Friday, January 24, 2020

Truth is Reason: Faith of a Scientist Reviewed

Disclosures: I personally know the author. He's a super nice guy and I appreciate him and am happy to know him. Also, I resigned my membership in the LDS church because I don't believe in it.

I enjoyed reading this book and getting to know John's views and thoughts, although since I had struggled to reconcile LDS theology and history for years, I felt very frustrated at times reading this. It's not John's fault, he sees the world differently from me and isn't bothered by some of the things I'm bothered by, so I don't blame him for glossing over my concerns but I did feel like the book had some holes, which it inherits from holes in Mormon theology. Not everybody sees the same holes, but I decided to write them all out. Maybe they will be discussed in the book's sequel. :)

I also want to thank John for typing some obvious things in plain English in his book. Prophets can err in doctrine for example. It is nice to read it stated without qualification. Prophets themselves, for whatever reason, don't bring up this obvious point much.

I had the thought while reading John describe his simultaneous crisis of science and crisis of faith, that maybe both of these crises come from the problem of induction and a desire for certainty. As humans, we look at patterns and expect these patterns to continue. No matter how much data we gather, there is always a possibility that the theory we have formed to explain the patterns in the data is not real. The actual underlying physical law may be different from what we imagined. Often it is more complex, but sometimes it is simpler.

Earlier in my life, I felt a lot of comfort in religion from the certainty that it gave me. LDS theology does a good job of casting itself as deductive in nature, like a mathematical proof. It gives it a very bulletproof veneer. However, in my early 30s, I realized that deductive logic still suffers from the problem of induction, since you have to establish assumptions to start the deductive logic chain. I'm not really aware of any other way to establish these first principles in theological thought, other than pointing out potential patterns in experiential data.

As a scientist myself, I was hoping to gain some more insight into how John justifies the first principles he uses to form the foundation of his belief and how he builds upon those from this book. I have always thought that this was where the biggest weaknesses in Mormon theology exist. Unfortunately, he seemed to just accept common assumptions without discussion for the theological first principles that I find the most questionable. Below are recommendations for which first principles to discuss better in the book's sequel, and why I think there are weaknesses:

1) God is communicating to us through the Spirit.

I don't have a lot to say about the assumption itself except "It's possible, but by no means proven." The issues I take with John's explanations are more with the methodologies he proposes to reveal the truth of the assumption. If John is correct, I'm not sure it makes any sense to even ask God if the LDS church is true. Let me explain.

As a scientist, before I run an experiment to test a hypothesis I have to ask myself what a confirmation or a disconfirmation would look like. Is it possible to disprove the hypothesis? What would that look like?

The problems creep in when John attempts to explain away unreliability in this spiritual communication. He introduces the standard explanations that most LDS members are familiar with, i.e. that strong emotions or desires can be mistaken for the spirit, or that the devil can convincingly impersonate the spirit.

Earlier in the book when he discusses the premortal existence, John discusses the effect that instilling beliefs on someone very early in life can have on them. Is it possible that one might feel good when praying about one's beliefs because those beliefs have been instilled since birth? I have interacted with people who were former Jehovah's Witnesses and was surprised at the anxiety and strong negative emotion they experienced when they threw a birthday party for themselves or dressed up for Halloween for the first time. A practicing Witness might argue that these negative feelings are God telling them that it is wrong to celebrate birthdays, but I think it is likely that this is just an emotional result of breaking childhood indoctrination and not a communication from God at all.

The problem is there is no rigorous interpretation of the data, and this is no mere hypothetical for me. All my life, I prayed and felt like I was just talking to myself except for one single time. In the midst of my "faith crisis" I prayed about some of the behaviors of Joseph Smith that disturbed me and I had a very strong peaceful emotional response to that prayer and felt an accompanying strong certainty that Joseph Smith was a wicked man who abused his power over women and that I should no longer seek to justify his behavior or follow him. If I'm being an honest seeker of truth, what am I to make of this result?

In the system of logic laid out in the book, the church is true and such a result isn't really possible. Except if maybe I was just emotional and was mistaking my own emotions for a communication from God (to be perfectly honest I think this is what actually happened). Or maybe Satan sent that communication. Whatever really happened, this was the strongest spiritual experience of my life, so it would be disturbing in the extreme if Satan were more responsive and a more real presence in my life than God by far, and if it was a fake emotional response, then it means that God probably hasn't ever seen fit to communicate with me in my life. Those are the possibilities that I see. The system of logic in LDS theology as elaborated in this book would be compelled to simply dismiss my entire life experience as invalid.

The big logical problem here is that since all results (both negative and positive) must be interpreted or reinterpreted to mean that the church is true, the experiment is superfluous and is a waste of time. The hypothesis cannot be falsified. If the rules of the game of Red vs. Blue are such that Red must always win, why let the game play out at all? Just declare Red the winner and go home. Let's not all sit and watch the game and pretend that Red was in danger of losing.

2) Faith is a virtue and God wants us to have it.

This one took me years to unpack after losing my faith, and I think it is because I was told for so long and from such a young age that having faith is good. "You want to be a good boy, right Heath? You need to have faith. Good worthy boys have faith." I'm sure nobody phrased it like that to me when I was young, but that is the message that came across to me and embedded itself deep in my subconscious.

Then later in life, I started becoming fascinated with cult documentaries and noticed how adept cult leaders were at using this desire to be faithful in their followers to exploit them. It started to dawn on me that faith could be good or bad, depending on what it is in. If it feels like you have faith in something bad, you might very well be right. It might not be a good idea to push ahead and have faith anyway.

It is easy to have faith that you should do something obviously good like help others in their hour of need, but what about some harder things? It is much harder to have faith that Abraham being willing to kill his son without explanation was a good thing. Did Abraham fail the test? The Old Testament portrays a God that commanded genocide (including the express command to kill the children) and approved of slavery. Is it good to have faith in that? Or should we rethink that? Joseph Smith tested John Taylor's faith by asking to marry his wife. John Taylor agreed to let him. Is that kind of faith good?

Taking this further, the men who participated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre had faith in their church leaders who commanded them to kill those people after disarming them and promising them safety. Should they have had less faith in their church leaders? Wouldn't it be more moral to have faith in a morality that says these types of actions cannot be commanded by God, even if you think they are?

And why would it be bad to not have faith in the LDS church, even if it is true? Certainly there is a lot of conflict with various fields of science, DNA, archaeology, etc. and LDS doctrine (Book of Mormon, I'm looking at you right now). Establishing the truth of the teachings of the church is far from an open-and-shut case. If your honest assessment of the Book of Mormon is that it isn't historical, does it make you a bad person to not have faith in it anyway? Is being honestly mistaken about unknowable supernatural things a moral deficiency? Is God going to get mad at me if I make an honest assessment of the LDS church and come up with the answer that it is made up?

I just don't think the book established the inherent moral value of faith very well. It did attempt to separate faith in things that were true from faith in things that were false about God, but the main problem is you don't know you have faith in the wrong thing until it is disproven to you, and then a lot of times there is a church leader trying to get you to have faith in the incorrect thing anyway. Why does God want you to express belief in something in the face of uncertainty? Why does that help you be a better person?

3) Prophets can err in doctrine. 

This is an assumption that has been forced on the LDS church in more modern times due to doctrinal reversals. You can't have inerrant prophets if prophets have contradicted one another over time. One or the other has to be wrong.

For example, you have a first presidency statement from the 1940s that states that it is church doctrine that anyone of African descent was less valiant in the premortal existence, therefore they are banned from holding the priesthood. The current Gospel Topics essay on the subject (approved by the current prophet) states that this is untrue. One of them is wrong. There are other reversals. Brigham Young's teaching that Adam is God and Bruce McConkie's contradiction of that also comes to mind.

This creates problems, since current prophets are to be trusted and obeyed completely. The problem with this is that once you admit that prophets can err in doctrine, you introduce the possibility that they are erring in doctrine today. If not, you have to explain what changed between then and now that makes it so that they can't be wrong now. And if you genuinely feel that a prophet today is erring in doctrine and causing great harm to people, is it okay to say so out loud?

The typical Mormon answer would be that, no, it is not okay. The prophet has the keys and we don't have the right to "steady the ark" (another term I hate, the guy who steadied the ark was just trying to make sure it didn't fall). But is that who we've become? A people who will silence our conscience to express unity? That behavior certainly doesn't remind me of Jesus.

I have encountered many who feel that the church's lack of a place in theology for homosexual members is wrong. I personally feel that it is unjust for a family-oriented God to create gay people and expect them to live alone their whole life and just sit and wonder what is supposed to happen to them after they die. The silence of revelation on this subject is deafening. Jesus didn't address it, nor did the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. What makes us think it is even a problem to be solved? The Old Testament? We already ignore most of that book. Show me a Mormon who thinks it's a sin to eat shellfish.

I think that the current church leaders have a duty to level with the membership on this subject and reveal the exact nature of the revelation they have received on this subject so that we can evaluate its strength. Do they know gay marriage is a sin the same way that the First Presidency in the 1940s knew that Africans were less valiant? Do they know that gay marriage is a sin the same way that Brigham Young knew that Adam was God the Father? What has changed that makes it so that they cannot be wrong today like they were decades ago?

These questions deserve to be met with frank answers and not mock indignation that we commoners would dare to ask about such sacred things, which is how real apostles have acted when confronted with such questions.

I'm going to make a prediction that if I live to old age, I will live to see the church make a complete reversal on gay marriage. I think that Elder Oaks knows that gay marriage is a sin in exactly the same way that George Albert Smith knew that Africans were less valiant. I mean, c'mon when they wrote the Proclamation, they didn't even think about intersex people in any way. It's like they don't even exist. It doesn't take a scientist to see that The Proclamation wasn't perfectly thought out by the all-knowing creator of the universe.

Another hidden issue with allowing prophets the room to err in doctrine is that this argument cuts both ways. Sure, it allows room to accomodate the contradictions, but it also undermines the narrative of the great apostasy, which is the only reason that the LDS church needs to exist in the first place. If we allow too much room for prophets to err in doctrine and make other moral mistakes, you start to make an excellent case for the Catholic church being the one true church.

Anyway, that book review came out being much more a rant about my views than I wanted it to (actually, no, I wrote this as therapy for myself, who am I kidding...). John, if you read this, I hope you don't take anything personally or too critically. This is more about me just venting my frustrations with Mormon theology and maybe giving you some more ideas for subjects to cover next time.

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