Tuesday, April 18, 2006

But Did You Pray About It?

When Mormons find out I no longer believe in their religion they inevitably ask, "But did you pray about it?" For Mormons, this is the gold standard for determining truth, especially spiritual truth. Using reason or logic or evidence to arrive at an answer other than that the Mormon church is true is an obvious sign of spiritual blindness and lack of faith.

My answer, of course, is a simple, "No." This is meant with a knowing, smug look of self-satisfaction and self-reassurance. Inside they can feel sorry for me because I've obviously not sought the Spirit's testimony or else I'd still believe. I really don't bother explaining and let them continue in their self-imposed delusion.

A news article had an important impact on me. It was the story of a man that was arrested in the Pacific Northwest of the USA for sexually molesting his two daughters based on memories that his daughters "recovered" during therapy. The story is recounted in Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World." A better name for recovered memories is constructed memories. The mind is all about perception and a therapist can cause a memory to be constructed in a patient even if it never occurred. Despite the lack of reality this "memory" can become as real as if it actually happened so that a person can pass a polygraph test. This man was arrested and while in jail was counseled by his pastor to fast and pray to know whether or not he had done the horrible things of which he was accused. Despite having no recollection of having done these things he knew his daughters were good and wouldn't lie so he fasted and prayed at length between interrogations where he was given the details of his crimes. Eventually he recalled with perfect clarity committing all of the crimes that he was accused of and signed a confession.

And that would have been the end of it if a defense psychologist hadn't done a little experiment. He concocted a series of accusations that were provably false and went through the same procedure that elicited the first confession. The father fasted and prayed and once again "remembered" doing all of the acts of which he was accused. Except that there was hard evidence that he could not have done those acts.

Of course, I recognized that this was the same process that Mormons use to determine truth. If it could convince an innocent man that he had sexually molested his own son and daughters, then how reliable was it. There was obvioiusly psychological manipulation involved here. It created a belief in him so strong that he confessed to crimes that he did not commit and that consigned him to prison. It's not much of a stretch to realize that a similar process could convince someone that Joseph Smith was a prophet.

So, no, I didn't pray about it. Even if I did, I wouldn't have trusted the answer since I had cold, hard evidence that I could get whatever answer I desired depending on the answer that I wanted. I could get a spiritual confirmation that it was false. I could get a spiritual answer that it was true. I could fail to get an answer. None of which has anything to do with whether the Mormon church his actually true or not.

Here's the Mormon test, in a nutshell, as defined at the end of the Book of Mormon. You must pray with humility and pure intent, without doubting its veracity, and if you do then you will receive a witness from the spirit that the book is true. So, if you pray and don't feel the spirit it is because you have doubts. You must pray without doubts or it won't work. You must pray, desiring to get an answer in the affirmative or it won't work. If you don't get a positive answer then it may be because you have unrepented sins or you may lack humility. The only valid outcome that Mormons accept is a positive one. Any negative or non-answer is due to fault on the part of the individual because the Book of Mormon is by definition true.

In my case, my "pride" prevents me from even undertaking the test. Of course, the source of my "pride" is the knowledge that the test is rigged and even if it produces the result Mormon's predict it doesn't have anything to do with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon or the Mormon church.

So, given that the Mormon method of finding truth is flawed then I'm left with the questionable proposition (in Mormon eyes) of examining the history of the church and the character of its founders and weighing the evidence and using my own limited intelligence and reason to reach a conclusion. I don't posit that I know that the Mormon church is a bag of horseshit. But I'm pretty certain of it and can give much better evidence supporting my position than Mormon's can give for theirs. I'm pretty certain that you'd have to be dumber than a bag of hammers (to quote a friend) to believe in the church once you know the whole story.

So, in much the same way that I don't pray to know what 2+2 is, I don't pray to know if a convicted fraud, serial liar, child molester, and adulterer was able to look at a rock in a hat and translate a history for a people for which there is no physical evidence. I don't have to believe in things for which there is no evidence when everything for which we do have evidence shows that he was wrong. Prayer is simply a provably error prone way for making decisions and reaching conclusions, especially in areas where we have evidence and reason to aid us.

Parting shot. Who are really the proud and stiff-necked ones? The ones who don't pray but are willing to examine all evidence and admit error when the evidence goes against them? Or those who cling to their beliefs and refuse to admit the possibility of error and refuse to examine the evidence?


Cynthia E. Bagley said...

Good essay. It looks like you are working through some anger. :-)

Joseph's Left One said...

It's interesting how we are accused of demanding certainty about the church. But like you, I don't demand certainty. A little plausibility might help.

Yeah, you do seem to be a little angry still. Why is that? ;-)

Rebecca said...

Wow -- a very concise explanation. I may have direct people to this link when they start trying to convince me to change my mind. Because, unlike you, I feel COMPELLED to explain so that they don't feel sorry for me or go away thinking I just don't have faith. Which they do anyway, no matter what I tell them. So it's an exercise in futility. You have a lot more self-control than I do.