Friday, February 06, 2009

A recent correspondence about evidence

My wife and I left the church 3 years ago. When that happened my wife's brother and I wrote back and forth a little. Mostly me answering his questions about how I account for this or that thing if I no longer believe in God. It was very respectful convo. I wanted him to look at some of the evidence that challenges the validity of the Church, but he said he was too busy with work, grad school, and a young family. The issue dropped.

Fast forward three years. Now my wife's young sister who just started college just announced to the family that she left the Church because she doesn't believe in it. That same brother in law posted a message on his facebook page. You can read it below and my response. They are long, so read it if you want to, skip it if you don't. I didn't do a point by point refutation, because it would come across as a little too aggressive.

This note is prompted by a note posted recently by my sister about her religious choices. She's in college and is soul searching right now. Her decisions are hers to make, like they are for all of us. Her thoughts just prompted some of my own that I wanted to share for her and anyone else interested in thinking about it.

I believe in God. I believe in Christ. I believe He is my Savior. I believe these things because I believe there is more credible evidence to support them than to refute them. Let me warn you now, this is a long post, because it's a first draft. I'll probably try to refine it over time. Nonetheless I wanted to put something out here, even if it is more like a short story than a note.

The scriptures teach of a God who loves His children. Contrary to popular belief, the scriptures actually give us a history of a a God who on the whole, tells people what He wants but then lets them do what they want to do. It's hard to see that sometimes because most of the text in the scriptures are about the exceptions, when his interventions have been significant. However if one considers the number of people on the earth at various times and the amount of time that passes, along with the number of people involved in the events recorded, it seems that the majority of the general public that are discussed in the scriptures (not speaking of the prophets and those who wrote the books, now) had no more evidence than we have now to convince them to believe or disbelieve. There are exceptions, but people throughout scriptural times have found other ways to explain the creation and other things scriptures claim to explain. Their explanations range from their own sets of gods to acceptance of mysteries as unexplainable, to evolution, intelligent design, and other scientific pursuits.

But the scriptures have been here through it all. Did Moses part the Red Sea? Did Jesus walk on water? Did Christ come back from the dead? These books we have make some pretty tall claims. Some believe they are completely true, some believe they're partially true with exaggeration for good story telling, some think they're completely fictional.

The interesting thing about them, though, is that they teach about the spiritual life of a person. According to the scriptures, there is a spirit inside of us. Interestingly enough, this spirit only grows in certain ways. The scriptures teach that as we apply ourselves, and allow ourselves to believe, the spirit grows inside of us and we begin to learn more and grow more. Also interestingly, the scriptures teach that doubt destroys the spiritual growth.

That's a challenge I've always struggled with, because if you believe in something and don't allow yourself to doubt, pretty soon you convince yourself and you become very sure, even though you have no way of confirming that the thing you're sure about is accurate or not. The human mind is capable of a lot of things, and who's to say that those of us who choose to believe are not merely conditioning our minds to think in terms of God and faith, and by so doing, make other paradigms seem unacceptable?

So what if we do doubt? If we tend to think that the scriptures are stories that were made up for us, then what? We find other ways to account for the world around us. We rely on what we have to tell us what we need to know, and either develop an alternative faith and view of the world or become apathetic to the things we cannot see and understand. Many seek ways to achieve enlightenment, to achieve elevation or some other such things that gives extra meaning to life, as an answer to the spirituality offered by a religious faith.

Many thoughtful people have thought about this. Many philosophies have come out. Some claim their philosophies come from higher sources. Perhaps they do. But there's something I've found in my faith that I haven't found a parallel for in all other philosophies and creeds I've considered. There is a personal test.

Now, as stated before, when choosing faith, I think it's only honest to realize that the possibility exists that one is merely deceiving oneself. However, in my life, I've chosen faith because I feel that the scriptures make a solid case for the reality of the miracles they describe, and the preservation of the scriptures has been of utmost priority to a decent sized group of people throughout time--so although men are imperfect and capable of deception, the complete corruption of the scriptures would ultimately require collusion and conspiracy among such a wide range of individuals with such a wide range of motivations that it seems improbable that the miraculous stories contained in them would have been allowed to be lost.

By choosing faith, the scriptures tell me I'll be blessed, and I find that when I read the scriptures or engage in religious discussions, I feel a sense of peace and calm that comes to me distinctly, a sensation that I can separate from other sensations I feel during other activities. As various events occur, the intensity of the sensation varies. Sometimes the sensations I experience trigger thoughts in my mind. When I act on those thoughts, the sensations I feel seem to grow stronger. When I ignore them they fade and go away. I've been around long enough to feel this come and go again and again. I didn't begin to feel these distinct sensations until after I had made an honest, deep, sincere commitment. That commitment was made through many hours of prayer, with many hours of fasting and pleading, as the scriptures describe, seeking to find forgiveness and understanding.

It took me a lot ... I mean a LOT of effort to reach a point where I felt I was not being dishonest to say I really felt this. But now I do. I feel it regularly, and often. It is undeniable to me. Am I deceiving myself? Perhaps. But to me it's impossible to tell because I feel the influence come often before I become consciously aware of a stimulus that according to what I've learned from the scriptures, should cause it. These sensations always become intense and strong when I explore spiritual matters based on the scriptures I've come to accept as being true. They've also come when learning about various principles from various other sources, and I therefore believe that I've found truth in those sources as well. I don't feel it all the time, but I do know it is real, and I believe sincerely that although my actions influence how I feel it, I do not control the sensation myself.

In conjunction with these sensations, I have actually experienced miracles like those described in the scriptures. I've seen a guy who couldn't walk on his leg without toppling receive a blessing, stand up and walk as though nothing were wrong. I've seen weather change in response to prayers. I haven't seen mountains move or people walk on water, but I believe it could happen if necessary. The more I've allowed myself to believe, the more I understand what I read in the scriptures, and the more I relate to the things I read. I feel as though this sensation I experience gives me a new dimension of life to explore, one beyond what I see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or even feel with my emotions. And I feel the scriptures act as a guide book to help me understand this dimension.

This dimension of my life brings me great joy and comfort. It confirms for me the scriptures are reliable. I know and recognize that academically, one can find perceived inconsistencies in the scriptures. However, I also know that academically, one cannot understand the full context in which the scriptures are written. One can try, but without a spiritual dimension of analysis on what is written in the scriptures, I've become convinced that we cannot possibly hope to understand the true meaning of what is contained within those scriptures. For the people who wrote them, I believe, had achieved a certain level of mastery of this spiritual plain of which I speak. As they have written, they were forced to try to put into imperfect words the ideas and concepts they wished to communicate. But just as a picture can be worth 1,000 words, a spiritual idea cannot always be conveyed effectively even with a million words.

Am I deceiving myself? Is this a sense of elevation or enlightenment induced by my own self-delusion based on expectations I have built for myself? Maybe ... But how many people who believe that have themselves harnessed the capability to utilize their 'elevation' to heal a man? Some may say they're out there, but I have yet to see it. Having experienced some tastes of what the Spirit can do for me in my life, I've left doubt behind.

Now I have put a lot of time into studying various forms of history. I have sought out and read a lot of church history and a lot of philosophy, along with many other books and materials. I intend to continue to do so. I've investigated many claims that claimed to debunk the roots of the scriptures that have lead me to experience the spiritual enlightenment. I've not investigated every claim I've come across. But I have investigated many, and as of yet, I still have not found a single one that claims, with any believable basis, that the claims it makes are from God himself. Instead, they are all things written by humankind. They range from scientific studies to journal logs, to direct challenges based on thoroughly documented historical sources. But they all are written by people, and quote sources written by people.

People are imperfect. That is a fact. I am imperfect. I make mistakes. I make terrible mistakes. Sometimes even the people we admire most make significant mistakes. Some who have claimed to be the most divinely inspired of God have made huge, imperfect mistakes. I don't question that. Even if people claim that their writings they claim to come from God are pirated from other sources, and they can quote the sources, it still does not sway me if I feel that sense of spiritual confirmation while studying those things. It's illogical academically, especially if one as an undeniable academic case. But it's just that. An academic case. How can one say that the evidence is not flawed? How can one determine that the claimed original source, in the example given, was not in fact written after the revelation, then given a false publishing date so as to appear to have been the first occurrence of the text? One can call upon testimony of humans, only--humans who have agendas, who are imperfect in their own understandings, humans who may have every good intention but simply are mistaken. They are still human.

So do I put more stock in uncertain philosophies that are in fact claimed to have been conceived by imperfect academic humans who claim to be enlightened? Or do I put more stock in philosophies that are claimed to have been conceived by God, for which I can obtain my own sense and witness, and in fact an incredible life experience while embracing? I carefully choose the latter, while choosing also to remain conscious and aware of disagreeing philosophies, as I do find value in understanding them despite whatever fundamental disagreements I may have with them.

I know many may think me foolish. We have our scientists who tell us how the world and life on it came to be, and claim to discredit the scriptural accounts and evidences of God based on the world itself. But I think it foolish for scientists to pretend to be able to make the claims they do about our history. We have an entire convoluted legal system set up, much of which is centered around trying to understand the recent past. The most reliable sources for telling what happened at a crime scene are records that came from the event -- videos, tapes and memories (witnesses). While forensic science has come a long way in determining what *probably* happened, based solely on evidence (skid marks, DNA samples, etc.), the true sequences of events identified by forensics are still merely a best guess as to what actually happened. Short of more conclusive evidence (such as videos), the claims scientists make with forensics often cannot be proven absolutely. Even in recent times, DNA evidence, which has become considered to be iron-clad evidence, has shown to be completely unreliable in a few cases where human beings are found to have more than one type of DNA in their body.

What ?! But DNA doesn't lie! Well, that statement is based on an *assumption* that has been observed and widely accepted in the scientific world, that each body has a consistent type of DNA throughout their body. That assumption is now being challenged.

Science naturally evolves and changes as new discoveries are made. To believe exclusively in science as truth is to ignore the reality that future discoveries are to be made. Science is good, but it is merely a tool to be used to view the world--and in my opinion, is not reliable enough to become the sole source of information about the world.

I believe there are things science has yet to discover. I believe one major assumption that scientists rely upon is the consistent behavior of matter over time. Radioactive decay is used to estimate ages of objects based on this assumption. But is it a reliable assumption? How can we have any way of determining with any level of certainty that a certain radioactive isotope behaved the same way 1,000 years ago as it does today? Surely the academic mind will say that to question this is absurd. But is it? How can we know? We have no way to test a radioactive isotope IN THAT TIME FRAME. We can speculate, but that's it.

I think scientists have made a lot of unprovable assumptions that they consider absurd for anyone to question. And many embrace their assertions as evidence of truth. And often these same individuals are the ones who will say my faith is delusional and unfounded, who will say I'm ignoring reality. I'm not. I'm simply open to new ways of perceiving reality, and will not deny myself the opportunity to embrace my humanity through a source that claims to have all truth.

We have a source that claims to help us acquire all knowledge and understanding. I think it silly to ignore such a source, especially when the evidence I've experienced confirms it. Why should I choose to ignore Him because a bunch of arrogant humans think it's silly?

With that said, I do value science still, and would gladly lend my expertise to further the investigation of scientists' theories even if they seem to prove philosophies with which I simply don't agree. That's because I support the pursuit of understanding, and that pursuit is valuable in all its forms so long as one doesn't begin to take one's self too seriously.

But when it comes to my life, and my children, I have to make a commitment, a decision. Trust God? Trust man? Well, the evidence I see right now makes me choose God.

I could go on to detail why I've chosen God in the context I have (i.e. in Mormonism) but that's another subject and I've written way more than enough already on this note.

Here was my reply:

I am happy for you that you have a set of beliefs that bring you joy. I used to share those same beliefs and remember exactly the joy I felt when I had those beliefs. I now have a new set of beliefs and continue to feel great joy. I am fine with us having different beliefs. Each person follows the dictates of their own conscience and judgment. What I say here, I say only to communicate my perspective in the spirit of increasing understanding, not to convince. I have stood in shoes very similar to yours. Much of what you have written here could have easily been written by me 4 years ago and before (in fact, I have made many similar statements in my previous writings that I could dig up if need be). I am very familiar with the worldview you present as I shared it up until almost three years ago.

Given what I was aware of at the time, I too felt that there was more credible evidence supporting Mormonism than refuting it, and I couldn't imagine that ever changing. I too felt that it was more important to trust God and his scriptures and the witness of his Spirit, than man and his evidence which could be flawed; and that is exactly what I thought I was doing as a believing Mormon.

I now have reason to feel differently. Does it at all interest you why? The last time we went through this, it was three years ago, both of us were still in grad school and you said that you were too busy to read what I (and Lilly) had read. Now there are three members of your family (who are just as familiar with the potential of human error and bias as you) and yet, even while considering all that you have said here, still are persuaded to feel differently about Mormonism than you.

I am sure that must be puzzling to you. If I (Hueff) know that human evidence might be faulty, why would I ever be persuaded by it to reject the things I thought I knew by the Spirit? Most people never ask me that question and unfortunately many people resolve their puzzlement with assumptions. I have heard that your mom thinks it is because I am prideful. Others of our LDS friends suppose I have committed some sin and denied my beliefs so I wouldn't have to confront my sin and repent. Others think I just got too caught up in my studies of science and forgot my spiritual witnesses or that Satan deceived me. Perhaps most painful to me is when people assume that I somehow duped or manipulated Lilly and I am responsible for stealing her salvation. And you know what the first question your mom asked when Jana told her she no longer believed? It was, "Have you been talking to Hueff and Lilly?" Again as if I am to blame whenever anyone in the family doesn't believe in Mormonism anymore. Lilly and Jana are smart and can think for themselves, and I am not some enemy in the flock picking off family members one by one so that I can destroy your eternal family. I wish people would not assume bad things about me, but ask if my decisions confuse them.

For the record, neither I nor Lilly had anything to do with Jana leaving the Church. Although we were the first ones she told, she did not tell anyone until after she was certain in her own mind because she did not want to be unduly influenced by anyone. And Lilly reached her own conclusions about the Church after her own research and now she knows some details about Joseph's polyandry and other things that I don't even know because she has had the interest and time to read some books that I haven't yet. And, for the record, I am not guilty of some great sin, nor have I forgotten my "spiritual witnesses", or "answered prayers", or "priesthood healings", or any of the scriptures I have memorized or doctrines I used to believe in. I confront them with as much honesty and integrity as I can. Perhaps I am a little prideful (I have always struggled with that), but that is not why I don't believe. And yes, I fully remember 2 Nephi 9:28-29; I now see it as a rather convenient way to dismiss and demonize those who don't believe in the Church anymore.

I'll tell you what I think separates me from my former believing self. I have just learned some things that I did not know before, and I have honestly confronted those things and accepted the implications of them. I don't think I was foolish for believing the way I did. I was just uninformed, and there is no shame in that. Now, there were times when I was still a believing member, when I thought I was informed. If one reads the entire FAIR LDS site, one will get the false sense that one knows all the dirt and still believes. And after talking with great defenders of the faith such as Daniel Peterson and Jeff Lindsey who one suspects knows even more and they still believe, one feels secure that there is nothing to fear from whatever evidence is out there as these men surely know it and still believe. And one will assume that surely the General Authorities know everything and still believe (they even claim to "know"), so all is well in Zion. Besides any evidence that is out there comes from human sources and we all know humans can make errors.

But, then one remembers that everything we have has first been filtered through human minds: the scriptures, the general conference talks, the church sanctioned church history including Joseph's reporting of the first vision, even the meaning and interpretation we give to the experiences we call spiritual were filtered through our own human mind (or at least might be). We can't be sure that anything has come directly from God. So, now the playing field is a little more level. We have things that came through humans that is claimed to be from god and things that came through humans who acknowledge it came through humans. We know that not everything that is claimed to have come from a god actually did, for they contradict each other. We have a human bias to suspect that it is always the other guy's prophet that is mistaken or a liar; it is worth considering that it might be ours. We can so easily point out the flaws and inconsistencies in the other guy's message because we are not forbidden from doubting his message, but we are not allowed to doubt our prophet's message because "faith doesn't work that way". In my opinion, truth is truth and should be able to stand on its own when scrutinized.

Faith is so dangerous because it opens the door to be deceived. How can anyone ever learn that they are on the wrong path unless they allow themselves to doubt? How can scientologists, fundamentalist Mormons, or Muslims begin to fairly consider their religion if they are discouraged from looking at the evidence that might challenge their religions validity? LDS missionaries encourage investigators to doubt whatever religion they are coming from so that they can accept Mormonism. (Mormons don't like to frame it that way, but that is what they are doing. Missionaries are hoping that their investigators will believe in Mormonism and Catholicism both equally and at the same time. They want them to disbelieve, doubt, and reject those parts of Catholicism that don't gel with Mormonism). Shouldn't we be willing to at least fairly examine our own religion and be open to doubting if the situation calls for it? Many Mormons think they have fairly examined their own religion before they have exposed themselves to all the evidence. If one only listens to the defense attorney's case (and only a few distorted rumors of the prosecutor's evidence) then of course one is going to conclude that the defense has the more credible case.

Since one can never know if one has heard all the evidence there is a critical necessity to continue to read info that is critical of whatever your current beliefs are at the time. That is the only way to discover that you are on the wrong course. So, even though I left the Church 3 years ago, I still read things in favor of the Church, just to make sure I didn't miss anything. Alvin may not remember, but he has been confused in the past why I keep GospeLink on my computer even though I don't believe anymore. That is one of the reasons why. Sure, we have to be skeptical of any source. If we are talking about a person's account of events, we have to consider the author's possible bias, faulty memory or perception, etc. But, we also have reasons to believe a person's account, if it is consistent with the accounts given by others who likely did not coordinate testimonies, if it is consistent with collaborating physical evidence, and other things. But, there are many types of evidence besides testimony. Sure, anyone has a chance of being faulty, but they also have a chance of being right and when the evidence mounts up and it begins to paint a consistent picture, you are more likely to be right trusting what that evidence is showing than picking the position that is the direct opposite.

Tony, you now have three family members who have looked at the evidence that I don't believe you have fully examined or become acquainted with, yet (correct me if I'm wrong). We all believe there really is something to it (even after making considerations for human error, etc). I have stood in shoes very similar to yours and believed very similarly to you before I examined this evidence. It might be worth taking a look at it and at least consider it for yourself. You may not come to the same conclusion, but you may at least want to know what is out there. If you stay in the Church, you are likely to hold many leadership callings and be placed in a situation in which you will need to counsel those who have confronted and wrestled with this evidence. You might want to be familiar with it if for no other reason than to be better able to counsel those people. Simply claiming that the evidence might be faulty and we should trust God instead of man isn't going to help much or answer the serious questions posed by what is out there.

If you decide to really investigate this, you will need to read some books written by non-believers to get the full picture. Be as skeptical as you want and run all of their cross references, but don't ignore them or you will never get exposed to all the evidence, because faith promoting sources and apologist sites don't talk about things they don't have a good response for. Just consider, a Scientologist might never learn of the challenging evidence against his religion if he would not read anything written by a non-believer.

Now, some original sources you will not be able to get your hands on because they are locked up in the Church Archives which are now closed to the public. They used to be wide open to the public and BYU historians (such as D. Michael Quinn) used to love digging through them and researching, but once they started publishing their findings and their findings were not flattering of the Church, they started limiting access to them. But, many of the original sources are available, even online, through church approved venues or at least believing members' websites.

If you decide to start an investigation, I recommend starting with the FAIR LDS site. It is a pro-LDS apologetic site, so you will feel safe and comfortable there. They admit to a number of challenging things so you will at least know that the issues are legitimate, not just made up anti lies. Since they are an apologetic site, they of course give their spin on things to try to preserve the faith of those who are questioning. I am basically encouraging you to hear the defense's argument first. After you have read much of what is there (or whatever interests you) you might even feel stronger in your faith than before because you will think that you have now faced a lot of the difficult stuff with your faith in tact. But, don't stop there, for you have done nothing but hear the defense's argument. But, after you've done that (if you do it at all and no matter how long it takes) let me know and then I'll point you to some other things, if you want. Again, I am not trying to convince you, just expose you to some things so that you can begin to understand why Lilly and I don't believe in Mormonism anymore. (You'd have to ask Jana why she doesn't believe anymore if you want to understand her).

Your brother-in-law,



Anonymous said...

Congrats on leaving the church, and way to keep it up even with opposition from your family.

Mom said...

I applaud your brother-in-law. He makes a great deal more sense than you.

Hüffenhardt said...

Commenter (I feel weird addressing you as Mom as I don't know you and you obviously are not my mom),

You are welcome to your opinion. You suggested that my post did not make sense to you. May I clarify something for you?

adam said...

I don't know if I would recommend going to apologetics first, but I see your reasoning there. I don't know if there is any unbiased source, but some are better than others.

Anonymous said...

Good for you. When I was an undergraduate in college I studied Hinduism, Buddhism, and I took various cultural anthropology classes, in which I learned that most religions are very similar to each other, with similar creation stories, and were designed to make citizens do what the ruling class commanded as well as to provide a set of morals for people to follow. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be abused. You may be interested in reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakuer; I'd be interested in your perspective on that book (about Mormonism).

prashant said...

I don't know if there is any unbiased source, but some are better than others.

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