Thursday, February 24, 2011

Salt and fairy tales

I am subscribed to the LDS Living newsletter and I sometimes peruse the Family Home Evening lessons that catch my interest. A recent one I just got was on the topic of personal revelation. I decided that since I need some of that, I would read further. You can read it here if you are so inclined.

So the lesson starts out making the statement, "As Latter-day Saints, we have testimonies . . . given to us by revelation, assuring us that this religion and its doctrines are true." That's nice. So, I have a question; What is it that makes LDS testimonies true more so than any other proclamation of belief by an adherent of any other faith in the world that is declared to have been received by revelation from God?

I'll read on...

Boyd K. Packer starts out a story to illustrate the idea, apparently, that revelation is different than something we can measure or be sure of in any logical or philosophical sense. He says, "Although a testimony of [the] plan is of crucial importance to us, we must not count on winning many debates on the plan of redemption versus the prevailing theories and philosophies of men."

Besides being everlastingly unfortunate that Boyd is admitting that church goers will never be able to win any arguments using reason and sound thinking with reasonable minds of the day, it is funny to me that people can never have a forum to question leaders of the church. If such a forum were available, I would ask, "Why is a testimony of God's plan of such "crucial" importance to me?" Alas, I may never receive an answer from the insulated LDS hierarchy.

The lesson continues with Boyd Packer's incontrovertible argument for the individual knowledge that is known as a testimony of the truthfulness of his beliefs. From his book published in 1997 "Memorable Stories and Parables" he tells of his chance encounter and conversation with an atheist on a plane. He says that the atheist ridiculed him and so he bore his testimony to him saying, "There is a God, I know He lives!". After much more ridicule (Boyd describes the atheist's words as "sneering" and "condescending") the atheist responded with something along the lines of, "Tell me how you know it?" Note, the atheist did not ask for Boyd to tell him what the knowledge was based on or to describe the attributes of the knowledge. He simply asked for him to tell the atheist how he knew what he claimed to know.

Boyd was stumped. He wasn't sure how to respond to the atheist's question. Finally, a flash of revelation comes to him. He decides to liken the experience of receiving a testimony of God's existence to salt. Boyd asks the atheist if he has tasted salt. To which the atheist responds, "Of course, I had some with my dinner on the plane just a bit ago." Then Boyd goes on to ask the atheist to describe what salt tastes like. The atheist can't do it. He can only describe what it isn't. Then Boyd triumphantly declares that his knowledge of the existence of God is just like tasting salt and since the atheist can't describe with words what salt tastes like, Boyd must be correct and there must be a God. Since Boyd has so confounded the desperate and miserable atheist the only comeback the poor atheist can muster is uttered under his breath as he slithers away in defeat, "I don’t need your religion for a crutch. I don’t need it." (Boyd actually used the word "mutter" which means to mumble, grumble or murmur, gotta love it :P

Of course, aside from all the derogatory characterizations of the atheist, Boyd will insist that his analogy is perfect and the failure by the atheist to be able to describe what salt tastes like is proof that he must be right. But let's take another look. The atheist asked Boyd to tell him "how" he knew it, not what exactly it means. The atheist didn't ask Boyd to describe what God looks like or where he lives or even what his favorite color is (which every good Mormon knows is white, by the way). Boyd responded by showing that the atheist couldn't answer the question of what he knows, when this was not the same question posed to Boyd in the first place. Remember, the question was, "how he knows", not "describe what it is he knows". If Boyd were to play fair and remain consistent in his point, he would have asked the atheist "how" he knows what salt tastes like. The answer would have been simple, "I have tasted it. I have felt the exact same sensation on my tongue that I have come to interpret, according to my experience, as the taste of salt." In order for Boyd to have the same experience and "know" what salt tastes like, the atheist could have offered him some salt and then Boyd could know right then and there what salt tastes like (if he did not know already - which he probably did, which made the comparison even more incompatible with the original question because the atheist genuinely did NOT know how Boyd knew God was real). After tasting for himself, Boyd's question of what salt tastes like could then be answered to everyone's satisfaction. Mutual knowledge and experience could have been enjoyed. Unfortunately, in this case, the poor atheist had to go on, in his miserable existence, not knowing what Boyd claimed to know or even how he knew it. What a kind and gentle man Boyd must be! Even talking with the poor atheist must have been such a sacrifice for him!

The difference between the two questions is that salt is real and it is something we can all agree exists. The existence of God (or, at least, who God communicates his will to), on the other hand, is something the world is very far from agreeing on. We can discern salt from any other white granular substance we may encounter through taste (as one means of identification). As for describing it, just because we can't describe what it tastes like (which is more a shortcoming of our language than anything else) doesn't mean it doesn't exist, which is the point Boyd is trying to make...just because we can't describe what the feeling/testimony/personal revelation confirming the existence of God feels like, doesn't mean it is any less real. No one can refute the reality (to the individual) of what they think they have personally experienced. The analogy of salt, however, fails because it does not endeavor to actually answer the question being posed.

Aside, from not being an accurate comparison of the question, I think there are additional problems with the analogy, even if we assume the comparison of the two questions were valid and that it does mean that Boyd can't describe how he knows that God lives (which is essentially what he is admitting to here);

While society at large can agree that salt exists, and can largely agree on what exactly it tastes like, independently confirming the existence of God is impossible outside of an individual's subjective experience/belief. In other words:

taste of salt = near universal agreement through objective means,

existence of God = individually determined through subjective means.

Some in the church proclaim that this is a wonderful attribute of personal revelation, but I think it is a recipe for disaster. The impression is given that the person, who is seeking to validate what others have said is real (in this case, the existence of God), is coming to an independent conclusion based on what they have personally experienced. However, this independence is an illusion because it is solely based on what one party (who claims to have a knowledge of the existence of God) is claiming to be true. Once this knowledge is proclaimed to be attainable by the individual, the party who is claiming the knowledge exists is actually the one dictating the terms of its existence. I'll illustrate this point with an example;

If I am walking, despondent through life, and I bump into you and for some reason I divulge to you that I need help with my love life. You say, "Oh, your fairy godmother should be able to help you out with that." I respond with, "I have never heard that I had a fairy godmother.", but, since I really want help with my love life, I inquire further, "How do I summon my fairy godmother?" Then you respond, "Well, it is different for everyone, but I can summon mine by ripping my clothes and kneeling down and crying and saying 3 times, 'Fairy godmother I need your help!'. That works ALMOST every time." So I ask, "What do you mean 'ALMOST' every time?" Then you say, "Well, it actually only worked for me one time, but I am sure it is the same for you...besides, if you really need help, she will appear for sure."

So I take your advice, rip my clothes, get worked up into an emotional state of need (just for good measure) and run outside, kneel down and tearfully exclaim, "Fairy godmother, I need your help!" repeated 3 times. Then I wait. I wait a very long time and nothing happens.

The next day, I come to visit you and say that I tried to summon my fairy godmother, but nothing happened. So you say, "Well, I guess you were just not desperate enough." At this point I am really frustrated, but I really want help with my love life so I ask if there is anything else I can do. To make a long story short, I try everything you can possibly think of to recreate the experience you had when you said your fairy godmother appeared, but she still does not appear for me. The question is, what should I conclude? I can conclude one of a couple possibilities, A) My fairy godmother exists, but she chooses not to come and help me, but if I do enough, at some point she will eventually show up. B) My fairy godmother does not exist, but if I imagine her to be real, and just believe enough, she will be real enough for me and that would be enough. Both possibilities assume that I really want to believe that my fairy godmother exists.

What I am trying to point out with this example is the control that is exerted by the person who claims to know that the fairy godmother is real. Whether intentional deception or not, the person claiming to have knowledge of something can exercise (and is exercising) some measure of control over a person who wants to have the same experience of their own. If a person wants something to be real bad enough, they will do pretty much anything that the person, who claims to have the knowledge, will tell them to do. It is only when a person can be mature enough to accept that the existence of a fairy godmother is a question that is not important, that one can get on with their life and find answers to questions about their love life that are proven to work in many documented cases - without the need for a fairy godmother to be real. One important thing I would point out about this is that it is not necessary to say there is no fairy godmother that is real to be able to solve real problems. We can still allow for the existence of the fairy godmother, but just choose not to exert so much effort in attempting to summon her to solve the problem.

This is what gets really irksome with the church. The church tells people who are found to be in some state of need (physically, emotionally, financially or otherwise) that there is a being (a "Heavenly Father") that could be labeled as a generous and loving heavenly being who really wants to help people out. Then, the person with the need is told that all they have to do is believe hard enough that this heavenly being is real and the heavenly being will start telling you important stuff and even reveal truths that you could not have otherwise discovered. The problem is, when a person asks how this all will happen they are told it is like trying to describe what salt tastes like, there is no way to independently confirm what the leaders of the church claim you will experience. In fact, they can't even begin to accurately describe how it will happen or even make any sort of guarantees that it WILL happen the same as it did for them (since they can't describe exactly "how" it happened without being extremely ambiguous). They just continue to assure that it will happen, on an individual level, if you just believe enough, without even describing what it is like when it does happen. The individual is left to create their own definition of how the knowledge will be confirmed and then decide when the definition has been fulfilled to their satisfaction. It is all defined by what the individual wants and how bad they want it.

Of course, the church then places conditions on the meaning of the experience you, yourself, have defined and determined that you have experienced to your satisfaction. These conditions include mandatory church attendance, mandatory service and acceptance of callings and mandatory payment of tithes and offerings...and all should be given only to the church that claimed to be able to let you define your own experience! It is just like all the stuff the person who told me my fairy godmother was real would tell me to do to be able to summon my fairy godmother. Rip your clothes, say some words, kneel down, these were all conditions given to assist in bringing about the manifestation. However, when the appearance fails to occur, the believer is told that they just aren't doing enough or have been negligent in their faith. Is the church capable of anything besides blaming the person who has not had the desired experience when the knowledge is not revealed as the believer hopes it will be? Unfortunately, I don't think so. By the way, to anyone that has experienced a visitation from their fairy godmother, I would love to hear about how it happened. Anyone?


  1. Great post. My biggest beef with religion is the concept of "the spirit" or "personal revelation." I don't there exists a valid analogy in which we can point to that shows we know something objective via subjective means.

  2. Read the story again. He did explain how he knew, but the other man simply denied that it was possible.

  3. Hello Anonymous, Thanks for your comment. Just out of curiosity, what do you think of the statement in the introduction of the story that says, "...we must not count on winning many debates on the plan of redemption versus the prevailing theories and philosophies of men."? Why is this? Is it because the prevailing theories and philosophies of men are wrong? Or is it because there is a chance that those who count themselves among the "we" of this story might not have much ground supporting their beliefs?

    In spite of this polarizing statement (again, not sure of the intent of it), you said that Boyd did explain how he knew. Let's take a look. After the atheist asked Boyd to tell him how he knew, Boyd said, "I could not do it. I was helpless to communicate. When I used the words spirit and witness, the atheist responded, 'I don’t know what you are talking about.' The words prayer, discernment, and faith also were meaningless to him."

    He says he knows because of some things called "spirit", "witness", "prayer", "discernment" and "faith". And he's right to point out that these words mean nothing to the atheist, because they are all subject to personal definition and interpretation. My question is, why is someone pronouncing belief in something that is, by definition, personal to them, and therefore unknowable to someone else? If no one else can know what it is you claim to know, why proselyte? Ahh, but you would probably say that we can know, wouldn't you? I would ask how, but then we'd be back to those things that are personal again. Why can't you acknowledge that your faith is PERSONAL and that it is possible for others to not share your beliefs because they have not had your experience? I professed belief for a very long time, but when I began to attempt to be objective about my experiences I was basing my belief on, the "knowledge" I claimed to have, which fell from the weight of attempting an objective analysis.

    My conclusion is, hey, if something works for you then go with it. But, please, don't belittle those that don't agree with you by characterizing them as insensitive, hard hearted or ignorant to the ways of God. Unfortunately, that is what this article does in a subtle way.

    Peace be to you Anonymous. I hope you find happiness and fulfillment in your beliefs.