Wednesday, February 13, 2008
All That is the Case
The other night I was watching some TV after my wife and kids had gone to bed, unwinding after a long day of work and classes. There was a show about Mormonism on PBS, so I decided to watch that. My interest in Mormonism has been growing over the years, not as a religion I would like to adhere to, but as another strange terrain to explore.
I began with Mormonism much in the way I imagine many people do. I’d heard some odd things, been met at my doorstep by a duo of eager, well groomed young men in suits, offering me a way to strengthen my family and bring peace to my life. In the beginning the story was ridiculous. I was barely buying into the religion I was a member of, there was no way I was going Mormon. But I noticed a funny thing as I watched the show. I laughed to myself when someone mentioned green Jello,which is an inside baseball Mormon reference. I felt disturbed by some of the early persecution of the church, in Missouri and Illinois. I was slightly moved by talk of Joseph Smith’s decision to go back to Carthage and face his accusers, even though he certainly knew the outcome wasn’t going to be good.
Of course I still thought it was all dotty. I didn’t for a second believe that there was any credence to any of Smith’s claims. I felt no need to provide cover for some of the silly, and occasionally terrible things that the early LDS church was responsible for. But it was more familiar. The weirdness that had first permeated my view of Mormonism was largely gone. For the first time I realized, this is something I could believe, were I inclined to believe in something that reason couldn’t lay a path towards. I found this realization sobering. Were I a child, and were my parents--whom I would not be at the age to question on anything too existential--to introduce me to Elder so-and-so and Elder so-and-so, and tell me that they had just learned from these two boys this great secret about life and everything…I would’ve been on board right away. No questions asked. Also, I could imagine myself as a grown man, not necessarily connected to any kind of church, feeling down-and-out, and maybe personally a little lonely. I could see myself taking the bait there too. We are social animals, susceptible to confirmation bias, along with a host of other formerly-adaptive cognitive shortcuts. Richard Dawkins is fond of noting in interviews that, while preferring something to be the case does not affect the reality of what is the case, people are pretty resourceful when it comes to believing in things that would be nice if they were the case. But of course, the world is all that is the case, insofar as our tiny little minds are concerned. We have to learn to be content with what little we do know, and to find awe and humility in what we do not.
I found myself feeling a little jealous at the way some of the Latter Day Saints talked about their religion,and what it seemed to mean to them. To believe in something so big and comfortable, to believe that there was a simple prescription to follow (tithe here, pray here, avoid this). It’s very appealing in a way. But that’s not going to be for me. Eve ate the apple off the tree of knowledge, and so have I. The more knowledge a person gains, the harder it becomes to hold onto such a faith as you find proscribed in the Mormon religion, or in most religion for that matter. When reason is the sea you swim in, the channel that takes you to faith is bound to be an elusive one.
Someone during the course of the show said something like, ‘If you’re going to be a rock-ribbed empiricist, you should stay away from all religions all together.’ That sounded true. Another person a little later on said something to the effect that, although she couldn’t embrace Mormonism, she still practiced faith, although it was a faith based on uncertainties. I identify with that.