Friday, August 28, 2009

"We believe in being honest..." (from the 13th Article of Faith)

There are many controversies surrounding various aspects of the history and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“the Church”), and I’ll try to address many of these individually in future posts. But what I want to address here is the way that the Church is misleading at best, and overtly deceptive at worst, in its treatment of these issues.

The Church claims that its teachings and practices are based on God’s word, which is Eternal, and doesn’t change, and that members can rely on those teachings and practices as a secure foundation for their lives. Members are thus counseled to obey Church leaders as if that counsel came directly from God Himself (see D&C 1:38). But they hide the fact that basic doctrine and practices have seen profound changes over time, while still expecting members to obey current teachings as if they were eternal and not subject to change or debate.

Maybe I’m overly idealistic, but I would expect any religious organization that claims to possess absolute truths, to be absolutely committed, privately and publicly, to the cause of truth, with a strict policy of honesty and openness, avoiding even the appearance of dishonesty. This is not what I find as I have studied the Church and its history for the last several decades.

To give just a few examples of these changes, ranging from fundamental doctrine to day-to-day practice:

• Birth Control was once condemned, and included in the same condemnation as Abortion; now it is left up to the discretion of the couple.

• Families were once counseled to not have “playing cards” in their homes; now this practice is no longer even mentioned by Church leaders.

• Polygamy was once considered to be an essential part of the Gospel; now the Church distances itself from this practice as something purely from the past (although it is still an integral part of Church doctrine - see D&C 132).

• Temple Ceremonies and Garments were originally declared to be revealed directly by God, and therefore could not be changed; the fact is both have seen continual and substantive changes over time.

How does one justify these examples of changing, conflicting teachings and practices that are presented as “God’s unchangeable word” at the time that they were proclaimed?

One typical Church response emphasizes the concept of “continuous revelation” where God is in constant communication with His Prophet on earth, so he can then communicate to the Church members the things that need to be understood and done at that particular point in time.

Now, if these teachings provided greater detail and depth over time, or provided new insight which expanded upon, but didn’t contradict, previous understanding, that would be one thing, and would not raise fundamental questions. But when they directly contradict previous teachings, that is quite another, and this thoroughly undermines any claims to their being ‘eternal’ truths directly from God’s mouth.

Another strategy taken by the Church and its apologists in addressing statements by previous Prophets that are no longer accepted as true, is to say they “were speaking as men and not as Prophets.” This is not tenable, however, as they said those things during official Church Conferences and meetings, in their role as Prophet, and declared that they were in fact speaking the words of the Lord. If previous Prophetic statements made in that context could be false, then we must similarly disregard any counsel given by current Prophets, even during General Conference, or in the official Church publication, The Ensign.

The Church is thus in a bind. In order to prevent its members from becoming aware of these changes and conflicts, it produces teaching manuals and other materials which effectively ignore previous contradictory teachings. These manuals often contain ‘mis-quotes,’ either overtly edited or taken completely out of context, very reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984.”

Following up on one of the examples above, a member could thus study the lives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in Sunday School for 2 years, and have absolutely no idea that they not only practiced polygamy (not to mention Polyandry), but taught that it was an essential part of the Gospel, and a requirement for entry into the highest degree of Heaven in the Celestial Kingdom.

Further, the Church also actively discourages members from even looking for information in any sources other than currently ‘Church-approved’ publications, invoking the term “anti-mormon” to discredit any and all of those materials. (With the advent of the Internet, however, this is becoming increasingly difficult.)

Thus, the bind is that if it acknowledges that the doctrine and practices taught by previous Prophets and Apostles were in error, then it has absolutely no basis to expect members to accept current teachings as true. The whole edifice simply falls apart.

For many who leave the Church, it is as much this feeling of betrayal, that they have been lied to by those they trusted, that is the cause of their disaffection, perhaps even more than the knowledge of the actual facts and history.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Value of Doubt and the Danger of Certainty

This is one of the most important themes underlying my thinking, and it also helps illuminate the general topic of Science versus Religion.

“Conventional Wisdom,” especially from a religious perspective, would generally view Doubt as a negative thing, and Certainty as something to be celebrated, but I think this is completely backwards. This can easily be understood when considering human nature - people generally long to have absolute certainties in their lives, which can be relied on in times of crisis. Great emotional satisfaction and peace can be experienced when one anchors their world view on matters that they see as rock-solid, beyond doubt, even ‘eternal.’

This naturally leads into the topic of Epistemology. There are many definitions, but on a practical level, it asks the question of how do we know what we know (or think we know). I have always been intrigued by optical illusions, where our sensory system is fooled into mis-perceiving reality. This is one of my favorites:


The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of grey. The first time I saw this, I was “certain” this couldn’t be true, based on my very clear-cut perception. I had to open up the image in Photoshop in order to prove to myself that my senses were in fact deceiving me, and these were identical shades of grey. And even now that I know the truth, there’s still no way I can persuade my brain to “see” these squares as the same shade of grey.

If we can be so easily, and so fundamentally, fooled by our senses, which are at least somewhat “objective” how much more can we be fooled in our thought processes, which are much more ephemeral. As with our visual perceptions, we rely quite a bit on our memory, which we initially think is an accurate representation of reality. It turns out that human memory is quite different from the recording of a videocamera, and is in fact quite susceptible to the cognitive equivalent of optical illusions. One can look at the various personal tragedies from a few years back, associated with the recovery of false memories of child abuse, to see how devastating the results can be if you naively assume that memories are a reliable source of objective truth.  Memories are continually shaped and re-shaped over time, as we recall them, experience new things, etc.

If we then enter the world of ‘spiritual experiences’ which are even further separated from objective reality, we can begin to understand how and why these phenomena, whatever their source, origin, or validity, simply can’t be implicitly trusted as objective truth.

On this basis, “doubt” should be the starting point when attempting to establish what is and isn’t true, with “certainty” basically being a form of mental illusion.

As I have studied the variety of human religious experience, I quickly saw that there are people who are absolutely certain, totally convinced that they have the ‘Truth’, that their subjective, inner experiences, have somehow transcended doubt. The problem is, the various ‘Truths’ that these people teach are typically mutually exclusive. This being the case, how can we possibly base our own understanding of what is objectively True on our own personal, subjective experiences, regardless of how intense, or real they seem to be?

The scientific method, however imperfectly utilized by scientists, where conclusions are based on actual evidence, reproducible by anyone who would want to verify them, has an incredible track record of increasing humanity’s knowledge of the world around it, as well as of humanity itself. And because it recognizes that ‘Certainty’ can never be achieved, it is self-correcting, as the relatively recent Einsteinian revolution in Physics demonstrates.

The general approach of religious institutions is the exact opposite: it starts with the conclusions. The problem with religious dogma is that it establishes “Truths” which by definition cannot be challenged, with no evidence whatsoever backing it other than the inner experiences and perceptions discussed above. Religious certainty is thus seen as an illusion, however well-intentioned it might be.

The following books can be quite helpful in fleshing out the various ideas briefly presented above:

  • The Seven Sins of Memory - Daniel L. Schacter
  • In Praise of Doubt - Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld
  • On Being Certain (Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not) - Robert A. Burton, MD
  • Why We Believe What We Believe - Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman
  • How We Believe - Michael Shermer
  • Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) - Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson


Monday, August 24, 2009

A not so brief intro...

As the name of this blog implies, Socrates statement:

“The unexamined life is not worth living”

is one of the main themes of my life. For as long back as my memory extends, I’ve had an unquenchable thirst to understand the world, my life, and my relationship to the world. I started this blog to share some hopefully useful ideas and perspectives, but have also found that the act of writing down one’s thoughts provides a unique opportunity to better define, examine and articulate them. The process of blogging thus becomes perhaps more worthwhile than the blog itself.

A brief bio is in order:

I was raised in a fairly typical Jewish household in Brooklyn, NY in the 1950’s. I attended Hebrew School, learned Hebrew, was Bar Mitzvah’d, but my mind was dominated by Science and the Scientific Method. I recall a brief period of personal orthodoxy, around age 12 or 13, when it seemed important to follow all the various practices of Judaism. But I also recall doing an ‘experiment’ around the same time, where I filled the bathroom sink with water, and attempted to split the water, like Moses. The results were negative, which seemed to set the tone for much of my life.

For all practical purposes, I headed to College as an Atheist, who had no use for the ‘Supernatural,’ and viewing the Universe as a giant chemical reaction, with Science the only legitimate means of identifying truth. But the existential implications of such a philosophy quickly caught up with me, and I had to start finding answers to questions as basic as “Why get up in the morning, if it’s all pointless?”. I changed my major from PreMed to Psychology, and then quickly to Religious Studies, as I began my search for meaning and truth in earnest.

Through courses in Philosophy, studies in Eastern Religions (especially the more naturalistic traditions such as Jainism, Zen Buddhism, etc.), I began to expand my understanding, and allow for the possible existence of ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ states of being. They spoke not of ‘supernatural’ deities, but of knowledge obtainable through direct, personal experience. This led to an intensive period of studying, fasting, praying, and meditating, in hopes of obtaining ‘enlightenment’ or at least some kind of transcendent experience that would serve as self-evident proof of another dimension of existence. These results were no different from my ‘Moses’ experiment.

In the midst of these efforts, I came into contact with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the ‘Mormons’) through my closest friend, who in turn had encountered it during High School through one of his friends. I intensively studied their teachings, and was drawn to and excited by their expansive understanding of man’s origin and limitless potential. I was also intrigued by their claims concerning the Book of Mormon, with at least some Archaeological evidence at that time (early 1970’s) supporting these claims. Their emphasis on the importance of families, and having one’s whole life-style centered on the Gospel, appealed to me as well. But I was also deeply troubled by their generally conservative, authoritarian, sometimes anti-intellectual, attitudes, and especially by their denial of the Priesthood to Blacks.

My search for a definitive, undeniable spiritual experience (not just some emotional ‘high’) to confirm or disconfirm the Church’s claims was relentless, but ultimately unsuccessful. I ended up making a ‘leap of faith’ and joined the Church: the appeal of the good qualities overcame the negative ones, and in humility I decided to give it the ‘benefit of the doubt’ and await additional evidence and experience to resolve the matters I found troublesome.

These matters were thus “put on the shelf” as my time and energies were devoted to my career (a return to my PreMed roots), and raising what has turned out to be an incredible family. They are full of love, humility, an intense desire to do what is right, compassion - what more could a parent ask for?

But my search for ultimate truth never stopped, and as more knowledge, evidence, and experience were acquired, the Church’s various claims, practices and policies, which had bothered me from the beginning, were increasingly found to be false. I struggled with this for many, many years, to make sure I was correct in my conclusions, not wanting to create confusion and uncertainty in my children in telling them that many of the things I had taught them for so many years were simply not true.

With all this as backdrop, of necessity, many of my postings on this blog will be on matters related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For brevity, I will refer to it as the “The Church.”  Notwithstanding my fundamental disagreement with their historical claims, and with so many of their moral and social positions, I wish to be respectful. This is also in recognition of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those filling their pews each Sunday, serving in the various organizations, are humble, dedicated, honest, anxious to sacrifice of themselves to serve others, and in short trying their best to follow the example of Christ.

In that spirit, all respectful comments are welcome, including from those who have different opinions.  "Preaching" is not productive, nor welcome here, and these posts will be deleted.  I seek honest and open communication, in a mutual search for truth and understanding.

And while I no longer condemn off-color language on moral grounds, and understand why some choose to use it to express themselves and their feelings, it is also unwelcome here, as it tends to disrupt open communication.  This language in Posts will be edited out if they are otherwise worthwhile, or the entire Post deleted, at my discretion.