Thursday, March 25, 2004

Hands off God

Hopefully I will get back to finish up my post on zealotry by Monday. In the meantime, I thought I would just add a couple thoughts that have been bouncing around after seeing the Mel Gibson movie. Most of these comments don’t come directly from the movie, instead they are more from my personal ruminations.

For some time know I have been leaning towards viewing God as a rather hands off type person. In many ways, I see most of what he does as setting up a good initial set of conditions and rules. For instance, we may say that God hears every prayer and is aware of the smallest creature, but in reality, that would certainly be a hard thing for a someone to accomplish, or want to accomplish. Normally we say that God’s capabilities are beyond our imagination. What is possible for him is impossible for us to conceive. I don’t think I buy this in the regular sense. Why have all this hassle if you can just organize things to take care of themselves. For instance, is prayer more about trying to get God to respond, or more about getting us to change our reality through the power we naturally have (or are given).

In terms of the pre-existence, I find it plausible to believe that we never had one on one interaction with God the Father. Instead it could be that Christ has always revealed the Father to us. Everything that has been done can be viewed as a way to get us to the Father. This would certainly make following Christ here, and in the pre-existence much more of an act of faith. If this was the case, I can certainly see why there was a battle in heaven. Although I should note, scriptures like Abr 3:27 still require God to choose between the two plans, and thus still be in the picture. Although I think many people assume that we were all privy to that discussion, it could certainly be that we had to try and determine for ourselves which plan it was that God was choosing.

This leads back into some thoughts I had while watching the movie. In trying to get something out of the film, I starting thinking about Satan’s plan. It seemed like his plan, and actions could be based on some of the following assumptions
1. Humans like to get rid of rule breakers. Christ and his followers would have to be at odds with natural law and natural society. Hence people would always oppose them.
2. Humans like to think they have many answers, but tend to get upset when someone proclaims that in fact have it all. Usually these people get attacked until they are proven wrong or recant.
3. Humans like to enforce their rules and not allow exceptions to flourish.
4. Humans are animalistic and will make the worst of excessive freedoms.
5. The above conditions will make it impossible for Christ, his followers, or his institutions to survive.
6. In terms of eternal progression, it is better to be realistic and get what we can rather than risk it all.
7. Who even knows what level of progression is possible. For instance, maybe God is only ever to meant to influence us from afar.

Of course all this is very speculative, and doesn’t mean much. I did find it interesting to see how much pressure there may have been to get Christ to “conform”. We don’t mind prophets telling us what to do as long as they follow expected patterns. We don’t mind being told what to do so long as it is based on what we already accept. What we hate are leaders not incorporating what we think or believe.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Do The Ends Justify The Means

Here is a story of a California psychology professor who apparently trashed her own car with racism graffiti and other odds and ends after a forum on racism. Apparently she led the police to believe that she didn't know who had done it.

I guess I just get sickened when I hear of people so focussed on making a point they forget what it is that they are actually doing. It reminds me of the proganda the Germans used to justify the actual start of the Polish invasion. If memory serves me correctly, the Germans stashed a bunch of dead bodies in a radio station dressed in Polish uniforms. They then loudly declared that the Poles had attacked them.

I guess the larger question is, what type of mentality or rationalization does it take to even contemplate these types of acts? The other question is, is this action on the part of the Professor equal or more inflammatory than the same action by a neo-nazi or such. Should her punishment be equal or greater than that which would be given to an ordinary person that did the vandalism?

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Is Zealotry a Natural Tendency

I think most people agree that certain people have a propensity for extremes. If one assumes a normal distribution for human conditions, this is a logical conclusion. However, is it just whacko’s that go to extremes, or are there equivalent outlets for zealotism that are considered normal? If this is the case, a large part of what we consider cultish behavior can be seen as just belonging to the wrong group. (note zealotism as I am using it is quite different from the KJ scriptural usage. I am equating it with an obsessive compulsive behaviour that excludes other important things. Also, I couldn’t find a better word – feel free to replace it with the word you prefer to negatively describe extreme, manic conviction)

I think a typical view of zealotry involves the following considerations
1. Propensity for zealot behaviour follows a normal distribution.
2. The degree to which human institutions encourage or actualize zealotism follows a normal distribution.
3. Most of what we consider cultish occurs at the coincidence of these two extremes.

But what if instead of only worrying about extremes institutions, we suppose that almost everyone is naturally disposed to zealotry. In other words, it is not just 5% of the population who are zealots, it is 95%. We only recognize 5% zealotry because behaviours are expressed in venues to which the majority do not belong. In other words, most people are zealots, however, the usual way it is expressed is so common it goes unrecognized.

If this theory is to be tested, the following need to be analyzed:
A1. What are the social characteristics of zealots
A2. What are the characteristics of a zealot actualizing institution (most easily observed through a look at cults)
A3. To what kind of zealot behaviour do humans have a natural propensity
A4. What are mainstream institutions that actualize these tendencies

This then leads to the useful discussion, why is that everyday zealotism not recognized?

When we talk of zealots we usually think of members of extreme cults such as the Branch Davidians, the Moonies, etc. Behaviour usually includes the following
B1. a world view created around a single tenet
B2. a willingness to suspend disbelief
B3. a strong tendency to follow a powerful leader,
B4. desire for legalistic requirements that lead to clear expectations
B5. addictive behaviour that becomes manic

Now perhaps 4 is unnecessary. With 5, it certainly does impose a behaviourist interpretation on cultish zealots that may be unwarranted. However, most anti-cult deprogramming certainly do seem to use behavioural psychology as tool. Perhaps this is due to the fact that addicts (like gamblers, drug users, and cult members) tend to be susceptible to behavioural modification. Hence a good explanation for the initial addiction.

Institutions that foster the previous characteristics can probably be boiled down to doing the following things
C1. encouraging more involvement
C2. rewarding correct involvement while punishing incorrect involvement or exodus
C3. elevating the worth of members while negating that of non-members
C4. providing intermittent rewards (more commitment leads to more secret knowledge, or higher positions, etc)

Again a behaviourist would find many of these the hallmarks of operant conditioning. The degree to which institutions encourage zealotism is, of course, related to the degree to which these fours points(or any others that can be imagined) are enforced. And of course as individuals, different people respond to varying degrees to each point. However, there are common human traits that make us susceptible, to one degree or another, to all of these characteristics.

As a pack animals, humans have developed certain behavioural characteristics that allow them to function as a group without killing each other, well for the most part. As we can see in our interaction with pack animals like dogs, there are certain behaviours that are required:
D1. a common group agenda
D2. a leader
D3. hierarchy and acquiescence to a leader
D4. suppression of individual needs for group needs
D5. group rewards

Some may argue that people do not really need a common group agenda. I would argue that this trait is inherit in any pack hunter. From an evolutionary viewpoint, packs arise because they are able to get more resources than a non-pack. This does not change if the resources sought have changed to more than food. If there is no reason to belong to a pack, then one would not belong to a pack. There will always be a motivation for belonging. If pack structure is an inherit trait, its characteristics will continue to surface unless there has been evolutionary pressure that has caused them to go extinct.

A comparison between inherit human tendencies (D1-D5) and characteristics of cultish zealots (B1-B5) leads to some interesting conclusions. The only point that is initially similar is B3, the desire to follow a strong leader. However, I would say that D4, the suppression of individual needs for group needs, facilitates B2. Intelligent animals that follow a pack will always experience some degree of conflict between what they think is best, and what the pack thinks is best. I am not sure how this is possible unless there is some tendency to suspend belief. In other words, I am sure that what the pack is doing is wrong, however…. they have been right before… it may be more important to stay with them than to leave over this…. I will get more out of it in the end… etc. If this rationalization occurs frequently the caveats may become less overt.

Continual suspension of individual needs to group needs also leads to focus on a single ideal. For pack animals like wolves, we often assume most everything revolves around food. For intelligent animals like us, it is possible to substitute the role of food for something more abstract. Usually this abstraction must be fairly narrow. Perhaps it is a goal like eternal bliss, redemption, etc. Something that can encompass a broad enough base that most things in life are seen to, or used to support it.

A desire for legalistic type expectations would seem to be a natural way for a pack animal to determine if their behaviour is acceptable. Packs do not function if every animal is operating on a unique code of conduct. There must be universally approved ways to relate and communicate. The more one can master the intricacies of this communication, the more they are able to ingratiate themselves within the pack. How much of our dogs’ behaviours are their training us instead of the other way around? I think a natural pack hierarchy only re-enforces the desire to understand the rules.

Manic behaviour is tougher to relate to our pack origins. We know that pack animals that are expelled from the group become depressed. For instance monkeys often go into sever depression when isolated. Intelligent dogs go crazy if left alone for too long. Perhaps for some people, the thought of being removed from their group creates a tension similar to the actual removal. For instance, for many people, thinking about writing a test is at least as bad as actually writing it.

I figure I should post this, even though I still haven’t gotten to the main point. Hopefully the ground work should make the conclusion pretty obvious. Perhaps in a day or so I will get the other half up, and go back and polish up this rough beginning. Ideally I will be showing that cults are defined by degree. If this is the case it is very hard to argue that the things to which we belong are not cultish because degree is always set by our frame of reference.


Thursday, March 11, 2004

Times and Seasons

Well I was going through the Times & Seasons site last night to see if there were any more interesting sites linked there when I came on my name! Yike! I figured it must be a typo, but I got to this page. I guess that means there is some explaining to do.

I had initially thought this would be a nice way to force myself to get a little bit more concrete about the topics I have ruminating around in my mind. It is. However, I don’t like being presumptuous and so figured I would see how often I updated things. Obviously not too much. After a few weeks, I also wasn’t sure about the merits of putting all of one’s thoughts on paper. I also figured it was just too trendy of a thing to do. Hence, no updates, until tonight as I found my page linked. I guess a expose on expositories may be appropriate,

The last couple of months I have been browsing through a number of mormon pages and discussion groups. More than anything else, it got me thinking about the motivations for this type of communication. While everyone likes to share their motivation for blogging, why do we share spiritual information? Is it appropriate or even useful? My answer well , lets just say it has an “o” and an “n” in no particular order.

There are usually two ways to write about a religious topic. One is to take a general idea, formulate it into something logical, pulling in personal experience, readings, and old reflections. After it is down on paper, you then go through and flesh out enough scriptural references to make it seem authoritative. This also helps round off any corners that may conflict with what you thought was in the scriptures and what is actually there. Basically this involves interpreting the scriptures to conform to your world view. The scriptures act as a set of fuzzy facts from which to test a theory. Continual reformulations should lead to a better understanding of the truth.

The other way to write about a religious topic is to try and write down a list of relevant scriptures, and see how to best connect the dots. Topical guide talks usually follow this format. The more often you do this with scriptural ideas, the more refined your connections will be.

The problem I have with these two methods is their circularity. A discussion over at Zlimb really brought this home to me. (and incidentally was significant reason for me not to develop my blog -besides the fact that my relevant ideas usually should be preceded with a tiger growling “ir”) Numerous pages of …ardent.. communication apparently resulted in a few new ideas being observed, but mostly an apparent entrenchment of divergent positions. I am sure some middle of the road people were swayed one way or another. Some people like me appreciated the extra facts and ideas gleaned, but is this the way to gain spiritual knowledge? Well no. While going through all I could think of was how much clearer things become with the relevant spiritual experience.

The discussion ending up moving on to the type of translation Joseph employed on the Book of Mormon, literal or figurative, error propagating, or error correcting, etc. I got the impression that those that had experience with multiple languages understood some of the difficulties in the topic. I think anyone that has never translated could recite, but never grasp the arguments. In much the same way I am sure that someone who has never given a “strong” blessing will have the same problems. In the same way I can’t imagine what translating the book of mormon would be like. I can only use my approximate experiences to conjecture that it is similar, but with a visual rather than auditory bias. However, conjecture really is rather time consuming and inefficient. Of course, in discussions bringing out a spiritual experience or prompting is a trump card that solidifies the trenches. Why?

It removes common ground. In any discussion there will be a level of commonality. The further you move past this, the less real communication can occur. Both sides move into “straw man” interpreting. Realistically discussions have to move away from the probable into the plausible. For debaters, this is maddening, because almost all ideas are correct according to the world view from which they were created.

Spiritual experiences are considered too personal to be applicable. This happens in one of two ways. Either their application to others is considered subversive of the established chain of authority, or they are too case specific to realistically apply to someone else. I would agree to both these cases if we are talking about spiritual directives. I don’t think both failings apply to spiritual experiences. Things like the cleansing feeling of true repentance, the knowledge of God’s love, the experience of giving a directed blessing,…, Nephi’s/Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, are all things that can be common to a wide group of people. The interpretation, less so, and the application, even less, but, the experience and its subsequent observations are still things that can be common.

Discussing other people’s unique spiritual experiences is usually too difficult to do. While it is possible, it requires being able to jump into to another person’s world view. It requires seeing past the language that is often used to the meanings that are being expressed. Because of this, there needs to be a fairly good relationship that is not possible in informal blogs or chatrooms.

So where does this leave things. Well it means that most discussions can really only be about ideas that arise from common experience. The discussions can only raise ideas that one was already capable of generating. The ideas that are generated can either be considered “good enough” or so important that they need a spiritual experience from which to get more reference points. I sometimes worry that getting too many reference points from ideas which seem “good enough” eventually leads to a loss of all the colour that spiritual experiences themselves bring along. Eventually this colour is essential to maintaining communication. It can’t come from abstract reflection, because this is only effective for refining what we know, not getting more of what we don’t.

To me, this is what Christ has always done for us. He has always got the experience, has tried his best to describe it to us, but we have to have a similar experience, with all its colour, before we really flesh out what is being said. Religion is dangerous in that it is often assumed that a description of something spiritual is on the same level as the spiritual thing itself. Thus rules, doctrine, and ideas should be a good enough means to facilitate communication. I think this is true, if the communication builds on the rules, doctrines and ideas themselves, not the spiritual things they are meant to describe. The desire to communicate about religion often causes it to become built like a house on a foundation of sand. No wonder so many of my non-mormon friends have a hard time with religion. To them, getting in requires buying the whole thing. As the neo-platonist would say, description of God only start to work if there are infinitely many, and you are constantly seeing a different one every moment. To me this is like the religious descriptors that have to go on and on to try and explain something like Joseph’s translation. Don’t take an infinite amount of time trying to describe something. Get the lingo through experience, not description.

As an aside, I usually try and express this idea by getting the weirdest shaped toy imaginable . I get a number of volunteers to come up and feel it in a bag. They describe what it felt like. It is next to impossible for people who haven’t felt it to get an idea of what the object is. When I pull it out, it is clear what the object is. The descriptions are accurate, but never will be able to give a real sense of what is really there.