Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Let men's hearts fail

I recently watched a Mormon messages video sent to me (that can be found here). The video is a story shared by Russell M. Nelson who is a member of the quorum of 12 apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In the story, Nelson tells of a hair raising experience he had while flying on a small plane. He said the engine, that he could see outside his window, burst into flames, exploded and then spewed burning oil all over the side of the plane. He said that he was curious at a woman who was crying and screaming hysterically as the plane started to dive due to the loss of the engine. He said he was calm and felt "ready to meet his maker" as he thought the plane might be spiraling to his certain death. The implication is then made, through the comments he makes next, that those who fear or are suffering are somehow inferior to those who have faith or belief in an afterlife.

I think there must be something wrong with me because, while many will say they find the message and the video inspiring and uplifting, I find it condescending and demeaning, especially to the poor woman who wasn't ready to die. He is taking a perfectly normal reaction to facing potential death in a plane crash (screaming and crying hysterically) and turning it into something that is to be avoided if you believe strongly enough in God and an afterlife. Who's to say that the woman didn't believe in God or that she wasn't crying because she was sinful or felt inadequate...SHE WAS CRYING BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T WANT TO DIE! THAT'S IT. Is he saying that those who are afraid of something (like dying) lack faith and if they just believed more they would all be calm like he was? I'm sorry, but I have seen many faithful people get scared and cry when their life was in danger. No matter what your level of faith, everyone will react differently - sometimes with calmness, sometimes with hysteria - when faced with a life threatening situation. Regardless of who you are or what you believe, everybody get's scared once in a while.

It is normal to be scared and our particular reaction in that moment may be more due to our personality or current disposition than anything to do with spiritual or religious beliefs. It is normal to be afraid and we shouldn't put down people for engaging in a perfectly reasonable and normal response to the loss of their life. And we certainly shouldn't put our response to that situation on a pedestal because we happen to not be afraid in that moment. If we did not have fear, or get scared, we would all die off because of what we would now call stupidity.

Don't get me wrong, fear is not something that is desirable. I don't go around looking for things to be afraid of. Rather, fear is a normal thing. It is not something to be demonized in order to get you to believe the way I do about the existence of a higher power or what might happen after we all die. I see this as a despicable tool being used by Nelson to manipulate people and get them to convert to his point of view. It just seems like this man is taking something that is normal and exploiting it to make himself appear knowledgeable and as having something that you need. How is this different than a snake oil salesman who tells you that you are suffering from this or that and only he has the cure? Frankly, I don't see much difference.

After re-watching the video, I am actually impressed that Mr. Nelson does not make any definite statements as to what you need, rather he says "a faith" instead of "the faith" when referring to what is needed to overcome fear or sadness. Baby steps towards increased tolerance and acceptance of other faith traditions, I guess. I honestly think Nelson has the benefit of a skilled PR and legal department guiding and editing his words in this video so those that are paying attention can't gather too much literal ammunition to cry intolerance on the church. While he is very careful, the presumptions are glaring.

I would also submit that Mr. Nelson's interpretation of the scripture he quotes in the video is being misinterpreted. The verses he quotes are a snippet of a lengthy response from Jesus to his apostles asking when he would come again and what signs would follow so that they might know and be ready (see Luke 21:7). The verses Nelson quotes are as follows (from Luke 21);

 25 And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring;

 26 Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.

 27 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

When I read these verses it sounds to me like the faithful will be the one's aware of the signs that indicate the 2nd coming of Jesus is near. Especially since the audience in these verses is the apostles of Jesus. Those that believe are the one's whose hearts will fail them. This means the faithful will fear because it is perceived that the things they are "looking after" (meaning the signs that they believe have been foretold - even though there is really nothing explicit or detailed about what these events might be exactly, except for those things that have plagued us for centuries like war, famine, natural disasters, etc.) are coming and the "powers of heaven" shall be shaken. In other words, the powers of heaven can only mean those that are the one's supposedly possessing said powers. Those that supposedly have these powers (God given power, authority or priesthood) will be shaken.

To understand this verse further, and add a different perspective, let's try to understand what would happen if astronomers see something out of the ordinary concerning the sun, moon or stars. It will most certainly not cause them to remember that Jesus' second coming is near. Rather, if these things seem to spell the end of our lives on this planet, scientists will attempt to understand what is happening and warn us if there is an impending disaster due to those things. Certainly the world at large would be scared if that sort of thing were announced, or experienced, but it would not be according to signs having been foretold in the scriptures. Scripture is intentionally vague when it comes to specific signs or atrocities so that they are all inclusive. These vague things are then used as mechanisms to convince, and ultimately control, people to believe in what the current professors of those teachings are saying.

Nelson then goes on to tell us that the reason hearts will fail (or people will experience fear or sadness) is because we forget our identity and our purpose. Apparently showing people in silence as they argue or look generally sad is supposed to re-enforce this idea. I feel bad about this representation because, while it may speak to those who struggle in different ways, it portrays these people as lacking in some way. People who experience normal things that may cause stress in their lives are shown as imperfect and needing the help that Nelson can apparently provide.

What makes me even more sad is that many times the church, and the teachings that Nelson espouses, are actually the CAUSE of those feelings of inadequacy or stress, fear or sadness. It is very much a self perpetuating and self sustaining mechanism. You feel fear or sadness because you lack what the LDS church can supposedly provide for you and if you continue to feel those feelings, you are just not doing enough and need to do more. Read more, pray more, do more service and eventually those feelings will subside. When in reality, the more you engage in those kinds of behaviors, the more you realize you can't possibly do it all AND keep up with everything else in your life. Something's gotta give and, invariably, the things that give first are those things the church is telling you that you are not doing enough of. If only you did better you will eventually find the peace Nelson promises. Only trouble is, it never really shows up because the messages repeated every week at church are geared to making you feel inadequate.

He says that the following things brought sadness or "trouble" in his life;
- Death of his wife
- Death of his daughter

He's seen the troubles brought to people through;
- Divorce
- Children or grandchildren going astray
- Disability, illness, injuries
While pictured is a women crying over a baby in an incubator at an ICU, a man packing up and leaving after losing his job and a woman who is sad after an argument with her husband.

Nelson is grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ that allows him that kind of strength to be helped during these tumultuous times. I'm sorry, but I would rather prefer to see our society as being in a BETTER state than it was a century or two ago. While there may have been several major natural disasters (shown in Nelson's video) to happen in recent years, studies have shown that these events are actually decreasing (according to a Freakonomics Radio podcast: "The folly of prediction" 9/14/2011). Violent crime is down, homicide is down, nearly every statistic that could be utilized to potentially measure the state of bad things happening (maybe with the exception of joblessness and homelessness which are pretty cyclical) is down. We are more tolerant and less violent towards each other. I'm not sure to what Nelson is referring when he labels these as tumultuous times, unless he is alluding to the things listed above that are inevitable (i.e. death, disability, illness, premature births, unemployment, arguments and injuries) to happen in all of our lives. If that is the case, the message that we need to lift ourselves up and move on is appreciated. However, the presumption that it is only the gospel of Jesus Christ that will enable people to do that is highly insulting, intolerant and narrow-minded.

While the music and scenes are all precisely designed to evoke emotion using the church owned, Bonneville communications HeartSell® technique, it is really difficult to not shed a tear over watching this video. But something just doesn't feel right. Such blatant manipulation of emotion ought to be outlawed when used to make you believe that you are screwed up and that what the church has to offer you is what represents the cure.

Of course, it is even more humorous that he is holding a Book of Mormon in his lap at the end of the video. As if he was not afraid because of the Book of Mormon. It's like he is saying, "If you will just read the Book of Mormon you will not be afraid like the poor woman that cried hysterically when facing the prospect of her imminent and untimely demise." What a crock! Tell me if you disagree, I can take it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Faith, knowledge and emotions

In the New Testament book of John chapter 20 verse 29 we get the message that Thomas was blessed for seeing the resurrected Jesus and believing in him, but we also get the message that even more blessed are all those who believe without seeing Jesus resurrected and in person. For me, this scripture was the basis of feeling that faith in Jesus, without having seen him in person, could be even more powerful than actually having seen him to verify his exalted state. This was interpreted by me to mean that the knowledge that comes from faith in the unseen is more noble than knowledge that comes from our own senses.

Perhaps this is why I got so much blow-back from believers in the LDS church that are my friends when I posted the following quote on my Facebook wall, "The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty." by Ann Lamott. This rubs members of the LDS church the wrong way. We are so conditioned to believe that the knowledge that comes from faith is superior to knowledge gained from observation that when the very nature of faith (as a principle that is not knowledge, but a tool that can be used to obtain knowledge) is pointed out to us, we feel threatened and attacked.

To have faith in things that are unseen is viewed as a virtue in a religious context, however, why don't we feel the same way when it comes to book learning? One thing I never could figure out is why there was such a difference in the way I was taught things at school versus how I was taught things at church. For example, Sunday school teachers would teach things and then "testify" of their truth at the end of the lesson. My teachers in school never did that. My science teacher never taught me about some scientific theory or idea and then closed with some variation of, "...and I want you young people to know that I have a testimony of these things..." Why not? What is the difference between knowledge gained in church versus at school? I think the difference is pretty clear.

Faith is the foundation of what is taught at church and knowledge is the foundation of what is taught in school. Teachers in school don't need to "testify" of what they teach, because they have the scientific method backing up their position. If it is possible, they want to be proven wrong and, in some cases, they are.

I remember watching an interview with Brian Greene, the physics professor at Columbia University who popularized string theory in books and PBS television specials. He was asked, "What will you do if it turns out that (a certain aspect of) string theory is not accurate?" His answer actually surprised me since it seems like he has a pretty vested interest in seeing string theory become an accepted scientific principle. His response was something to the effect of, "that would be great, because then we would be one step closer to knowing more about how things actually are in the universe!" I'm sure people can find scientists who don't share this outlook on the future of scientific discovery because they have a heavily vested interest in seeing their view of things become the accepted standard, but  I think (maybe I simply hope) that these folks are in the minority.

However, teachers at church don't want to prove anything except what they have been taught and accept on faith as truth. Learning at church is a simple exercise in agreement. Every part of the institution is set up to confirm what has been taught at one time or another as a self evident truth. While there are references to experiments and ways of finding truth in the Book of Mormon, these are really just lip service. The faithful don't really want anyone to perform experiments to find out just how beneficial prayer can be, for example. They want allegorical or anecdotal evidence to confirm their pre-existing beliefs of what they have been told is the expected outcome.

To suggest that someone has performed an experiment on their faith with any scientific objectivity is considered insulting to the faithful. To even bring it up means being met with an argument from compartmentalization. Meaning, you will be told that science (i.e. objective observation to confirm or deny the most logical explanation [theory] for something) and faith are simply incompatible. I have been told several times that one cannot prove spiritual things with science and that science will not ever be able to prove spiritual things.

While that may be true to some, science can explain the cause of experiences that we may be tempted to attribute to a "spiritual" experience. Imagine that one has some sort of spiritual epiphany that brings one closer to the deity they imagine. If we can ask the person to describe what they feel at that time, we might find that it is some sort of euphoric, warm, tingly or happy feeling. So the question is, could that same set of feelings be reproduced under different circumstances? My guess is they could. I get those feelings, that I used to attribute to spiritual communication, at very odd times, with no apparent explanation at all. Usually the feeling comes when I talk with someone I care about and desire to help them in some way. But it is not a feeling I can reproduce at will. Even if I try to duplicate the circumstances as completely as possible, there just won't be the same feeling come. There is very little in the way of a pattern or predictability for it. It comes when I don't really expect it. Much like other emotions we experience, usually there is some environmental stimulus for them, but other times they may be the result of hormonal or chemical imbalances or seem to be completely random in nature. Those emotional responses that are based on hormonal or chemical imbalances can be reproduced and experienced at will given the right set of circumstances being reproduced in the body or brain if we could measure and alter those things in a precise manner (for the most part).

So, if I am genuinely interested in establishing whether or not these spiritual experiences are coming from some deity somewhere (Where exactly, no one seems to know. On a side note, the physical locations in the known universe that God could be existing/hiding in are pretty remote at this point. About the only place God could possibly exist is in other dimensions - which we have yet to prove exist with any certainty - or at some sub, sub, sub, sub atomic level that we don't have the ability to observe yet) or being generated as a simple, and somewhat predictable, emotional response, I would begin with a hypothesis.

That is; feelings of euphoria, peace, love, joy, happiness, goodness (internal sense of right and wrong) come from an unseen deity or they are merely appendages of the continuum of emotions we all experience in our human experience.

It would seem pretty simple to show that if any of the emotional responses we experience in everyday life overlap anywhere with what we might label as "spiritual" experiences that would be pretty damning to the belief that they originate from God. However, let's say that God IS found in all the mundane and petty details of our lives that stimulate emotional responses - i.e. God is the source of ALL of our emotions. If that is the case, then there is no way to differentiate between those feelings that are beneficial - and intended to bring us closer to God - and those that are just part of the everyday human experience. If that is the case, then it seems pretty meaningless to attach meaning where no meaning can be objectively derived. If God is the source of ALL emotion (and He very well could be), my conclusion is that emotional responses are not a good indicator of the existence of God or as a tool that should be used to gauge effectiveness in living a life worthy of God's approval. It is also safe to say that such emotional responses do not contain any explicit set of instructions or interpretations to go along with them (at least mine don't anyway but, then again, I may be a defective unit). This is especially troubling when we realize that emotional responses can be triggered through manipulation.

If someone tells me that someone close to me has died (and I trust them to the point that I don't think to question their information) then that could easily elicit a strong emotional response in me. In that case, my outpouring of feelings expressed at such news would have been generated by false information. If God is the source of all our feelings, why does He rely on such an unreliable medium to convey what could be seen as, arguably, the most important information we need (i.e. knowledge of the plan for being able to determine our ETERNAL station related to God)? To quote Boyd K. Packer, "Why would God do such a thing?" It really makes no sense.

So, until someone can explain why God would choose to place so much emphasis on such an unreliable mechanism for determining truth, I will maintain my position that faith is only useful if it brings us to knowledge (that is real, provable and able to be duplicated under any differing circumstances through objective experiment) otherwise, faith in things that can be repeatedly dis proven is not a useful mechanism to lead us to knowledge and deserves to be discarded in favor of something better (a better faith).

By the way, faith is actually a pretty useful tool in science, although it doesn't receive nearly as much airtime in science as it does in religious circles. Something that has really helped me understand the place of faith in the world of science is that faith is what motivates the performing of experiments to validate a belief in how the world works. If someone comes up with an idea about how they think things ought to work they try to develop a hypothesis (i.e. a statement about what they believe so that it could become a law to guide future scientists). Once a hypothesis is arrived at, a scientist - having faith in their hypothesis - attempts to come up with experiments to prove or disprove their hypothesis. Faith certainly drives the scientist to keep going when the going is difficult, but the ultimate courage (and test of faith) comes when the experiment reveals the truth or falsehood of the hypothesis. In that moment, faith is either strengthened or diminished in that belief (hypothesis). Of course, it is kind of odd to think that if faith is strengthened, that means it is actually going away because it is leading to knowledge. This is the way it should be. Faith either leads us to knowledge (where knowledge displaces our faith in something) or it leads to a revision of our hypothesis and faith in something different.  Faith is a tool that is useful as a stepping stone to knowledge, but that's it. It's not really good for much more than that.

To maintain faith in something that can't be proven through experiment seems pretty silly. In fact, I wonder what God would say to people who advocated maintaining their faith in Him in spite of lots of observable evidence to the contrary? Will He reward those who do not test and try to disprove their faith? Or how will He look on those who tried to find the best possible explanations for the world as we know it and tried to eliminate those ideas that turned out to be contradictory, unreliable, or non-universal in nature? I would like to think that God will look kindly on those that challenged their faith and relied on logic and reason to determine ultimate truth. I don't think God wants blind followers, I think God wants people who can think and reason and make tough decisions (even if that means they see that abandoning faith fits with experiment and observations in piecing together the big picture of who and what we are as people). People who have to come up with other things to base morality on besides tradition and ancient mythology. I hope God sees those people as deserving of great rewards in the afterlife believers cling to. Otherwise, I'm screwed, but I'm OK with that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Catch-22 of Belief

This is the story of Joe and Fred. Joe believes in God and believes that God endorses the religion he belongs to. Joe believes that there will be a day that will come, after we all die, where God will judge Joe for his actions. Joe knows that God will also be judging everybody else that has ever lived as well. Joe hopes that God will be kind and forgiving to all those that did not believe in God while they lived on the earth, but Joe has also been told in the texts, regarded as sacred and originating from God by his religion, that God is a jealous God and is very capable of punishing those who do not believe in God.

Joe meets Fred.

Fred doesn't believe in God at all. Fred believes in evolution, the big bang and in the discoveries that science continues to make about our existence. Fred is very open to new ideas, but comfortable with his beliefs. Fred also knows quite a bit about the religious teachings of the church that Joe belongs to.

As Joe and Fred come to know each other they both have thoughts about the other. Joe thinks Fred doesn't do some of the things that he ought to. Joe thinks Fred should go to church or read the books that Joe thinks are sacred, from God, and will help us all to fare better when it comes time for God to judge us. Joe attempts to tell Fred this when the occasion permits but, for the most part, Joe decides to honor Fred's wishes that he not push his religion on him.

However, Joe is concerned.

Joe worries that if Fred doesn't change his "sinning" ways at some point then he will have to pay a heavy price when the judgment day comes. Joe cannot honestly accept Fred the way he is. Joe clings to the belief that Fred will see the error of his ways at some point in the future. In fact, Joe is promised this will be the case by the leaders of his church so Joe should not worry so much about Fred - although, Joe is told, he should still be concerned enough to never give up on Fred. Joe waits patiently for the day when Fred will finally come to his senses, see the error of his ways, and be open to what Joe has been trying tell him. Joe is sure that someday the spirit of God will be poured out on Fred and he will be touched in a way where he will not be able to ever deny the existence of God again.

Joe wants to be friends with Fred, but he also wonders if Fred may be a bad influence on him. He wonders if hanging out with Fred might cause him to someday lose his belief in God. Joe is told by people at church that he should limit his association with "sinners" because they will most assuredly drag him "down to hell" with them.

Joe likes Fred. They have much in common and really enjoy doing things together. Joe is torn about what to do about being friends with Fred. Joe can't really tell Fred what he is going through, worrying about his future with God and all, although he tries to on occasion. Fred just listens to what Joe has to say and chalks it up to his opinion. While Fred accepts Joe and doesn't allow his ideas about believing in God stand in the way of their friendship, he also knows what Joe's beliefs are and senses the struggles that Joe seems to be going through. Fred tries to tell Joe not to worry and everything will be sorted through in the afterlife. Joe hears this and thinks, that's right, in the afterlife you will come to your senses and will believe as I do and we will be even happier together living with God.

Joe, however, can't get past these thoughts of concern for his friend. Joe knows that his beliefs are true. Joe wonders why Fred can't see it and what exactly the devil has done to cloud his mind so he can't see the truth that Joe knows. Fred tries to share some information with Joe about the history of his religion and tries to show why the scriptures don't make sense in places. Joe refuses to listen. Joe has been taught to never question the foundational principles of his beliefs and never does. Fred can't seem to get through to Joe and Joe can't seem to get through to Fred.

Fred doesn't think anything is wrong with Joe. If Joe is truly happy in his beliefs, then Fred is happy. Fred isn't mentally always looking for ways to try and change Joe to his way of thinking, Fred is honestly trying to find what makes the most sense. Fred doesn't fret about the afterlife or the judgment of some God he has never met. Fred can accept Joe without reservation, even though he may think he is wrong about things. Of course, Fred thinks Joe's ideas of some things are a bit weird and illogical, but Fred realizes that he has some pretty strange ideas himself sometimes as well.

So here's the catch-22. Joe cannot ever truly and fully accept Fred the way he is unless he "converts" to his way of believing. Fred can truly and fully accept Joe for who he is and what he believes because his beliefs are open to the possibilities, but grounded in the world we can repeatedly observe around us. The only way that Joe can truly and fully accept Fred for who he is, without Fred converting, is for Joe to deny his belief that his religion represents the truth of what or who God is. Joe cannot have it both ways. It is either that he always sees Fred as deficient in some way (or as a "sinner") and maintains his belief in God or he fully accepts Fred and accepts that his own religious teachings are false. This is why I think religion is very polarizing and causes divisions. The religious mind cannot fully accept people unless they convert to their beliefs and in some way attempt to follow what they, the religious, believe.

What makes this situation all the more difficult is when a person like Joe becomes like Fred and has to try and communicate this to his loved one's who still believe as Joe once did. Marriages are lost over this, relationships between parents and siblings become strained because the believers fear for the eternal well being of their spouse or loved one. They are afraid because of their belief in God. Their belief in God, while permeating so much of who they are and how they think, is just too difficult to abandon.

I am one who was once like Joe. I am now like Fred. I have taken the plunge into the real world and found it to not be as bad as I once thought it was. Now I find the most difficult thing to deal with is the fear that others have for my eternal well being. I fear as well. I fear what my wife and children honestly think of me as they continue to follow their beliefs in God and the afterlife. Do they pity me? How do they deal with the knowledge that I don't believe as they do? I honestly think the only way they can begin to accept me, is to hope that I will see things the way they do someday. I fear that they will think less of me as they pursue the teachings of their church and come to learn (or be reminded) that I am not fully as happy as I could be unless I believe as they do.

This is a lie.

People find their own happiness and can have as much happiness as they want and it doesn't require a God or a religion to have all they desire right here, right now. I can accept this. Religious people who believe they have the truth about God and the afterlife cannot accept this unless you convert to their way of thinking about these things. Their happiness for you is always conditional on your belief. Mine is not conditional. Mine is based on whatever it is that brings you happiness. If it brings you happiness, I am happy, whatever that may be (as long as it doesn't harm me in some way). My happiness does not require you to believe as I do. My happiness is sincerely based on what I find that brings me happiness and allows you to have your chosen happiness and what you find for yourself, truly, regardless of what that is. I am not happy only if you believe, I am happy. Period. If you are happy, great. I am happy for you. No strings attached. My happiness does not require that you change, or find the "true" path, or accept Jesus or anything else.

What is required for you to be truly happy and truly and honestly and fully be able to accept people in life, as they are, without hoping they will come around some day?

I think there are some whose beliefs will prohibit them from being able to honestly answer this question the way I would hope. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. If the believers are right and God is as they suggest, I hope your God shows me some mercy. However, if I'm right and this life is it, I will have been able to accept you as a human being with all your flaws and truly been able to see them as evidence of your uniqueness. Your mistakes or preferences would not serve as proof that we will not ever be able to be together again to enjoy eternal life with God. No. You are your own guide to happiness. It is truly possible for people to be happy without God in their life. I accept this to be true. What do you think?