Friday, December 4, 2015

When Epistemology and Doublethink Collide

Let me define epistemology and doublethink to start out so that we are sure to be on the same page with these words.

Epistemology is just the study of how we gain knowledge. It answers questions like, what are good methods of learning and how sure can we be that we are right?

'Doublethink' is a term coined by George Orwell in his book 1984 and simply refers to believing two contradictory things at the same time. It is something we find a lot in high-commitment ideologies (like in the fictional world in that book) but we find it elsewhere as well.

Now the reason I am writing this article today is that I grew up Mormon and lately I have been thinking of how my views on the subject of epistemology have changed since I left that church. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that doublethink lay at the foundation of my methods of determining truth in that earlier phase of my life.

Anyone who has spent very much time in or around the LDS church knows that Epistemology in the LDS faith is centered on the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is described as mostly speaking to us through our feelings (it is acknowledged that the Holy Ghost can speak directly to a person with audible words or even appear before them but stories of this actually happening are very rare). The Holy Ghost is stated to be the best method to gain knowledge. Here are a couple of quotes to back this up:

In addition, the gift of the Holy Ghost is available as a sure guide, as the voice of conscience, and as a moral compass. This guiding compass is personal to each of us. It is unerring. It is unfailing. (James E. Faust, The Gift of the Holy Ghost - A Sure Compass, April 1989)
[The Holy Ghost's] communication to our spirit carries far more certainty than any communication we can receive through our natural senses. ( Gospel Topics, The Holy Ghost)

Mormons are told to pray to know if the Book of Mormon is true (implying that the events recounted in it actually, literally occurred). The response of the Holy Ghost to this question is supposed to imply that the entire belief system is correct and any factual assertions that the leaders make are also correct. All of this is proven correct by feelings given to you by the Holy Ghost. So it is easy to see that the reliability of this method is of the utmost importance.

And this is why it was always so concerning to me when I heard church leaders address the issue that crops up when someone has an experience where they feel that the Holy Ghost tells them something that contradicts what the church teaches. It is usually handled by explaining that the experience didn't come from the Holy Ghost, but from some counterfeit:
Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. There are counterfeit spirits just as there are counterfeit angels. (See Moro. 7:17.) Be careful lest you be deceived, for the devil may come disguised as an angel of light. 
The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary. (Boyd K. Packer, The Candle of the Lord, 25 June 1982)
This opens a huge can of worms for me. Here is where the doublethink lies. You cannot claim that a method for learning truth can easily give convincing false results (whether by Satan or by self-delusion) and also claim this is a high-reliability method for determining truth. Those two claims are mutually exclusive.

And besides this, the same feeling can be subject to dramatically different interpretations depending on the person who interprets it. I have seen people claim, upon learning some of the stranger details of the origins of LDS polygamy, that the bad feelings that they felt were proof that the things they were learning were not true. I have also seen people claim to believe that similar bad feelings were sent by the Holy Ghost to tell them that the things that early church leaders did were wrong. Now, my personal opinion at this point in time is that I felt bad learning those things simply because it doesn't feel good to learn unflattering things about people you hold in high regard. It didn't feel good to me to learn about Bill Cosby, either, but I hope you get my point that a simple feeling is easy to interpret many different ways.

What got me thinking about all of this was looking into the methods that other religions (which make factual truth claims that contradict each other) use to determine if their beliefs are true, a point that is well-illustrated in the video below.

Notice anything? They are all suspiciously similar. The "testimony meeting" format of the young polygamist girl's profession of knowledge of her beliefs will seem especially familiar to others who are or were LDS. It seems that the Holy Ghost told her things that contradict what it has told to people in the LDS church, and many other churches. Or maybe she just didn't interpret the feeling correctly. Or maybe she was tricked by Satan or her own feelings. Or possibly something else that I can't think of. It's not perfectly clear and straightforward by any means, if this is indeed the way God intended to tell us the most important things in life.

Since leaving the LDS belief system, I have had people ask me questions like, "What about your spiritual experiences? How can you cast them aside?" I have also had people tell me that, "Deep down I know the LDS church is true."

First, I would say that I could never, even as a full believer, state my beliefs with as much surety as the Muslims or the Heaven's Gate followers in the video above. I'm just not the type of person that has had strong experiences of this nature and this doesn't worry me. I have strong experiences of awe and wonder, but I just don't think that this is telling me anything about objective truth.

Second, to those who tell me that I know the LDS church is true, I would just say no. No I don't. In the bottom of my heart I really, really don't.

While I don't expect this to convince anyone to change their mind about they way they view the world with this article, I hope people are able to see why it is hard for me to accept the Holy Ghost or feelings as a reliable way to determine objective, factual truth and why I am bothered by the doublethink that I think is involved.

Thanks for reading. As always, your comments and thoughts are appreciated even if you don't agree with me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Well, I Did It...

I mailed my resignation letter last week. There is a part of me that is a bit sad and it feels like I am closing the door on the LDS part of my life, but I still have a lot of really good LDS friends that I will continue to interact with. I like who I am and for better or worse, being LDS has made me who I am, so it doesn't make sense to be angry and fight against something I have no control over. It just felt like it was time. It feels good to look forward to the future.

Anyway, I have been feeling a waning interest in LDS issues, so I just thought I'd make a post that is a table of contents for my thoughts/concerns with LDS doctrine. If I ever feel like I have something to say again, I may write on this blog again. But this is goodbye for now.

The issues below represent my thoughts on what I feel are the unsolvable problems in LDS theology, history, and morality.


Historical Racial Teachings in LDS Doctrine

Polygamy and Honesty

Polygamy and Coercion

Other Moral Issues with Polygamy

Translation of the Book of Abraham

Science vs. Doctrine

God as a Moral Exemplar in LDS Theology

My Letter to LDS Church Leaders

What Would it Take to Get Me Back to Church?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thoughts on John Dehlin's Upcoming Disciplinary Council

My thoughts on Dehlin himself:

I have never understood John. My own way of thinking is very different from his. He always came across to me as somewhat overly emotional, indecisive, not particularly good at interviewing (talks far too much about himself and asks leading questions), and I never understood his desire to stick with the LDS church given how many problems he obviously had with it.

However, John is a man with a ton of energy. My own journey had me wanting to distance myself from the LDS church and invest less and less time there as I became more and more disillusioned, but John seemed to really like being in the church despite his problems with it. John somehow had his faith shaken to the core and yet found the energy to invest countless hours seeking out interview subjects and performing interviews. As a result, he amassed an unprecedented pile of easy-to-access information. So when I read Todd Compton's book and I wondered who Compton was, I went and listened to Compton talk with Dehlin for hours and came out feeling like I knew the man. Same for Simon Southerton, Terryl/Fiona Givens, Richard Bushman, and many, many others. This was incredibly valuable to me at that point in my life and for that I will always be grateful to John.

My impression of Dehlin has been that he has vacillated between trying to steer people into staying in the church and stating that people should do whatever they think is right. I have never gotten the impression that he has tried to get them to leave. Now certainly many of the issues he discusses are disturbing to many people and cause some (many?) to leave the church but that is hardly John's fault, that is the fault of Joseph Smith et al. or God, depending on your point of view, or in other words, those who made the 'history' in the first place.

The Church's place in this conflict:

When I was suddenly thrust into my "dark night of the soul" after reading the Wikipedia article on Joseph Smith in late July 2012, I desperately wanted official answers to my questions from the LDS church. The information that I found was extremely sparse. It was clear that the only way to learn about the details about the origins of polygamy was from sources outside the church. I went to my bishop to discuss my concerns and was told that Joseph only ever had one wife and was told to go think about what I was doing to my family, pretty unhelpful advice given the nature of my issues. I had precious little official information from the LDS church with which to rebut my bishop's mistaken beliefs about Joseph's monogamy. All I could find was a little one-liner in the Gospel Topics section of that said something to the effect of Joseph having cautiously taught and practiced polygamy. I could find absolutely no discussion of the details that I was concerned about. Even after the release of the new essays, there is no discussion of the vast majority of the details that concern me.

So while John Dehlin and many others have been discussing these issues in detail and this has caused many to leave the LDS church, this is in my view not their fault. The disturbing issues are disturbing because they are in fact disturbing and confusing. This is not the fault of the critics. The church seemingly cannot offer answers that are satisfactory to people like me, otherwise they would have charged into the discussion and offered them long ago. For a church that warns so much about the arguments of the critics, the LDS church spends precious little effort discussing the issues that concern the people who are listening to the critics.

I will never forget that when I desperately needed frank discussion and validation of my concerns, the helping hand of the LDS church was nowhere to be found. There was no official discussion of my concerns. My bishop lacked even the most basic historical literacy on these thorny issues. So where did I go? Unofficial internet apologists, critics, books written by historians, and everything in between. Where else could I have gone?

I find it ironic that one of these voices will be on trial for weighing in on subjects that the LDS church was so late to the game to weigh in on themselves. While the LDS church has addressed some issues in the years since, these responses still largely sidestep the real questions and concerns that I have, things that Dehlin has discussed in detail with various experts in the fields they represent. The church doesn't seem to have the courage to weigh in themselves, but they seem to have the courage to kick someone out who does.

Also, Dehlin has expressed his desire to have someone attend his trial to take notes or to tape-record the proceedings. The church has responded by denying his requests to have a note-taker and requiring the signing of a form that says that he will not record the trial (even though Utah law allows recording conversations, even without the consent of others present).

There is something just not right to me about an organization holding a trial for somebody and insisting that it be done in secret when that person wants it done in the open, especially when that person is concerned about abuses of power by that organization. I mean, I understand protecting confidentiality if that is what the person wants but the insistence of keeping things secret when the person on trial does not wish it does not seem right.

Where do I stand?

I don't believe the foundational truth claims of the LDS church. I also believe in an inalienable right to total authenticity for all people. I don't ever expect someone to hide their true thoughts and feelings from me and I reserve the right to share mine whenever I want to, in public or not.

It has been difficult to get clear information on exactly what John did that is considered "apostasy". From what I can tell, though, I am guilty of all of the same things that John is, just on a smaller scale, since I just have fewer people reading my thoughts. I don't agree with the church is many areas and don't believe it's truth claims, and I express myself publicly on my blog. Am I guilty of apostasy?

When I listened to Elder Uchtdorf's talk, "Come, Join with Us," I honestly thought I was still welcome despite my disbelief and speaking my honest thoughts but recent excommunications have me thinking that I am not. For the first time, I am actually thinking of writing a letter to have my name removed from the membership records of the church. I'm not sure I believe in Jesus anymore but I am pretty familiar with the New Testament and I just can't see Jesus handling things the way things are being handled by LDS church leaders these days. In fact, wasn't there a story in the New Testament of a trial being held in the middle of the night to avoid scrutiny? I wouldn't be surprised if there was a request for a note-taker that was denied for that one as well.

Edit: My wife pointed out that while I stated above that "the helping hand of the LDS church was nowhere to be found," that actually isn't true. There were some kind LDS friends who did reach out to me and I am very grateful for that. The LDS church is full of very kind people and I need to acknowledge that.

What I was trying to express with that statement was my frustration to a lack of official answers for difficult questions. For example, if D&C 132 speaks of polygamy only in the context of men marrying multiple virgins, what in the Hell was Joseph Smith doing marrying Orson Hyde's wife while Hyde was on a mission to Palestine? That is the type of question I don't expect the brethren to try and tackle any time soon because I don't think there is any possible good answer. The mere fact that it needs to be asked is incredibly troubling. Add to this the fact that many people find out about this stuff from somewhere other than the church (usually critics) and you get many people who feel basically that the church purposely withheld information to keep them in, and there is a very strong feeling of betrayal.

So I recognize that John is attempting to shame the church publicly and that they have every right to kick him out of the church, but I have this pipe dream where Thomas S. Monson gets up next conference and says, "Folks, there are lots of people out there who find out some of our historical quirks at a late age, things like Joseph marrying his friend's wives, his own teen foster daughters, Brigham Young endorsing slavery, etc. etc. and they are kind of angry that they only found this out after decades of dedicated service to the church. Frankly, we as leaders could have done a better job of preparing people for the digital age. Please be understanding and kind to people who lose their faith in Joseph Smith." Why haven't they already done this? Do they deserve some shame for not doing something like this? Instead we get Elder Andersen's backhand slap comparing us to Judas. I hope that the church can improve on this some day but I have grown weary of waiting.