Over the past year I’ve heard a large variety of opinions and viewpoints about Joseph Smith. Indeed his name is known for “good and evil” around the (Mormon) world. He’s certainly a controversial figure. Naturally, those who fully subscribe to the doctrines of the church hold him up as the “greatest prophet of all time, second only to Christ himself” (Madsen’s words), while on the polar opposite there are those who call him a liar, paedophile, con man, etc.
There exists a third viewpoint which I think should be considered by those who find themselves disillusioned with Mormonism; what if he was just sincerely mistaken?
The default viewpoint of others’ religiosity
Let’s put Mormonism aside for a minute and talk about the rest of the world. If someone were to approach you and press you with questions about other religions, like:
- You don’t believe in Islam, or the Quran, does that mean you think Mohammed was a liar?
- The Jehovah’s Witnesses are always knocking at your door — with many thousands of them worldwide preaching to people like you. Is it possible that so many people could be wrong? Are they lying about the truth of their beliefs?
- Sun Myung Moon claimed Jesus approached him and commanded him to preach a new Israel throughout the world. Was he lying? How do you explain the following he gained?
The list could go on. Inevitably I believe the end response from you or I is something like this:
“I don’t believe in the claims of this person, but I don’t think they are outright lying. I think they are sincerely mistaken or deceived.”
I think the only reason ex-Mormons are so harsh on Joseph Smith’s character is because they are so close to this. I don’t think anger towards Joseph or calling him a liar is completely unjustified, but I also don’t think it is the most fair response, ultimately.
I think this cartoon aimed at Jehovah’s Witnesses sums our viewpoint of other religions up nicely (and in more straightforward language)
Projecting intention onto other’s beliefs
In her brilliant TED talk “On Being Wrong”, Kathryn Schulz speaks about one of the challenges that faces us when we think we’re right about our beliefs: (starting at 9:50)
[ted id=1126 lang=en]
“Think for a moment about what it means to feel right. It means that you think that your beliefs just perfectly reflect reality. And when you feel that way, you’ve got a problem to solve, which is, how are you going to explain all of those people who disagree with you? It turns out, most of us explain those people the same way, by resorting to a series of unfortunate assumptions.
- The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a
- second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. (Laughter) They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a
- third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.”
I turns out that if people have the same information as us, and the same intelligence, and they draw different conclusions from the data, then we automatically project a malevolent intention onto them. But I don’t think this is fair — life experience is so much more personal, nuanced and intricate than that. We are all subject to a large amount of bias and confirmation bias, there is more to interpreting data than argument, there is a lot of background influence from a person’s life circumstances.
I think for a vast majority of cases, we should grant others their sincerity. Certainly there are outliers; people who are currently in breach of their own integrity, who are deceptive and manipulative, and we should be wise enough and strong enough to face up to those people. But, call it naive, I think that most people are sincere in their beliefs, at least. Perhaps Joseph Smith was too.
Granting sincerity does not mean condoning or agreeing with a viewpoint
Having said that — it should naturally follow that we define something else; granting sincerity does not mean you agree with or condone the viewpoint of the person / people at all. Just because you think Mohammed was sincere, doesn’t mean you think he was right. Just because you think the Jehovah’s Witnesses are sincere, doesn’t mean you think they are right, and so on.
As for Joseph Smith; I think it’s entirely possible that he did see an angel with a drawn sword threatening him with destruction unless he carried out what he thought was a commandment from God concerning initiating polygamy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there really are angels, or that he really saw what was an “angel”, but that he explained what he perceived.
What I think we fail to acknowledge is well articulated by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion):
“The human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don’t present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there, or an accurate movie of what is going on through time… It is well capable of constructing ‘visions’ and ‘visitations’ of the utmost veridical power. To simulate a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary would be child’s play to software of this sophistication.”
This claim is easily supported. In dreams our minds are capable of generating entire worlds from within — landscapes, characters, plotlines, the works. When we take drugs we can hallucinate. And then what if we are indoctrinated strongly into a particular viewpoint: I think the evidence is clearly in support of the notion that we can be deceived by our own senses — lead to feel and see things that are not really there.
All of this lends credibility to the viewpoint of sincerity. I really think people ARE feeling what they are claiming that they are feeling. I really think that in some cases people ARE seeing what they claim they are seeing. And I think it’s possible that folks like Joseph Smith really did experience some of the things he claimed to experience.
Conclusion: The heart of empathy and love
One of the most hurtful things we do to others is to trivialise their feelings and issues, not granting them sincerity or legitimacy.
The feeling of empathy or love towards another person is difficult to trigger if we believe that person is being dishonest or insincere. Assuming sincerity is a good place to start when having a conversation with anyone, particularly if their viewpoint is different. Wouldn’t we all want the same for ourselves? Shouldn’t we be the better people, regardless of “which side” we’re on?
At the end of the day, is there actually anything more important than loving others? Do we not need to love first to be loved?