The prevalence of a spirit of contention amongst a people is a certain sign of deadness with respect to the things of religion. When men's spirits are hot with contention, they are cold to religion. - Jonathan Edwards “The Book of Mormon does not supplant the Bible. It expands, extends, clarifies, and amplifies our knowledge of the Savior. Surely, this second witness should be cause for great rejoicing by all Christians.” - Joseph B. Wirthlin

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Subjective reality and CES

I've had a fascinating conversation with a long-time CES employee (30+ years) who I deeply admire and respect. It contributed to my thinking about the nature of reality and the feasibility of consensus on M2C and related topics.

At this point, I'm hopeful that everyone can reach consensus on at least this point: continuing to censor the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah is unwise.

Long-time readers know that I'm interested in the psychology of beliefs. By now it is apparent that we are all dealing with subjective interpretations of reality.

Many people approach controversial issues on a sort of team or tribal basis. We join a team and adopt its beliefs by conforming our own worldview to align with the team. We use various filters to make this happen. Then we think our team sees reality correctly, while the other team see is wrongly.

The difference in subjective reality leads people to think that others who disagree with them are stupid, uninformed, crazy, or lying.

Instead, in most cases the other team is honestly trying to interpret reality. They just perceive a different version. It's a difference in perception, the product of different filters.

Both sides can be equally sane, intelligent, educated, informed, and honest. They literally perceive a different subjective reality.

In such cases, debating doesn't make sense because we're not debating the same reality. Even when we use the same language, the same terms, the same facts, we don't see the same reality so we cannot have a meaningful debate.

Unless we're willing and able to apply the other team's filters, at least temporarily, the best we can do is agree to disagree.

The worst we can do is insist our own view is the only "true" reality and use coercion, resources, power, etc., to to enforce our view through censorship, obfuscation, and misdirection.

One project I'm working on examines the origins of perception. I've written about imprinting, and my latest work delves into that topic in more detail.

For now, I'll just discuss how this implicates any effort to achieve consensus about Book of Mormon historicity.

My CES friend was involved with teaching, training, and curriculum at several locations. He (I won't identify him beyond that) visited Central America "Book of Mormon" lands several times as part of his job. He believes the two-Cumorahs theory, accepts John Sorenson's conclusions about Mesoamerica, etc.

He said he never taught any specific location for the Book of Mormon, but he did use the CES "hourglass" map that is in the CES lesson manuals. He never thought much about it because he assumed the Book of Mormon events took place somewhere in Mesoamerica and the map was close enough.

He was unaware of Letter VII. (This did not surprise me; I've never met a CES employee who knew about Letter VII. Surely some exist, but it is definitely not part of their training.) 

Given my well-educated, experienced friend's ignorance of Letter VII, it's no wonder that the youth in the Church never learn what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah unless they study on their own. CES, BYU, and Church curriculum have completely de-correlated the New York Cumorah.

As we discussed the issue, my friend explained that CES exists to facilitate spiritual conversion. Its purpose is not to answer questions outside the curriculum. (He had never heard of the CES Letter, Mormon Stories, or similar groups.)

Because of this specific mission, he thought CES would never delve into questions of geography, or translation of the Book of Mormon, or other similar controversial topics. I asked if the CES approach was sustainable. He said it was a good question. Over the years, many former students contacted him to assure him they were still reading their scriptures and still active, but he said he probably wouldn't have heard from students who were no longer faithful in the Church and he didn't have any statistics on how effective CES is, how many students remain in the Church, etc. He was satisfied with the anecdotal evidence from his own experience.

During our conversation, he said he could see how the CES map was imprinting a particular interpretation of the text onto the minds of the students. He had never questioned this because he always assumed that the "hourglass" interpretation was correct and had never heard of an alternative interpretation. He could see the conflict between the CES map and the teachings of the prophets once I told him about those teachings. However, he didn't think this was a serious problem because once people get a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon, issues of extrinsic evidence no longer matter.

This is a brief summary, of course, but the conversation provided insights into the "two movies on one screen" problem in the Church and in the world overall.

As we concluded the conversation, it became apparent to me that my friend and his fellow employees at CES are doing the right thing for any youth who have the gift of great faith (one of the gifts Moroni lists in Moroni 10). Active members of the Church generally have this gift, which is why so many say extrinsic evidence doesn't matter.

And that's awesome. Good for them. Really.

But it's exactly the same approach taken by most people in the world. For most people, facts don't matter when it comes to their beliefs.

That reality raises two questions.

1. How common is it for people to retain religious belief regardless of, and even in spite of, extrinsic evidence? I'm interested in this because so many people claim extrinsic evidence contradicts the claims of the Church, but close examination shows it is their own expectations that create the contradiction.

2. What about those who have other gifts of the Spirit?

1. Faith and extrinsic evidence. Implicit faith is ubiquitous. I've encountered people all around the world, in all different cultures and religions, who have implicit faith in their political, scientific and religious beliefs. They rationalize their beliefs through bias confirmation and avoid or mitigate cognitive dissonance by filtering evidence. It's basic psychology.

That's why conversion to another religion is relatively rare, as most LDS missionaries know. That's what makes political agreement so difficult. The same psychology produces stark differences on scientific issues such as climate change, evolution, and much more.

(In France, we taught about the apostasy and restoration all we wanted, but people didn't care, either because they had implicit faith in the Catholic Church or because they didn't accept the premise of religion in the first place.)

There will always be some people who adhere to their beliefs regardless of logic, facts, or reason. There's nothing wrong with that, either; it's the human condition and has a sound basis in both psychology and pragmatism. People of all faiths and no faith apply the same system to justify their chosen beliefs.

Ultimately, in terms of staying alive and having a good life, it doesn't really matter that much what anyone believes, so long as they can abide by the laws of the land and the rules of interpersonal relationships.

How it matters theologically is a topic for another day. But even within the Church, the basis for belief for many members is akin to, if not identical to, the basis for belief for people in other religions, as well as people with no religion. People just choose to believe what they want to believe and rationalize it however they want.

In this sense, M2C is not a problem at all, as my CES friend said. Many faithful members of the Church see no problem rejecting the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah because, in their view, those teachings are not core teachings.

That makes sense logically, and that's why it doesn't matter what you believe if it works for you.

But there are many whose faith is undermined by M2C, and it's for them that I offer an alternative evidence-based approach (Moroni's America) that makes more sense to me.

IOW, it's not M2C or bust.

And that's why I so strongly oppose the censorship tactics of Book of Mormon Central, FairMormon, and other M2C-promoting groups. In my view, they have erected arbitrary barriers to faith.

2. Other gifts of the Spirit. Moroni 10:5 says "By the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." Many have interpreted that verse to mean a "spiritual witness," but Moroni goes on to explain that "there are different ways that these gifts are administered," referring to the "manifestations of the Spirit of God." lists many gifts of the Spirit.

I think this is a profound explanation of the differences in the way we each perceive reality.

Those who have a gift of "great faith" may not understand those who have a gift of "knowledge" and vice versa. Some people--probably most people--need a basis for faith before they can exercise faith.

That is a major reason why the Savior performed miracles, for example. He did not go around telling people to believe him because everyone else was wrong. True, his teachings were profound and touched people's hearts, but that's also true of religious leaders of every faith; otherwise no one would believe them. The authors of the New Testament emphasized the miracles because these provided extrinsic evidence that facilitated faith.

I think that's exactly what Oliver and Joseph did when they wrote the 8 essays on Church history, including Letter VII. They refuted the argument that the Book of Mormon was fiction by specifying exactly where key events in the narrative took place. This extrinsic evidence was highly important for people to accept the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. It was so important that Letter VII was republished in every Church magazine during Joseph's life.

But now our M2C intellectuals have taken away this extrinsic evidence and replaced it with a mythological, unknown setting that many, including me, find unbelievable.

Let's just say that Letter VII provides a viable, evidence-based alternative to M2C that people should at least be informed about.

I won't get into it all except for verse 18, in which Moroni sums it up: "And I would exhort you, my beloved brethren, that ye remember that every good gift cometh of Christ."

The teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah, including but not limited to Letter VII, are a good gift.

When our M2C intellectuals accept at least that premise, we can reach consensus that continuing their practice of censorship needs to cease.