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Red Pill, Blue Pill

Many of you are probably familiar with The Matrix. Neo, the main character of this movie, lives in a virtual world. He believes that it is the real world, but his real body lives in a vat where it is fed nutrients and hallucinations of a world that exists only in a computer and in his mind. Inside this virtual world, Neo is led to a mysterious figure named Morpheus who shows him how to escape the hallucination known as the Matrix:

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind.… Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
[In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.]
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
[A red pill is shown in his other hand.]
Morpheus: You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
[After a long pause, Neo begins to reach for the red pill]
Morpheus: Remember—all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

Essays have been written about this compelling choice between the red pill and the blue pill. Neo must choose between world as he knows it, and learning the truth—essentially between comfort and knowledge of the truth.

The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. (Herbert Agar)

The tension between truth and comfort has come up several times in discussions here. Truths exist which tend to make us unhappy. How much happiness will we sacrifice to know the truth? Speaking hypothetically:

  • You love ice cream, but it’s going to give you early heart disease, do want to know the truth so you can prolong your life, or do you just want to enjoy your ice cream while life lasts?
  • Some of your friends think you’re terribly boring. They only hang out with you because they like your mutual friends. Would you like to know their true feelings?
  • Your spouse is having an affair that you don’t know about, but you have an otherwise happy marriage. Would you prefer to know the truth, or would you choose to be blissfully ignorant?
  • Your child is going to die tomorrow from a sudden illness that the child doesn’t know about and that you can do nothing to prevent. Do you tell the child so they can spend their last hours knowing the truth, or do you want to spare your child the fear of impending death?
  • Your belief in a loving God and your hope for an afterlife comfort you, but you find little objective reason to justify your beliefs. Do you choose to believe just because you want it to be true?

I have a lot of faith in the truth. I believe that it is usually better to know the truth even if the truth will make us unhappy. I trust that the sorrow that comes from knowing the truth will usually not last long, that greater peace and happiness flow from knowing the truth. Further, leading willfully ignorant lives because we fear knowing the truth doesn’t appear to lead to true happiness.

On this blog, the tension between happiness and truth most often comes up in the context of religious beliefs. Some commenters seem to imply believing in a probably false religion which makes us happy is better than knowing the depressing truth. This is a personal choice, but there are reasons to believe that this strategy does not bring optimal happiness.

For one example, medical science has healed more of the sick than religious faith. Our relatively disease free lives are thanks to science, not religion. Medical science has been advanced by those who were willing to set aside religious beliefs when they contradicted evidence. We are all much better off because of those who defied religious injunctions against desecrating the bodies of the dead in order to learn human anatomy, because of the germ theory of disease instead of believing that disease is caused by spirits or demons as the Holy Scriptures teach, and because of the theory of evolution which permeates modern biology but contradicts the creation myth in Genesis. So you could say that we are as healthy as we are in spite of religion.

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. (George Bernard Shaw)

We are all faced with red pill/blue pill choices. It is our right to decide. I have chosen to err consistently on the side of truth unless there is a compelling reason to choose comfort. I hope that helps to explain why I am critical of what I see as false beliefs, why I can’t leave others’ religious beliefs alone. Truth for me is more important than personal discomfort.

So which do you choose: the blue pill… or the red pill?

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Oasis Mailbag: How Do I Tell My Wife That I Don’t Believe Anymore?

The following message (along with the others that I’ve received) makes me really happy that I created the contact form. Can you help Eric out? I think it would help to hear from both sides of this situation. He writes:


I recently stumbled across the link to your blog on the Letters From a Broad site. I immediately paid attention because your philosophical musings and search for meaning post-Mormonism almost exactly mirror my own. You also have a wonderful talent for writing about them, which makes your posts a real joy to read.

Another way in which we are similar is the family heartache our recent ”change of mind“ causes our families. The difference is, I haven’t told my family yet, not even my wife. I realized about two years ago that Mormonism is not true and went through a gradual process of redefining my beliefs, first as a deist, then a hopeful agnostic, and finally (as of this writing!) an agnostic atheist. I was at BYU earning a degree in geology and could not rationalize my religion to make room for the scientific method. Like you, I find inspiration and solace in science and philosophy, and in the innumerable spontaneous moments of joy spent with my children or in nature.

The reason I am writing is because I just read your wife’s post about when you broke the news to her, and the lengthly comments that followed. You see, sooner or later I have to break the news to my own faithful, believing wife. I want this experience to be as painless as possible and am concerned, as you were, of the possibility of divorce or lasting anger. I seriously believe our relationship and her compassion are strong enough to survive, but I need to choose the right time and place.

We are living with our two children in [Outer Darkness] right now and will be here for another 3 1/2 months. Before coming, I told myself I would tell her after we returned home. I didn’t want to make an already difficult ordeal even more difficult, especially since she would be cut off from her support network (mother, sister, and ward family). Lately, however, I have been overwhelmed with a desire to finally come out of the closet and stop hiding the most real part of me of me from the people that matter most. I have so many thoughts I want to share on my blog, but I need them to hear it from me before they stumble across it on my blog. (I briefly—for about 1.5 seconds—considered making another blog for these thoughts and not sharing it with them, but that reeks of the same “double life” crap I am trying to leave behind now.)

I was contemplating telling her a couple of weeks from now (while still in [Outer Darkness]), but when I read your wife’s post I stopped. If her pain and anger will be anything like those your wife experienced, I would rather her be home with her support group—as I will likely not be part of it for a while. The flip side of this is that if the support group is persuasive, it could lead her away from me and even closer to orthodoxy. In [Outer Darkness], at least, there is a chance we could rebuild our relationship from the ground up in love and trust, together.

After all you have been through with Lacey, do either of you have any advice for me at this stage in my journey away from Mormonism? I need to know how to minimize the suffering of my wife (and our possibility of estrangement or divorce), while at the same time allowing for my own freedom and growth.

Feel free to post any or all of this letter on your site, if you like. I am not interested in remaining anonymous. I can’t post these thoughts on my own blog just yet, so I greatly appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.


Eric, I hope you won’t mind that I have redacted your message slightly to preserve your anonymity just a while longer. If you really want to out yourself, you can do so in the comments.

Let me gather my thoughts which I’ll post in the comments later. Actual employment is calling. Have to pay the bills somehow! :)

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Head Full of Fluff

I recently found some rather amusing and unflattering parodies of the Mormon thought process (via Floating in the Milk). I recognize many of those thought patterns in myself and in the discourse of other members of the LDS church. I thought like this once. Here are a few of my favorites, handpicked for their relevance to me, and edited to my personal taste. I tried to make them less parody and more analysis.

Argument from warm fuzzies

  1. The Book of Mormon makes vague promises about good feelings which would show me that the words of the Book of Mormon are true.
  2. I sometimes have good feelings when I read it and pray about the Book of Mormon.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

This is my own contribution to the list. It’s a complete non sequitur. What makes it worse is that as a Mormon I allowed the Book of Mormon to tell me how to determine that the Book of Mormon is God’s word. I trusted it to tell me how to test its own truthfulness.

Argument from Anti-Mormonism

  1. Satan wants to destroy the true church.
  2. Anti-Mormons have all kinds of evidence that the church is false.
  3. This evidence is very destructive to the claims of the church.
  4. Anything which might destroy the church comes from Satan.
  5. Therefore the church is true.

This circular reasoning really frustrates me. No matter what evidence is brought against the claims of the church, it is all perceived as the work of the devil precisely because of the fact that it contradicts the claims of the church. The evidence is often discounted on that basis alone, prima facie. This line of reasoning makes Mormons immune to all contradictory evidence no matter how valid that evidence may be.

Argument from the round earth

  1. People once thought the Earth was flat.
  2. The Earth was actually round.
  3. Therefore all modern science, including archeology, is probably wrong when it contradicts the teachings of the church.
  4. Therefore the church is true.

I used this thought process to assuage many doubts that arose due to scientific evidence which contradicted the claims of Mormonism.

Argument from The Three Nephites

  1. There are three immortal white guys called the Three Nephites who have been walking around North America for 2000 years.
  2. Some Native American legends talk about “white ghosts”.
  3. I bet those stories are about the Three Nephites!
  4. Therefore the church is true.

I hear this kind of cherry-picking of historical evidence all the time at church: flood stories, Quetzalcoatl, etc. get used to demonstrate the ancient roots of Mormonism.

The Mormon Cosmological argument

  1. Something caused the universe to exist.
  2. It wasn’t God, because he is part of a society of Gods.
  3. It wasn’t his God, because he is part of a long line of Gods.
  4. What was it?
  5. It must have been something!
  6. Therefore the church is true.

I was always told as a Mormon to avoid delving into the mysteries of godliness. This warning translates into “Don’t ask so many questions (especially ones we don’t have answers for).” Why did I allow myself to be cowed into not asking more questions?

Argument from evil

  1. God has a plan for everything.
  2. He must allow bad things to happen because we learn and grow from them.
  3. Yes, even small children who were chopped up by machetes in Rwanda while their mothers watched.
  4. Yes, even the kids who were sent to the ovens in Nazi Germany.
  5. Horrible things do happen to innocent people, just as God planned!
  6. Therefore the church is true.

This is more of a defense against the problem of evil than a real argument for the truth of Mormonism.

Argument from my testimony

  1. You claim to not have a testimony.
  2. But the only reason you say that is so you can sin like Hugh Hefner.
  3. Deep down, you know the church is true. You’re just in denial.
  4. Therefore the church is true.

Even if no one says this out loud, to my face, I know many Mormons believe this about me and will continue to believe it no matter how much I protest.

Argument from numbers

  1. There are millions of Mormons.
  2. Millions of people believe in Mormonism.
  3. Millions of people can’t be wrong.
  4. Therefore the church is true.
  5. Therefore the Roman Catholic church is false.

There are some interesting trends in the statistics which the church publishes: raw growth, raw number of converts, converts per missionary, and percentage growth are all in long-term downward trends. Judging from the number of people I see at church on Sunday when compared to the list of members, extrapolating recklessly to the entire church, I would expect only about 4 million people bother to show up to church in a given month (the church’s benchmark for religious activity), far fewer than the 12 million names-on-the-church-records number that the church trumpets every General Conference. I actually think 4 million is a rather generous number. Another point: The LDS church is not the fastest growing church in the world.

Argument from obvious falseness—actually used by Nibley!

  1. Joseph Smith’s tale is obviously absurd.
  2. Joseph Smith wasn’t a complete idiot.
  3. If he was going to make stuff up he wouldn’t make it look obviously false.
  4. Therefore Joseph Smith wasn’t lying.
  5. Therefore the church is true.

Argument from personal incredulity

  1. I can’t believe Joseph Smith made the whole thing up. He wasn’t educated enough to come up with all those names and places.
  2. Who could do that? Certainly not me.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

Also seen in this variant: I personally have no good explanation for the existence of the Book of Mormon therefore the church is true. The lack of a really good explanation doesn’t mean that we must accept any of the equally poor alternatives.

Argument of ancestral sacrifice

  1. Your ancestors gave up everything for the church.
  2. One would not give up so much for something false.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

This assumes that our ancestors had better information than we do. Our Mormon ancestors also believed in men living on the moon and the surface of the sun.

Argument from Joe’s contribution

  1. Joseph Smith explained so many things.
  2. Nobody has given so many clear explanations (save Jesus).
  3. Therefore the church is true.

The explanations are only clear if you are asking the approved questions. Stray too far from that path and questions cease to have satisfactory answers.

Argument from crabs in a basket

  1. I am a General Authority pretending to be a special witness for Christ.
  2. The other General Authorities seem convinced they really are special witnesses.
  3. Sure as hell! I am not going to be the first to admit I am bluffing.
  4. Therefore the church is true.

I am positive that many General Authorities are sincere, but once they’re called as General Authorities, they are expected to project an image of certainty. There must be tremendous social pressure to play the part even if they really don’t feel like they’re any better qualified to be a witness for Christ than the average member. I can easily imagine a man being called as an Apostle thinking to himself “But I’ve never had a revelation of Jesus Christ that would justify being called an ‘Apostle’.” The man accepts his calling on the faith that the Lord would qualify whom he calls and waits patiently for something that would justify his calling as a special witness of Christ. Time goes on and he settles into his role and never receives that special witness, but his worries are swallowed up in the busy-ness of his calling.

This is pure speculation I admit, but this follows the pattern in my own life, even when I was called as an Elders Quorum President (which calling I never served in—long story). I’m simply extrapolating to Bishops, Stake Presidents, and (why not?) Apostles.

Argument from disasters

  1. The scriptures predict that calamities and wickedness will befall the earth before Christ’s second coming.
  2. The world is in the worst shape ever.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

This is another argument that I added to the list. The problem with this argument—other than that it is a non sequitur like all of the other arguments—is that it the world is not necessarily in the worst shape ever. It is just as easy to argue that we are all better off than ever. It depends on how you look at the data.

The truth is that I didn’t use these arguments to find out truth, but rather to rationalize my foregone conclusions. I wanted Mormonism to be the truth, so I found intellectually dishonest ways to shore up my beliefs. I’m pretty sure that I knew better, but I went along anyway. My own fears and desires kept me in a church which taught things that I couldn’t believe while being honest with myself.

Are there any other arguments that have been missed?

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Navel Gazing

How could my view of the world change so radically from theism to atheism? More importantly, why was I convinced that I was right in both cases?

I had some doubts as a believer, but I thought I was on the right side of the question. I strongly believed this. Now, as a non-believer, I firmly believe that I am right and that I’ve finally escaped the briar patch that is religion. I could flippantly pass off the change as personal growth, but I think it’s trying to say a lot more than that to me.

My convictions feel different now. They are based much more on my own judgment rather than on received wisdom. They don’t jar against my experience of reality, and if they do, I’ll change them to suit. I am now much less dogmatic in that way. What hasn’t changed is my firm conviction that I am not deceiving myself, that I am not mistaken.

I guess it’s like how most of us think we’re great drivers. We tell ourselves that we’d all be safer if more people had our level of driving skills. I’m pretty sure I’m a good thinker, but the evidence of my history of beliefs contradicts that. This change has introduced a note of skepticism when I consider my own thought process. I’m probably not as smart as I think I am and my thoughts are probably not as clear as they seem to me to be.

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A Seer, Or a Stone

From the reaction to The Mormons, it seems that a significant portion of the members of the LDS church had never heard of Joseph Smith’s seer stone or that it had been used in translation. The seer stones aren’t discussed often in the Mormon church or presented in reenactments of the translation of the Book of Mormon, but their use in early church history is an open secret. There have been many accounts of the seer stones from official church sources:

A search for “seer stone” in the Gospel Library at turned up these articles and many others. Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer about the seer stone:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.

Photos of two of the seer stones alleged to be owned by Joseph Smith are readily available though I suspect that many Mormons have never seen them:

Another stone—the “brown” stone supposed to be the one Joseph Smith used to translate—is currently held in the vaults of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City.

I suspect that the seer stones aren’t often mentioned in LDS conversation because they make Joseph Smith seem peculiar (in a bad way) and reinforce the fact that Joseph was heavily involved in folk magic practices. This conflicts with the modern LDS distaste for such things and with their more romanticized notions of Joseph Smith.

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