November 10, 2008

The Secularist's "Golden Questions"

Recently I've been asked by various former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints some questions which appear to come from a common source, given that they are the same questions in the same order. They are:

  • If the church isn't true, would you want to know?
  • What could persuade you that the church isn't true?
           I would like to find the common source, if there is one, for this line of questioning. It seems to imply that members of the LDS Church wouldn't want to know if their foundation of faith was nothing but sand. On the face of it, the question seems somewhat condescending. But perhaps it is simply a way to start a discussion in which a critic can discern whether the person with whom they speak would be open to the possibility, and if not the conversation could end there. I can appreciate that feeling; rarely do I feel like debating people who insist that nothing can change their minds. Still, because I value intellectual honesty my answer to the first question might be "of course I would want to know." If the Church isn't true, I would likely try to find something else to occupy my time. I think I would, anyway. I know of many former members who still spend a lot of time talking about, criticizing, finding fault with, or even simply researching, Mormonism after losing their faith.

How would you answer the first question? If the Church isn't true, would you want to know?

The second question deals with what evidence one would accept that would convince one that the church isn't what it claims to be. This one is a bit more tricky because the one asking the question and the one being asked may have different expectations about the reliability and weight of various types of evidence. Maybe I could respond by asking "well what have you got?" Or I could answer by saying "I would accept absolute, solid, incontrovertible, decisive, evidence," but what would that be?  Perhaps a better underlying question would be "what can count as evidence of truth?"


How would you answer the second question: what could persuade you that the church isn't true?

24 comments:

Ardis E. Parshall said...

I wouldn't ever get to the second question because the "if" clause of the first question has no meaning. How can you possibly answer a question that begins with the semantic equivalent of "If religious concrete sings about greasy sunshine ..."

BHodges said...

A good point, Ardis. I also recognized the problem with question 1 on its surface, in that hypotheticals can lead to all sorts of fun questions. That's one reason I felt the need to tackle the question for what it seems to be implying, namely, that people who have faith that the Church is true haven't been introspective enough. They seem to also be gauging one's willingness to consider the possibility that they could be wrong about their religion. So the question itself is rather poorly done, but if viewed as saying "I don't believe the Church is true, would you like to know why?" then perhaps it is more useful.

Jeff G said...

So how are these question "secular"?

BHodges said...

I am employing it in this post title in the sense of being separate from religion, or entailing a fundamental skepticism of what is commonly called religion.

Technically, Jeff, I am not convinced that the term "secularist" is a very useful term. I view the concept of religion as entailing much more than claiming to believe in something called "God" or attending a church. So using the term here should be seen more as a device to separate those who claim to believe in God and those who do not. I realize these are not necessarily distinct categories.

These ideas tie into my questions on what we allow as evidence, what we demand of evidence, what we hope evidence to demonstrate, our ultimate desires, etc.

So how then are the questions secular? I have consistently been asked them of folks who would define themselves as not believing in any God or religion. They now turn back to critique their former faith in part by asking these questions of those who still believe.

Clinton said...

I read your post and I am struggling to know how to respond. First, I think you are entirely wrong in your supposition that these questions come from a common source. These are not pre-planned questions placed on the right hand margin of the "Secular Missionary Guide." They are questions that are natural and I would suggest your questioner is asking them sincerely. They are not meant as questions to catch you in some rhetorical trap.

The first question is probably entirely sincere. Leaving any organization whose principles impacted one deeply and whose people you dearly loved is a heart-wrenching experience. They know it is deeply painful. Perhaps, they are simply asking if you really want to know as to save your their painful experience. They are giving you a warning that what they have to say could hurt you as it has hurt them.

If your questioner is anything like others I have met who have turned their backs on their beloved institution, they have probably been in vehement arguments with their previous comrades in arms where they carefully delineated their 20+ reasons for making their decision to part ways. These conversations probably did nothing to sway their previous compatriots. They are just trying to avoid getting emotionally involved in a fruitless discussion with you.

If you can at least answer the second question, they probably feel they can lay out a cogent argument that makes perfect sense. There will be one of three possible responses. (1) You will agree that you they were right and you were wrong. (2) You will agree they have might very good points and they are a bright intelligent person. However, due to the way you weigh the evidence, you have come to a different conclusion. After explaining your reasoning you will both leave on peaceful terms. (3) You will get mad because you have been bested and he can laugh as you walk away knowing he has won the argument.

Your questioner is asking you the second question for a VERY VERY good reason. He doesn't want to engage in a long meandering endless conversation that goes nowhere. If you can answer his second question there is an endpoint to the conversation and in the end the outcome will probably be the best response #2 in which you learned something and he learned something and you both better understand each other.


If you have been on a mission, I would have you reflect on how you questioned investigators.

M - "I have just shared with you Joseph Smith's First Vision. What do you think of this story?"

I - "I have a hard time believing it."

M - "If the story where true WOULD YOU WANT TO KNOW?"

I - "I guess so. After all if it is true it is a pretty important, Right?"

M - "You can know that this is true by praying to God. That is how I came to know Joseph Smith was a prophet."

I - "Uhhh Yea! Well emotions are very powerful but I don't think they are you best guide."

M - "WHAT COULD PERSUADE YOU THAT Joseph Smith was a prophet?"

I - "Well you said something about a book. I guess I could read it and see if it made sense to me. I guess I could go to your church and see if the people really acted in a Christ-Like manner...."

M - "Great! I couldn't agree with you more! Will you read 3 Nephi ... We have church at 8:00-11:00 ..."

BHodges said...

I read your post and I am struggling to know how to respond. First, I think you are entirely wrong in your supposition that these questions come from a common source. These are not pre-planned questions placed on the right hand margin of the "Secular Missionary Guide."

My suspicion was raised by the fact that 3 or 4 different people- unrelated to one another- happened to ask the same questions of me within the span of about one week. This very well could be coincidence. You'll note my supposition was clearly tempered when I stated: "I would like to find the common source, if there is one, for this line of questioning...

They are questions that are natural and I would suggest your questioner is asking them sincerely. They are not meant as questions to catch you in some rhetorical trap.

These questions can be employed as a rhetorical trap. It depends on the motivation behind the questions themselves. Again, I nowhere unequivocally stated these questions could only be rhetorical traps.

The first question is probably entirely sincere.

Again, in some cases most likely. In other cases likely not.

Leaving any organization whose principles impacted one deeply and whose people you dearly loved is a heart-wrenching experience. They know it is deeply painful. Perhaps, they are simply asking if you really want to know as to save your their painful experience. They are giving you a warning that what they have to say could hurt you as it has hurt them.

Indeed, you raise an interesting possibility. However, you'll also note in my post that I left the door open for other possibilities behind these questions: "But perhaps it is simply a way to start a discussion in which a critic can discern whether the person with whom they speak would be open to the possibility, and if not the conversation could end there. I can appreciate that feeling; rarely do I feel like debating people who insist that nothing can change their minds." You add hurt to the list of possibilities. I would certainly agree with you there.

These conversations probably did nothing to sway their previous compatriots. They are just trying to avoid getting emotionally involved in a fruitless discussion with you.

Seems like you agree with me when I earlier stated "I can appreciate that feeling; rarely do I feel like debating people who insist that nothing can change their minds."

If you can at least answer the second question, they probably feel they can lay out a cogent argument that makes perfect sense. There will be one of three possible responses. (1) You will agree that you they were right and you were wrong. (2) You will agree they have might very good points and they are a bright intelligent person. However, due to the way you weigh the evidence, you have come to a different conclusion. After explaining your reasoning you will both leave on peaceful terms. (3) You will get mad because you have been bested and he can laugh as you walk away knowing he has won the argument.

There are other possibilities, but as you note, learning how to weigh evidence in the discussion is a key part of this second question. As I analyze your comments they appear to largely agree with me, but for some reason I can't shake the feeling as though you feel you are correcting me in this regard.

Your questioner is asking you the second question for a VERY VERY good reason. He doesn't want to engage in a long meandering endless conversation that goes nowhere. If you can answer his second question there is an endpoint to the conversation and in the end the outcome will probably be the best response #2 in which you learned something and he learned something and you both better understand each other.

Indeed, agreeing on rules of evidence and terms before debating issues is important, as implied in the original post.


If you have been on a mission, I would have you reflect on how you questioned investigators.

This is why the post is titled "golden questions." We often referred to the questions you outlined as "golden questions." I hope that wasn't too subtle. ;)

BHodges said...

ps- thanks for the observations, clint. I especially like your addition of the possibility of hurt leading a person to ask question 1.

Clark Goble said...

I may be in the minority but I find the questions quite reasonable. Of course any answer you give to the question is speculative. For instance it's akin to asking what it would take to believe someone loves your or doesn't love you. The problem is that our beliefs are something that happen. They aren't volitional. Thus we can't be sure what will change them. Only guess.

That said I think that if we found clear an unambiguous evidence that Joseph faked the plates that'd be a big one. If I had an unambiguous visitation with God telling me that Mormonism was false. There are plenty of examples. I don't expect to encounter any of them, mind you. But it's honestly not hard to think them up.

BHodges said...

Clark: I find the questions reasonable depending on who is asking and why. I believe introspection on these issues is good. I think they can be fruitful catalysts for good discussion if conducted in good faith.

Clinton said...

BHODGES: "It depends on the motivation behind the questions themselves."

Interesting point. What type of motivations could there be? I can think of only two. The first is because someone wants to have an interesting conversation. The second is that someone is trying to convince you they are correct and you are wrong. Both of these seem like perfectly acceptable motivations. What would be examples of inappropriate motivations?

Clinton said...

BHODGES: I think they can be fruitful catalysts for good discussion if conducted in good faith.

I agree they would be a fruitful catalyst. I think many people have never asked themselves the question of what it would take to make them disbelieve a dearly held maxim in their life. It is an important question.

Lets examine Clarks two possible answers:
(1) Joseph faked the plates - I know many people who believe the BoM is ahistorical and there were no plates who still consider themselves believing Mormons. This would concept would probably make your questioner go "WWWHHHAAATTT?
(2) If I had an unambiguous visitation with God - Word choice here is interesting. My study of Mormon history and my own personal experience with revelation and visions have led me to believe that ALL revelation is ambiguous.

In truth I think there is a presupposition within the second question that make it entirely naive.

Clinton said...

BHodges: Indeed, agreeing on rules of evidence and terms before ...

You are probably correct that I may largely agree with you. However, I do think that the posting does not fully explore the issue and that is why I am pushing upon certain points. This is of course the problem with ALL written media.

I think there is more here than just agreeing on rules before discussing. For some who have left the church they are entirely happy with their decision and they believe they have found a better life. I think they are correct. This is one of the points I think went unexplored in your posting. Note- I mean for them at their stage of development they are correct for themselves. At the same time their conclusions may not be correct for others.

The second point which I believe has gone unexplored in this posting is that for someone who is in a "secular" stage of their spiritual growth, these conversations often feel futile. In asking question #2 they are not simply laying down ground rules. They are trying to limit the conversation to a few cogent points so they can end the conversation quickly after laying out their arguments in vivid detail. They don't want to debate. They want to lay out the facts and allow you to draw a conclusion. Alternately, they simply want you to realize that for you your premise, "The Church is True," may be nonfalsifiable.

BHodges said...

clinton: Both of these seem like perfectly acceptable motivations. What would be examples of inappropriate motivations?

The assumptions behind the questions can certainly be unfortunate. For example, these questions have been asked of me in the past, and when answered, the response received at that point made it pretty clear the asker was not really interested in understanding what I said because they already knew the answer. The implication was that I clearly didn't want to know if the Church was not true, otherwise, I would no longer be a member. Truly wanting to know, to this questioner, is evidenced by leaving the Church. Conversely, to the missionaries in your example, truly wanting to know would lead to conversion. I think both views may be too simplistic.

(1) Joseph faked the plates - I know many people who believe the BoM is ahistorical and there were no plates who still consider themselves believing Mormons. This would concept would probably make your questioner go "WWWHHHAAATTT?

Clark was answering for himself. I would take him at his word that such a discovery would change his mind on fundamental issues.

I do think that the posting does not fully explore the issue and that is why I am pushing upon certain points. This is of course the problem with ALL written media.

Indeed, the post was meant as a catalyst to generate discussion rather than an exhaustive treatment of the two questions, their implications, etc. In forming the post this way I hoped to invite more discussion, which seems to have succeeded somewhat. I am trying to see what I can do to generate more reader interaction, as many of my posts generate a pretty good number of hits, but a pretty poor number of comments.

In regards to your last statement on setting parameters, I agree that such conversations can be frustrating in that all of the people who have asked me these questions have clung to (in my view) excessively positivistic assumptions.

Clinton said...

Bhodges: Clark was answering for himself.

I agree we should take Clark's answer at face value. My point in making the statement was that the questioner is just trying to hone his response. By knowing that the someone would not accept evidence that the BoM was ahistorical as data that the church was not true, the questioner can bypass this discussion altogether.

Clinton said...

Bhodges: these questions have been asked of me in the past, and when answered, the response ... made it pretty clear the asker was not really interested in understanding what I said ...

I am actually interested in how you answered the question. Did you give the questioner an answer to question #2. What was it? I am genuinely interested. I am also interested in what you mean when you said that the the asker was not interested in understanding what you said?

BHodges said...

My response, iirc, immediately led into their comment that belief in God was just like belief in Santa Claus, and other such things.

I think in one particular conversation I said something like "I would accept absolute, solid, incontrovertible, decisive, evidence," and then followed up by asking if this is possible, and also what type of evidence the questioner finds valid. This is when the conversation essentially broke down.

How about yourself?

Clark Goble said...

Clinton, there certainly are people who believe the Book of Mormon is fiction but are still Mormon. I confess I don't find that a rational belief. But if it works for them...

That was sort of my point though. We simply can't tell what will ultimately be persuasive. I know that for me if there wasn't a Moroni and plates that Mormonism becomes pointless. A strong liberal Mormonism that sees most of it as allegory is no better than being a liberal Lutheran in my mind. To me if you've allegorized that much Christianity itself becomes fairly pointless.

Once again that's not a slam on people who believe otherwise. Just that for me truth-claims are pretty important. Literary truth is insufficient to justify the sacrifices of Mormonism.

Regarding revelation and ambiguity. I think that quite a bit of revelation is ambiguous. I don't think all is - at least no more so than experience in general. So I think you're just assuming that there could be no unambiguous revelation. But given the question that's a bit of a no-no.

Clark Goble said...

BHodges, like you, I have found in the past - especially while talking with ex-Mormons - that there really wasn't good faith on the issues. That doesn't make the questions bad. Just that often questioners aren't really interested in discussion.

It goes both ways of course. Some Mormons don't understand why something isn't convincing to a non-Mormon.

Clinton said...

BHodges: How about yourself?

For me the answer to Q1 is a resounding yes. The answer to Q2 would be easy to answer. However, the usual secular answers concerning historicity of the BoM, JSmith's life choices, the church political activities, ect... would do little to affect my beliefs. Past conversations have centered around these issues. However, I largely agree with the secular humanist views on religion in general and Mormonism in particular on these issues. So they would do little to sway me. For me truth is pragmatic and the questioner would need to show me that there was a better path than being an active LDS member for me to accomplish my spiritual goals. Usually my questioner doesn't get to this point but the few that have usually agree that for me being LDS does in fact allow me reach my goals in the most straight forward manner.

However, this is only half of the answer to Q2. For me the person would have to show that the Mormon path does not lead from the exoteric church to the esoteric church. What we Mormons call the Church of the Firstborn. When one has travelled these inner roads one knows that Q2 is in fact meaningless.

Clinton said...

CG: I don't think all is - at least no more so than experience in general.

Good point! Lets throw the ball back in your court. What spiritual experience have you had that you would trust more than your own physical experience? OTOH do you only trust your spiritual experiences when they square with your physical experiences? What about the other way around? I am just asking to explore :-)

BHodges said...

RE: "truth is pragmatic", the counter may be that your religion's claims counter your utilitarian approach. (I am not necessarily arguing that they do, but it would likely be argued, I think).

Sione said...

Question #1. Yes.

Question #2. God would have to tell me. This may seem flippant and coy; but if God revealed the truthfulness of these things to start with; then he is going to be the one that gets me out of it.

Which poses a problem to my first answer. My willingness to be open minded to the "truthfulness" of the Gospel presupposes that I could consider the idea that God messed up in the first instance.

One may say that my theophany was not what I claim it was, but I cannot deny that God spoke to me, at my request, and poured out a wonderful flood of light and knowledge.

Big UP!

Lamanite

Clinton said...

BHodges: "truth is pragmatic", the counter may be that your religion's claims counter your utilitarian approach.

On the contrary I would say that my study of Mormonism has led me to the conclusion that God is a pragmatist.

BHodges said...

Clinton, perhaps the questioner moves onto the the second discussion about the FSM or the celestial teapot or something. Then you know things aren't going well imo.

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