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Rameumptom Ruminations: 102: The Cost of Belief

What if the LDS church is true? The question posed last week received a larger number of comments than normal. This week, Scott will reply to a handful of them from a spectrum of agreement to disagreement and frustration. The topic will still center on Pascal’s wager and some responses to it. Is the cost of belief, according to pascals wager, negligible?

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6 thoughts on “Rameumptom Ruminations: 102: The Cost of Belief”

  1. Hey Scott,

    I enjoyed your analysis of Pascal’s Wager. For me, I came to a crossroads in my faith. I was working as an employee of the Church and was, at one point, helping promote some material that the Church was publishing pertaining to the Joseph Smith Papers and a volume of Saints. In both cases, I became aware, more acutely than I ever had before, that the Church history department was being careful in how they conveyed stories from Church history (and by careful, I mean that it appeared to me that things that were unflattering to Joseph Smith or the Church were either filtered out or spun in the most positive light possible–often to the point of being either inaccurate or highly unlikely.)

    In my profession, I’ve always tried to be conscientious about ideas and word choice, to strive to get as close to the truth as I am able. It was disconcerting to me to realize that the Church history department would put positive spin on the telling of our history. I guess I was naive. I was more or less a committed believer and just accepted the Church’s story pretty much at face value. I figured we should shine the brightest spotlight possible on our history and that we had nothing to hide. The first vision and the restoration of the priesthood, for example, were more tangible historical realities to me than George Washington being the first president of the USA. So, it was shocking to me to realize that there were things in our history that the Church didn’t want to shine a spotlight on (e.g. polygamy) or that the historical record wasn’t as clear cut as it seemed (e.g. the first vision and restoration of the priesthood) or that there were things that Church scholars understood that could be damaging to members’ testimonies if they knew them, and so were kept close to the vest (e.g. so much about the Book of Abraham.)

    The Church teaches members to be honest. The BOM teaches that God is a god of truth and cannot lie. So, trying to reconcile this dilemma became very difficult for me.

    So, even accepting the proposition “What if the Church is true?” didn’t help me out of my dilemma. Because I had to choose between being loyal to the Church (by being complicit in obscuring unflattering information and trying to always show the Church in a positive light, regardless of what actually happened) or I could be loyal to my understanding of truth and my conscience (but in doing so, be at odds with the way the Church operates.)

    “What if the Church is true?” Well, in my opinion, the Church can’t be true if it doesn’t tell the truth.

    Elder Ballard famously said, “We’re as transparent as we know how to be…” For me, personally, I can think of many ways the Church could be more transparent. Take the movies “Legacy” and “Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration” which played a big role in conveying the Church’s message to people visiting SLC during the 90s and 2000s. Were those movies honest about why Joseph Smith was sent to Carthage Jail? Once gets the impression that Joseph was sent to jail because of a vague bunch of rascals who were against Jesus Christ and hated the truth. Was there any mention of plurality of wives? Or of William and Jane Law, and their reaction to that doctrine (which is precisely the reaction Church leaders today would want us to have if we discovered members practicing polygamy in our midst–abhorrance)? Or of the actual text of the Nauvoo Expositor? Or the city council meeting and the orders Joseph Smith gave to destroy the press? The Church could be more transparent by sharing what is known of the perspectives of people on the other side of the issue. Realize that they were coming from an honest place. Stop excusing Joseph for destroying a printing press, or pretending it never happened. Stop demonizing William Law and others who stood up for their principles. If we aspire to be like the Savior, then we need to take a more compassionate, universal, and omniscient perspective as we tell these stories. Share the information that we have access to and allow people to slog through it, even if it doesn’t lead to tidy conclusions that bolster the Church’s power or reputation.

    So, Pascal says it’s a safer bet to just believe in God, in essence be loyal to the Church, and hope that God will reward you in the next life. But, I can also propose another wager. What if you perceive that certain aspects of the Church’s teachings are not accurate. I can imagine getting to the next life and God saying, “Wait a minute. I gave you knowledge that would give you the chance to help heal and repair my Church, to move it further out of ignorance and obscurity, and to help members be less proud and more cognizant of the contributions of others to the welfare of the human race, but you chose to do nothing about it.” If I were a gambling man, I would put my wager on truth before loyalty.

    (Sorry for such a long comment! Cheers!)

    1. Excellent comment. Thanks for sharing. It’s an important insight. The behaviour of the church does not line up with their teachings about truth and honesty. What did you do for the church?

      1. I think that, sadly, it is true. The Church is not fully truthful and honest. Because no one in the world is all-knowing, true honesty requires open channels of communication, willingness to listen, to learn and to change.

        The hiding of the investment portfolio, the misfilings with the SEC, and Bishop Waddell’s comment on 60-Minutes about not wanting people to tell them what to do with the money, the lack of transparent reporting and accountability for leaders, as well as the fact that, according to the Church Handbook, any communication from members to SLC will be forwarded to local stake presidents, all demonstrate a lack of interest and respect for involvement and input from local members. It stems from the assumption that the leaders are prophets, they don’t need help, and can do no wrong (which is the epitome of hubris and human folly).

        I was a video producer. I know I’ve already said a ton, but since I’m at it, I would like to offer a few thoughts about truth and honesty in the corporate Church:

        I worked for the Church for eight years. In all of that time, I never got a sense that anyone around me didn’t have a testimony. I was never in a single meeting where anyone hinted that something we were teaching wasn’t true. The COB, at least to my knowledge, was full of believers.

        And, of course, we had personal experiences to back up our convictions. I had had testimony strengthening experiences doing home teaching, praying, serving in the Church, keeping the commandments, and in general trying to be a good person.

        In my mind, I was being honest.

        However, I was deliberately living in a closed system. I had had some minor doubts about the Church in the past, but I willingly put them on a shelf and set them aside. In general, during my time as a church employee, I was simply unaware of the majority of problematic issues pertaining to Church history. I didn’t have much personal experience with social issues (such as LGBTQ+ community issues, mental health, sexual health, suicide, or abortion, etc.) so I was willing to put my trust in leaders who seemed much more knowledgeable than myself.

        In all my time as a church employee, I was never in a meeting where people brought up topics that are constantly talked about in ex-Mormon circles. No one ever said, “this is what the ex-Mormon community is talking about, how do we grapple with the issues?” When it came to my work, I relied on General Conference, church approved manuals, and my own intuition, prayer and study. I simply wasn’t more than vaguely aware that there were other ways of looking at things.

        One day I was on the Frontrunner and a guy sitting across from me was reading a book about the Nauvoo Expositor. He seemed kind of eager to share it with me. He said, “Have you read the Nauvoo Expositor? Every word in it is true!” I would see that guy on the train from time to time and always actively avoided him after that.

        So I, like many others, simply chose to believe in the Church and played defense against other ideas or practices that might undermine my faith.

        Eventually, I came to the crossroads that I mentioned in my last comment and had to grapple with my faith, my ignorance, and basically reconfigure my worldview, which was a very painful process. I believe there are others in the Church workforce (in the Church History department, for example) who are aware of the issues and have wrestled and engaged deeply with them, but I think that the structure of leadership and communication make it very difficult to have open conversations, open dialogue. The Church isn’t build for change–it’s built for stability. For an individual to deconstruct a religion is hard enough. Adding a second person, like a spouse, makes it harder still. To get a whole organization to deconstruct… well, it’s probably never happened. That’s why subcultures, grassroots movements and underground resistances begin. People have to work independently from the structures of power.

        In the COB, it is not easy to get access to the Brethren. There is a chain of command with several layers of separation between a producer like me and the Brethren. There are something like 30+ separate departments in the Church organization. Each of those departments has a Managing Director who reports to an Executive Director (who is usually a member of the 70.) There is so much going on at Church HQ that producers and lower level managers and directors really don’t get a chance to interface with the Brethren much. When we would, it was usually on a tight schedule under very controlled conditions. The people who report to the Brethren regularly are Managing Directors and Seventies who are big picture guys (often former CEOs and such.) So, if employees in the trenches want to get a message up to the Brethren, it has to be filtered through several layers of leadership and conveyed by an upper-level manager who may not fully grasp the details that the worker in the trenches is dealing with. The top leaders are (at least from my perspective as a guy in the trenches) driven by one incentive: success! They want to be successful in their job, their calling, their duty, and in the Church!

        Success is demonstrated by measurable outputs: we saved X amount on Meetinghouses, we increased convert baptisms by X, we published X amount of videos and got X amount of engagement. Even though everyone knows that true conversion can’t be measured, the Church is still run by tangible and measurable business practices. Just like the mission field, it’s not enough to be a nice missionary, you needed to back it up with numbers: discussions, investigators at Church, baptisms. As vulgar as it sounds, the Church relies on records and accountability–so numbers talk. (But, just like in the mission field, we tried to remember that numbers meant people… so everyone continues to struggle with striking a balance between serving God and serving mammon.)

        Managing Directors and Executive Directors don’t have an incentive to present problems to the Brethren, they have an incentive to present solutions. That is to say, the Brethren aren’t going to be thrilled with a Managing Director who comes to them and says, “There is this problem with the Book of Abraham that we can’t solve.” That wouldn’t fly. All of those leaders know that the better thing to do is say, “There have been a lot of people voicing concerns over how the Church has presented its history over the years, so we’re going to publish a book that is going to address a lot these issues in the most forthright and transparent way that we ever have. It will be full of footnotes to actual historical documents, but it will be written in a way that will be understandable to the average reader and help bolster their faith!” A leader who says that will get kudos. Does it really make the problems go away? No, but it does mitigate them. Many members are satisfied that Saints is a great step forward in the Church’s transparency, but the story is still true and unchanging.

        Most of the Managing Directors and Seventies are coming from being successful businessmen, lawyers, and doctors (true of the Q15 as well). I don’t know of any who were scholars. There are, of course, no theologians among them. Many of them were probably Stake Presidents and Mission Presidents, but that’s not enough to give them a real knowledge of the complexities and problems within Church history and culture. That just gives them experience with how the Church is supposed to be run. Managing Directors can become Seventies. Seventies can become Apostles. Few of them necessarily have the incentive to truly engage with the issues. I recall seeing a plaque on one GA’s desk (which was kind of a joking-but-not-joking sort of thing, I think) which read: Don’t bother me with the facts, my mind is made up already.

        This is conjecture on my part, but I don’t think even junior members of the 12 get an opportunity to engage deeply with problematic issues with the senior brethren. I’m sure you’ve seen the meetings that were published on Mormon Leaks. It seemed to me that comments were judged, not by their quality, but by the status of who gave the comment. The hierarchy rules. (Boyd K. Packer’s comment about “What everyone is forgetting here is the importance of the family” in one of the videos completely derailed a conversation, in my estimation.) In the COB there is an oft-quoted refrain: “Don’t get ahead of the Brethren.” You’re not supposed to champion a cause that the Brethren haven’t publicly supported first.

        GAs would often talk to us in department meetings. One of them told us about a training he had with a senior apostle who said something to the effect of, “I expect you to listen and learn from me. If I sense any resistance from you, this training is over.”

        I just don’t think a historian like Robin Scott Jensen, or even an Egyptologist like John Gee, is often (if ever) going to get an audience with the Brethren to fill them in on all the unsolvable problems of Church History. So, lower level Church workers just have to find private solutions that help them reconcile the problems they see. The Brethren rely on lower level people to tell them the truth, and yet the system prevents that from happening. The Lower Level people rely on the Brethren to tell them the truth, yet the system prevents that from happening. Just like the story of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor relied on his counselors. The counselors relied on the emperor. Everyone expected that everyone else was telling the truth and that each of them alone were the only ones who had misgivings. All the while, everyone basically trusts in the Lord’s timing and that the Lord’s work is being done in his own mysterious way.

        For all of us members of the Church with questions and concerns, there is no forum for getting answers. Communications to Church HQ are sent back to Stake Presidents. Stake Presidents lack the authority to resolve issues. I had several hours-long conversations with my Bishop, my Stake President, my EQP, and the Stake Patriarch while I was deconstructing my faith. They all listened graciously. They were all kind. But were they able to offer any resolution beyond “Just have faith, brother”? No. When I tried to bring up some of my concerns at church, I was told that the Elders Quorum meeting was not the forum for addressing my concerns and that we should just get back to the prepared lesson material. In fact, there is no forum for a member like me to address my concerns.

        So is the Church dishonest? Well, I think from the top to the bottom, the Church is full of well-meaning, sincere people who believe they are being honest and true (people who have, like all of us, their full helping of human foibles).

        But, dishonesty (or, let us say, an inability to let the light of truth shine through) is inherent in a system that 1) already believes it knows what is true from the get-go, 2) suppresses dissent, 3) stifles communication through bureaucratic gatekeeping, 4) hires leaders who lack experience in areas, such as doctrine and history, where they are expected to be authorities, and 5) lacks a forum for upward communication or accountability.

        Sorry, once again, for the super-long response. Apparently, I have a lot of thoughts bottled up! But I believe that having conversations like this (meaning, your’s and others’ podcasts, and mine and others comments) are vital to the health of a free and democratic society. We need to talk to each other and listen to each other.

  2. Scott your complaint about God always changing your mind I would need for you to be specific. If it refers to the Priesthood ban and polygamy I would say this. There is a scriptural precedence for priesthood being isolated to certain groups of people. For example the Priesthood was only held by the tribe of Levi at one time. The other 11 tribes did not hold the priesthood. Jesus Christ did not preach to the gentiles only to the Jews. When it comes to the practice of polygamy and why it was practiced by prophets and kings in the old testament and the restoration. The Book of Mormon states why Jacob 2: 30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.
    When it comes to verses about skin color as already stated many antagonists generally share their view in the worst possible way instead of looking how a more biblical ways of interpreting the meaning of a controversial verse. As already stated for example, when Nephi mentions skin color he uses it in a old testament way that refers to spiritual countenance not physical skin color. See listed scriptures. When it comes to your complaint about the LGBTQIA+ community how it is “treated” by the LDS community. The LDS church has worked with the LGTBTQIA+ community to pass legislation that benefits the LGBTQIA+ community and the LDS church. Not to long ago the vast majority medical community considered the LGBTQIA+ abnormal because of the exceedingly high promiscuity, high STD rate, high depression rate, low life expectancy and high suicide rate found in the LGBTQIA+ community. They attributed the abnormally high rates to the LGBTQIA+ lifestyle. I understand that some of the medical community attributes the high rates to lack of acceptance. And others in the medical community still attribute high rates to other factors. Antagonist to the church when they look at the LGBTQIA+ suicide rate they focus on just high LDS populated states like Utah and Idaho. But they really do a disfavor to the LGTBQIA+ community when they do this. The abnormally high promiscuity, high STD rate, high depression rate, low life expectancy and high suicide rate is a nationwide problem. antagonist cause a huge disservice to the LGBTQIA+ community by downplaying the nationwide problem. For example one of the huge problems was when monkeypox broke out and 98% of those who got it were in the LGBTQIA+ community the antagonist did not talk about this or raise awareness. The only time when antagonist seem to care is when they can potentially blame the LDS church. When it comes to members in the nationwide LGBTQIA+ suicide rate 4 times higher than average. Do antagonist bring awareness to the NATIONWIDE problem answer is no. It comes across as antagonist to me using and not caring. Do antagonist care about the high suicide rates in California is this a topic they discuss no. I hope antagonist will bring real awareness to the nationwide problem. And as for the church I think the LDS church does it best to balance the inherent risk and tries to lower it in the LGBTQIA+ community and be consistent with biblical moral values article provided. Did antagonist discus this article of course not.

    Daniel 12:10
    10 Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.
    7 Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire:
    8 Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.
    Lamentations 4:7-8

    Song of Solomon 1:5

    5 I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

    Job 30:30

    30 My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.
    21 For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.
    Jeremiah 8:20-21

    Lamentations 5:10
    10 Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.
    Joel 2:6
    6 Before their face the people shall be much pained: all faces shall gather blackness.
    2 Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are black unto the ground; and the cry of Jerusalem is gone up.
    Jeremiah 14:2
    6 Before their face the people shall be much pained: all faces shall gather blackness.
    Joel 2:6

    10 She is empty, and void, and waste: and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness.
    Nahum 2:10

    1. I try very hard not to be an antagonist to the church. There are people that I love dearly who are active members with temple recomends. One of said people is my wife. I’m sorry if you felt I was being antagonistic.

  3. Scott when you give one sided views and do not discuss views to the contrary it is antagonistic. It looks to me you spend more of your time looking for problems than actual solutions to LDS controversial issues.

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