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


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