We like to think in terms of “Ages.” In the sixties, it was the Age of Aquarius. Query Google with “age of …” and the big winner is “Age of Empires,” the computer game. The 18th century is called The Enlightenment (so well known, the “age of” was just dropped). Here’s my candidate to describe our current condition: The Age of Too Much Belief. It’s like people have more belief than they need for everyday needs, so it spills over into believing anything and everything. That vaccines are a government plot. That green tea is bad for your health. That Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Is there anything people won’t believe?
In earlier times, Americans were more aware of the possibility of being snookered and weren’t so easily bamboozled. (Just the number of casual words we have to describe being deceived is instructive.) Remember the American who said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”? That also carries an implicit warning: Don’t be a sucker. There’s the popular saying, “If you believe X, I have a bridge to sell you.” These days, there are a lot of Xs that people do in fact believe. It’s amazing there are any bridges left in our country.
Here is the paragraph that started me on this line of thinking, the perils of living in an Age of Too Much Belief. It’s from Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance (W. W. Norton & Co., 2016, new edition), page 371. The author was lamenting the poor luck of Sextus Empiricus, the greatest skeptic of the ancient world, to live at the dawn of the third century, which was another age of too much belief:
He [Sextus Empiricus] cannot have been a happy man. By the beginning of the third century AD, around the time when he was writing his defence of Pyrrhonist scepticism, the philosophical scene had turned into a sceptic’s nightmare. It was an age of believers, not of doubters, and people managed to believe a great deal. While Sextus and a handful of others tried to play off the doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics against one another, most thinkers preferred to try to combine them and then swallow the lot. Christianity, pagan mysticism, ghost-raising magic, Pythagorean numerological ramblings and assorted flavors of Eastern religion also turned up to join the feast.
Our general beliefs are devolving into the same mixed up mishmash of ideas that were seen in the third century and later. I’m not going to delve into the question of why so many Americans suddenly believe almost anything they read or hear on Fox News. Is it social media? That could be the problem, or just a symptom of a deeper problem. The focus, of course, is on why so many Mormons suddenly believe almost anything they hear. Is there something about being Mormon the predisposes one to believe unreasonable or untenable claims? (Sadly, that’s almost a rhetorical question.)
Mormons are asked to believe a lot of things on authority (the confident statement of this or that leader, past or present) and on faith (a claim lacking evidence persuasive enough to constitute reliable knowledge). You’ve heard “read, ponder, and pray” as the Mormon formula for building faith, except in recent years the “read” part and even the “ponder” part have received less emphasis. A spiritual experience, whether in prayer or in a meeting or hearing a hymn, whatever, checks the box and becomes a rhetorical anchor to your faith, generally expressed as knowledge. A spiritual experience, an emotional experience, a deeply moving experience, a hallucination, a dream — there is little or no discussion about the various mental states that might accompany such experiences or how to distinguish them. Of course they are mental states — what else could they be? In the strange syntax of Mormonism, “I believe” is understood as “I doubt,” whereas “I know” is what is uttered when one testifies of a belief. The bottom line is that despite talking about it all the time, faith and belief are acutely underanalyzed within Mormonism.
So maybe the recommended all-purpose truth algorithm that Mormons are taught and generally internalize is part of the explanation for why Mormons are even more belief-happy (they’ll believe anything) than the average belief-happy American. The solution? I doubt LDS leaders are going to modify or drop their useful formula for fomenting LDS belief. But at the very least, they should start singling out beliefs that should no longer be believed. This is generally only done when the questionable belief becomes a source of bad PR. So when Randy Bott, BYU professor, repeated racist LDS beliefs to a Washington Post reporter and it was subsequently published, suddenly the Church fell all over itself to state those things should no longer be believed. We need more of this, hopefully just because it’s the right thing to do, not just because it causes bad PR.
What we need are specific suggestions for things Mormon should not believe or should no longer believe. It’s like spring cleaning for the Mormon belief closet. I’ll start with a belief to discard: “If you pay your tithing, you’ll have *more* money, not less, at the end of the month.” It’s easy to see how this satisfies the Mormon truth algorithm: (1) It is stated by an authority figure (like every GA that talks about tithing); and (2) it makes listeners feel good because they want to believe it. Who doesn’t want more money at the end of the month? I would replace it with an accurate but still somewhat edifying statement that a leader could use, something like this: “Paying tithing is a financial sacrifice you should accept for the good of the Church and the Kingdom of God. We hope and we are confident that, in return, God will bless you in some general but unspecified way, but don’t expect a winning lottery ticket or a mystery deposit into your checking account. That’s not how sacrifice works. Keep in mind that in some cases of financial distress, the Church through its local leadership may provide short-term assistance to a struggling tithepayer to pay the bills for a month or two and put food on the table.”
In the comments, maybe you object to my claim that there is too much Mormon belief and that Mormons just believe too many things. If so, share a belief or two Mormons should be more willing to accept. If you agree with me, help out by offering your suggestion for a belief Mormons should no longer believe. Let’s clean out the closet. Let’s cut off some dead or decaying branches, that the Belief Tree might grow taller in coming years.
“I believe that every calling extended by my local leader(s) must be directly inspired and therefore, if I decline the calling, I’m acting expressly against the will of God.”
“I KNOW that Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God, second only to Christ in his righteousness and was a wonderful husband to Emma, his one and only wife…”
I no longer believe in official Church “doctrine” but even if I did I’d make the point that most of what we (LDS) believe is not actual doctrine. The examples I could use are endless. Think about it for a minute. Think of all the things you’ve been told or taught that are widely accepted among TBMs as being true. You’ll discover that most of it is not doctrine at all, just the philosophies of men (not women generally) mingled with scripture. I find that very frustrating.
Here’s a great example: The Family Proclamation. It’s quoted all the time as if it’s doctrine. Is it? How was it developed? Through revelation? Why was it developed? Because the Lord wanted us to know its contents or because the State of Hawaii prompted the Church to want legal standing on gay marriage. Who wrote it? Did President Hinckley write it (the Lord’s Prophet at the time) or was it developed via a committee of Q15s and Kirton McConkie? Why has the Family Proc not been canonized if we insist on quoting it every week?
Now, in terms of pure doctrine, it’s also true that virtually all Church doctrine has changed or been modified over time (even the nature of God) so there is that. But just pretend for a minute that current LDS teaching is THE doctrine. That still constitutes a small percentage of the total “truth” that we hear at Church among the TBMs. Again, it’s mostly philosophies and ideas mingled with scriptures and conference talks.
I wish we could do a kind of reset where we state: “This is what we believe”. But nobody really knows what that is. It’s a moving target and it has been that way forever (well, since 1820).
Previous Mormon circles often as the question “If you could change on thing about the Mormon church, what would you change?” And my answer is that we need to shed the teaching that someone else can receive revelation for you. I feel like shedding this one teaching would fix so many things. As Jade mentions, if my Bishop offers me a calling that doesn’t sit right, I turn it down and tell him why. If the prophet gives us general counsel, I get to decide what that means to me.
We outsourced our morality and decision making capabilities for generations because “even the elect can be deceived” and therefore “follow the prophet as he can’t lead you astray.” It seems like, because of COVID, members are finally starting to decide things for themselves (even if it’s on topics I vigorously disagree with them about). But because we were taught our whole lives that experts don’t really matter because, for example, the Lord can give a Bishop or a GA inspiration that trumps learning, the members are now looking in all the wrong places. As the kids say, we have a hot mess on our hands.
So I think members should give more credence to experts. And members should stop believing that other people know better than they do.
As far as conspiracy theory, mysticism is just so ingrained in our worldview that the kookiest stories are plausible when you believe in angels, a stone in a hat, BY being transfigured to JS, seagulls and crickets, or tithing and weather. I think this will get fixed as the internet exposes these stories to the youth.
It would be nice if the members believed that there are huge swaths of people throughout the world for whom the church is either not a good fit, or has beliefs they simply can’t accept. And then from there, it’s just a short hop to realize that the whole “one true church” belief just doesn’t add up.
We certainly are living in The Information Age, but despite the accessibility for more people to have instantly accurate information, the mediums and systems that transmit factual truth also permit falsehoods. And while one would like to think that facts and truth would dominate society . . . well, not always. So maybe we are just living through an Age of Individualism? Life is comfortable enough and systems are in place to permit being wrong just enough that folks can ignore facts and say/do whatever the heck they want?
I think the belief that “our leaders will never lead the membership astray” is simply wrong and been proven wrong over the last 200 years. Although if the Church wants to move the goalposts and claim that certain policies have been adjusted or new doctrines revealed, then that significantly reduces what leading astray actually means in a religious context, and makes about 99% of LDS teachings less important than simply loving God and your neighbor. Which is where most of us are at anyway.
A couple decades ago the Community of Christ introduced nine Enduring Principles that, while not supplanting its Basic Belief statement, at least began to shift the focus from a fixed to a more fluid and flexible understanding of the church’s faith stances. I was involved in editing two editions of the then RLDS Church’s “Basic Beliefs” books in my years working with Herald Publishing House, and although I wasn’t convinced at first about the shift from Beliefs to Principles, I’ve come to see it as a very positive thing.
Grace and Generosity
Sacredness of Creation
Worth of All Persons
All Are Called
Pursuit of Peace (Shalom)
Unity in Diversity
Blessings of Community
“offering your suggestion for a belief Mormons should no longer believe”
That human history doesn’t predate 6,000 years. Evolution is overwhelmingly evidenced. Human existence before 6,000 years ago is extremely well documented. Life has existed on our planet for hundreds of millions of years.
Some Mormons note this. And interpret Genesis metaphorically. But I still hear dinosaur-induced cognitive dissonance. They must have come from other planets. We don’t know the full story. We’ll fond out so much more after we die. All passive aggressive ways of shaming those who take a position (really they’re just acknowledging science, they only take a position in the context of denialist cultures) that life indeed existed on planet earth millions of years ago. No we won’t find out the answers after we die. The answers are very clear right here right now. All you need to do is go to a museum and see the evidence for yourself. Genesis is a mythical story not meant to be interpreted literally. Fossils and radiocarbon dating clearly show a deep history of earth, life, and humanity.
Belief systems are problematic. W. Cantwell Smith (Harvard Divinity) thought the subject important enough to write a book, entitled “Faith and Belief” (Princeton University Press, 1979). Smith discerns between faith–credo–I do, and belief–beleve/lief–belove, to hold dear:
“No future age, we predict, will ever again translate credo as “I believe.” Faith is not belief; and those who wrote in Latin did not imagine that it was. For coming generations, and for many members of the present one, if they are to make sense of their past heritage and to do justice to its spokesmen, all extant translations will have to be revised so as to remove this serious misinterpretation of the key concept. For this English word does not express (any longer) what the term has meant” (p. 104).
Ironically, the concept of a “faith crisis” among LDS really amounts to a “belief crisis,” but we call faith belief, and belief faith. A testimony built upon beliefs isn’t much more than ideological loyalty. What concerns me, however, is that either (1) LDS leadership does not understand the difference between faith and belief, or (2) that LDS leadership well-understands the difference, and manipulates the congregation by manufacturing belief systems from gospel principles. With eyes that discern between faith and belief, the “Come Follow Me” manuals are polluted with suggestive and implied belief systems that have no basis in the doctrine of Christ. Subtle, but alarming.
My Latter-Day Saint worship happily navigates from faith to covenant without a single belief system. There is no doctrine, except it expounds ordinance. Put another way, doctrine is the context that teaches about ordinances, and ordinances are liturgical expressions of covenant:
Faith is informed by Doctrine;
Doctrine is informed by Ordinance;
Ordinance is informed by Covenant.
It could be said that belief systems distract from the exposition of ordinance and realization of covenant; that belief systems make bitter dogma from sweet doctrine; and that the infantilization of doctrine has led Latter-Day Saints to “believe” an immature, ideological expression of spirituality and worship.
I’ll submit that Mormons should not believe – that the LDS church contains all the truth in the world and that other religions are just “playing” church.
My theory on why we are more susceptible to being bamboozled and believing in crazy ideas has to do with 1.the effect of a number of biases (which Elisa spoke to in a previous post), especially confirmation bias. and 2. the ability to find like minded individuals on the internet.
Back in the day, if I sort of believed something crazy, but everyone in my town just told me I was crazy, I was likely to drop the belief. But now, I can join a chat-room and the village idiot from the next town over tells me my sort of crazy idea is right, as well as the village idiot from Toronto, New York, Rexburg, etc… all over the world all agree and feed off each other- and pretty soon I think I’m actually right and on to something, and that the rest of my town are the crazy ones. Then cable news, radio talk shows, and politicians find out what all of us village idiots believe, and they tell it back to us so that we’ll continue tuning into their shows, and Walaaaa. We end up in an age where fringe ideas are accepted as truth.
I’m not sure if Mormons are more predisposed to believe unreasonable claims than other groups. It may be that the people who participate on this blog have a high number of intimate interactions with Mormons, more so than with other groups- so we think that this phenomenon is more common in our group than other groups. I don’t know.
Has anyone else noticed that these promised blessing statements are often in direct violation of a fundamental LDS teaching?
“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
And when we obtain ANY blessing from God, it is by obedience TO THAT LAW upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20-21, emphasis mine)
The less religiously inclined would call this simple cause-and-effect. According to Joseph Smith, the system of blessings was already set up long before some local leader got the wild notion to promise that ALL those teens going on trek would be granted testimonies based upon a few days of starvation and dragging handcarts over hill and dale.
Years ago one of my students was promised by his grandfather in a blessing that if the student refrained from studying on Sunday, his grades would improve and he would attend the college of his choice. Well, the poor kid’s grades didn’t improve at all. They dramatically declined. The grandfather apparently forgot to tell his offspring that he needed to study Monday through Saturday. Apparently academic grades are not predicated upon Sabbath observance! They are predicated upon studying and learning the material. Shocker, eh?
You’ve brought up this “LDS leadership does not understand the difference between faith and belief” idea before.
The language I learned on my mission, Hungarian, doesn’t even have words to differentiate between whatever faith is and whatever belief is. They have one single word (“hit”). Pretend the word “faith” doesn’t exist in English either. How do you explain whatever you think LDS leadership is missing?
Here’s a belief I want to let go of: That we can accept whatever the writers of scripture say at face value.
This is related to the already mentioned belief that our leaders or the prophet won’t lead us astray.
Life is a whole lot messier than that, and if you believe LDS cosmology, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Something I’d like us to believe with actions and not just words: there’s nothing more important than loving and spending time with our families—full stop, no strings attached. There’s a balance here, of course. We all have competing responsibilities and need down time and personal time. I get it. But IMO LDS culture -says- family is important but what often ends up getting prioritized in the TBM crowd is church responsibilities, not family time, and gauging how “righteous” family members are or aren’t, not love.
There is a serious problem within church culture of incuriousness that reflects a similar issue in the culture at large. We’ve never had a more literate population in the world than we do now, and yet nobody actually reads things or knows how to read them anymore. Inhead, they prefer to be told what things say by someone they consider to be in authority.
The most pernicious belief that needs to go is that leaders are an infallible source of truth, and that even when they make mistakes, those mistakes are trivial and immaterial. Unfortunately, that’s also how we talk about Joseph Smith. It’s just a really stupid way to evaluate information we are receiving. If you have a belief in what someone says because you evaluate that information, understanding it deeply, and then come to accept it, that’s a much more valid belief than one that is simply based on the shorthand of “authority = truth.” It’s why so many shelves crash when the obvious knowledge gaps and biases of leaders are revealed, and for the first time, a church member allows him/herself to see it. Normally, though, if you are in a discussion about something you don’t believe, “prophets” are used as a thought-stopping tactic. You can’t argue with it. It’s a trump card that immediately stops all thinking and discussion.
I don’t know how you would even begin to get Mormons to stop believing in too much without having them renounce their belief that Joseph Smith said God had a special work for him to accomplish that involved telling people that he had translated a book written on gold plates by means of something called a Urim and Thummin, when what he actually did was to stick his face in a hat and recite a tale for which no concrete evidence exists. Once you’re willing to accept that, I have no idea how you would be able to decide where the line could possibly be that you couldn’t cross.
The OP and the comments have been so good. A big Amen!
I’ll say something that I’ve seen on these pages many times, the church has traded meat for milkshakes and then that for skim milk mixed with water. While that has enabled uniformity of experience, it has kept many of us as theological children.
Back in the day, I remember folks joking about how the high priests were off contemplating the mysteries. But that is no longer happening in regular Sunday learning. When I was a teen, I took my (after-tithing) earnings to the Seventies Bookstore to buy books on doctrinal topics. I paid for that knowledge – literally and figuratively. We had deeper gospel discussions in teachers quorum than one now gets in gospel doctrine class.
It’s been decades since I thought that church curriculum enriched and enlivened my understanding of doctrine/theology/the way things are or how the world works. Our theology is about an inch deep. Frankly, I think it’s more about building in mechanisms of control. I bridle a bit when I say “control” – maybe conformity is more like it – and unquestioning conformity, better still.
I don’t think that can be enough. I wasn’t for me. It won’t be for a generation that expects their shoe company to align with their values.
Taking this on a real tangent, because it’s just too fun to resist.
I actually don’t mind whatever beliefs folks have so much; the big thing I think we need to get rid of is certainty. To couch it in terms of this post, I suppose I’d say, I’d like us to eliminate the belief that we have to “know” the truth of things that are impossible to know. That’s an incredibly harmful leap that many Mormons make. They have sort of vague, subjective experience and then immediately extrapolate that to be a “sure knowledge” of whatever truth they were praying or “ponderizing” about. A bit more humility and a bit less certainty would go a long way to making our church more welcoming, more empathetic and less delusional.
I’m with @Brother Sky in suggesting we need less certainty. It’s become increasingly more worrisome in our countries that there is so much certainty involved in the different factions which is only amplified by media and social networks. I live in Canada and we’ve just endured something I didn’t expect to see on this level – often the rest of the world thinks of us as ‘nice’. There’s a faction that believe their rights imbedded in our constitution makes it ok to occupy and bombard our capital city for three weeks and shut down several borders for many days. Total legal protest they say – and what’s more disturbing is that I have many LDS friends who are in total support of this and some even attended the protests and flood their FB pages with propaganda. What’s also disturbing is that a few actually share ‘the real news’ via Fox News and the likes of Tucker Carlson. Needless to say I’ve unfriended some and snoozed others. Of all my FB friends that have shared the nonsense only one isn’t LDS. It’s disheartening.
My comment hasn’t really addressed the OP in regard to church and belief but I just had to get this off my chest. I think I do see a little correlation since The White Christian Right seems to have infected our membership – I just didn’t expect to see it so much in Canada.
Too much belief; too little critical thinking. Too much skimming information online, too little deep thinking about things.
One thing I’ve been thinking about is how because of the Internet it’s like we think we have to have an opinion on everything. But it’s just impossible to have an *informed* opinion on everything. So we shortcut now and have all these strongly-held, ill-informed beliefs. And everyone is an expert. And everyone gets a microphone.
So I’m with @brother sky on getting rid of certainty and I’m also saying maybe we don’t have to actually have an opinion or belief about All The Things. And then we wouldn’t get as caught up speculating about things that are either unknowable or that we don’t have the background to really know.
I’ve “read, pondered (didn’t buy the t-shirt), and prayed (in my own fashion), and decided I don’t care much for what Mormonism has devolved into.
The heart of Christ’s message is simple: love your neighbor. I love Christ the rebel. I have little need for the miracles. As for the ordinances, I love the idea of baptism by immersion. I love the symbolism. But why at 8?
I love President Monson’s 4th mission of the Church: help the downtrodden. Rarely is this mission emphasized. Except for Sharon Eubanks, this is rarely brought to the forefront.
The Mormon Church is only growing in developing countries. Think of the opportunities for global service. Think of the local opportunities. Think of the time wasted in Church.
BeenThere, I wrote a reply a few weeks back about speculative writing within the Church, and I would argue that those “deeper mysteries” are a form of that. I think much of the problem lies in the plain fact that the foundational stories that we who grew up in the 20th century grew up with have turned out to be both much less accurate than we were led to believe, whether that be the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the First Vision, the murky origins of the priesthood, or the historicity of the Patriarchs and the assumption that they practiced proto-Christianity. The result of that is a lot less certainty within the congregation and a lot more focus on apologetics of various stripes to defend the status quo. I would argue that that doesn’t provide fruitful ground for further faithful speculation on the hereafter and the distant past.
Not a cougar, I believe those events ring truer than ever because of the more detailed history that has been made available. While it may be true that the “dominant narrative” may not work as well as it used to–it doesn’t mean that the newer more nuanced narrative is any less faith promoting. In fact, I’d say it’s even more faith promoting–because pretty-much everything has been uncovered and made available for easy public consumption. And, IMO, the story of the restoration stands up pretty-well to a careful reading of the historical record.
Jack, we’ll have to agree to disagree on whether the more nuanced narrative is more faith-promoting. Personally, seer stones in hats, seeing gold plates with “spiritual eyes,” dozens of secret marriages entered into by Joseph Smith, and a lack of physical evidence to support the Book of Mormon have NOT made my faith in the restored gospel deeper.
For the belief discard file: Mormon doctrine regarding the nature of God. As in the trite, tearful testimonies of God helping find lost car keys and cell phones. I recently challenged this thinking in Gospel Doctrine by asking the obvious question: In a world where ~25,000 people die of starvation daily (including 10,000 children), how do we rationalize belief in a personal God that is more interested in my first world problems than the plight of millions who suffer horribly? Needless to say, my comment provoked thinly disguised accusations of heresy.
I’m with Not a Cougar on this one. Not only do I find many aspects of the new narrative less faith-promoting, I’m even more troubled that leaders lied to our community for 200 years. Not cool.
The “Age of too much Belief” resonated with the frustrating week I have been having. In today’s age we do have access to mounds of information – good, bad, indifferent, etc. But so many people appear to be taking on too much of it, even the good. At work my boss is trying to put too many, probably good, business practices into place. The problem is weeding out from all of the good what is needed right now? What fits with your long term company goals? Where is the balance between competing ideas? By doing so many things at once I have been pulling my hair out with constant changes and new directions.
You see the same thing with healthy lifestyles. Try this diet, now this super food, etc. with everyone swearing by the answers. We are making everything so complicated. We don’t need to believe or even try everything. Much of it is marketing anyway-buy my book, product, etc. Some critical thinking and cynicism are very much needed today.