The Shins will change your life.
Spoken by a young Natalie Portman in the cult indie classic Garden State, The Shins really have changed my life, providing a therapeutic soundtrack to my transition out of the church.
They have always been a favorite band of mine (credit the impeccable music taste of my wife) but it wasn’t until I experienced my own personal faith crisis that I began to really understand what front man James Mercer was talking about.
His songs describe in cryptic poetry the experience of discovering the world anew after a lifetime of blindness. The song Young Pilgrims has a vividly familiar lyric;
‘… and of course I was raised to gather courage from those lofty tales so tried and true, and if you’re able I’d suggest it ‘cause this modern though can get the best of you…’
I too was raised on ‘lofty tales’.
For better or worse, the tales told to me about my preexistence and my potential exaltation did in fact give me courage. They emboldened me to walk through life with my chin held high, confident in my purpose and in my trajectory. This certainty of purpose, repeated and reinforced, inspired me and made life easier than it otherwise might have been.
That is, until more ‘modern thought(s)’ got the best of me. I couldn’t help the development of a skeptical mind any more than I could help the development of facial hair. And even if I could prevent it, why would I. Every major achievement in modern civilization seems to have come about when curious skeptics questioned the status quo.
‘I admire men and women who have developed the questioning spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas… Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant…’ -Hugh B. Brown
There seems to be a war raging within the church against this very freedom of independent thought. Strict adherence to authority is valued above all else. It flourishes under the guise of protecting members from the cunning adversary. He counterfeits truth with such precision that even the élite cannot possibly distinguish the difference.
This message has been firmly planted in the minds of a devout rule-following membership. Members of the church are willing to raise their hand to the square and consecrate EVERYTHING they have to it. It is no surprise then that widely accepted scholarly evidence refuting the legitimacy of the Church’s truth claims fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.
I am convinced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not what it claims to be. I would not have renounced my Mormonism if the facts didn’t add up to this conclusion. It is confounding to me, however, that what is so obvious and clear to me now is neither obvious nor clear to everyone.
For example, the recent church handbook policy changes dealing with LGBTQ offenders and their children are so obviously wrong in my eyes, but the defenders of the faith seem to collectively share remarks sounding something like this:
‘… God’s ways are higher than our ways.… we don’t understand everything now but all will be revealed through his marvelous plan of happiness… stand with the brethren. They are special witnesses of Christ and God won’t let them lead us astray. PERIOD, THE END.’
And herein lies the problem. It is contradictory to believe that the brethren are ONLY acting in accordance with God’s will while also believing that the new policy change is a terrible bigoted witch hunt. It is contradictory to believe that Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus in a vision and was called by them to translate the Book of Mormon while also believing that the Book of Mormon can’t possibly be historically accurate. It is contradictory to believe that the Church is true while simultaneously recognizing and acknowledging all the reasons it could not possibly be.
To paraphrase Ayn Rand, ‘Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises, one of them is incorrect.’
Too many members arrive at their convictions using premises that are in all likelihood incorrect. There seem to be three prominent premises that prevent level headed logic from influencing believers to question their conclusion.
1. The Church is true, what else is there to say.
The church has enormous gravitational pull on your thoughts. From time to time, believing members might shoot up a skeptical though or idea after reading upsetting details of Joseph Smiths polygamy or after discovering that there is NO archeological evidence to support the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But while evidence is strong and a precedent of dissent has been established, gravity works its magic and betraying thoughts eventually fall back to the warming embrace of ‘the church is true’.
The problem is being worked out in the wrong order. The answer has already been established. The premises can be established later. Or not at all, what difference does it make? Like I said, the answer has already been established. The church is true.
2. The leaders talk to God
It’s unfortunate that one of the worst scriptures in the LDS cannon is also one of the catchiest and easiest to memorize.
‘Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.’
How do you argue with that!? It’s pretty clear. When church members sustain members of the governing body of the church as prophets, they profess belief that these men speak to God in a more literal sense than ‘regular’ people speak with God. It is widely understood by church members that a special connection exists between church leaders and God in which God tells them directly (face to face) how do run the church. They are self professed mouthpieces of God, and when they stand in conference and say ‘these are not the droids you are looking for’ it is no different than God himself issuing the warning.
As long as church leadership continue to put themselves on a pedestal equal to that of Christ and forbid members from criticizing their authority, members will continue to give them the keys to the kingdom and fall on their every word.
3. Pascal’s Wager
Paraphrased, Pascal’s Wager suggests that because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God, you might be better off guessing in the affirmative. The stakes are very high and guessing otherwise might have dire consequences.
I concede that as long as you are consciously aware of your wager, this particular premise for believing is less illogical than the previous two, but still seems to fly in the face of Christ’s parable of the talents. You are choosing fear of disbelief just like the wicked and slothful servant feared mishandling the talent given him by his master.
We don’t know what happened to the guy who received talents from the master, invested them, and lost them all. This guy is missing from the story, but the Jesus I could believe in would hopefully tell the servant, ‘nice try, you came up short but it was better than doing nothing. Sorry you bet on the wrong side. That’s what the atonement is for. Let’s go grab some coffee.’
It seems intuitively superior to make the wrong decision based on actual evidence than to make the right decision based on no evidence. James Mercer’s suggestion that you stick with your wager ‘if you’re able’ is a sarcastic criticism of the indifferent and apathetic, and not an actual invitation to continue in ignorance.
Committed members of the church (my former self included) find it difficult to imagine a world in which the church is not true and the prophet is not a prophet. Even in the face of strong evidence and sound reason it is preferable to feign belief rather than face a frightening reality.
But those who manage to jump from the hook and question the premises upon which their beliefs are founded might discover that they don’t stand up to healthy scrutiny. Only after you have discovered correct premises can you come to a correct conclusion.