Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Answers To Prayer

The sun was dipping low in the west as I left work last night, so as I prepared to mount my sport bike I put on my helmet and swapped my glasses for prescription sunglasses and tucked the hard case into the pocket of my jacket. Initially it didn't go all the way in because I also had the garage door opener in there, but I fiddled with it and every thing fell into place. I turned on an audio book and settled in for the 23 mile commute home. The ride was pretty uneventful except for one little pucker moment as I pulled onto a highway where I got onto the throttle and the rear tire spun up and gave me a little kick as the bike fishtailed and then snapped back into line. I didn't think I had gotten on the gas that hard and I suddenly started worrying I had oil or radiator fluid leaking on the rear tire so I pulled off on the shoulder as quickly as I could. A quick check showed that everything was fine and the rest of the ride home was uneventful. I pulled up, parked, took my sunglasses off, doffed my helmet, and reached for my glasses to find a jacket pocket with only a garage door opener.

All good Mormons know how the story goes from here. You bow your head and say a quiet prayer. You humbly ask Heavenly Father to protect your glasses from harm and to open your mind and sharpen your eyes so that you can find them. God's will be done of course. Then, faith strengthened, you head out in search of your lost item.

Which is what I did. Minus all of the superstitious mumbo jumbo. What I did do was try to do what I believe prayer normally accomplishes. I calmed down. Took deep breaths. Walked through what happened. Tried to reason out the most likely places where it would have fallen out. When I first pulled out of the parking garage. At stop lights and turns. When I stopped at the side of the road. When I stopped to fill up with gas. Anywhere between work and home. Then I pulled out and started looking. And tried to stay positive and sharp.

As I searched I wondered a little why I was bothering. The likelihood of finding my glasses was incredibly small. And if I found them it was very likely that they would be mashed garbage in the road. This was reinforced by the heavy oncoming traffic that was making it difficult to see the road I was trying to scan. I also noticed how easy it would be for the case to have tumbled off the road and into the grass alongside the road where there was no chance for me to see it. The only chance for me to find them was if they fell onto the road or shoulder and somehow avoided getting run over.

I made it all the way back to work and then started working my way back. I got to the point where I got kicked out of the saddle and pulled off. I didn't see anything and started to ride by but then had a flash of recognition! Pulled over and walked back. Sure enough. Right on the edge of the grass was my case! I opened it up and with a sinking feeling saw that it was empty. Okay. With the sun beginning to set I turned up the road, spread my arms out in a search cone and looked carefully as I started to walk and nearly stepped on them as they sat, neatly as you could wish for, as if someone had laid them neatly down on the side of the road without a single scratch or bit of damage about 10 feet away from the case.

So, how improbable is this? If a believer had prayed first and had this happen to them, would this have been a faith-promoting answer to prayer? Almost certainly. An eye glasses sized needle in a 23 mile, traffic clogged haystack. In order for my glasses to have been safe and to have been found they had to fall onto the side of the road, not into traffic. Or into traffic, but not in the wheel track. But if not into traffic, not off of the road where they couldn't be seen. The odds just seem pretty small that they would be found and even if they were found that they would be found completely unharmed.

But I was utterly faithless in any kind of divine intervention. I trusted only in myself. And I was completely reconciled to the very probable outcome that I was going to be scheduling an appointment with the optometrist to get a new prescription (which I need to do anyway) and then order up some new frames. Frankly, I was wondering how I might change the obvious hit to my wallet into a positive by changing up my look with some cool new glasses. But instead I found my old ones.

I really appreciate this "miracle" a great deal despite my complete atheism. I felt great relief and happiness when I found my glasses. I felt, dare I say it, pride in being tenacious enough to not give up and go back and find them. But what is a little easier for me is that I don't have to try to fit all of this into some kind of great metaphysical equation where I try to figure out God's will and why he grants some prayers and not others. This was just one of life's random occurrences. This one happened to go my way. Many others in life haven't.

In my believing days I had my spiritual experiences and answers to prayers. I now explain them in the same way that explain the incident above. All of those experiences were real, but in every case I've been able to given naturalistic explanations for them that require no God or supernatural cause. It was all very simple in hindsight to realize how circular my reasoning was to support my testimony and belief in the church and God. In the end I realized that I believed because I wanted to believe but that there wasn't any evidence at all for any of it.

Once you reach this state of mind it becomes impossible to go back to the Mormon mindset of getting on bended knee and fasting and praying about questions or problems. Exactly what is that supposed to accomplish that thinking and talking and reasoning can't? See the above rational process I used for finding a lost object.

So, there was my atheist miracle which recalled miracles from my Mormon days. Just in case you are worried that you will no longer be blessed once you wander into apostasy.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Proportional Penalties

It has taken me a while to digest the news that BYU basketball player Brandon Davies was indefinitely suspended for having sex with his girlfriend. While I'm a fan of BYU sports, I wasn't any more worked up over the impact to their season than I would have been over a season ending injury. Those sorts of things happen to sports teams all of the time and players and coaches are responsible for dealing with them.. What really upsets me is how the church has ruthlessly sacrificed the reputation and career of one man and his teammates in order to score a PR coup for the church.

BYU has every right to set its honor code. Every person applying to BYU signs the honor code and knows what is expected. And the university knows that every student is fallible and that there are bound to be violations. In fact they have a whole department in the administration whose purpose is to enforce the honor code. They get to do important things like monitor students standing in line to get student IDs to make sure that they meet the school's grooming standards. Hair too long? Go get a hair cut. Forgot to shave? Go shave. They get to kick people out of the testing center during finals week for wearing shorts, not shaving, having too long hair, etc. Back in the day the dress code required females to wear dresses on campus. During finals in December a girl wasn't allowed to take a final in the testing center because she was wearing pants. So she went into the bathroom and took off her pants and put them in her backpack. She went back to the counter in nothing but her long coat and properly exposed legs and was allowed to take her test. Her letter to the campus paper raised quite an uproar.

What about premarital sex? Believe it or not, it even happens at BYU. I wouldn't know, but I'm guessing more than a little bit but probably not a lot. People just get married instead. But it happens. People get hot and heavy, things go to far. The next Sunday visits get made to the bishop, teary confessions are made, calls are made to the other partner's bishop, disciplinary councils are sometimes held, etc. I suspect that sometimes the students get expelled. But I know for a fact that if they are repentant they often don't. They stay in school, go through their repentance process, and life goes on. People have their suspicions because they see them not taking the sacrament, but the process is private. It's not public. I don't know that the university is even ever notified. One thing I can say for certain:

THERE AREN'T ANY PRESS RELEASES PEOPLE.

So what is special about the case of Brandon Davies? Why is a start basketball player being singled out? Is it because the basketball is ranked 3rd in the country? Is it because they are picked for a #1 regional seed? So why do we have headlines? Maybe because the church just can't pass up quotes like this:
“in an era in which big-time college athletics has run amok, BYU has maintained its core values and refused to sell out.”
The media has got this all wrong. The church completely sold out. It has treated Brandon Davies completely differently than it would have treated any other student guilty of the same honor code violation. It has used and manipulated his "honor code violation" for its own benefit without any regard for the personal repercussions for Brandon, his girlfriend, their families, his teammates, or for that matter the rest of the university. I don't know if Brandon is Mormon or not. If he is his proper punishment might have been excommunication, not being able to take the sacrament, etc. If he's some other religion I'm sure the church would have worked with his ecclesiastical leader for appropriate religious discipline. But the church doesn't typically have authority to suspend you from an athletic team. The church did that to make PR hay.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Transgendered

Okay, I've written in the past about Caster Semenya and how an apparently black and white issue, your sex (male/female), can be anything but clear. In this case there are clearly understood genetic and biologic factors that can make it extremely difficult to determine the sex of an individual and can even lead to the conclusion that a genetically male person is a female.

Now I see a Dr. Oz show that featured a teenager who was born female but has always felt that she was a male. She had a mastectomy and started taking hormone blockers when she started to menstruate. She looks, sounds, and dresses like a boy and psychologically seems to believe quite strongly that she is a he.

They also had a little boy, maybe 4 years old, that has always believed that he is a girl. He is now a bubbling, happy, cute little girl that just happens to have a penis and dress and act like a girl. Her mother talked about all of the psychological problems this child had as he was forced to dress and act like a boy and how all of those problems have resolved now that they allow him to be a girl.

This mismatch between a person's genetic sex and the sex that they believe they are is called being transgendered. I have to admit knowing absolutely nothing about this so I'll be looking into it. But it makes me wonder about the separate issue of gender identity. Is there something biological going on inside the brain or that happened during prenatal development that caused this? Or is this a behavioral things, a mental illness that could be cured through therapy? With something this basic, I'm inclined to think that there is something biological going on.

Of course, if I was still religious this would be pretty easy to dismiss. Mormons in particular insist that gender and sex are one and the same and are an inherent spiritual attribute. Of course, since we can't investigate the spiritual plane, I guess we just have to take their word for that, as trustworthy as that is.

Indoctrination

"Going to church, just like going to synagogue, is indoctrination."

I really couldn't have said it any better. This is from the jewish mother who is suing her divorced husband over taking their daughter to catholic mass.

So what's the harm?

"There will be confusion. There will be an abrogation of her identity."

So the custodial parent, whose greatest fear is that her child will grow up not understanding who she is, has the arbitrary right to force a jewish identity on her child while denying the other parent the right to arbitrarily instill a catholic identity.

Given the mother's bald statement that this is a matter of choosing indoctrinations is it just for the courts to decide which form of indoctrination is correct? Given the mother's admission, I'd claim that the child's best interest would be to disallow indoctrination which is so difficult to undo after a lifetime of programming.

However the constitution allows the free exercise of religion so I'd prefer that the child is raised understanding both parent's religions until she is old enough to choose for herself. In the end the cognitive dissonance will probably serve her well.



-- Sent from my Palm Pre

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Morality

Jonathan Haidt, author of "The Happiness Hypothesis", has a very enlightening essay over on www.edge.org called "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion". One of the first things my wife asked me when I told her I no longer believed in the church was what I'd base my morality on. The question caused me to pause because I'd never really considered it before. What was the basis of my morality? How do I know what is right and wrong? I had a very strong intuition that the church had very little influence on my core morality. In fact, most of the church specific moral values that set it apart were pretty tenuous in value. For example, without the church would you spend any mental bandwidth worrying about the morality of Coke versus non-caffeinated soft drinks? Or would you worry about whether drinking a hot beverage might damn your eternal soul?

The interesting aspect of his essay for me is contrasting the lense that academia looks at morality through with the way that religious people view morality. It is alway refreshing when liberal academics are able to recognize the bias that they bring to a subject and examine it.

A key point he makes is that you really can't trust the reasons that people give for why they think something is moral or immoral. As Haidt says, "People couldn't stop themselves from making up post-hoc explanations for whatever it was they had just done for unconscious reasons." In other words, we subconsciously make a moral judgment and then our conscious brain tries to fit a rational explanation to why we feel the way we do. We may come up with quite convincing reasons and really believe them without realizing that we reached that judgment for quite non-rational reasons. In other words, our morality initially comes from our gut feelings.

Academia has focused on fairness/justice and harm/care as the basis of morality. However these two foundations fail to explain the real world.
Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods?"
He proposed three additional foundations of morality:

  • ingroup/loyalty
  • authority/respect
  • purity/sanctity
He calls these binding foundations because they bind groups of people together into hierarchical, interdependent social groups that regulate the daily activities of their members. By contrast he calls the first two foundations the individualizing foundations because they protect individuals from each other. People who self-identify as liberals base their morality primarily on the first two individualizing foundations whereas conservatives have morals based on all five foundations. Conservatives care about much more than just individual rights, they also care deeply about loyalty to their group, respect for authority, and purity.

I guess this would only be surprising to a liberal academic, but it does explain why academics and liberals are so tone deaf to the importance of certain beliefs to conservatives. One easy example is sexuality. Liberals want people to stay out of the bedroom. After all, what goes on between consenting adults is no one else's business because it doesn't hurt anyone (harm/care) and they wouldn't like other people intruding into their own personal lives (fairness/justice). The religious right, however, care deeply about other people's sexual practices because those practices are filthy or unnatural (sanctity/purity), violate God's law (authority/respect), and violate societal norms or decency (ingroup/loyalty). 

A classic example comes from the movie "Milk" where Anita Bryant goes on a religious crusade to overturn laws that were passed to protect the civil rights of homosexuals. A more recent example of the same thing was the recent proposition 8 in California which pitted social conservatives against liberal over gay marriage. I find this example example particularly because it pits the individualizing moral foundations against the binding ones. The fact that time and time again the binding foundations seem to win over the individualizing ones is, I think, a clear statement of the relative importance to the human species of group cohesion over individuality. Nothing seems to bring us together more strongly than threats to our group identity.

So the crux of all of this is that morality seems to derive more from evolved gut feelings than from any kind of philosophical musing or rational process. Rationality mainly gets involved to justify those feelings and in some rare cases to override our baser instincts.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Magical Thinking

Aaron commented on last week's post on Personalities of the Deeply Religious and suggested that perhaps the common thread among the deeply religious is magical thinking. He hadn't experienced the violence that I have seen and that was integral to the upbringing of the Lafferty brothers and that seemed to be part and parcel of religious culture of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and 19th century Mormonism. But with or without the violence and spirit of coercion, devoted religiosity does seem to rely on a willing suspension of disbelief and a desire to believe in supernatural powers that can only be invoked through obedience to the practices of the religion. So, I can't help but agree with him, but I think it is a short stroll from magical thinking to violence, especially for people who are naturally inclined in that direction.

Reading more about the Lafferty brothers today I was struck by what a short path it was for Ron Lafferty to go from a devoted, model Mormon, first counselor in the bishopric and pillar of the community to an abusive, fundamentalist Mormon receiving revelations from God that ultimately led him to murder a young mother and her infant child in cold blood for the sin or opposing him and his brothers and their divinely appointed mission to restore the Mormon church to its true practices and doctrines including polygamy.

In the early 80s he was publicly a role model for the members of his ward, but privately he was consumed by the huge recession and on the verge of going bankrupt. At this critical time he met with his brothers who had already independently discovered and retreated into religious and political extremism to try to correct their ways. Instead he found himself convinced and soon started to require his wife to be subservient to him and started to talk of marrying off his teenage daughters in polygamous marriages to other men. When his wife and children left him and he lost his home he fell under the sway of another fundamentalist prophet who taught him to receive revelations. Unsurprisingly he received a revelation reminiscent of D&C 132 that called his wife to repentance and commanded her to return to him or be destroyed. Then he received a revelation commanding him to kill the people who had supported his wife and helped her leave him. The rest is history.

I'm still left wondering whether extreme religious belief is a fertile ground in which coercive and violent behavior can easily find roots. When you are convinced that God has revealed the truth to you and that ultimately truth will prevail in apocalyptic fashion and consume everyone who doesn't believe, it isn't a huge stretch to believe that you are the instrument for fulfilling God's will to cleanse the earth and help the truth roll forward.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Birthers

My dad did it again. He lured me into his bizzaro world of politics. This time it was his conviction that President Obama isn't a natural born citizen. I'd already looked into this one because, unlike him, if this were true or had some basis in fact I'd actually like to know it. The link in the title is to a Salon article that addresses the claims of the birthers. The refutation is pretty simple since none of their claims have any evidence to support them.

So, why do my father and uncle and a pretty significant percentage of the U.S. population belief such stuff? The only conclusion I can come to is that they want to believe it. From there it is pretty easy to convince them using false premises, circular logic, strawman arguments, and other logical fallacies and outright fabrications.

Trying to use reason with these people is much like trying to rationally discuss religion with the converted. They have already reached their conclusions and even when confronted with contradicting facts they filter them and twist them through the lense of their world view and are able to dismiss them.

Take for example their assertion that Obama doesn't have a birth certificate. This falls under the category of a straw man argument. While it is true, it doesn't matter because he has a certificate of live birth. Twist it and turn it however you want the existence of a birth certificate doesn't matter because in the state of Hawaii a certificate of live birth is all that is required to prove birth in Hawaii. You can also claim that his was a forgery or was originally falsified in some way, but without proof you're still out of luck because the officials in Hawaii have repeatedly stated that he has a valid certificate. You'd think that would be the end of it, but it is completely unpersuasive to people like my father.

He brought up the "fact" that Obama had traveled to Pakistan on an Indonesian passport when he was 20. The implication here (which proves to be false) is that if he had an Indonesian passport then he must have previously renounced his U.S. citizenship. I've heard this claim so much that I figured that there must be some basis in fact but I should have known better. This little tidbit is an inference based on a false premise. The false premise is that U.S. citizens weren't allowed to travel to Pakistan at that time. Therefore, he must have traveled there using a passport from another nation such as the U.K. or Indonesia. This becomes "proof" and a "fact" to the birthers despite the fact that U.S. citizens were freely traveling to Pakistan at the time and the actual fact that there was no such travel restriction.

Part of the problem here is that people trust the sources of such things and figure that if they say it then they've checked the fact. They trust the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world to tell them the truth.

How many times do you have to show that wack jobs like the birthers are idiots that are so desperate to prove an extremely unlikely point before you just dismiss having further discussions with them? Unfortunately, I still have to interact with my father and I'm intellectually honest so I continue to research some of his more precious beliefs on the off chance that he may have come across something. I just wish he was capable of doing the same.

One point I'd like to make is that it's not just religion and Mormonism that inspires irrational belief in the extraordinary. Politics is also fertile ground for self deception. Despite the temptation to demonize the religious it is important to realize that the enemy is irrationality, fanaticism, and close mindedness no matter where it is found.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Personalities of the Deeply Religious

On the recommendation of a friend I have started reading "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. So far I'm finding a lot of parallels with "Blood of the Prophets" and the culture and circumstances surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

I'm reading about Watson Lafferty and the following things struck me because of the parallels with my own father and some other Mormons I've known.

He was extremely conservative and was impressed with the ideas of Ezra Taft Benson including the John Birch Society and the pervasive infiltration of communists.

He was very pious, individualistic, and strict. He beat his wife and children and once beat the family dog to death with a baseball bat while the children watched.

He was very distrustful of conventional medicine. He was a chiropractor and once tried to treat a daughter's appendicitis at home with prayers and homeopathy and refused to take her to the hospital until her appendix burst and she was on the verge of death.

Despite the periodic violence his son remember him as a loving father and great role model who raised a very special and happy family.

In comparison my father belongs to the Birchers and subscribes to their beliefs in worldwide communist conspiracies. Those that disagree are pinko commies or fools that are under their sway. He's a birther who thinks Obama is an illegitimate president because he isn't a natural born citizen.

He was very strict and didn't have qualms about using the belt and was known to enforce his will with violence.

He is also very distrustful of mainstream medicine. He believes that laetrile is the cure for cancer but that the establishment has refused to research it because it is free and so they can't make money off of it. He regularly ignores medical advice and is prone to trying crackpot cures.

I wonder if these types of rigidly unconventional individuals are at the core of most religions. I know not all or even most religious people are this way. But I'm thinking of those that are the core; those that are most active, most pious, and who inevitably rise to positions of leadership.

-- Sent from my Palm Pre