October 23, 2009

Past & Future Behavior

As a student of psychology, I'm interested in what makes people tick. Understanding why people do what they do is the most basic concentration of my discipline, along with eventually being able to predict behavior (some take it even further and argue that the ultimate goal is to control behavior, which is probably at least partially true).

One thing most people tend to agree on is that a person's past behavior can often tell us a lot about present and future behavior. That's why character witnesses are called in trials before deciding on guilt, why we get asked about our past work history in job interviews, why colleges want to know our high school GPA before admitting us, and so on. Past behavior often (though not always) is predictive of future behavior. If a person has been fired from the last four jobs, the interviewer has pretty good reason to believe that he won't do much better in this job.

Similarly, looking through Joseph Smith's character before the founding of the LDS church may give us some insight into the type of person he was. Of course, all believers are aware of the stories of him refusing alcohol for his leg operation, reports of his strength of character, his spiritual mindedness, etc. But what about his profession of locating buried treasure for a fee (source)? The fact that he told trusting individuals that he had the ability to see things that no one else could see, and then was unable to deliver the promised goods, I think, tells us quite a bit about his character (discussion and history).

Whether he believed he could see more than others is for another discussion. My point is that he was able to convince people that he had special powers, and not by actually delivering anything. Smith was actually fairly successful in getting money out of people who trusted him. And so what does this tell us about his later behavior? Did he make the most of his ability to convince others of anything he wanted? Did he really have special powers? Was it just a short step from getting people to believe he saw buried treasure to convincing them that he had visions of angels?

What was his motivation in peeping through stones before the Book of Mormon? Was it God's will that he look for treasure? Was it to better mankind? Or was it for a quick buck? And again, what does this tell us about Smith's character?

October 19, 2009


I had an interesting conversation the other day with a member of the Church who follows the advice of a non-traditional doctor in her diet. The conversation concerned times when this doctor's advice conflicts with the doctrine of the LDS church. In instances where her church competes with her medical caregiver, who wins, and why?

It turns out that there are several instances where she chooses her doctor's advice above the Church's. For example, this doctor advises large quantities of meat to be ingested at every meal, which contradicts the Word of Wisdom as written in the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church. Additionally, several of the herbal mixtures the doctor prescribes contain alcohol, which, according to the Word of Wisdom, is "not for the belly."

I think similar questions could be asked to several of the members of the Church. I know of no one who follows LDS guidance to the absolute letter of the law, and I would love to know why this discrepancy exists. When given a choice to follow "the prophets" or someone else, why is it that so many members make decisions that go against what "the prophets" have said?

For example, I know very active members who buy lottery tickets regularly. I know dozens who watch rated "R" movies. I know several who get tattoos or extra piercings despite statements against these by The Brethren. My experience is that only about half of home teaching gets done in any given month. I know a gentleman now who is very active and insists he knows the Church is true, but has chosen to work on Sundays despite promises of great blessings for keeping the Sabbath day holy (example). Without words, he has said that he either doesn't want those blessings, or that he truly does not believe that is a true promise.

I don't mean to call these individuals hypocrites, because that is a bit too far past my point. What I want to point out is that it seems faithfulness is a continuum. Even the most faithful of LDS have instances where somewhere deep down they tell themselves "Oh, that doesn't apply to me. I'm sure God will make an exception. That's more of a guideline than a commandment, even if the prophet said it. It's not that bad."

And what does this tell us about a testimony "beyond a shadow of a doubt"? If these people did have absolute faith in their testimonies, why are they telling the world, "I know that Thomas Monson is a prophet of God, but I won't do my home teaching like he asks," or "I follow the Word of Wisdom, except for this part and this part."?

Doesn't it really mean that everybody follows the Church up to the point where they actually disagree with its absolute truthfulness? Sure, we are all imperfect and working on our weaknesses, but when someone consciously chooses against the Church, but insists that it is the absolute truth in the universe, how am I to interpret just how convinced that person really is? Are they trying to convince me, or themselves?

October 15, 2009

Confirmation Bias

While on my mission in Southern Germany, I was juggling dozens of responsibilities as well as dealing with the stresses of being away from home, living with a person from a very different culture, and so on. At this same time, I was very concerned about a young woman back home. She had earlier told me that she felt we were meant to be together, which I also believed at the time very deeply. However, as anyone would in that situation, I worried very much about opening up a letter from her one day to find that she had met someone far better than I (and I knew there were plenty of opportunities).

In my wrestle between trying to stay focused on my tasks at hand and trying to find comfort and reassurance over the young woman's intentions, I constantly prayed to feel peace over the matter. I remember multiple times receiving a very strong emotional confirmation that she and I would be together, and that things would turn out fine with her.

As the reader may have guessed, things did not turn out well at all. Upon returning home, I was hit with the worst emotional bombshell of my life, and then the suffering about the relationship was drawn out for several months thereafter as she varied between warm and cold.

So how do I explain my prayerful confirmations that things would be alright? Of course, true believers will argue that the confirmations were that things would eventually turn out alright. I would eventually be able to get over the pain, etc. It is clear to me now, however, that those confirmations were not from God at all, but from somewhere within me. I asked if things would be okay with this young woman, and I wanted so badly to receive the answer I wanted that that is exactly what I got: the answer I wanted.

I wonder if I had asked the question while being willing to accept an answer of "She's just messing with you", that maybe I would have received such an answer: whether it was my own mind putting the clues together, or God actually communicating with me.

My point is that when a person asks a question, but is not willing to receive an answer unless it's the one he expects, it probably doesn't matter what the real answer is. He'll just go on believing what he wants.

Similarly, I find that the LDS church refuses to take "no" as an answer, or even no answer as an answer. Their advice is to keep asking until you get a "yes", or to act as if you have a "yes" and eventually you will get one (quotes and discussion).

And so, in the end, it doesn't really matter what the right answer is.

October 8, 2009

Father in Heaven

I always enjoyed the description of God as a father: that He views us and reacts to us as a parent might view and react to his children. That explains why sometimes we don't get what we want in life - because it isn't really what's best for us, why sometimes we stumble and have to pick ourselves up - because we need to learn to solve our own problems first, etc. I always thought that was a nice description of how the creator of the human race might respond to us. As a father myself, I have come to see the application of that description in several more areas. If one believes in a god, I think it makes sense that he would be a father figure.

On the other hand, that is also very much part of the reason I left the LDS church. The god worshiped by the LDS has apparently done things that I cannot imagine any loving, righteous father doing.

Huntington. If the Polygamy, for example; as a father who loves his daughter more than anything on this planet, I cannot even fathom telling my daughter to become a polygamous wife. Take the instance of ZinaLDS church is true, then translating what transpired there into a father-daughter relationship would look something like this:

Father: "Dear Zina, I know you are happy with your husband and children, but now I want you to marry another man as well. I think he's great and you will too."

Zina: "But Dad, I don't care how great he is, I love my husband and children. I couldn't do that to them and I don't want to do that to them."

Father: "You will do as I say. If you do not marry this man, I will strike him down. If you refuse him, your husband and children will suffer. I can do it. You know I can."

Zina: "But why? Why would you do something like this? How can you ask this of me?"

Father: "You were never supposed to marry your husband. You belong to this other man."

Zina: "But I don't love this other man. I love my husband and children."

Father: "Your happiness and that of your husband and children is inconsequential. I have spoken and you will obey or else!" (source to compare).

What kind of monstrous and abusive, uncaring father would ask such a thing of his daughter?

Another example: denial of priesthood to persons of African descent. Again, if the LDS church is true, then the actual events resemble this Earthly scenario:

Father fills up a humongous tub with candy and gives two of his children full access. But he denies the third child. He tells the first two children, "Little Jimmy does not get any candy now or ever."

1st Child: "Why is that, Dad?"

Father: "He pooped in his diaper when he was first born."

nd Child: "Didn't we too?"

Father: "He pooped more. He will never get any candy."

Jimmy: "I'm very sorry father. I love you and if you'll just tell me what I can do to make
amends for all the pooping, I'll do whatever you ask of me."

Father: "No good. You will not have candy now, nor will you ever get any candy."

Then when Jimmy turns 40 years old, father says, "Hey, here's your key to the candy tub. Enjoy."

Jimmy: "But Dad, you said I could never have any."

Father: "Yeah, I know what I said. Good job obeying."

Jimmy: "But why would you do something like that?"

Father: "I might have a reason, but nobody needs to know. Just be glad that you have the key now. I'm done talking about this" (source for comparison).

And so if the LDS church is true, and its god truly is our heavenly father, I refuse to model my parenting after his abuse. And what's more, I cannot worship him. It seems very clear to me that what really happened was these things were all man-made and that God had nothing to do with them at all.

October 1, 2009

Burden of Proof

In the legal system of the United States, persons accused of committing a crime are supposedly considered innocent until they are proven guilty. That is, it is up to the prosecution to convince everybody on the jury that their assumption of innocence is incorrect. The evidence must be overwhelming beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is truly guilty. Essentially, the defense could just sit there and do nothing, and if the prosecution does not make it absolutely clear that the accused is guilty, he or she walks free. The reason for this is that it is generally felt that it is better to allow 100 guilty persons go free than to wrongfully convict just one innocent person.

The system in religion is an interesting one regarding upon whom the burden of proof lies. The LDS church, for example, insists that if there is any way at all that it could explain itself, it is the default correct position. Any opposing evidence must absolutely and in every possible way overpower their position before they are willing to yield, and sometimes not even then.
In other words, the tactic of the Church is to keep instilling a tiny shadow of reasonable doubt so that it can remain the default.

Consider the debate about the origin of Native Americans. Genetic, linguistic, and archaeological research has essentially proven that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the American continent descended from Asia, and there is little to no reason to believe that they came from anywhere else (for references, see links section as well as the outline of my concerns). This, of course, contradicts the most basic premise of the Book of Mormon that Native Americans came from Israel. However, the Church has cleverly come up with several unlikely (if not impossible) explanations for why this may be so. While there is little agreement among apologists, the main consensus is that the Book of Mormon must have taken place in a very remote and isolated area of the Americas, where the peoples mentioned would never have made contact with any of the other original inhabitants (this notion is even contradicted by the text of the Book of Mormon, but let's not go on that tangent).

For a person who feels that the default is that the Church is true, this fragile explanation is all that is needed. "Okay, it's still remotely possible that the Church is true, so that's what I'm going with." they say.

On the one hand, I suppose that it might make sense to err on the side of the Church. After all, if you follow the evidence against the Church, but upon your death find the Church was actually true, you've got some explaining to do. I, for one, feel that those things covered in my outline of concerns and this blog make my decision blameless, especially before the God worshiped by the Church (I'm happy to discuss that with anyone interested). But if you're on the other side, clinging to the religion that is ultimately a lie, some would argue that you are robbing yourself of an authentic life. In any case, I think it is a position everyone should reconsider, whether a believer, skeptic, or whatever else.

For me, I think back to long before I knew any of the things in my outline of concerns. I think my default really was that the Church was the truth. How could I have thought otherwise? Why would I want to think otherwise? The burden of proof lay upon logic and reason to convince me that the default was wrong. It's obvious which side won my vote. That is because, for me, all of the Church's attempts to make its case stronger ended up being excuses, when what I wanted were explanations. All of these apologist theories of why Black persons were denied the priesthood, why there is overwhelming evidence that Native Americans came from Asia, why polygamy was justified, why there are so many historical errors in the Book of Mormon, and on and on and on were just not enough to keep a reasonable doubt in my mind, and suggest that in some dimension of reality the Church might still be true. Instead of an excuse for these, logic and reason gave me one huge, convincing explanation; the whole thing is man-made.

Believers will say that I looked for anything that would give me an excuse to leave. I just didn't want to repent of my sins, or whatever. They are welcome to believe that. The reality is that I got sick of letting guilty men go day after day, week after week, generation after generation.