blessings to persons of African descent, then the entire Church is a fraud because they all said exactly that. If Joseph Smith said he was translating the Kinderhook plates by the power of God, then he was a fraud and/or certifiably delusional.

I think most members don't worry about the chain, though. They focus on the few links they find to be strongest, and ignore what is absolutely necessary to connect them all. Unfortunately, the remaining chain they hold onto may not connect to anything at all if they ever put any weight on it. That's probably why so few members have been willing to honestly address my concerns. If one suspects a defect in a chain, though, shouldn't all his attention go to inspect the faulty link?

Hinckley, G. B. (2003, May). Loyalty. Ensign, 58-60.