“可恨之人必有可怜之处” — Chinese proverb; “Those that could be hated must have parts that could be pitied”
(Note: this article is written primarily for an ex-Mormon audience. I’d recommend believing LDS members not read this, though they probably don’t read anything on my blog anymore 🙂 )
In my ongoing discussions within ex-Mormon circles I’ve encountered a recurrent debate concerning the leaders in the upper echelons of the church. In order to clearly and coherently represent my views I’ve decided to write this article and invite my friends who disagree with me to comment at the bottom with their thoughts, presenting their case and arguments. I too will try my best to faithfully represent their viewpoint in my article (AKA, I will do my best to not create a strawman) .
To the best of my understanding, the debate goes something like this: there are two major camps with regards to the viewpoint of the top leaders and their most honest opinions about the truthfulness of the church:
- Camp 1 “Sincerely Mistaken” (my camp): The top leaders of the church don’t know the church isn’t true. They have not realised it. Most likely they never will. They are sincere believers in its truth. Their “faith” / “conviction” in its truthfulness has compounded over a lifetime of “experience” (confirmation bias, interpretation of incoming events in light of the worldview, rational justifications of contradictions, mental gymnastics, religious experiences with supernatural interpretations, living in the echo chamber of belief, continued reinforcement from their social circles, conditioning from childhood, etc.). Their main motivation to “keep going” is sincere belief in the truth claims. They are “sincerely mistaken”.
- This is a more “kind” viewpoint. The kindness of the viewpoint however has no bearing on its truth.
- Camp 2 “Intentionally Fraudulent” (the other camp): The top leaders of the church know it is not true. They maintain a pretence — a facade they wear day to day as they lead the church. They cover up weaknesses, intentionally lie about or twist certain information to mislead the members and keep them subservient to the church. I think the argument is “how could you reach so high in the church and NOT realise it’s not true”? Their main motivation to “keep going” is personal investment; they have money (both directly from the church and indirectly through the complex system of investments and companies they control) and they have power (both over church members through leadership positions and indirectly through the various boards they sit on in companies, BYU, etc.).
- This is a more “cynical” viewpoint. The cynicism of the viewpoint however has no bearing on its truth.
I think this is an interesting and important question as it does relate back to the culpability of the top leadership with regards to the ongoing continuation of the church. It’s also a massive question of integrity; Camp 1 supposes some semblance of integrity in the top leadership, Camp 2 pretty much assumes they are total frauds.
Qualification #1: some leaders but not others
It should go without saying that having these two dichotomous camps off the bat might just be an oversimplification of reality. It could be the case that there are the “in the know” leaders (Camp 2 model) and the “not in the know” leaders (Camp 1 model).
I am not making an argument that Camp 2 might not have some representation in the top leadership of the church. Indeed, I have heard rumours that some of the top leaders in private conversations have acknowledged that they are atheists (we’re talking about the likes of ex-mission presidents, etc.) — for some, the cynical angle of Camp 2 might be accurate, for others, they might just be trapped in the system. It’s hard to say.
So to qualify the Camp 1 position that I hold, my argument is that the majority of top leaders fall within Camp 1. It might be possible that some leaders fall within the Camp 2 — I’m just saying that would be the minority.
However, it should be added that in individual cases it stands to reason that a person is either 1 or 2. So if we are talking about Dallin Oaks for instance, he is either fully believing or fully not — because his actions can only be interpreted as one or the other based on the intensity of them.
Qualification #2: “argument from beauty aside”
As mentioned earlier, Camp 1 is a kinder view and Camp 2 is a more cynical view. But “kind” and “cynical” have no bearing on whether these viewpoints are true. The real question is simple; do the leaders realise the church is not true? Let’s try to analyse the evidence and argue around that question in particular, throwing aside how kind or cynical the perspective is.
Brief thoughts about Camp 2
I don’t hold the viewpoint of Camp 2 so I’m not going to defend it here. I think the evidence overwhelmingly points to Camp 1. But I invite anyone who holds that view to defend it and counter my points for Camp 1 below.
I think however someone who holds the viewpoint of Camp 2 would need to make several particular statements and arguments around the distinction between “rank and file” and “leadership”, because certainly “rank and file” sincerely believe right? How does someone go from “rank and file” believer to “in the know” deceiver? I think that process would need a good amount of mapping out with evidence, because it represents a major change in position.
Premise Point 1: The Genesis of Camp 1: how we tend to think of other religions
Let’s put ourselves back into the shoes of a believing LDS church member for a second.
When we discussed other religions (Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Catholics, etc.) what is our default view of them?
Usually “Sincerely Mistaken”. They really believe in (insert worldview here), but they’re wrong. (LDS scripture calls this “kept from the truth because they know not where to find it”)
When I transitioned out of LDS belief, something really simple happened. I took the large pile of “Sincerely Mistaken” religions (every single religion outside of Mormonsim) and I added “just one more” (Mormonism itself).
We simply think of Mormonism the same way we think of all of the other religions.
This leads on to point 2:
Premise Point 2: The Importance of the Scalability of the model
Though Mormonism is the particular religion at hand here, really whatever model we come up with (Camp 1, Camp 2, Camp X) needs to be scalable. It’s a model of reality, it’s attempting to explain what we observe.
By implication, when we speak of the top leaders of the LDS church, we are speaking of the other religions as well. They all have dirt on them. They are all untrue. They all have PR departments. We need to seek out an explanation that applies broadly over the whole set as, frankly, Mormonism is nothing special as a religion, and the only reason we are particularly interested in it is because we were (for the most part) born into it and have a high amount of personal engagement with it.
So when I make arguments below, I am going to include examples from other religions, as well as examples from Mormonism, to demonstrate how they are very similar.
OK, so let’s get into the meat of the argument.
Argument 1: The Law of Parsimony and Ad Nauseam Affirmations
Leaders in the top echelons of the church have many public speaking opportunities. In their lifetimes they share hundreds if not thousands of addresses to LDS audiences. At (as far as I know) all of them, they will affirm and reaffirm, ad nauseam, their belief in the LDS church, Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the Priesthood, the Temple ordinances, and so on.
One example will suffice. This is picked at random from the last general conference:
“I leave you my faith, my conviction, and my certain and unshakable witness that this is the work of God. In the sacred name of our beloved Savior, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” Uchtdorf
Another example from a totally different religion.
In an ISIS magazine, the Dabiq issue 15, article “why we hate you and why we fight you”, reason 1:
“We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah – whether you realize it or not – by making partners for Him in worship, you blaspheme against Him, claiming that He has a son, you fabricate lies against His prophets and messengers, and you indulge in all manner of devilish practices. It is for this reason that
we were commanded to openly declare our hatred for you and our enmity towards you.”
Generalising this: most religions and their leaders make a large number of statements and affirmations of belief in their own religious dogma.
The most parsimonious thing to do would be to take them at their word.
Now, it could be that they’re lying all the time, but when your question is “what does person X believe?”, and then person X says, over and over, “I believe ABC”, well, the case for them believing ABC seems to be straightforward, whereas the case that they believe XYZ (which directly contradicts ABC) seems to require much more evidence.
I think we shouldn’t underestimate the power of belief. I think people around the world consistently do this.
Argument 2: Mental Gymnastics and Apologetics: “the essays”
Beyond the simple public statements of argument 1 affirming their beliefs, we also have access to some information about apologetics. I think the nature and style of the apologetics emerging out of the top leadership supports Camp 1’s position.
When one has a strong worldview and contradictory information smashes into it, but does not break it, apologetics is the result. Apologetics is weaving a narrative to keep one’s worldview in tact and sidestep any contradictory information.
An important element of apologetics is momentum — I’ll explain:
People claim the top leaders know about “all of the issues” (like those in the CES letter). I tend to agree, or at least I think they do mostly. However, they have encountered these issues in drips and drabs over very long periods of time. When that happens, when a small amount of contradiction is introduced here and there, the person has time to justify the contradiction (in a word: they have time to “do apologetics”). The cognitive dissonance settles. The mental workaround is set in place and fades out of sight, until it becomes a part of the worldview. (Sidenote: I spoke of realising this in my own mind here, and I speak about the effectiveness of inoculation here)
So to the point: I think the public statements by the leaders supports the idea that they 1) Believe, and 2) Have plenty of apologetics going on in the background.
Example: Jeffery Holland’s interview with BBC with BoA apologetics.
Argument 3: Why perpetuate the fraud? Why not devise and exit plan?
In the documentary Going Clear about Scientology, writer Lawrence Wright says the following about L. Ron Hubbard:
“I think that his whole creation of Scientology really was a form of self-therapy. If he were just a fraud then at some point he would have taken the money and run, but he never did that. He spent much of his day, on the e-meter trying to understand what was going on inside his own mind.”
Yes, I agree and understand that top LDS leaders enjoy a large amount of prestige, even “hero-worship” in the LDS community and there are many benefits to being a leader, but it seems to me if they were just straightforwardly fraudulent then they’d devise some kind of way out with the money.
However, you can’t make off with the power 🙂 so argument 3 is limited, I admit.
Argument 4: Victims & Perpetrators of bad ideas
A missionary goes out and convinces a young investigator that her drinking tea is a sin and forbidden by God. The young investigator experiences guilt and discomfort from this idea, and “repents” of drinking tea. She feels forgiven. However, she has a habit of drinking tea and thus she drinks again and again, and each time feels guilt feeling that she is sinning against a commandment from God.
Later on the investigator finds out the church is not true by learning of condemning information.
She gets angry at the missionaries for the unnecessary guilt and shame she experienced for drinking tea.
Are the missionaries culpable? Is she right in getting angry at them for all of the wasted emotion?
Yes and no.
The missionaries are victims of bad ideas themselves. They are victims and perpetrators.
The Chinese phrase I shared at the beginning of the article captures this paradox well:
“可恨之人必有可怜之处” — Chinese proverb; “Those that could be hated must have parts that could be pitied”.
Perhaps the missionary who taught the girl masturbates (which all young men do) and experiences an immense amount of shame and guilt as a result. He too is a victim of bad ideas. But also a perpetrator, for he is spreading them.
Were we not all both victims and perpetrators of bad ideas?
The ideas are to blame. The people just hold them. This is a war of ideas. They don’t realise they’re not true. The fact that they’re not true, and why they’re not true is a rare insight indeed for those born into the organisation.
Argument 5: Cognitive Dissonance & “Sunk Cost”
Finally I think something that supports the view that they sincerely believe, is that their belief is like a massive bus that has been going in one direction for a very long, long time.
Imagine the trauma associated with following the belief system for your whole life and then realising it’s not true. Many of us don’t have to imagine, we’ve felt it; cognitive dissonance.
When experiencing cognitive dissonance, humans tend to actively move to reduce the dissonance. This ties back to apologetics, the mental workarounds and complex justifications work to reduce dissonance.
Leaders invest all of their time and energy into the church. This results in a lot of “sunk cost”. “The bus has been moving forward for so many years now, it can’t be going in the wrong direction, surely?” — and so they keep going.
“Surely all of this effort can’t be for nothing?” “Surely we are not all wasting all of our time?” “Surely the prophets for the last 150 years weren’t just wasting their time?” etc.
And so the bus keeps moving forward, and problems are just thrown under it. A Journal of Discourses here. A Maxwell Institute there. Just keep throwing those under the bus of belief, because “it’s true isn’t it? Then what else matters?”
A personal note
Finally the question has been posed, and it’s a valid one, would it simply be too hard for me to admit that they are frauds? Would the cost be much higher? To realise that I’m not just the victim of bad ideas but also the victim of intentionally fraudulent people? And is this painful realisation simply clouding my judgement?
This has parallels in abuse. The abused tend to defend the abuser. (I have noted earlier that the church is like an abusive spouse, it is the one party that is “always right”.) This leads to a bias that makes it difficult for the abused to see clearly in relation to its abuser.
Perhaps the question has a point. Surely that would hurt more emotionally — realising that the leaders know but they just keep going. It would definitely reduce any lingering semblance of respect I have for the leaders of the church.
But ultimately I stand by the earlier statement, it is a war of ideas. It is the ideas that are hurtful (the “drinking tea is a sin”), and so I don’t think that it makes much of a difference to me personally. I feel the same way about the leaders of the LDS church as I do about the Seventh Day Adventist church.
Is it possible for us to know for sure?
Is it possible for any of us to know for sure? I project my own integrity and biases into my analysis of the leaders. Perhaps by reading this article you’re reading more into me and less into them. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I am naive.
“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are”.
I choose sincerity
I think the Camp 1 “Sincerely Mistaken” is not only the most honest evaluation of the evidence (that I have analysed), but also the most fair and kind viewpoint. I have written in the past about granting others sincerity. Granting someone sincerity does not mean subscribing to their beliefs — in fact it can be a good platform to challenging their beliefs. But I have to acknowledge that at the end of the day — I have always been sincere in my beliefs (and disbelief), and I think others are too.
Opening the floor for Camp 2
If anyone wants to represent Camp 2, please either comment below, or private message me, and if you want you can even articulate a string of arguments as I have and I will edit the article to include them.