Friday, April 20, 2012

Is the Spirit Evidence of God?

The Witness of the Holy Ghost is often cited as evidence of the Gospel, and even as evidence of the existence of God. I know from personal experience that religious experiences can be very powerful. But I now think there are good reasons to question whether they are really evidence of the divine:

  1. Religious experiences tend to be culturally specific and socially influenced. Most people’s religious experiences tend to lead them to believe in either the religion they were raised in, or the religion of their friends. Our feelings in general tend to be strongly influenced by our peers, and religious feelings seem to be the same.
  2. Religious experiences often contradict each other. If you think one religion is right, you have to admit that most people’s religious experiences lead them to the wrong conclusion. Even people who have been exposed to the “right” religion have experiences that lead them to other religions. LDS church leaders seeking the spirit often disagree on what God wants [1].
  3. Memories change over time. Powerful religious experiences are often not recorded clearly and specifically until long after they've occurred. Especially when a story is retold several times, its main points tend to be increasingly emphasized and then exaggerated over time. The memory itself will change accordingly [2]. A good example is the story of Brigham Young’s “transfiguration,” which grew from a story about Brigham Young’s leadership presence into a story of him transforming in appearance and speech into Joseph Smith [3].
  4. Confirmation Bias causes us to remember the experiences that confirm our beliefs. We tend to forget all the times we prayed or “had impressions” and nothing remarkable happened. We also go through so many experiences, that what seem like amazing coincidences are actually very likely to occur occasionally. If those seemingly amazing coincidences confirm our beliefs in some way, you can bet that story will be remembered and shared.
  5. Even very spiritual people are often wrong. Even blessings from Apostles sometimes do not come to pass. One good example is this story:
  6. “When he was eleven year old, James Talmage accidentally blinded his younger brother Albert with a pitchfork. At age thirty-one, while writing the first draft of “The Articles of Faith,” James asked members of the First Presidency and the Twelve to administer to his brother. They inquired if he had the faith to be healed after twenty years of blindness, and Albert said “Yes.” In the Priesthood ordinance of healing, they promised him a complete restoration of his sight. James recorded his equally unconditional expectation for the fulfillment of this apostolic blessing. Days passed, then weeks, then months, and Albert remained blind. Years passed, and Albert received equally emphatic promises of restored sight from other apostles and prophets. He remained blind the rest of his life. Did either brother experience religions doubts as a consequence? The diaries of James E. Talmage do not say so specifically, but they do indicate his own bewilderment and ultimate resignation about the non-fulfillment of Priesthood blessings given and received in absolute faith.” [4]

All of this is to say that spiritual experiences are not surprising. In order for evidence to provide strong confirmation of a theory, the evidence must be different than what we would otherwise expect. Given what we know about human psychology, most spiritual experiences do not meet this standard, and hence do not provide strong confirmation of either the Gospel of the existence of God. I conclude that religious experiences, although powerful, are not reliable guides to truth. I am all for seeking after and having spiritual experiences in our lives, and I try to nurture myself spiritually (meaning mentally and emotionally) as well. But when determining the nature of physical reality, I think that reliable, repeatable, and verifiable evidence should definitely have precedence.

[1] The Mormon Hierarchy series by D. Michael Quinn illustrates the many disagreements church leaders have had on many subjects.
[4] D. Michael Quinn, “To Whom Shall We Go?”, Sunstone #137, May 2005.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Android vs. iOS

I just switched from iOS to Android a few days ago. I used to be carrying around a 4th generation iPod Touch with me (along with a Nokia 5310), and I just recently switched to a Samsung Galaxy S Blaze, which is pretty much a Galaxy S II but is a little smaller. It’s made me appreciate a few things about iOS: its slickness, ease-of-use, simplicity, its lack of bloatware and redundancy, and how easy it is to find top-quality apps in a well-organized app store. But there is a one attribute that I LOVE about Android: customizability. The launchers are AWESOME! With iOS, I was getting bored of its interface and I couldn’t change it at all. With Android, I can change its look and feel very easily, which is a lot of fun.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Moral Progress

After listening to religious leaders bemoan the “moral degradation” of society this weekend at the LDS General Conference, I thought I would write about the moral progression that humanity is undergoing. I’m going to cover some of the biggest steps forward in morality that we’ve seen in most modern developed societies over the last several centuries, although we still need more progress in many of these areas.
  1. Cessation of seeing disasters as a curse of God. Some religious people once opposed vaccinations [1] because they thought they violated the will of God. I’m glad those views are not held today. I think the eradication of smallpox is one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind. Smallpox killed 300-500 million people during the 20th century, more than three times as many killed in all wars combined. The fact that we can eradicate diseases shows that much suffering is not necessary in any way.
  2. Cessation of witch-hunts: Between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed during witch-hunts in Europe during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries [2]. People who are “different” in some way have long been treated poorly.
  3. Treatment of mental illness. In the middle ages, madness was often considered “a mixture of the divine, diabolical, magical and humoral” [3]. This problem still exists today: “A 2008 study by Baylor University researchers found that clergy in the US often deny or dismiss the existence of a mental illness. Of 293 Christian church members, more than 32 percent were told by their church pastor that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness, and that the cause of their problem was solely spiritual in nature, such as a personal sin, lack of faith or demonic involvement.” [4] Seeing mental illness as a function of brain structure is a step forward. I hope those steps continue until we see that the mind is entirely a result of brain structure [5].
  4. Incorrect beliefs that masturbation causes insanity have been abandoned.
  5. Abolition of slavery. “In the 1860s, Southern preachers defending slavery also took the Bible literally. They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, ‘slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling’ (Ephesians 6:5), or ’tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect’ (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.” [6]
  6. Abandonment of Biblical stoning. We don’t stone to death stubborn children. We don’t stone people who worship other Gods, or gather sticks on Sunday, or are not virgins when they get married [7].
  7. Cessation of physical disciplining of children. The Bible says “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Child psychologists assure us that children are better off if they are not physically disciplined. I’m glad we’re listening to the psychologists instead of the Bible.
  8. Acceptance of medical treatment over superstitious or religious treatments of illness.
  9. General decrease in wars and other violence [8].
  10. Rise of democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries. The outcome is uncertain, but the hope for positive change is strong.
  11. Significant increase in the educational level of the general public, over the last several decades.
  12. Giving women the right to vote. The feminist movement generally has opened doors to all kinds of opportunites for women.
  13. Making abortion a legal right [9]. This is probably the one step forward that will remain controversial for a long time.
  14. Availability and acceptance of contraceptives. Even the LDS church has reversed their original position, and now accepts and even promotes the use of birth control by married couples, although they still pressure married couples to have many kids. I wish the Catholic church would change to a reasonable position on contraception.
  15. The granting civil rights to everyone, regardless of race.
  16. Seeing racial discrimination as wrong. The LDS church abandoned official racial discrimination in 1978, which is wonderful.
  17. The realization that homosexuality is natural to many people, and is largely immutable. The societal acceptance of gays and lesbians will be a tremendous blessing to them [10]. The legalization of gay marriage will be a great achievement, and a significant moral step forward. Just as many of the steps above were once controversial but now enjoy widespread acceptance, I feel confident that gay marriage will someday enjoy that same widespread acceptance.

Are we coming out of pristine past, where morality was much better? No. Is society collapsing, out of “moral degradation?” No. In fact, I think people are happier and better off today than at almost any point in our past. We’ve seen significant moral progress and are likely to see more in the short-term future. Democracy is on the rise in many places in the world, tolerance and acceptance have become more widespread, medical and technological advances have improved lives and will continue to do so. It is my hope that the wonderful moral progress we’ve seen will continue unabated, creating a brighter future for us all.