Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Curiosity, Obedience, and The Shelf

Religion answers all questions, up until it doesn't.

I was running late. I scarfed down some hot chocolate and grabbed a large chunk of bread from the continental breakfast to eat on the go. I stopped at the front desk to pay the tax for the hotel, 3 euros per night times 6 nights, 18 euros total. The scholarship covered the other hotel expenses for me, but for whatever reason I was expected to pay for this out of my own pocket. I bid silent goodbye to my last 20 euro bill. The man handling the transaction moved agonizingly slowly. Finally he handed me the receipt. I held the receipt and the handle to my luggage in one hand, and the bread in my other hand (which I was actively munching on), and off I went, hurrying to Roma Termini. I passed the public running water as I went, and realized that I was thirsty. "No time," I told myself. I had left the empty milk bottle (I had used as a water bottle during the conference) in the hotel room, and there was no turning back now. It was already a little past 9:40, the recommended time to be at the airport for my 11:40 flight. I got in line for a bus ticket to the airport. Luckily, the bus pulled up while I was in line. The person in front of me hurried off to get on the bus, and I expected to do the same. I waited while the man behind the counter handled a phone call. I waited. And waited. Why was he taking so long? Surely he knew that I and those behind me were anxious to get on the bus. He handed the phone to the woman next to him. She raised her voice and rapidly spoke in Italian for a minute. The man simply waited for her to be done before finally turning to me. I had been holding out my money visibly, trying to catch his attention for some time. "Fiumicino" I said (referring to the airport). He said something like "yes that's nice" and handed me a ticket and a laminated "boarding pass." "10:45," he said, pointing to a schedule. I was perplexed. I went out to the bus and presented them with the items given to me.

"You're on the next one," I was told. My heart sunk. I stepped back a little to contemplate my situation. I had about 8 euros left, not counting the 5 US dollars in my wallet and the 100 US dollars emergency stash on my hidden travel belt. I looked at the boarding pass. "Why not stay at our cafe, your seat on the next bus is guaranteed!" I watched as they essentially threw two people off of the bus, and had to open up the luggage compartment so that they could retrieve their bags and wait for the next bus.

Knowing the seat was guaranteed, I headed for the train ticket terminal. I waited for the man ahead of me, who seemed to go through each step on the electronic screen at a snail's pace. I was hoping to save money by taking the bus, but perhaps the train could get me there sooner. I checked the time, 10:05. Finally it was my turn. Fortunately I was able to pay for the 14 euro ticket with my Visa card; I didn't want to waste time and money changing my emergency dollars into euros. Next train to Fiumicino AIrport: 10:20. 25 minutes earlier than the bus, plus the ride might be faster. My ticket said that plane boarding time was 10:40, and boarding is always a slow process of people and luggage, etc, so I figured that I would arrive by train at 10:50 and be fine; plenty of time before takeoff at 11:40. I hurriedly located the appropriate train. It's 10:08, oh I hope this is the right one, that sign said Fiumicino, right? I stood at the platform assessing the train and trying to figure out where I should get on and what to do with my recently-acquired ticket. A young boy drew my attention. "Mister, mister!" He guided me to a nearby automatic ticket validator and helped me insert my ticket for validation. I smiled and turned. "Mister, mister!" He led me the other way, onto the train and to an empty seat. He seemed a little suspicious at this point, but nonetheless I let him take my luggage and put it on the luggage rack. I sat down, and he held out his hand for a tip. I reluctantly reached for the 2 euro coin I received as change from the hotel and dropped it into his hand. He seemed disappointed and begged for "five." Of course I had a 5 euro bill in my wallet, but that was practically the last of my euros. I apologized and lied, "that's all the euros I have." After some amount of shrugging and apologetic "there's nothing I can do" hand gestures on my part, he finally gave up. He had the gall to ask for 5 euros for one minute's worth of unsolicited work? Seriously...

Well I arrived at the airport around 10:50 as anticipated. I managed to discover that I was at Terminal 3 and needed to be at Terminal 5. I also managed to find a bus that would apparently take me there for free. It was empty. "Terminal 5?" I inquired of the bus driver. He confirmed. I sat down and wondered when the bus would leave. It did so immediately, with me as the only passenger, how odd...

We arrived a few minutes later. I walked past the doors which said "enter" but were blocked off with caution tape, to the similar doors which permitted entry. The place was practically empty. Great! No long lines to wait through.

I walked over to a counter labeled US Airways, where a man was on the phone. I pulled out my boarding pass, worried that the printer may not have printed the barcode properly, and held it out to him. He seemed to spend a long time silent, waiting on the phone. "Today's flight? You missed it," he said nonchalantly. What? Apparently there was only one today. I confirmed, "to Philladelphia?" "Yes, you missed it." I was dumbfounded. He turned his attention back to the call. I looked at the time. 11:00. I checked the ticket, 11:40 departure. I waited a while, and then tired of waiting for his phone call. "I missed it? But it just started boarding 20 minutes ago." "You're too late." He was on and off of the phone, apparently one of the passengers didn't have his "boarding documents." The man in front of me was apparently determined to get that passenger on the plane at all costs, but couldn't care less about me.

"Hello, yes, this man doesn't have his boarding documents. If you could just fax them to me..." That person on the other end of the phone call was apparently an idiot, because this guy just repeated himself over and over. He had a British accent, but sometimes also spoke in Italian.

Another young man, possibly from the same conference, appeared behind me. "You're too late," he was informed. "But the plane doesn't leave for 35 minutes," he objected. "You're too late, you missed it." "But it hasn't taken off!" "It's taking off, you're too late." And yet on the phone he was saying things like "we can't let this man board without the documents," so obviously there was someone who was not yet on the plane but would be soon. I have my documents right here, let me on, I thought to myself. This man was wasting my time and I still didn't buy into what he was saying. My plane leaves in 1/2 an hour, and you are too busy (doing nothing on the phone) to help get me on my plane. I eyed the area. Perhaps I could just go through and find someone more reasonable to help get me on that plane?

Alas, there was no apparent alternative. Finally, during pauses in the phone call, he told me that he found the same plane route for me, but it would start tomorrow and end tomorrow evening. He handed me a printout, and started dealing with the man behind me. "Is this all I need?" I asked. "Yes," he responded, and mumbled something about getting the tickets at the desk the next day. "You must be here by 10:40." The next day's flight was also at 11:40.

I returned to Terminal 3 and found an info desk. I explained my situation and was told that the airport was open 24 hours a day and that I could rest in the chairs upstairs. I found an internet station, but it charged an obscene 12 euros an hour and wouldn't work with my credit card. How absurd. The cyber cafes near Roma Termini charged a tenth of that price, but of course a round trip would cost 30 euros by train. I pulled out the last bits of change I had, 1.20 euros, and managed to write 1 email, 1 Facebook post, and 1 text message (via google voice) in 6 minutes, informing relevant people of my plan changes.

Consider four particular sources of irritation for me today: the bus, the boy who asked for "five," the plane, and the internet station. Each scenario caused me varying levels of annoyance due to lack of justification. There was no explanation of why I couldn't just squeeze onto that bus. There was no basis for which the boy deserved 5 euros instead of just 2 or even none at all. The man at the airport seemed like an outright liar, simply asserting "you missed it" with no further elaboration. The internet station offered service no better than the cyber cafe; other than greed, what right had they to charge such an absurd price?

The human mind consistently asks why, as anyone with a preschooler can tell you. We crave understanding of the way the world around us works. A teen often wonders why he should listen to his parents. Tyrants and false gods are overthrown when the oppressed join their voices and ask why. (Silly example: the movie A Bug's Life.)

God works in mysterious ways. Do you think you are smarter than God? The prophets can see truths that are hidden from the rest of us. You don't have to undertand everything, just trust God and His servants.

These are the why-killers. When a customer gets uppity, it is easier to simply assert authority rather than detailing the processes and policies and reasoning behind them, especially when you have other customers and a pressing matter to attend to. The same mass production attitude can sometimes manifest itself in religion. The problem is that this doesn't actually answer the question. It does not satisfy the basic human desire to understand why. It is much easier to control a population of unquestioning disciples than curious questioners. Again, any parent can attest to this.

Listening to and speaking with Mormons about doubt, you will inevitably hear them mention "the shelf." When you come upon some unanswered question, some conflicting evidence, something that doesn't fit in with your current worldview, you essentially have two healthy choices: either immediately alter your beliefs to address the unanswered question, or "put it up on the shelf" pending further details or enlightenment. Usage of "the shelf" is to be encouraged, for it is a model that values all new input. It admits a certain level of humility: I may not have all the evidence. It adds a sort of safety buffer, allowing one to gradually shift one's thinking towards the truth, while protecting against deception. "The shelf" should perhaps be labeled "skepticism," or resisting the absorption of new and sensational information without consistent or compelling evidence to support it. Usage of the shelf should be cautioned against, lest the shelf be turned into a trash bin where anything that conflicts with one's worldview is sent to be ignored indefinitely. Careless use of the shelf can be a why-killer.

The Mormon religion boasts of exceptional why-answering capabilities. Ever wondered where you came from, why you're here, or where you're going? Mormonism bills itself as sort of a Christianity Plus, now with 30% more answers! But wait, there's more! Doctrines of living prophets and personal revelation mean that the Mormon canon remains open to refinement by a loving and caring God whose entire "work and glory" is to make us eventually all-powerful and all-knowing, like Him. What could possibly be more appealing to a why-asker than a direct and personal link to the very source of absolute truth?

But then, the truly curious person will eventually hit the boundaries. "There is still a lot we do not know about the afterlife." "Some things we may never know on this earth." Mormons claim that a portion of the Gold Plates (source text of the Book of Mormon) was sealed, because the world wasn't ready for this additional information. The world wasn't worthy to know yet. "Why should we expect more when we don't even take advantage of what we already have? I learn something new every time I re-read the Book of Mormon."

This seemingly sensible rhetoric pulls a strange and subtle trick. It turns curiosity into conformity. It turns doubt into complacency. It quietly suffocates "why," relegating your sincere questions to the shelf, and spoon-feeds you the answers you "should" care about instead. It turns the shelf into a trash bin, recommending that you distract yourself from disbelief. It brands you as arrogant and ungrateful for challenging the status quo, or honors you as wise and humble for abandoning doubt and displaying conformity.

This whole topic has an important connection to "free agency" or "free will." Mormons do not believe in predestination. Freedom to choose is central to God's plan. And yet religion is riddled with coercion and social pressure. We want to "help" people make the right decisions.

Freedom to ask "why" and seek answers for one's self is at the heart of free agency, and at the very core of Mormonism itself. Joseph Smith, the religious founder, claimed to see a vision of God and Jesus in response to his personal quest to find the truth. Various of his visions followed from asking questions about a passage of scripture. Missionaries encourage investigators to find out for themselves by reading and praying about the Book of Mormon.

Free agency and faith building are therefore concepts in tension. Again consider parenting. A child chooses to drink and drive, and the parents subsequently take away the car keys. Parents may forbid a child from hanging out with or dating someone who they know is involved in illegal drugs or unsafe sex. God, the perfect parent of us all, does not directly impose such restrictions on us. Why then, do we do so to our children? It is because we have a sense that they are not ready to make their own decisions yet.

The same seems to happen in a religious context. We try to apply social pressure to "help" our peers. "We are all at different stages of spiritual development, and we need each other to make it through. If we can just strengthen each other, then we can make it through moments of weakness unscathed. In essence, we should not be left to ourselves, entirely free to make mistakes."

We interrupt this program for an important message from Ms. Frizzle.

Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!

The Frizz's advice embodies curiosity, truth seeking, and the scientific method in a way that continues to impress me. I have a love/hate relationship with Mormonism. I value "free agency," or the right to ascertain truth and choose for one's self, more highly than anything. Mormonism pays lip service to the concept, but does not seem to respect free agency in practice.


  1. I think we have a very different experience with Mormonism, because you grew up in it and I didn't. I find the "why-killing" in other religions to be very bad, but Mormonism to be incredibly open with "why" answers.

    I see a little bit of what you're talking about in the curriculum for youth, but when you look at the curriculum/mores of adult classes (like EQ and High Priests), it is totally opposite. People in my EQ/HP are *incredibly* willing to speculate and talk and argue with each other about the big "why" questions.

    I think the thing going on is that Mormonism gives us freedom to speculate and come to our own conclusions, BUT that freedom is incredibly restricted in official contexts of teaching youth, investigators, and giving talks because we fear people taking some opinion as doctrine.

    I think this practice is a good thing for the "health of the Church", so to speak. But, perhaps it is particularly bad for "searching youth" who never get a taste of "why" asking.

    1. I think perhaps the difference is that as a convert, you have experience coming to your own conclusions and have developed confidence in your own mental processes.

      Growing up in the church, one is taught that the church, the scriptures, the prophets, are the final authority, and your own mental processes are only functioning correctly if you reach the same conclusions as them. Therefore, much like bad public education, it is all too easy to teach youth to merely memorize and regurgitate the correct answers, rather than learning the process of thinking for one's self.

      As a truth seeker, I feel betrayed by the religion of my youth, and would not want to raise my own children in it. The thing that I find distressing is that the church materials emphasize arriving at the correct answer over developing the correct process. For example, the following mantra is suggested by President Monson in the face of doubt:

      "I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts, to destroy the house of my faith."

      ~ http://www.lds.org/new-era/2012/05/any-questions?lang=eng
      (scroll to bottom)

      This is the wrong process, because "stay with my faith, with the faith of my people" does not generalize to those outside of Mormonism, since other faiths also provide "happiness and contentment."

    2. I guess it's true what they say, huh - you can leave the church, but you can't leave the church alone.

      It's almost like you grew up in a completely difference church than I did; either that, or you are willfully now distorting what you were taught to better fit your 'enlightened' view as a 'truth seeker.' I was never taught to be blindly obedient, nor was I taught that the church or the prophet is the final authority on all matters. In fact, I was taught that the church is made up of imperfect members, all the way up to the prophet. I was taught that it was and is important to receive a personal witness of the truth of things taught by church leaders, and to not simply believe them due to their callings. My parents and youth leaders took great pains to ensure that we all knew HOW to gain a testimony, and encouraged us to follow the steps to do so.

      Listening (or rather, reading) your words here makes me believe that you never experienced the gospel past a primary level, where it *is* more a matter of memorization and trusting a teacher. Of course, there really is no other way, as it's obviously very difficult to reason and ponder the deeper doctrines with the CTR 5 class.

      Maybe the most disappointing phrase in all of this is in your response to Jay - that you would not want to raise your kids in the church. Frankly, anyone who would not want to raise their kids in a church that focuses on families, gratitude, modesty, clean language, aversion to drugs and alcohol, respect, and develops a sense of worth, work ethic, and public speaking skills is a person too blinded by their own emotion as to make them unreasonable.

    3. More like, the church can't leave me alone. It haunts me all the time. Virtually all of my friends and family are in the church. I spent over two decades in the church; that doesn't just disappear. And of course, the church wants to prevent me from being able to legally marry a man. So yes, I can't leave the church alone. Not until I get the feelings of betrayal out of my system, a whole new set of friends and family, and gay marriage rights.

      Perhaps the way I responded to Jay was an oversimplification.

      I believe I "experienced the gospel" in great depth. As I learned, pondered, prayed, and had spiritual confirmations of the principles taught to me, I was absolutely confident that Mormonism was true. My problem now with the whole process is that I feel I was duped. I was provided a framework which did indeed produce a testimony, a certainty in the truthfulness of the church.

      But I began noticing that church manuals and leaders were teaching a process optimized to generate faith, rather than a process certified to reach truth. (The church taught me to love truth, and for that I am grateful.) I became disturbed upon noticing how church history has been sugar coated and glazed. I saw how our prophets and apostles were preaching self-confirmation bias. But I didn't really notice the deeply hypnotic and controlling effect until I started talking to my family and friends as an ex mormon. Once you have a testimony that God speaks through prophets today, there is just no way to believe anything contrary to what the prophets say.

      Obviously, for me, the issue is homosexuality. The leaders didn't say it directly, but indirectly made it very clear that members of the church are supposed to oppose gay marriage. They did this in general conference, which we are taught is modern scripture for our day. But they didn't teach why. They taught what to do, but provide no good reason why. And now, "the process" of prayer is applied, and members can receive a testimony that opposing gay marriage is what they should do, still without knowing why. Heck, the church teachings practically glorify this scenario: faith to the degree that you obey without really knowing why. (We are still sticking with no tea & coffee, seriously? Blacks not receiving the priesthood until 1978, seriously?) Hence, I decry the church for killing "why." The church indoctrinates you with a process that abuses "the shelf."

      And, regarding raising children, there are plenty of other churches or communities with those same good values. Sure, there are a lot of good things about the LDS church. But the deep and pervasive message of obedience over reason I find unacceptable.

    4. Hey Dan,

      I don't want to comment on this "Blake" character's comments, just respond to what you said to me...

      I agree that the church youth curriculum emphasizes intellectual humility and the right "answer" rather than the right "process". I chalk this up to people who don't have faith in the kids to follow the right process to the right answer. (Sometimes this fear is accurate, given how often it appears that what you and I think is the right "process" leads people away from what I think is the right "answer".)

      I'm not really offended by this at all, because I don't think it has anything to do with me. It's not how I treat youth, adults, etc I interact with. When I'm in classes where people act that way, I say it's valuable for people to learn different perspectives on the Gospel and the church.

      I guess I have a very large conceptual barrier between "the Church" and "the Gospel". When "the Church" does something I'm not totally happy with, it doesn't really affect my appreciation of "the Gospel", nor my appreciation of the role "the Church" is supposed to play in "the Gospel".

      In any case... love always,


  2. That's too bad. I'm sad for you that you feel the need to replace your friends and family with a 'whole new set.' I don't know how your family or friends reacted to your coming out as gay. In fact, if Facebook hadn't suggested we become friends, I doubt I'd even know about it. I would hope that they were supportive and understanding, but perhaps that wasn't the case.

    If your anger with the church all boils down to the gay marriage debate, then I suppose I understand your animosity. However, I do not understand at all your feeling of 'betrayal.' The church did not encourage you to live an active homoesexual lifestyle and then switch up the doctrine on you. The church has been constant in regards to same sex marriage for the last 183 years.

    You claim that the church leaders offer no reason of WHY we should oppose gay marriage. I'd invite you to read the Family proclamation again. You handed out those pamphlets for 2 years, I'm sure you read it at least once. I don't know how much clearer you would like them to explain WHY it is important to preserve marriage as between a man and a woman. With regards to the no coffee and tea, my (personal) opinion is that we've created a cultural/narrow law out of the Word of Wisdom, as opposed to following the spirit of the law. My view is that the Word of Wisdom is meant to help us avoid unhealthy living, addiction, and mind altering substances. Some things have been spelled out specifically, such as coffee and tea, while other things that are not specifically spelled out (energy drinks is a good example) I feel break the word of wisdom as well. As to the blacks and the priesthood, that is less a question of doctrine and more a question of policy that became deeply embedded within the church. It's well known that Joseph Smith ordained blacks to the priesthood. It appears that sometime under Brigham Young the practice was ended, and it was not corrected until 1978, when race relations were once again at the forefront of the public mind.

    With regards to the sugar coating of church history, I actually agree with you. Luckily, as I was exposed to it I also sought out the other side of the story. It's also important as you and others find these 'dark moments' of church history that we do not judge them through a 21st century lens. Remember that in the 1800s, things which are not at all acceptable today were commonplace. It is abhorrent to us that a 16 year old would marry, but back then it was not at all uncommon or reviled.

    The fact of the matter is that there are just things that we will not know as mortals. There are things beyond our comprehension. Whether you are atheist, agnostic, Christina, Muslim, Jew or Buddhist - it does not matter. It is an irrefutable fact that there are things we will not and can not know. For members of the church (and members of all religions, for that matter) to put those questions on a 'shelf' as you call it is the equivalent of scientists putting the issue of 'where did the super dense matter that resulted in the Big Bang come from' on a shelf.

    The difference is you have an emotional vendetta against one, and so you are willing and looking to find fault with it while ignoring the fact that the practice you take issue with exists in all areas of knowledge, religious or secular.

    Oh, and before I forget, welcome to the Bay Area. San Francisco's a great city.

    1. You have misunderstood me on a few points.

      I don't actually need to get a new set of friends & family. In fact I fully intend to stay in touch with all of my peeps, Mormon or not. My point was simply that I would need to separate myself from all mormons in order to "leave the church alone," because being in contact with them brings up issues that I feel should be addressed.

      The feelings of betrayal I referred to here have nothing to do with homosexuality, and everything to do with truth seeking. In the church, I felt like I had the truth, and the correct method of acquiring truth. But then I came to feel that the method was incorrect, after having invested so heavily in it. (Now, I do also feel betrayed in that the church set me back about a decade when it comes to dating and romance, but that's a completely different issue.)

      Now, regarding The Family, that document is full of assertions and instructions, not explanations. It is precisely the kind of "here is the truth from the highest authority, memorize it" propaganda I am complaining about. The "why" goes no deeper than a vague prophecy of doom and gloom when the gays magically vaporize all straight couples: "the disintegration of the family". :)

      My guess is that in the future, today's church leaders will appear stupid and bigoted to the church membership, just as the leaders preaching the inferiority of the negroes look to us today. And then the members will be cautioned to remember that homophobia was common in our day, and the prophets were following cultural norms and not really speaking for god on the issue.

      The practice of using "the shelf" is indeed used in all areas of knowledge. My complaint is that religions abuse it.

  3. I'm glad to hear you're not trying to replace all of your friends and family. If you do plan on remaining close to your family and friends still in the LDS church, I'd only offer one piece of advice: Let it go. I have an aunt and cousins who left the church years ago. When we see them, it isn't awkward or uncomfortable at all because they do not make a big deal out of it and neither do we. They know we pray before dinner, and that's ok. We know they don't want to pray, so we don't ask them to. On the other hand, my wife has a cousin who left the church a few years ago and anytime anything tied to the church comes up has to stand up and make a show about how blind we all are. Nobody really cares if he ever comes to the family reunions anymore.

    Long story short - don't make it an issue if you want the relationships to continue. You may feel the need to 'correct' them, but if you do, I guarantee it will lead to more and more distance in your relationships. Same goes for those LDS folks as well, obviously.

    I don't know how you can fail to see the 'why' in the family proclamation when viewed in the context of the whole plan of salvation. Granted, you'll then say that the plan of salvation is just a bunch of declarations as well. Oh, and just for the record, the proclamation came out in '95, well before the current issue of gay marriage was in the news. The disintegration of the family is not limited only to the social redefinition of marriage, but also to divorce, cohabitation, children out of wedlock, etc...

    My guess is that in the future the church will still consider homosexual actions to be a sin. Comparisons to the priesthood ban being lifted are flawed for one major reason: The priesthood was denied to blacks not due to their use of agency, but due to an external physical characteristic. They did not choose to be black. Now, you'll say that gays do not choose to be gay, either. I would agree, and obviously the church does as well, since sexually inactive gays are able to hold the priesthood. However, once they CHOOSE to indulge in those feelings of attraction, it is a sin serious enough as to disqualify them for the priesthood.

    Frankly, the church reversing it's stance on homosexuality would be comparable to them declaring pornography ok, masturbation acceptable, infidelity to be no big deal, or the word of wisdom to be optional. I'll be honest - if any of those changes were to occur, I would have serious doubts about the divine inspiration of the leaders of the church, and frankly, would probably distance myself from the church (though I would not stop believing in many of Joseph Smith's teachings).

  4. Hey, man, since it seems you have your hands full of people who disagree with you here, I figured I'd add a quick comment of support.

    I read through your exit story and your not-realizing-you're-gay story and found them both to be fascinating, eloquent, and a little sad. I noticed more than a few similar threads between our exits from the church.

    I gotta give you props, though--whenever I talk about the church, whether it's emailing my dad to continue trying to explain myself, explaining some weird facet of the culture I grew up in to my girlfriend, or simply discussing my unusual background with a coworker, I just CAN'T avoid getting angry. I make sarcastic comments, I let the snark sneak in, or I'm just explicitly abusive to the church and its members.

    I honestly admire you for being able to discuss these kinds of things with such poise and with a tone that's much more respectful and much more conducive to useful discussion than most of the ex-Mormon stuff on the internet.

    Keep up the good work, dude!