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On Faith and Superstition

I would like to draw a distinction between faith which I think helps us and superstition which I think harms us.

Faith helps us to move out into the impossible as Arthur C. Clarke put it. It allows us to transcend current knowledge in order to find new knowledge. It gives to artists their vision, to scientists their hunches and their hypotheses, and to activists their hope for a better future. Faith speculates based on current knowledge but cannot guarantee success. It allows us to move forward in the face of uncertainty. It expands our horizons.

Superstition, by contrast, has no solid basis in current knowledge. It may even be refuted by available evidence. It may even lie beyond the reach of future verification. It propagates through our ignorance and fear. It confers a false hope in the face of uncertainty. Superstition stultifies and prevents our future advancement.

I see prayer as a commonly practiced example of a superstition. We’ve attempted to verify the efficacy of prayer on behalf of others. It’s not clear that such prayer has any effect. The example that helped me to give up my own superstition was prayer for those with amputated limbs. No one has recovered a limb, whether they were prayed for or not, without the intervention of human medicine. If prayer were effective, why are amputees left out of God’s mercy?

From what I can tell, religious faith often amounts to little more than superstition.

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North Korea of the Soul

It seems to have become an odd tradition to inadvertently overhear a single General Conference talk that makes me want to deconstruct its message. This time it was Robert Hale’s talk on Sunday morning.

He spoke about how to respond to those who criticize the LDS church or its teachings. By the end, I felt slandered and deeply misunderstood. To illustrate why I felt this way, I combed the first half of his talk (the work got too tedious so I stopped there) for words describing members of the LDS faith and their actions and similarly for words describing its critics and their actions.

Believers Critics
  • love
  • bright
  • faithful
  • Christlike
  • invite
  • respond
  • stood
  • bore
  • simple
  • powerful
  • facing
  • exercised
  • divine
  • responsibility
  • preserve
  • protect
  • uttered
  • incomparable
  • forgive
  • silence
  • meekness
  • forgiveness
  • humble
  • bless
  • good
  • pray
  • strength
  • courage
  • demonstrated
  • suffered
  • did not retaliate
  • [did not] give in to hatred
  • true
  • disciples
  • loving others
  • tolerant
  • compassionate
  • turn the other cheek
  • resist feelings of anger
  • show forth
  • subdue
  • learn
  • see
  • was bound
  • sentenced … to death
  • boldly taught
  • took advantage of that opportunity
  • present
  • kind
  • conversation
  • comment
  • reassuring
  • seek
  • receive
  • react
  • attack
  • despise
  • reject
  • mocking
  • pointing fingers
  • confronted
  • defiling
  • accusers
  • wicked
  • know not
  • enemies
  • curse
  • hate
  • despitefully use
  • persecute
  • severe persecution
  • religious
  • irreligious
  • challenges
  • opposition
  • evil
  • vigorously opposed
  • negative publicity
  • help accomplish
  • lack of interest
  • disparaging
  • hath the spirit of contention

My unscientific list shows the essence of how Hales (and many other Mormons) see themselves and the people who disagree with them. Mormons often see themselves as long suffering martyrs. They tend to perceive any religious disagreement as an attack. Perhaps this results from the circle-the-wagons mentality that protected Mormon pioneers.

I am a critic of the LDS church, yet I hope that those of you who know me can’t recognize me in Hales’s stereotypes. If you can, it is because you’ve seen me on my bad days. I’m not always like that. Some days, my criticisms come from a pure concern for the truth and for the well being of my family, friends, and neighbors. I can disagree and criticize while being civil and, in a word, Christlike.

Hales’s talk represents a failure of communication. It demonstrates that he has failed to reach out to understand the ideas and motives of critics like me. He assumes that behind every criticism is ignorance and hatred. He believes that if we disagree we must not truly understand or that we want to pull down and destroy. He assumes that we fit his stereotypes without taking the time to verify his assumptions.

The sad thing is that he wants the world to listen to him. Why should they be expected to if he doesn’t extend the same courtesy to the world? He must have missed the fifth habit of highly effective people: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.

The common Mormon vision of themselves as martyrs in a war against evil isolates them from seeking to understand their neighbors. This mindset reminds me of North Korea’s view of the United States. North Koreans have been taught that the U.S. is pure evil. Many North Koreans probably believe that they live in the noblest, strongest, most virtuous nation on Earth. The truth is that they live in relative deprivation and ignorance where electricity is a luxury. Their cloistered lives prevent them from learning the truth about themselves and their enemies. If they were allowed to see for themselves, they might not call us paragons of virtue, but they would confess that we aren’t all that evil.

Hales’s talk is the equivalent of a North Korean propaganda poster designed to create a bigoted us-versus-them attitude.

I confess that I am not immune to retreating to the mental ghetto of prejudices and tribalism. So let’s live bigger than that. Let’s listen to each other before we retreat into stereotypes and ignorance. Let’s break free from our personal North Koreas.

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Reviews in 50 Words or Less: Idiocracy

The ignorant reproduce more than the thoughtful thereby turning evolution on its head and leading to an entire population of idiots. Such is the premise of Idiocracy. While I doubt this could ever be truly fulfilled, I suspect that is partially true: ignorance and superstition can perpetuate themselves through our family history.

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Overheard at the Office

Worker A: Do anything interesting this weekend?

Worker B: Not much. I saw The Golden Compass. It looked really good. It’s kind of along the same lines as The Chronicles of Narnia.

Worker A: Sounds interesting.

Worker B: Yeah. I have a Mormon friend who wouldn’t go see it with me. Said it was anti-religious. I mean I’m not much for organized religion, but I didn’t see anything to worry about.

[*sigh* I haven't seen the movie, but it sounds like it has about the same message as Happy Feet.]

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Santa Claus Lives!

I’ve heard it repeated in a few places recently that atheists can be happy for theists the same way that parents can enjoy their children’s belief in Santa Claus. If it makes them happy, then we should be happy for them.

Everyone is free to believe what they will, but this comparison sounds more than a little patronizing. That’s probably not how it was intended, but that’s how it sounds. It’s not difficult to imagine the person thinking “I’m happy for those poor believers. They’re so cute when they think God answers their prayers. As long as it makes them happy.”

Personally, I can’t bring myself to be happy for someone else’s mistaken belief. I try to help correct that mistake if I can, without being a jerk. I hope they would return the favor.

My reluctance to play along probably stems from my stance on that old question about which is better: happiness or truth? I would generally rather have the truth than be happy. But that’s a personal preference. Other people would choose happiness instead, and I find it hard to fault them for it. It would be nice to ignore the truth in favor of happiness sometimes.

However, I would never put myself in the paternal position of thinking someone is better off blissfully ignorant in their mistaken beliefs. I respect other people too much. This condescending attitude is one of the things that I most resent about current LDS church practice. The LDS church teaches whitewashed history, presumably because they don’t want to damage the fragile faith and happiness of the body of the church with inconvenient truths.

I will try to be civil and polite with believers, picking appropriate times and places, but I don’t intend to ultimately play along with the charade that Santa Claus lives. I think they deserve better than a well intentioned lie or strategic silence.

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