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Doubt is Better Than Certainty

This essay by Milton Glaser offers a treasure trove of wisdom gleaned from a life working in design. Take for example this gem:



Everyone always talks about confidence in believing what you do. I remember once going to a class in yoga where the teacher said that, spirituality speaking, if you believed that you had achieved enlightenment you have merely arrived at your limitation. I think that is also true in a practical sense. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between scepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right.

I hope to be able to write an essay like that in 30 years.

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Dark Night of the Soul

Andrew Ainsworth at Mormon Matters just posted about his dark night of the soul (thanks for the link, TAG), an experience described hundreds of years ago by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Catholic mystic, in his poem Dark Night of the Soul.

Technically, the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross is an experience of the practical mystic where God purportedly withdraws his presence from the perception of the mystic. This has been popularized to include all crises of faith wherein the presence and existence of God are in doubt. Mother Theresa experienced her own dark night that spanned almost the last sixty years of her life. She apparently died in the midst of her crisis of faith.

Many people base their faith in God on past experiences of feeling connected to something bigger than themselves, feelings of peace and love. If you’ll forgive my digression into pseudo propositional logic, the basis for their belief can be stated as:

Spiritual feelings ⇒ God is Present ⇒ God exists

Without commenting on the strength of that chain of implication, what happens when such a believer can no longer experience those feelings which she held to be a sign of God’s presence. If she hasn’t given God a reason to withdraw from her, what does the lack of those feelings mean?

Using the same reasoning that was the initial basis of her belief, she would conclude that God does not exist, a frightening idea. Things get more complicated when she remembers the times that she once felt what she believed to be God’s presence. How is she to reconcile these conflicting experiences, the one telling her that God exists and the other telling her that he doesn’t? This is a perfect illustration of cognitive dissonance: two competing ideas that a person feels compelled to reconcile.

The idea of the dark night of the soul provides one possible explanation to the doubter: God is teaching the person something by withdrawing his presence.

Lack of spiritual feelings ⇒ God is absent ⇒ God is teaching you ⇒ God exists

This idea has ample support in Mormon and Christian scripture and theology, it provides relief from cognitive dissonance, and it suffers from a big problem. Condensing the two chains of implication makes the contradiction obvious:

Spiritual feelings ⇒ God exists

Lack of spiritual feelings ⇒ God exists

From a purely logical standpoint, accepting the dark night of the soul as an explanation for the absence of those specific feelings makes them useless as evidence of God’s existence in the first place. If I had a test for lead in drinking water that would only ever give a positive result, then the test is useless. I don’t need a test that always tells me that lead is in my water; I need a test that could also tell me that there was no lead (hopefully based on the presence or absence of lead). There is no part of this theological equation that permits us to test God’s existence. This logic only allows for one conclusion: God exists.

This logic could be extended to justify anything. I could argue that those spiritual feelings are evidence that the stars are aligned for a person. When those feelings go away, I could assert that the stars are now misaligned; or perhaps I could say that a body thetan is interfering with the person, or that someone has cast an evil eye on them. The idea of the dark night of the soul as an explanation for God’s absence tastes like superstition and religious hucksterism calculated to sell me snake oil.

Instead of accepting the dark night of the soul experience as evidence that God is teaching a person, I question the believer’s interpretation of the feelings which lead to belief in the first place. I recently read On Being Certain which makes a case based on neuroscience that feelings of certainty are largely unrelated to the truth of a belief. Certainty is instead a subjective emotional experience rooted in human neurology having little to do with reason, logic, or truth. Though the book’s subject was the feeling of certainty, I think the basic idea can be applied to spiritual feelings.

If it is true that spiritual feelings aren’t caused by a supreme being but rather by the biology of the brain, then these dark nights of the soul make perfect sense. There doesn’t have to be rhyme or reason for them because they are just the vagaries of human consciousness. We are all subject to moods. Some days we wake up happy and convinced that life is wonderful. Other days we trudge through life feeling dark and uncertain. These moods don’t seem to mean something transcendent. They’re just the ups and downs of our psychology. Likewise could the feelings which some interpret as evidence of God’s presence be the ebb and flow of natural processes in the brain.

Understanding spiritual feelings as phenomena of the brain could also explain why I never had these spiritual experiences despite having prayed long and hard for them, despite wearing myself out trying to be worthy of them. If I thought that God sends these experiences, then I would have to explain why he didn’t send them to me when he sends them to others who seem no more worthy than I. (Perhaps Calvin was right and I was predestined to damnation as an infidel.)

If these feelings are instead caused by brain chemistry, it is reasonable to think that perhaps I just got a meager helping of the genes that facilitate spiritual experiences. Perhaps I only have weak religiosity because of my brain chemistry. This makes perfect sense to me, and I don’t have to rationalize why a loving God would keep his lowly creature in the dark.

From my viewpoint, the dark night of the soul concept arrests personal growth. It is an illogical ploy to preserve our prejudices and cherished beliefs. It conveniently helps us ignore that part of ourselves that suspects that our beliefs are incorrect. But it provides comfort for those who want it. I believe it owes its popularity to the desire to believe of those who find themselves alone. The idea holds out the hope that the darkness will be followed by a dawn and a return to comfortable beliefs.

I don’t buy it, but we can all choose for ourselves how to interpret our experiences.

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A Mutually Loving Impasse

Most religions implant psychological safeguards against apostasy, little emotional bombs of fear, guilt, shame and self-loathing that get triggered by the mere act of questioning. In religious orthodoxy, doubt is the domain of fools. It is the consequence of having hardened your heart like Pharaoh or resenting God’s power like Lucifer. Oh ye of little faith!

So says Valerie Tarico in response to Michael’s story of leaving Mormonism.

I must confess that even though I’ve made my peace with the idea that not everyone will see Mormonism the same way that I do, I still worry about my family’s future.

I attend sacrament meeting most weeks, and every time I do, the reasons that I left reinforce themselves to me. When I was Mormon, I assumed that anyone who attended church enough would eventually soften their heart to the truth. Every time a relative attended church who hadn’t been there in years, I imagined that they would realize what they had been missing and come back into the arms of the church. I enjoyed church, so I assumed that they had simply forgotten how good church was, and with a little reminder, they would remember and return to the faith.

Now I see the LDS church differently, and I finally understand that for some people, attending a Mormon church service only gives them more reason to stay away. It’s not a problem of forgetting; they object to Mormonism on principle. I never imagined as a Mormon that the words spoken the pulpit could be disturbing and repulsive.

As a Mormon, I thought that anyone who disagreed with the teachings of Mormonism was being deceived by Satan, that the antidote was to feel the joy of the Holy Spirit in church. I now see that is too simple. As I continue my life outside of Mormonism, I am generally happier though I have good days and bad. Mormon teachings give me no joy, so attending church services has no hope of persuading me to return—none that I can see.

So I understand why someone else might not find the same joy as I do in the ideals of freethought. The idea of doubting and not feeling certain about our beliefs is frightening for some, even though I revel in it because it feels authentic to the human condition.

I’ve seen both sides, and I see how unhealthy Mormonism (or any other fundamentalist, cultish group) can be. I don’t like the idea of my family being stuck there. I don’t like the idea of that separating us. I hope they can find their way out. I want them to wake up to the toxicity of Mormonism. They want me to wake up to the joys of Mormonism. We are at an impasse.

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Answers to Answers to 50 Anti-Mormon Questions

And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:21–22)

Meridian Magazine recently ran an article titled Answers to 50 Anti-Mormon Questions. This is my attempt to deconstruct the language of the article (my modern lit professor would be so proud) and then critique their answer.


One anti-Mormon ministry suggests 50 questions as a way to deceive Latter-day Saints.

The first sentence of the article provides a ripe field for deconstruction. The word “anti-Mormon” is a telling choice. It is meant to imply to the Mormon reader that the nameless ministry is antagonistic. On an unconscious level, it probably serves to convey the idea that this ministry is against Mormons, a kind of personal antipathy. It is far more likely that the ministry opposes Mormonism, a religious and philosophical disagreement rather than a personal hatred. This choice of words only serves to prejudice the reader against the positions of the nameless ministry.

This sentence has a notable lack of a link to the ministry in question (which is most likely 50 Questions to Ask Mormons). [edit: the source of this article did link to the ministry in a footnote. (thanks, Cybr) Please take this into account when reading my analysis.] It is simple and customary on the internet to provide a hypertext link to a website when referencing it. The sentence also fails to provide the name of the ministry. Refraining from linking to the website and keeping the website nameless demonstrates a lot about the mindset of the author. The author(s) of the article show that they fear open discourse. They intentionally obfuscate the identity of the ministry in question and make it difficult for readers to find the original criticism and ponder the weight of the arguments for themselves. This fearful mindset is usually given two justifications in my experience:

  1. The author(s) don’t wish to promote the opposing viewpoint by directing readers to it.
  2. The author(s) believe that some of their readers are not yet ready to face an opposing viewpoint. They are concerned that the faith of the unprepared will falter when they encounter objections. (1 Corinthians 3:2)

These justifications are based on a fear of the opposing viewpoint, as though the ideas themselves are poisonous. The justifications also assume a superior relationship to at least some of the readers, seeking to control the flow of information to protect those that they suppose are weaker than they. It prioritizes their concerns for the faith of their readers over the readers’ right to information that pertains to their religious choices.

Also, the word “deceive” is another prejudicial choice. The intent of the nameless ministry is more likely concern for the faith of members of the LDS church, the same kind of concern that motivated Meridian Magazine’s article in response. If my suspicion about the identity of the nameless ministry is true, this is what they have to say about their motivation.

Questions are a great way to witness to Mormons. Most cultists will turn you off if you begin to preach to them, however, asking questions gives them hope that you are genuinely interested in learning more about their religion. It also is a great way to get them thinking about things they may have never thought about and researching into the false teachings of their church. Questions are great seed-planters that the Holy Spirit can make grow in their hearts and minds and, ultimately, lead them to Christ. They are also great conversation starters.

The only note of deception is in the phrase “asking questions gives them hope that you are genuinely interested in learning more about their religion” which in context is a pragmatic deception to avoid having Mormons disengage from the conversation. This is indeed deceptive and unlikely to produce the hoped for results, but it is not the kind of malicious deception that the language of the Meridian article implies. In all fairness, the following sentences clarify exactly what the author(s) mean by deception:

These questions feign an interest in learning more about our religion. The real intent is to introduce anti-Mormon material intended to “de-convert” LDS.

The overall unconscious impression left with the reader, however, is likely to be the feeling that the nameless ministry’s intent is wholly deceptive not only in its tactics but in the arguments underlying the questions.

The use of the term “Latter-day Saints” for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems straightforward at first, but hidden within that language is a self-image of superiority over people who don’t share that membership, people who in times past were seen as “Gentiles”. In this context, the term serves to place a contrast between the deceptive anti-Mormons and the godly Saints. The first sentence of the article prejudices the reader against the position of the opposing view, not through logic and reason, but through appeals to emotional language.

Looking further into the article, we find:

Faithful LDS, when first confronted with such anti-Mormon questions, may not know that these questions have been answered.

There is an air of decisiveness to saying that the questions have been “answered”. While it may be strictly true that answers have been proffered, this language gives the impression that all those concerned have accepted those answers as the last word on the matter.

We see from these examples that this is not a neutral examination of the question. This should be a surprise to no one, but it is important to see how the language of the article can prejudice the reader on a subconscious level. The language serves to divert attention and discussion away from the question rather than to clarify it, examining it objectively. The reader’s mind, now properly prejudiced, is prepared to accept the article’s viewpoint less critically.


The only question the authors address in this article—they promise more answers in the future—is a question of failed prophecy:

Why does the Mormon Church still teach that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God after he made a false prophecy about a temple being built in Missouri in his generation (Doctrine and Covenants 84:1-5)?

These are the two verses at the heart of the question:

Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation. For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house.

The proffered answer centers on two tactics:

  1. casting doubt on the meaning of the word “generation”
  2. casting doubt on whether this passage was a prophecy or a commandment centered on the definition of “shall”

The authors then assert that virtually all critics of Mormonism make the following errors:

  1. misunderstand or misread LDS doctrine or scripture
  2. give unofficial material the status of official doctrine
  3. assume that Mormons must have inerratic [sic] ideas about scripture or prophets as conservative evangelical Protestants do
  4. apply strict standards to LDS ideas, but use a double standard to avoid condemning the Bible or their own beliefs if the standard was applied fairly to both.

While I’ll leave it to you to judge whether I will commit any of those errors, I must first warn that the first two criteria are impossible to meet in practice. First, no matter how well a critic understands Mormon doctrine and scripture, an apologist can always assert that they don’t know enough. Second, there is no clearly defined source of official doctrine. Even if criticism was limited to the LDS Standard Works, finding the official doctrine therefrom is a matter of interpreting those scriptures correctly. There is no official standard by which anyone can determine if an interpretation is correct. In other words, official LDS doctrine is an impossible target to hit because it is so ill-defined. Now, let me turn to my opinion about their answer.

The authors offer that a generation may be more properly interpreted as a long period of time rather than the common definition which invariably involves the idea of a single cohort of contemporary individuals. The authors ask the reader to accept a special definition of the word that is not attested in any of the eight dictionaries that I consulted. The most generous definition was from a Bible dictionary that stated that the ancient Hebrews reckoned a generation to be 100 years. That time has passed almost twice over since 1832 when this prophecy was recorded.

To justify this special definition, the authors appeal to biblical prophecies of Jesus’ immanent return within the span of a generation in Matthew 23:36 and 24:34. This objection may work on those who believe in the truth of those prophecies, but not on disbelievers. From my perspective, it looks like trying to justify one false prophecy with another. The promise of Jesus immanent return throughout the New Testament has failed even more resoundingly than Joseph Smith’s prophecy of a temple in Independence, Missouri. Supporting one with the other is an ironically fruitless tactic.

Also note that the passage reads “For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord”. (emphasis mine) The word “all” clearly indicates all of the generation of people then alive as the common definition indicates. If “generation” were intended to be a period of time rather than the lives of the people of the time, then “completely” or “entirely” would have expressed this thought, or perhaps leaving out the word “all” would have done the same.

The authors next wish the reader to accept that the word “shall” is a commandment here. Here is an explanation of the traditional use of the words “shall” and “will”:

—Usage note The traditional rule of usage guides dates from the 17th century and says that to denote future time shall is used in the first person (I shall leave. We shall go) and will in all other persons (You will be there, won’t you? He will drive us to the airport. They will not be at the meeting). The rule continues that to express determination, will is used in the first person (We will win the battle) and shall in the other two persons (You shall not bully us. They shall not pass). Whether this rule was ever widely observed is doubtful. Today, will is used overwhelmingly in all three persons and in all types of speech and writing both for the simple future and to express determination. Shall has some use in all persons, chiefly in formal writing or speaking, to express determination: I shall return. We shall overcome. Shall also occurs in the language of laws and directives: All visitors shall observe posted regulations. Most educated native users of American English do not follow the textbook rule in making a choice between shall and will. (, adapted from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary)

In other words, the use of the word “shall” in the third person (as it is used in these verses) expressed a determination on the part of the speaker, in this case purportedly God. It is also used in directives as explained in the quote. So it could be either meaning: a directive or an expression of determination. The reader is left to wonder which meaning was intended.

In that same passage, “shall” is used in ways that are clearly not intended as a directive to the hearers. The passage reads “For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord”. If we assume that “shall” is meant as a commandment here, God commands the generation to not pass away (this generation shall not) until they have built the temple. It doesn’t make sense for God to either command the people not to die until they have completed the temple or for the current age (if we accept their definition of “generation”) to avoid ending until the temple is completed. Then the passage reads “a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house.” Again, if “shall” is meant as a commandment, then God is commanding the cloud to rest on the temple, to be the glory of the Lord, and to fill the temple. Again, that makes no sense. This entire passage reads like a prophecy of things to come, not a directive to Joseph Smith’s followers (or to time or a cloud).

Further, the language in Matthew 24 that the authors tacitly accept as being a prophecy of Jesus’ return uses “shall”. It would be silly to assert that God was commanding Jesus to return again in these passages.

I grant, though, that I cannot offer an ironclad proof that this passage was not a commandment no matter how improbable that idea seems. If it was a commandment, I wonder why God would not have fallen back on the traditional “thou shalt” or “let my servant” or other similar usage to express a commandment. If, as the authors claim, God’s intent was to issue a commandment, it seems that he did so clumsily, in a way that was open for easy misinterpretation. It is as though God, the Creator of the universe, Lord of heaven and earth, was incapable of speaking precisely so as to be understood.

It is immaterial that Joseph Smith recorded another revelation years later that excused the Mormon faithful from building the temple. The simplest explanation is that a false prophet was seeking to cover his tracks by subtly misdirecting attention away from his attempted prophecy. The revelation does nothing to prove that Joseph Smith intended the previous revelation to be a commandment.

In the end, the authors do not offer a truthful examination of the evidence. They address themselves to the Mormon faithful in order to quiet doubt by offering possible but improbable explanations for problems in Mormon history and doctrine. Their answer to this question is not so airtight that no further debate is necessary, though that is the impression that they seem to want the reader to leave with. Their unlikely excuses and appeals to equivocal language do little to convince those outside of Mormonism of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, nor do they address the other instances of Joseph Smith’s plainly false prophecies. Their tactics remind me of Nephi’s warning about those who would seek to lull the members of the church into carnal security.

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Dark Night of the Soul

We have been provided an example of how the faithful deal with cognitive dissonance. The author of the post has hit on spiritual hard times after becoming accustomed to frequent experiences of a spiritual appearance. She hasn’t felt an experience which she would interpret as the Holy Spirit in a year. The last time she had such an experience (if I understand the sequence of her story correctly), she interpreted the experience as God telling her that her sister would be healed of leukemia. Her sister died shortly thereafter.

Now she has begun to doubt God. She prays for his reassurance and receives silence in return. She believed God loved her, yet he leaves her alone in her time of need. The longer she goes without receiving reassurance, the more she doubts. Surely, she reasons, God wouldn’t want her to lose her faith. So why doesn’t he help her?

It fascinates and pains me to read the tortured rationalizations offered to comfort this woman. It’s hard to avoid seeing a parallel to Mother Theresa who went decades without feeling a connection to God. Some of the rationalizations offered to the woman are also paralleled by those offered to Mother Theresa. I used many of these rationalizations to maintain my own faith.

  • Just hold on. God will answer you, someday.
  • God is testing you.
  • Don’t question your earlier spiritual experiences.
  • Believe me. I know that God loves you.
  • Perhaps you misinterpreted God’s message. Perhaps it was a spiritual healing rather than a physical one. Perhaps this healing will take place after death.
  • Satan is trying to deceive you.
  • People grow the most when they have no evidence to base their beliefs on yet continue to believe.
  • We shouldn’t expect God to always communicate with us. He gives us just enough to get us through.
  • Silence means that God trusts in your judgment.
  • Even Jesus felt alone on the cross. [Not according to the scriptural account he didn't. He was quoting Psalm 22 when he said "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He was teaching a lesson through the message of that Psalm, not expressing personal bereavement.]
  • You’ve probably withdrawn from God in some way, perhaps by sinning or not doing all that you can.
  • You’re probably feeling the Spirit, just not recognizing it.
  • Don’t question God. We don’t understand his way of doing things or his purposes.

This may be just what this woman needs to get beyond her doubts, but is it honest? Couldn’t the same methods be used to maintain a person’s belief in any false thing? Using this scheme, there is no way to find your way out of a false belief. If you feel good about it, that means it’s true. If you feel bad about it, take your pick from the above reasons why it’s still true.

All of those rationalizations serve to avoid the obvious, if painful, conclusion: the loving God she believed in was a product of her imagination. That’s not a comforting thought, and I’m not about to go for the exposed jugular like that. I doubt I have the tact necessary to put it gently. But it is the one answer that makes real sense out of what she is experiencing.

How desperately we cling to our comforts against the dark night!

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