Posts by John Larsen:

Part 3: Amen and Amen

At the end of every talk and prayer in a Mormon service, the speaker pronounces “amen” which is followed by the audience repeating “amen”. The word roughly means “so be it” and is a way for the respondents to voice their public approval and support for what was said. It takes the private thoughts of one individual and gives them group ownership. But it serves a more subtle yet powerful purpose. It demonstrates group acquiescence. It show cohesion of ideas and sets the bounds on what beliefs and norms are tolerated and promoted in the group. Even if only half of the audience verbalizes it, the collective volume will impress on any listener the groups unified approval of the message. Individuals in the group will accept the idea as the normative thinking of the group.

Different organizations and institutions have differing degrees of required cohesion in thought and action. Little is required in a coffee shop other than the desire to purchase coffee. But in other institutions it is required to identify with the community values and give an outward showing of support and group membership. For some groups, such as the LDS church, it is imperative that a solidarity of thought be projected and maintained and little-to-no dissent is allowed, verbalized or otherwise. Groups benefit from the mass of participants who appear to be in a state of agreement. There is an implied consent involved in any group, but when it is made overt, it becomes even more powerful in managing what adherents believe is acceptable to think, say and do. Not everyone speaks, but it is expected that those who are participating principally agree with the positions of the group–thus the power of the “amen”. More

Part 2: The Vanguard

There are many terms that get employed in metaphor so often that they begin to lose any real meaning. “The Vanguard” is one of them. In the age of machine guns and smart bombs, the term has lost much of its impact, but it is worth looking at one more time. In ancient battles the vanguard were the first troops to enter battle. The vanguard was responsible for the first wave of attack, and the vanguard always suffered the worst casualties. Battle has always been a nasty affair. It is brutal. And the kinds of battles over religion, family, and belief we are waging today can be equally as brutal. The scars are not physical, but the emotional scars can run deeper and have a more lasting effect.

Historically speaking, battles were often very short–many times a matter of minutes–and the important actions by a few were often the pivotal points to entire conflicts. The rest of the troops were often there only for defense or support. Even in very large battles the actions of the few brave souls that rushed in first made all of the difference. The vanguard advances the battle; the vanguard determines what the fronts are; the vanguard determines when and where the war can end. More

Part 1: Here I Stand

My relationship with Mormonism is complex. I have served as a commentator, critic, research, occasional defender, and a former member. I have been in the shoes of the skeptic and the believer; I have lived on both sides of the fence. My views on Mormonism represent a natural growth and progression—one that I think has been healthy and productive although it has proceeded through many patches of personal suffering. Real growth often entails pain and moving from one stage of life to another and is usually not easy.

My progression out of Mormonism began early in my childhood. Seeds of doubt were planted very young that took a long time to germinate and grow. I was never in hurry to get out of the Church and never really wanted to do so. Mormonism was not just my faith it was also my place in the world. It represented who I was and how I interacted with the world and was a large part of our family and cultural identity. Following my faithful mission and my return to BYU, I sought ways to make the faith work even though the gulf between the Church and reality were increasingly at odds. The world view that was perpetuated by the Church and the reality that was supported by reason, observation and science were irreconcilable when given more than a surface view. I believe there was always with me uneasiness—a general sense that something was just not right which grew over time to the point of being unbearable. Of course, during this phase I usually bought into the party line perpetuated by the Church which suggested that any problems were not with the system, but were with me. More

The Spiritual Turing Test

Imagine that a person is sitting in a large room filled with many computers. At each computer terminal an individual sits interacting with their own computer. Each person has a monitor and a keyboard, but the actual computer unit cannot be accessed accept through interacting with the computer via the keyboard and monitor.

The individual at the computer can shape the way the computer works by typing into the computer information and instructions. Likewise, the computer feeds back information and instructions to the user. However, the computer program can be a bit erratic. It doesn’t always do exactly what the user tells it to do. It often mixes up information it was given, and sometimes it appears to just randomly issues strange information and instructions. Since no one knows exactly how the computer program works, some think that this information comes from outside sources. Users can change just about every aspect of the way the computer works, if they are patient enough. They can change the way the text looks, how it says thing and how it interacts with the user. However, they cannot control it completely; it still reacts to some things in unpredictable ways. More

Fundamentalism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a fundamentalist religion.

Edelweiss

In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music the Character of Captain Von Trapp sings the song “Edelweiss”. At the cusp of World War II, the characters are facing the destruction of an idyllic period of their history and a subsequent rush into the tragic future. The song is a nostalgic lament for what is about to be lost, but should have been forever. Through the voice of the character, the song expresses his love for his homeland of Austria. The melancholy melody and words of longing express a love for an Austria that would soon live no more.

But the unfortunate truth is that the song doesn’t really pine for what was to be lost, but really for something that never existed in the first place. The Austria that exists in The Sound of Music is a dream within a dream. The song really laments the loss of a dream that has crashed into reality. This is not just the reality of the war but the reality of the situation. Austria was not just a victim of the German war machine, it helped produce it. The same homeland the produced the edelweiss also played and instrumental role in the development of the Nazi movement and the horrors of World War II. More

Unhealthy Organization Checklist

Sometimes we find ourselves involved in organizations, governments and communities that might be psychologically unhealthy to us or our communities. As a public service, I have written a few points you can use to check to see if an organization might be consider dangerous or unhealthy

  • There are elections with only one candidate up for each office.
  • All members are expected to vote in unison.
  • The term “beloved” is applied to a living leader by other leaders of the organization.
  • Loyal members calling for reform or change are purged or otherwise silenced.
  • There are no means for membership to appeal a decision.
  • The group is willing to break up families or other social structures to further or preserve its own organizations.
  • Members are encourage to look and dress the same. Uniformity is encourage or required in clothing, haircuts, jewelry, etc.
  • Life events are controlled by the organization. For example, you cannot marry without leadership approval.
  • There is a organizationally controlled media including television, radio and newspapers. All outside media is cast as suspect.
  • The organization is overly focused on winning over vulnerable populations such as the youth, those who are grieving or those in financial distress.
  • The group is involved in many business or monitory transaction wholly unrelated to the central mission of the organization.
  • Members are encourage or required to never say anything negative about the leadership.
  • The organization uses litigation as a means to silence dissident membership or outside organizations speaking against the group.
  • Community leaders are chosen by the central organization. Local communities have no say in who their representatives will be.
  • The governance structure of the central organization is ambiguous, hidden or unknown.
  • Obedience to the central organization is encourage over all other values.
  • All finances are kept secret.
  • The leadership of the organization is preoccupied with the most intimate details of member’s lives including finances, sex and personal relationships.
  • Leadership tends to speak of the victim-hood of the organization even in endeavors where the organization has a majority or controlling influence.
  • Organizational history is overly sentimentalized and unflattering information is edited out of official documents.
  • The organization insists that it has primacy or is more important than all other organizations.
  • The group has an almost obsessive focus on the outward appearances of organizational buildings and properties, grass is meticulously cut, no litter is ever found, grounds are always perfect.  A great deal of time and effort is spent on this resource.

Discretion and Success Go Together

Years ago I worked at a police department. One of the detectives came in from a drug raid and announced that porn causes drug abuse and crime. His proof? Every house he had looked through while serving a search warrant had yielded a stash of porn. For our detective, that was absolute 1:1 causality. At the time I responded to him, “maybe every house has a stash of porn, you just only see the ones with search warrants.” I remember that he just looked at me.

We find out all sorts of things about people when they get caught. However, we seem to forget that we seldom find out about these same things when people don’t get caught. There are many activities that people successfully engage in that you don’t hear about because they are indeed successful in their secrecy. Many of these activities are things that are sensitive or otherwise embarrassing if known. So people have a strong reason for keeping them private. But this can give the perception that these activities lead to the negative effects in disproportionate numbers.

It is simply not true. While there may be marriages in the ward breaking up due to porn use, it might be possible that 90% of the other men were also looking at porn and the rest of them have healthy marriages. The vast majority of people who who drink, masturbate, pick their nose, fool around and otherwise engage in naughty behaviors do not suffer any real adverse effects. In fact, these activities might be a genuine source of happiness in their lives.

The causality connection between sin and devastating life events is not as strong as the salacious reports would have you believe. If the truth were really known–if we really knew the extent of bad behavior–we would probably find out that most activities that we take very seriously happen without adverse effects. We would probably be amazed at the number of drug takers, swingers, fornicators and otherwise sinners living happily among us (not that I am advocating any of these things.) The simple fact is, we have no idea how many people engage is such things because we do not see the negative effects in the majority of cases.

The downside of this phenomena plays out for religious institutions, especially those that like to take retribution–such as excommunication–against their membership. The churches will use the secrecy of “the successful” to bolster its narrative of negative consequence for disobedience. They do this by inflating the seeming consequences by point to the cases where things blew up. This is one of the reasons that the churches promote both public shaming (such as divorce) and private disclosure (such as confession). They have a strong interest in keeping some sin secret so it doesn’t seem to be normal behavior. They use the discretion of the successful–the fact that those who pull it off don’t often talk about it out-loud–to make it seem as if the consequences are worse then they actually are.

I am not advocating that everyone come out of the closet, but I am suggesting that the easy, knee jerk response to “sin” might be over-hyped. People need to take personal accountability, but the negative effects of some wild lifestyle choices may not be as apparent as it seems.

Sex, Religion & Negative Externalities

In economic theory, an externality is a cost or benefit that is experienced by parties outside of an exchange. These can be both good and bad. If two people are involved in an exchange that I am not a participant in and I experience some damage or bonus, that is an externality. When the externality is a bad thing for outsiders, this is referred to as a negative externality. A common negative externality is pollution. The company manufacturing the product and the individuals purchasing the product may not feel the effects of the pollution that is experienced by others in the surrounding population.

Socially, there are many behaviors that we engage in that have potential negative eternalities. For example, if you and I have a picnic in the park and leave our trash around, that is a negative externality. Many of our laws and moral teachings are put in place to minimize or eliminate the negative repercussions of individual behavior on society as a whole.

There are many moral teachings that provide personal benefit when followed. There is another class of principles that mainly provides benefits to the broader community. And, of course, many rules are a combination of both. But there is a strong inclination for the community, particularly in the form of religion, to be hyper-aggressive in limiting individuals’ personal freedom for the benefit of the community. Society can benefit at the expensive of individuals. This has given evolutionary rise to organizations that can thrive and grow even though the net effect on many individuals is negative.

Let us take sex as an example. There can be large costs to individuals by engaging in certain sexual behaviors. Disease, pregnancy, heart break, loss of reputation and damaged relationships can all be potential side effects. Many of these side effects also have huge negative externalities. Society must often foot the cost of health care for diseases and pregnancies or the social costs of divorce. Take for example the classic case of a single pregnant teenager with no means of support. Society is often left to bear the costs. Often, the costs can be enormous when taken in the long run as young single parents are more likely to live in poverty and their children have an increased tendency to struggle educationally and engage in anti-social behaviors.

Religion has provided huge advantages to communities by helping to control the negative externalities generated by irresponsible individual behavior. By discouraging the kinds of behaviors that are likely to end up costing society, it could be said that they provide an overall benefit. But sometimes this comes at a high price to the individual. Shunning, denying access to social functions, humiliation, tales of eternal punishments and other religious constructs make the imposed punishments extreme in their psychological effect.

Religion tends to over-extend the net when it comes to rules and punishments. For example, many teenagers need rules and guidance because of their underdeveloped sense of self and experience to draw upon. These rules can create very positive results for society. But if these same rules are applied universally, the net is cast too wide. Healthy sexual behavior between consenting adults can be unduly stigmatized. If the same sexual behavior is restricted among two middle-aged, divorced adults, you might have a situation where individuals who are emotionally mature enough to engage in sexual behavior might rush into another marriage, since sex before marriage is prohibited. The family stress suffered by such ill thought out marriages can be devastating. Alternatively, a consensual sexual relationship would likely cause no harm at all and would likely result in a net psychological positive.

Sex can be wonderful, gratifying and bonding. It can even be these things for people who are not married. It can even be positive in some of the more taboo forms, such as one night stands. Refusing to have sexual experiences can be detrimental to the long term emotional health of individuals or relationships. While discouraging sex among the youth of society might be the right course, religion’s over-simplified moralizing can have a negative effect for the majority (the adults).

But religion is greedy and tends to land upon morals that become self-serving for the churches. This can result in serious psychological damage. Since for many, sex is core to personal identity, the strict control of sex gives religion one of the most effective and complete controls over the individual. These same over-applied externality controls can be seen in other areas. A child might be harmed by exposure to media containing sex and violence because of their inability to understand and process these ideas. However, the same media might enrich and educate an adult make them more understanding and more compassionate. To take the position that all sexually-oriented and violent media is bad is an over-extension and results in a net negative for mature adults.

Society, generally in the form of religion, has evolved to minimize the negative externalities of individual behavior. However, there are very few checks to keep religions for over applying their “morals” in a way that, in the aggregate, ends up being worse for many individuals. When these individual costs are added up, it is possible for the sum total net negative to outweigh the good deployed by religions.

Christmas beyond Christ

Since my wife and I no longer consider ourselves Christians, one question we are often asked is “how do you celebrate Christmas without Christ?” The answer is, “very well, thank you.”

Some religious people like to divide the world in to a religious/secular dichotomy. But for those of us who reject the divine origin of religion, all religious traditions are a product of human creativity and ingenuity. There is much to be admired and cherished among the world’s religious traditions precisely because we reject their metaphysics. This makes them a product of the human family. For a secularist, all religion is just another facet of secularism both for good and for bad.

There is really an open secret about Christmas–it has very little to do with Jesus. As exhibit A I offer all of the Christians who are constantly insisting that we put Christ back into Christmas. They are right, Christ is an afterthought. Most of what we do in celebrating and bringing meaning to the Christmas season is outside of the Christian narrative and many times the connections to the life of Jesus are awkward and comical.

I think Christmas represent the very best of humanity. It is a hodge-podge of mixed traditions and eras. It has buried in it the hopes and fashions of a hundred generations. It is something to be admired and considered simply for what it represents in the reality of what it is. It is not limited to what some would have us believe it means to further their religious agenda. Christmas functions just as clearly in the story telling of the Grinch and Rudolf as it does with the Three Kings.

Christmas drives at the heart of what it means to be human. It celebrates mankind’s loving kindness for our families, for our friends, and for our fellow beings. It is a time where we are meant to look beyond ourselves and engage others. During the time we give gifts, have parties and enjoy one another’s company. it is these activities that make the season special. It is also a time of nostalgia and remembering the past–considering what make us “us”. This is why even Christians are as likely to decorate their homes with tiny villages representing an idyllic 1950’s American village as they are to put out a model nativity.

My wife and I have chosen to raise our children without any supernatural belief. This means a belief in both gods and Santa Claus. We chose to raise our children without the misrepresentation that Santa Claus is real. But that doesn’t mean we reject all myth. We always make clear that things like flying reindeer and minotaurs don’t exist in the real world, but they are welcome in fantasy. We treat Christmas stories the same way that most Christians treat the world of Harry Potter or Disney Land.

So we embrace all that Christmas has to offer. We sing religious hymns and secular stories. Santa Claus’s image is in our home. We watch Frosty and Miracle on 34th Street, but we do so with the full knowledge that miracles do not happen. If we want good and peace in the world, we must make it ourselves. We do not wait around for visits from supernatural creatures, we buy and give to make these things happen. And at the heart of it, isn’t that really the true meaning of Christmas?

Secrecy and Control

The recent Wikileaks release of the diplomatic communiques has me thinking about institutions and secrecy–particularly as it relates to big organizations like the Church. Organizations are by nature amoral, since they have no thoughts or feelings in-and-of themselves. Imbalance of information leads to power for the information holder. Secrecy becomes a way to gain an edge over others, and promotes the power and influence of the organization in an undirected, evolutionary way. The secrecy of an organization tends to grow unless checked by either external or internal mechanisms.

A fascinating aspect of secrecy is that it seems to be a zero sum game. The more an organization demands its own sphere of secrecy, the more it seems to be interested in intruding upon the secrecy of others. Take the most secret organizations, like the CIA or the KGB. These organizations spend the most time prying into the privacy of other institutions and individuals while guarding their own details with extreme prejudice. You can almost guarantee formulaically that the more an institution guards it own privacy and secrecy the more it will be intruding into everyone else’s secrets.

The diplomatic communiques are embarrassing because of their central irony. They reveal a disregard for the privacy and secrecy of others while depending on their own secrecy from outsider view. What they reveal is the duplicitous behavior of “diplomats” and bad behavior which relies on lack of transparency. It seems that accountability and secrecy are also in inverse proportions.

The Mormon Church has long been known for its secrecy especially in the later half of the 20th Century. It is no coincidence that this is the period in which the Church’s General Authorities began to be more frequently recruited from secular business backgrounds such as executives and lawyers. Most of the Church’s internal policy and operation is done in complete and most are unaware of the extent of the operations of the Church or its internal workings.

The Church’s secrecy extends to nearly all of its operations and most members are completely in the dark as to the daily dealings of the Church. Since the Church participates in business actives that most would not normally be associate with religious organizations, some of its secrecy can be understood as standard (although not necessarily moral) business practice. The Church uses holding companies and other cooperate tricks to obfuscate its holdings, it buries responsibilities in layers of bureaucracy and middle management, it hides traceability of decisions to the highest officers, and refuses to release basic financial information.

This secrecy extends to the ecclesiastical side as well. We know who the top officers of the hierarchy are, but we have no idea which officer is really responsible for what. We don’t know who is responsible or accountable for decisions. Any checks and balances on the abuse of ecclesiastical power are either not in place or undisclosed. The selection process of leadership, or their eventual removal is completely non-transparent. There is no way to tell if tithing funds are spent on feeding the poor or expanding profitable enterprises.

While guarding their own information, the Church demands virtually all personal information from its membership, even probing into the most intimate details of their lives. I have friends who were asked by bishops or stake presidents details about their frequency of sexual intercourse, positions used, and specific sexual acts engaged in, all in extreme detail. Sometimes these question occurred when the members were underage. I know of instances where bishops have demanded to see pay stubs to verify income levels and donations to the Church. There is literally nothing so small or personal that it cannot be asked by the Church authority, and the membership has no recourse.

This creates a power imbalance between the membership and the Church in which the Church holds all of the cards. Members must pay tithing but the Church does not have to disclose. Members must covenant not to disclose temple secrets, but bishops may freely share personal sexual details with their councilors, high council, stake presidency or whomever else they see fit. Members must fear disclosure of embarrassing information or the innuendo implied in public excommunication without a clear way to appeal if the Church has overstepped its bounds.

there is a strong motivation for institutions to cover up embarrassments for the “greater good”. Think about the Catholic Church priest sex scandals. I believe that for the most parts Cardinals and Bishops who moved offending priests and covered up the priest’s transgression did so not in an attempt to further the cause of molestation, but rather to protect the parish and the Church in general. This motivation also underlies much of the duplicitous and dishonest cover-ups that we just witnessed in the government scandal. But if this behavior is not checked it will always lead to corruption.

I personally believe that the more transparent individuals and institutions are, the more honest and equitable will be their behavior. Hopefully, this diplomatic exposure will force the US to a more straightforward and honest stand in international affairs. Unfortunately, once the shroud of secrecy has been lowered, it is easy to assume that everything behind the curtain is corrupt. I doubt that is true. I believe that for the Church, most of its dealing and actions are done honestly and in good faith. But everything has the taint of secrecy. The Church does itself a disservice by its private action. It would do well to open up and reveal much more, both to increase its moral institutional standing and to expose internal corruption in an effort to dig it out.

Not of the World, yet Engaging the World

After years of thinking and debating about the Church, both as an insider and as an outsider gadfly, I have come to one certain conclusion. Most Mormons are completely incapable of engaging the outside world about their faith. It is not a matter of intelligence. Mormons on the whole are smart, creative and well-informed. But for some reason this does not extend to their faith or the history of their own faith and doctrines.

I am not the only one to realize this. Elder Ballard for the past couple of years has encouraged membership to engage the world via social media and the like. Frequent articles in Church News and Mormon Times also echo this theme. But it is always with the caveat to “keep it simple” and with subtle warnings to not get in over their heads. Ballard has asked the membership to take it to the streets, but Mormons are bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Why “Keep it Simple”? For one thing, in the correlation era (1960-present), Mormons have been feed a steady stream of pablum for over a generation now. Any attempt to dive deeper than the surface will likely result in disaster. The Mormon propaganda machine never really caught on outside of the Church, but it created millions inside the Church who can’t apply reasoning skills to their own faith to any degree. Those who try often fail miserably. A quick look at Facebook or Youtube displays the painful embarrassment of many of these efforts.

Even those who understand the issues have been trained for years to not take a stand or speak out. You see this repeated in the unwillingness of anyone, including Church leaders and spokespeople, to speak authoritatively on nearly anything. Anything they do say is so lawyered-up as to be completely insubstantial. Even groups that have the skills and motivation to defend the Church, such as apologetic organizations, tend to spend more time attacking their opponent’s character than their arguments. Alternatively, they attack the foundations of epistemology and science in a sophistic attempt to undermine “knowing” in general.

Unfortunately for those in the Church Office Building, the information age has been a game changer. Missionaries have been trained in the art of magician’s redirection to shuffle off any questions and replace them with emotional appeals and reliance on feelings. But with the Internet, this method has become increasingly impossible. An hour with Google will give a moderately educated investigator enough ammunition to completely befuddle the average missionary. By all reports, contacts and converts with psychologically normal individuals in the industrial world has shrunk to near zero.

We’ve experienced this on the podcast. Although many of the regulars and guests are “active” Mormons, sometimes the criticism is levied that we do not represent the majority of Mormons. That may indeed be true. But the majority of Mormons really can’t be represented in an intellectual, critical discussion of Church topics because they are often unable or unwilling to engage in these topics.