November 19, 2009

Personal Interpretations of Obedience

One of the LDS church's more respectable doctrines is the 89th section of the Doctrine & Covenants, more commonly called the "Word of Wisdom". It's been called the "Lord's law of health." It is essentially a set of fairly simple guidelines about what is good for the body and what is not. LDS often use the Word of Wisdom as evidence of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s gift of prophecy. They say that he could not have known about the dangers of tobacco or coffee in his day; therefore, preaching against the use of these substances means he had direction from the Almighty (source).

In any case, I find the Word of Wisdom an interesting part of the LDS church. Some of its segments are specific in their meaning (e.g., "tobacco is not for the body"), while others are extremely vague. However, the leaders of the Church have somewhere established clearer definitions for some of the vague terms (i.e., "hot drinks" means black or green teas and coffee). And still, for some of the sections that are just as vague, they have left the decision up to the individual member. For example, when asking a bishop if caffeine is prohibited by the Word of Wisdom, the member will be told that it is between God and his or herself (here's a similarly vague response).

That's quite the statement. In other words, what the Church does there is state that God might have a different set of rules and consequences for each person. That is, what may be a sin for one believing member may not be a sin for another.

I've always seen this as problematic. For example, the temple recommend question simply asks, "Do you obey the Word of Wisdom?" I have never understood how an obese person could answer affirmatively to that question. If we are commanded (though it has been a slowly-developing commandment) to take care of our bodies, and told our bodies are temples (1 Cor. 6:19; John 2:21), how can somebody say they follow the commandment while obese, or even overweight? Can you imagine a bishop with a scale in his office, weighing each member during an interview, and then tearing up his or her temple recommend if his or her body mass index were over the limit set by the Brethren?

Couldn't obesity be compared to alcoholism (check this out)? Aren't they just two different forms of harmful behavior to the body? But then if a person can ingest trans and saturated fats every meal and still be temple worthy, why can't a member who has an occasional cigarette after dinner, or a beer on the weekends say, "this one's between God and me"?

Why would God have some universal commandments, and then some commandments that are individualized? Really, the only solution I see is to either list out the Lord's recommended daily caloric intake, and publish a list of approved ingredients and unapproved ingredients for the members who so badly want to be righteous. Either that, or leave the whole thing between members and God as the Doctrine and Covenants state.

November 6, 2009

Speaking Against Majority

Recently a commenter asked me why I do not simply remain silent about the reasons for my decision. Why create a blog about it? Why not just let the Church be and go on my way? I would like to revisit this here.

In 1956, a scientist named Asch was interested in conformity. Specifically, he wanted to know under what circumstances people conform to group pressures, and under what circumstances a person would not. Here's what he did:

Asch brought seven of his own students into a classroom. These seven were confederates (i.e., they knew what the study was about and were given instructions on how to behave). Asch then brought in the study participant, who thought that everyone else in the classroom was also a regular participant. Up on the board in the room was a set of two cards (there were a total of 12 sets) that looked something like this:
The researcher went down the line asking each of the participants to say which of the three lines on the right card most closely matched the length of the line on the left card. The confederates were instructed to give false answers on 7 of the 12 trials. What the researcher wanted to know was how the naive participant would respond depending on what the majority of the group said. It was obvious which line actually matched the model, so would the participant choose the right answer even when the majority chose the wrong answer?

What he found was that about 37% of participants gave an incorrect answer every time the confederates did, and about 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer when confederates did.

But getting back to the question, here's the most interesting finding, I think; when just one of the confederates went against the rest and chose the correct answer, participants were much more likely to also choose the correct answer. When just one confederate went against the other six, only 5-10% of the participants conformed to the majority!

To put it plainly, it seems that people will often choose something that they perceive as obviously wrong in order to go along with the majority around them (even in something as trivial as a visual test). The reasons for this could vary greatly, but most participants blamed their behavior on poor eyesight (which was controlled for in another part of the study). In other words, these people said to themselves, "Gee, I guess there's something going on here I don't understand. Everybody else seems to think B is the right answer, so maybe what I'm experiencing is wrong."

We see this kind of thing all the time in the LDS church; a believer first learns about polygamy or the denial of priesthood to Black persons, and tells himself, "Gee, that doesn't seem right. But there are so many other people here that think it's okay, so there must be something wrong with my perception. I'd better just do what they are doing."

But the study shows that if just one person has the courage to speak his or her mind and say, "Hold on a second - I really don't think that line B is the right answer. Every way I'm looking at it from right here says that line C is right," then the next person is that much more likely to say what he or she is really thinking. That person is much more likely to trust in his or her own judgment.

This is a large part of why I do not stay silent. I'm saying, "I really am not seeing how B could be the answer; here's why..." I sat on that back row for most of my life saying what everyone else was saying, even though it was not at all what I was seeing. Now, I am calling it like I see it, and if someone can explain to me how line B is more correct than line C, I am completely willing to discuss it. If someone else has been in that position for most of his or her life, feeling very uncomfortable about what he or she is seeing (or not seeing) on the Sunday School board, I am attempting to be that voice that says, "Follow your conscience. No matter what the majority says, follow your conscience. And call it like you see it."

Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies on independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70(9).

November 3, 2009

These Things I Believe

In the past month I have been asked independently three or four times about what it is I do believe in. This blog tends to focus on why I do not believe in the LDS church, but may often leave the reader wondering about how I view life, the universe, and everything. I hope the following helps.

I believe in the truth. I have never seen it, and I admit that I do not fully understand it, but I have absolute faith that the truth exists and that I can get closer to it in this life. I suppose that I do not feel it entirely necessary to obtain absolute truth in this life, but I do believe what is most important is the seeking of the truth. To paraphrase the old saying, the truth may be the destination, but the journey is what's most important.

Although I do not consider myself an atheist (click here for some thoughts on atheist spirituality), I am open to the possibility. I do not fear the truth even if it means we are all just blobs of flesh with a few short years of existence on a rock. Because whether I like the truth or not is a matter of how I interpret it. Suppose we do discover some day that this life is all there is. In that case it is what it is - we can choose to think of it as devastating, bleak, meaningless, or we can think of it as giving even greater urgency to living life to the fullest now. Many believers I have spoken with end up saying something like "I just have to believe." In other words, the idea of there being nothing after this life is too terrifying to deal with, even if it is true. I feel that, although this may be a comforting route to take, it may ultimately be inauthentic. Even if these are the only few years we have, that is all the more reason to make these years meaningful. I fear that religion too often gives people excuses to delay living life. Believers may suffer needlessly for a lifetime, never experiencing the good that life has to offer, insisting that all will be made right after death. "God will sort it out." While I do hope that justice is served at some point, I do not believe that that is any justification for delaying life. By experiencing life, I do not mean that we should live fast, have as much pleasure as we can, and die young with a big smile on our faces. But to deny one's self happiness for the sake of religion is often unfortunate (e.g., a young LDS football player was offered a position in the NFL, but reluctantly refused so as not to miss church and be labeled faithless; otherwise excellent marriages sometimes never happen because of religious differences). I believe that the ultimate pursuit in life is an understanding of who we are, and how we fit in to this place called the universe. For me, I feel that family and education are the keys to living life to the fullest.

Spirituality means different things to different people. For me, a "spiritual" experience is one that involves giving meaning to my existence. It is something that helps me to feel like a worthwhile organism in the context of this Earth. This is why I have expressed several times on this blog that my family is the most important thing I have; I can be the most meaningful person to my children. This may also be the reason I was drawn to clinical psychology for my profession. By making this life more tolerable for others, I obtain the most meaning for my own existence.

I certainly hope for something more after this life. I am constantly amazed at the complexities of the universe and especially of life on this planet. I make no claims to know what happens after we die. If something happens, I can honestly say that I am doing all I can in this life to know what it is, and living a good, decent, honorable, and full life. If there is nothing after this life, I am spending the time I do have authentically, following conscience, embracing knowledge whether it is what I hope for or not. And if nothing else, I feel that my existence on this planet has been and will be of some good to those around me. As Billy Corgan said, "My life has been extraordinary: blessed and cursed and won."