It’s a familiar story: I read a book (or part of a book anyhow) about Mormon History and began to doubt my faith in the LDS Church.
Your life lays on the floor, shattered before you. Are there any pieces worth salvaging, or is none of it worth a darn? Is there even a God? Does life have meaning?
You aren’t sure what to do or where to go from here. You want to believe in God still, because there was so much joy in it, but you can’t just will it to happen over what your brain tells you the truth is. And you feel all alone because there is no one within the LDS Church you can really talk to about your doubts in a meaningful way.
What do you do when you come to realize that you faith had been misplaced all these years? You wish you could die.
I didn’t know about the New Order Mormon community during this period of my life, so I thought I was unique and I was very alone.
Through years of prayer, fasting, giving up on prayer and fasting, returning to more prayer and fasting, and finally receiving definitive answers from God, I emerged with a new, and somewhat uncomfortable, world view.
Rational Blind Spots
It started out as noticing “undesirable” patterns in others, only to start to notice them in myself as well. Sadly, whenever I did notice it in myself, it was already “after the fact” and usually years later, well after any passion over the situation had long since defused.
First, I noticed that other people — as well as myself — have blind spots to reason. In fact, the only time we can seem to consistently accept reason is when there was no or minimal passion involved.
Because of these rational blind spots, people don’t easily drop ideas they hold. Our ideas are part of our identity and part of who we are. Giving them up is a kind of death of self.
However, I noticed two strange exception to this rule of thumb. The first exception was when when there is an emotional reason to change one’s mind also present. In that case a change can happen rather quickly with “new reason” replacing the old.
A real life example: My boss at work couldn’t say enough about how great our company was right up to the moment in which she quit; then she couldn’t say enough bad. She thought she was being reasonable in both cases.
Another example: I didn’t question my beliefs in the LDS Church until there was a moral dilemma (I.e. an emotional issue) involved. I doubt anything else could have caused me to pause at all.
The second exception to when we can give up our ideas is when there is overwhelming social acceptance of our peers of a counter idea. This last is perhaps the most powerful. In studies, it has been found that “social truth” can actually override plain facts, such as getting a person to call the obviously shorter of two lines the longer.
“Just Give Me a Good Reason”
A related truth is that every person I have ever met, including myself, thinks they are an exception to the above rule. Commonly I hear people say “well, I (unlike most poeple) can change my mind if you can give me rational reasons.” (Or, more to the point, they might say something like “If anyone could give me a single reasonable argument …”)
We are all good at thinking of examples of where we changed our minds due to accepting reason and thus we identify ourselves as open minded. Yet, I rarely actually see any one do this in front of me. Have you?
Exception to this exception: I seem to perceive people that I have a high rate of agreement with as willing to change their minds and be open minded more often then I do of people I don’t agree with much. (i.e. “I see Fox News fairly cover the issues all the time, because they care about the facts, but CNN doesn’t!”) I have come to recognize this as a bit of desirable self projection.
The Curse of Certainty?
I also noticed that people felt certain about things they couldn’t rationally be certain of. In fact, uncertainty was a rarity except when the subject didn’t matter to the person. I found I could easily be uncertain about Bigfoot’s existence, but not about the rightness or wrongness of my spiritual or political beliefs.
Also, people tend to be very good at explaining that they used to be so certain, and they are sure glad they aren’t like that any more, all while being so certain of whatever their new beliefs are.
For a good example of a post on Mormon Matters guilty of this, click here.
“Other People Just Can’t Critically Think Like I Can!”
I noticed that people, including myself, can easily see the problems inherit in someone else’s beliefs, often quite accurately, but not in their own.
A libertarian friend was fond of saying that “other people” don’t “think critically.” His complaints about conservative and liberal beliefs were often factually true and good examples of out of the box thinking. Yet he couldn’t think critically of his own libertarian beliefs if his life depended on it. This, unfortunately, led him into some rather wacky conspiracy theories that everyone around him could see only a non-critical thinker could believe. It also made it impossible for other people to separate his good thinking from his bad thinking.
The Power of Stories
We’re suckers for a good story. Our rational processes seemed to collapse around them. O.J. Simpson ran from the law because he was guilty. Thus I knew for certain he was guilty. And why else would Saddam Husein refuse to fully cooperate other than because he was hiding weapons of mass destruction? Thus I knew he had weapons of mass destruction.
I observed that what information we receive first has a huge impact on us. Truly first impressions matter the most — and you really do need to go tell your boss your side of the story before your co-worker does.
This last is particularly humbling because it means I’m easily manipulated. To use an example from Church History: if I were told by someone that Joseph Smith only mentioned one personage in his 1832 account of the First Vision because he made up the two personages later, this idea will “stick” in my mind. Even reading the actual account (which actually mentions no personages at all) would not change my mind because I’m already primed to interpret a lack of two personages as meaning one personage.
But suppose that same person told me that Joseph Smith didn’t want to expose the world and the Church to the physical separateness of the Trinity because they weren’t ready for it; so Joseph choose to hide that fact in his 1832 account of the First Vision by generically referring to both personages as “the Lord.” Now I’m primed to read the 1832 account of the First Vision in such a way that it seems completely in agreement with the 1839 account and you’ll never convince me that Joseph only saw one personage.
If later I hear someone say that the 1832 account only mentions one personage, I’m actually now primed to think of that person as lying since I know (or at least think I know) that it doesn’t mention any number of personages at all and it’s really obvious to anyone “who is sincerely reading what it says.”
In Whom Do You Trust?
Humbled by these realizations, I was further humbled to realize that knowing I was a defective thinker didn’t actually stop me from continuing to be a defective thinker.
What do you do when you come to realize that your faith has been misplaced all these years? I wanted to die. For in Whom can I trust and place my faith if I can’t trust my own brain?