Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Religious ignorance is faith's ally

Lately I've been reading 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy Harrison. I like it. Last night, the following passage struck me as interesting, so I thought I would share it.

[O]ne of the fastest ways to turn a believer into a nonbeliever is religious education. Teach someone, especially a child, an honest and objective overview of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, traditional Chinese beliefs, Buddhism, animism, Sikhism, Judaism, Jainism, Bahism, plus the basics of a few extinct religions, and there is a good chance that this enlightened person will have a hard time convincing themselves that one of these belief systems is valid and all the others are not. Religious ignorance is faith's ally. Religious education is faith's enemy.

I've found this to be true for me as well. It's interesting to me how fundamentally similar the claims of many religions are, and this becomes increasingly clear as one learns more about other religions. Each set of religious followers is as convinced of their own religion's truth as the others are of theirs. Usually based on the same evidence, too: experience, testimony, visions, miracles, holy writings, etc. How is one to judge the truth of one religion over the others with such conflicting claims? Why is my religion more likely to be true than any other religion? Because it's mine? Because I happened to be born in this place at this time in history? I doubt it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How to discern good spirits from evil ones

In church today, one of the lessons was about how to discern good spirits from evil ones. Very practical stuff, of course, but I was surprised that no one mentioned the "three grand keys" that were revealed by Joseph Smith, which give specific steps for detecting whether an other-worldly being is really an angel or a demon. It's such an important scriptural principle, in fact, that I will reproduce it here in its entirety. Those of you who are not Mormon or have never been Mormon will probably be skeptical that Mormons actually believe in this wonderful piece of literature, but I promise you it's real.

Doctrine and Covenants 129
1 There are two kinds of beings in heaven, namely: Angels, who are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones—
2 For instance, Jesus said: Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.
3 Secondly: the spirits of just men made perfect, they who are not resurrected, but inherit the same glory.
4 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.
5 If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.
6 If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—
7 Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.
8 If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.
9 These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.

To me, this passage is evidence of only one thing. Well, actually two things. First, Joseph Smith apparently did a lot of drugs. Secondly: the devil, the father of lies, the author of sin and master of deceit... is the stupidest con man ever. According to this passage, the reason "a just man" won't offer to shake hands is because he is unable to deceive. And the devil, because he is trying to deceive you as to his ability to shake your hand, will offer his hand but you won't feel it.

Now, I don't claim to be a genius, or of any special intelligence whatsoever. But it occurs to me that this may not be the devil's most effective method of deceiving you. Specifically, why wouldn't he just pretend to be "a just man" and tell you he can't shake your hand? Or is the devil unaware of this little loophole in the order of heaven?

Joseph Smith really enjoyed making up stuff like this to keep people's attention. It works as long as no one thinks too hard about it. I'm reminded of Stan's exclamation in the South Park episode All About the Mormons: "Mormons actually know this story, and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet?" Yep, they do. But I think these three keys must be a little too grand for my limited earthly comprehension.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Perspectives on Church History from the Community of Christ

A few months ago, I came across a message from Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) president Stephen M. Veazey, regarding church history principles. But the person who told me about it had copied and pasted the text, modifying a few names and presenting it as the words of LDS church president Thomas S. Monson. I pretty quickly realized it couldn't have been written by any leader of the LDS church, because it says things like this:

Because of my exploration of various credible works, and probing discussions with historians, some of my previously held notions have been challenged and adjusted in the face of additional knowledge. The “apologetic” approach to church history—presenting our story in as favorable a light as possible—is not sufficient for the journey ahead. That approach does not evidence the integrity that must be fundamental to our witness and ministry.

and this:

If we say that a book on history is the only true telling of the story, we risk “canonizing” one version, a tendency we have shown in the past. This blocks further insights from continuing research. Good historical inquiry understands that conclusions are open to correction as new understanding and information comes from ongoing study.

I could imagine someone like Joseph Smith saying these things, or Joseph F. Smith, or even David O. McKay. But I cannot in my wildest imaginations see Thomas S. Monson saying them. First, he would have to admit that it is possible for his own notions to be challenged and adjusted in the face of evidence, which would imply that he is capable of learning "additional knowledge" he doesn't already have. Second, he would have to admit that the whitewashing of LDS church history in recent decades has been a mistake, which would imply that church leadership is capable of making mistakes. Third, he would have to admit that serious study of church history (i.e. from actual historians who examine source materials from outside the faith-promoting manual) is a valuable endeavor, and can actually give us a more accurate picture of the early church than what is taught each week in Sunday school.

I don't see any of this happening anytime soon. Instead, we get talks from Boyd K. Packer telling us that some things that are true aren't very useful. And in the latest General Conference, we are told that doubt is one of the "destructive Ds", and that unfavorable descriptions of the church are untrue and unfair. There is no nuanced discussion about when or where doubt or skepticism may be appropriate, or criticism of the church might be fair. Doubt is always wrong, and as Dallin H. Oaks reiterated during the Frontline story on the Mormons, it's wrong to criticize leaders of the church even if the criticism is true.

Here's the thing. Truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny. If something is really true, then it will stand up to thorough investigation. Examining all the evidence can only confirm the truth. So if the church-approved version of LDS history is true, then why is it taboo to study history from other credible sources? Why is it wrong to be unsatisfied with taking church leaders' word for it, and to examine the evidence for oneself? Why are we counseled against reading anything that is not faith-promoting? What is there to fear? The truth has nothing to fear, but irrational belief certainly does.

In my opinion, contrary to what Kevin Pearson says in the General Conference talk linked above, doubt is not "a negative emotion related to fear," which betrays a lack of self-confidence. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Fear is what kept me from acknowledging my doubts for a long time. In critically examining my own beliefs and doubts, rather than succumbing to fear, I have begun to overcome it. Rather than revealing a lack of self-confidence, I have become more confident in my ability to discern truth, and in my ability to handle many other areas of life as well. I don't have all the answers, but I am no longer afraid of not having all the answers.

If the LDS church's attitude toward its own history were more in tune with Stephen Veazey's statement, I would feel a lot more at home in the LDS church. I would love to have discussions about actual church history in Sunday school. Not because I want to tear down people's faith, but because I find the subject interesting and I would like to explore it with other people who claim to care about it. Unfortunately, this is not possible for two reasons: most members don't actually know very much about church history; and discussing anything that challenges the faith-promoting story is essentially verboten. It doesn't have to be that way. It hasn't always been that way. But I also don't see it changing anytime soon.