Wednesday, December 14, 2005

InG we T - Attachment Theory

In God We Trust
Introduction 1.6- Attachment Theory

In Page 72 of the book attachment theory is presented as a possible explanation for religious tendencies. Basically people who tend to care about others, view God as caring for themselves. In psychology language, they tend to project their views onto God. People that have a strong need for personal relationships tend to view God on a very personal level. Unfortunately Jungian or Freudian styled analysis is used a bit too much in the discussion and proof texting of these ideas.

I have no doubt that people strongly anthropomorphize God. We tend to make God into whatever we want. These views don't change who he is, although they certainly change what we are willing to accept or see. In effect nebulous ideas of God morph into the ultimate brand. God becomes anything we want, turning as it were into an abstract form to which we can aspire. To me these tendencies smack of irreligion. They set people up in direct conflict with reality or future reality. Religion becomes an escape route to hold onto a hoped for reality. Of course this idea is rather ironic in light of my posts on creating heaven. Nonetheless the distinction lies in the level of congruence with one's environment. To my mind irreligion promotes discongruence, supported by faith tests. Useful religion promotes congruence where environmental factors must be fully accommodated.

So it was unfortunate that more time wasn't spent on explaining how personal bonding to God can be seen as an anthropomorphizing of abstract thought. At least he did give several counter examples to the Freudian mother replacement theory that unfortunately belittles a rather interesting idea.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

InG we T - Supernatural Uncertainty

In Gods we trust
Introduction - 1.5/6 - Supernatural uncertainty

It is this cognitive architecture that makes it natural to render a supernatural interpretation of events under conditions of uncertainty.

This seems similar to my recent post on leavening, and some of my other posts. Well maybe I should say it was more like what I was trying to get at, not necessarily what was conveyed.

People seem not to like ambiguity. The modern media seems to harp on this idea. We don't want to hear that there are lots of possibilities that could happen. We don't like to hear that some rather nasty outcomes, while unlikely are possible. Most people have a hard time accepting continuums in this regard. It is similar to a titration graph, where there is little tolerance for moderate values. Either something is completely likely, or completely unlikely. Compounding this tendency, people seem hesitancy to build on probabilities. If we don't deal very well with single probabilities, we deal even worse with compound probabilities. No wonder many people have a natural tendency to avoid uncertainty by creating overly perfect explanations. Idealism lets us make an uncomplicated world.

Personally I think dealing with a grey world is a key aspect in our progression. As the publicity surrounding Tookie seems to show, some people don't want to deal with complexities of situations. They would rather have things framed in black or white. They prefer inaction to dealing with complexities. They have a religious like fear of accepting that every action is tinged with multiple shades of grey. To avoid doing something wrong, often a cry for more freedom and leniency is heard. I am not so sure if all those cries are for freedom itself, or for a freedom from with having deal with a world where some innocents are inevitably punished in every action that tries to accomplish good. In effect an extreme level of acceptance may just be a way of not having to deal with the realities of complexity.

Monday, December 12, 2005

InG we T -Causal Problems

In Gods We Trust
Introduction 1-5 - Causal Problems

A fair amount of time is devoted to psychological ideas and tests of agency. While the complicated writing style gets a bit tedious, especially for those who may have seen much more clear and concise explanations of the same, eventually the discussion hits upon some interesting points.

Unobservable or longer-term productions, such as the complex spatiotemporal patterns of stars, geography, seasons, plants, animals, societies, and people themselves, have no intuitively natural causal interpretation. Human cognitive architecture does not appear to have been selected to spontaneously appreciate such long-term causal histories, in the sense that such an appreciation would represent a solution to a problem of some functional relevance to hominid existence. Agency detection is deployed as the default program for processing and interpreting such information, but in an "extended mode" much as layfolk, philosophers, psychologists, and even many biologists readily (over)extend the concept of a class or lawful "natural kind" to species and other groupings of similar but genetically distinct individuals.

As usual, there are some interesting applications in the deciphering of the quote and the section in which it lies. God gets created as people try to find meaning for events that out last mental analytical programming. Our tendency to explain actions in terms of a directing force goes awry as we apply it in abstract realms. In one sense, God becomes an entity that explains abstract goals.

While I think this type of thinking is indeed a natural inclination for people I am glad that the restoration is based on very pragmatic foundations. As I have mentioned before, this type of abstraction, while supposedly honoring God, may be akin to a type of paganism that removes any of the actual realities of divinity.

I think some of the recent comments about Joseph Smith's foibles fit in here. Just how human can we allow prophets, or even Jesus to really be? It seems like we prefer abstract perfection over reality.

InG we T - Sexual Selection

In Gods we Trust
Introduction 1.4 - Sexual Selection

The second chapter of the book comes across rather tedious, well at least if you are comfortable with evolution related concepts. One interesting point was a brief mention of the relation of religion to sexual selection. Unfortunately this passing reference on page 23 was more of an allusion that a substantive point. This is unfortunate as the idea seems intriguing, even if it hand waving and a priori justifications are all that its discussion can really lead to.

Lots of obscure traits arise due to sexual selection. Is religion one? Coming from a male perspective, I would certainly say women tend to find powerful, stable, secure individuals attractive. This is especially true if they have potential. Some people I know feel very reassured to know that someone always has a little bit more knowledge of the subject at hand. Not that most people ever want to hear about it :), only that it is comforting in case of. Does religion fill this role? As it is often unverifiable, does it's veracity even matter?

If religion hold a promise of potential, it is possible that visible potential is what mates may select for. From an evolutionary sense one could say that we have not yet evolved to distinguish between visible potentials that have substantive promise, and those that are more ethereal. Of course one could also say that such selection has already taken place, and the predominance of religious tendencies show that the potential religious beliefs proffer actually is substantive. I doubt many in Atran's field of study would appreciate this idea, but, like any other number of ideas, it does seem plausible. Unfortunately evolutionary psychology has a very hard time with definitive answers on evolution related issues.

To me the idea of religion as a sexual selector is enticing. Was it once associated with governmental potential? Was it associated with story telling ability? Was it merely associated with abstract thought? Many of these correlations seem to extend beyond sexual adaptation. Even if religion per se is not the adaptation, is it correlated with other advantageous adaptations. ex Can you really being an abstract thinker without religious metaphysics crossing your mind? In this sense, is religious thought an evolutionary spandrel, or it is actually a selecting factor?

No Logo

Branding, as we have seen, is a balloon economy: it inflates with astonishing rapidity but it is full of hot air. It shouldn't be surprising that this formula has bred armies of pin-wielding critics, eager to pop the corporate balloon and watch the shreds fall to the ground. The more ambitious a company has been in branding the cultural landscape, and the more careless it has been in abandoning works, the more likely it is to have generated a silent battalion of critics waiting to pounce. Moreover, the branding formula leaves corporations wide open to the most obvious tactic in the activist arsenal: bringing a brand's production secrets crashing into its marketing image. It's a tactic that has worked before.

Naomi Klein, "No Logo", pg 345

As I continue to read through Naomi Klein's book, it is amazing how many religious like tendencies she, and perhaps the neo-humanist movement she represents, espouse. For instance, the quote above, as well as most of the book, seem to show that one of the prime focusses of counter-culture styled groups is showing the establishment how wrong they are. Despite appearances, it really does seem that a prime interest is in proving others wrong. Obviously this in couched in more positive terms; minority rights, prevention of abuse, overthrow of hegemony, etc. However, there does seem to be a strong sense that the un-informed masses need to be shown how to distinguish between proper concepts of right and wrong.

In reality this seems like a religious like attempt to establish, or maybe just define good and evil. There is an attempt to create an enforceable morality, ostensibly through multiplicative effects of individual choice, where a gradations of right & wrong are rejected in favor of religious like professions of faith. Situational complexity is ignored for a summative judgment of overall effects. The movement Klein represents seems to want to enforce a relatively arbitrary standard of wrong. In many cases, explanations of complexity are only seen as rationalizations that skirt the righteousness of their attack. In this sense, an environment that forces the uniformed masses to choose sides is being created.

Whether we like to believe it, it seems hard to argue against the idea that morality is based on dogmatic preference. Certainly some things are more beneficial for a society than others, but I wonder if much of this isn't due to congruence of standards with societal needs rather than the existence of universal absolutes. This is not to say that absolute standards don't exist, only that in practice we normally deal with a level of morality that extends well beyond this base standard. And so, in practice there is a very real fight for litmus tests that define what is right and what is wrong. Choices contrary to dogmatic standards become seen as uniformed unless they either acknowledge or reject certain litmus tests. In this sense, it is the focus of opinions as right, wrong or uniformed that is so similar to religious like tendencies.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

InG we T - Depth processing

In Gods we trust
Introduction 1.3 -Depth processing

All religions have core beliefs that confound these innate expectations about the world, such as faith in physically powerful but essentially bodiless deities. These beliefs grad attention, activate intuition, and mobilize inference in ways that facilitate their social transmission, cultural selection, and historical persistence. New experiments suggest that such beliefs, in small doses, are optimal for memory. This greatly favors their cultural survival. - Atran, In Gods We Trust

The idea of depth processing has always interested me. It just makes sense. It is interesting to ponder the effect it has on our view of the world, especially in relation to religion. If religion provides yet another layer of interpretation, shouldn't it be a useful tool in helping us better comprehend, or at least remember things?

For instance, I personally remember things better if I see them as well as hear them. Obviously this is because I am a visual learner. However I remember things much better if I can extract a core meaning from them. My brother, and I are some of the few people that explain what a movie is about, not by going through the plot, but by first starting to explain the authors premise. (This makes it hard to describe most hollywood movies to people. They usually have little premise. AI, Ronin, Frailty, Houses of Sand and Fog, etc however are quite easy to talk about.) The extra associations made with a concept make it easier to remember. One merely describes the core idea you have rather than describing numerous unconnected episodes. (This seems similar to the idea I read in Pinker where he mentioned that we remember objects based on expansions of a few basic shapes. ie a chair will be remembered as a square with a few stretches here and there, a few rounded bits, and a bit of a tilt. Extra schemas get used for other details such as cushions. In effect it is a very novel jpeg like compression)

If religion adds another layer in comprehension, it should prove a useful tool. Obviously religious tendencies aren't going to help us remember a chair any better, but they may help us with more socially related questions. How does this person's actions mesh, not just with my schemas on personal interaction, but on the metaschemas that religious tendencies may provide. Is it another filter that better enables decisions of "fit"? Does it provide another layer to improve memory of people's actions and motifs?

Just a note, Atran does discuss a corollary to this issue in quite a bit of depth later on. However, the discussion centers around the memorability of slightly counter-intuitive ideas. At least as far as I am aware, he doesn't discuss the concept that religious thought can add another layer to the interpretation of data, thus making things more memorable through depth processing. Perhaps part of this is due to the fact that little work has been done on this area. Not being a cognitive scientist, I can't say. Any details on this point?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

InG we T -Commitment Theories

In Gods we trust
Introduction 1.2 - Commitment Theories

Commitment theories are mindblind. For the most part, they ignore or misrepresent the cognitive structure of the mind and its causal role. They cannot in principle distinguish Marxism for monotheism, ideology from religious belief. They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs-that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless- than to the most politically, economically, or scientifically persuasive account of the ways things are or should be. For commitment theorists, political and economic ideologies that obey transcendent behavioural laws do for people pretty much what religious belief in the supernatural is supposed to do.

I'll admit it, this last sentence stumped me for a while as I was reviewing things. I believe it is similar to what I was thinking about in my post on humanist religions. What makes something a religious is the way it is treated. This is an interesting, but I think, unworkable side step around the the main issue of scientific vs. religious knowing.

However it does lead to the interesting question that I think is raised in Judges with Gideon's scientific like testing of revelation. If revelation is treated in a scientific fashion, is the knowledge obtained from it science based or religious based? How universal do the dogmatic foundations of belief have to be before something moves from a religious realm to a scientific realm? It seems like community access and verifiability is the stumbliing point. But is this an appropriate limit if the validity of spiritual knowing is limited to oneself? In this sense, is it ever possible for religious based knowledge to be scientifically provable, at least on an individual basis?

Good questions aside, it is interesting to note how religious tendencies do seem to facilitate belief in counter factuals. Perhaps part of this is due to religion's entry point - the risk of abuse of this trait is offset by the necessity of having it to get the ball rolling with the type of faith based communication we obviously must have with the divine.

To get back to one of the central issue of the quote, are "transcedent behavioural laws" the hallmark of religious sytled belief (whether that be traditional religion, modern humanism, etc), or is the tendency to over idealize belief the most appropriate demarcker?

Keeping Personal Revelation Personal

On a similar note to InG we T - commitment theories, I think the issue of keeping personal revelations personal comes up. I believe there is a Joseph Smith quote somewhere (I could be wrong) that says the reason we don't get more revelations is that we don't keep them personal enough.

There are two takes on this idea. One is that sacred experiences, promptings and presumably, but not necessarily, the ideas associated with these should be kept to one's self. This builds upon the idea of not casting pearls before swine, although one certainly need not make such a negative association.

The other take is to say that, in most instances, we apply our individual revelations, ideas, and thoughts as if they had communal value and meaning. In this sense, we over apply the extent of meaning. Because ideas seem correct to us, R-movies, caffeine, etc we tend to assume they will eventually be as appropriate for everyone. The problem, therefore, is that we can't keep from applying things and ideas, that may be specific for us, onto others.

I think the whole idea of ambiguity comes up in this regard as well.


branding god

see the main issue about 2/3 the way down to where my comment on this lies.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Divine Dialogue

Over at Ned Flanders comment shake down, Clark had a phrase I have been trying to alliterate for some time "dialogue by force." Of course he used the American spelling but, then we all know, communication is context dependent.

The issue revolves around a minority's concept of dialogue. The other week I was listening to CBC or something and heard various native groups complaining that, even though they were given seats at a first native conference, they weren't allowed to have a true dialogue with the government. While I obviously could be wrong about the specifics, a tangential background story, led me to believe that the only way people would accept that a dialogue had happened would be if the government responded in action to the issues. I think this is quite a distinction from most conceptions of dialogue.

I think most people consider dialogue simply as a type of two way conversation. Each person's comments are modified to fit context, communicator and receivers. The exchange is, to the extent of the open mindedness and skills of each group, dynamic. But is action a required part of dialogue?

I think for some feminist origined groups the answer would be yes. Dialogue only happens as you move forward. Thus there is no level of response that is appropriate, only an ever increasing level of response. While I tend to see this as an infantile version of fascism, it certainly seems to be a sticking point between "establishment" and "reformers". More specifically it seems to be a slippery slope fight with idealists that think more is always better.

So how does this relate to Mormonism? I think it is parallel to some complaints ex-mo's have of the establishment and its lack of response to perceived issues. Can you say the establishment hears you if they are impersonal and the only way you can judge response is through action? Do individual really even want action? I think the answer is yes if it is in their direction, no if it is pejoratively labeled entrenchment. Personally I think much of the animosity in this regard centers around democracy.

Being in an ongoing federal election this idea certainly seems relevant. Multicultural theory seems to favor the idea that minority voices are important. The diversity they bring increases efficiency through novelty, and unique insight. As a result, it is the responsibility of such groups to make their voices heard. However, once the circular dialog effect discussed kicks in, this becomes a loaded issue. Why? Because in a democracy it is also the responsibility of the establishment to enforce majority issues, limiting non-representative derailment from special interest groups. Thus the circular nature of feministic dialog can become very restricting if it is carried out without trust, and complete comprehension of the role of each side.

In some ways this seems to be the bloggernacle cafuffle. Are opinions heard despite arbitrary management? The only way dialogue without action is possible is in an environment of trust and comprehension. Quite interesting when you apply this concept to our communication with God. Do some see his hand in everything because they feel that means they are having a dialogue with the divine? Do some need little response because they trust that concerns are heard despite a lack of action?

InG we T - Introduction

In Gods we trust
1.1 - Introduction

The introduction to In Gods we trust is jam packed. By itself it is quite an enticing thought starter. The subheading should give one a good taste of its content.
-why is religion an evolutionary dilemma
-why are religions and cultures not entities or things
-what is an evolutionary landscape
-why are Mickey Mouse and Marx different from God

One of the big questions I initially had revolved around the premise that "religions are not adaptations and have no evolutionary function as such." If this is the position taken I hope to see some discussion about the clustering of evolutionary traits. Not being up on the proper bio lingo, I had better explain what I mean.

When an adaptive trait is manifest, often other changes are clustered with it. For example developing webbed feet could mean one is more prone to certain skin conditions. All changes that occur with a mutation may not be adaptations. Some are merely carried along with the rearranging of genes or gene expression. Thus religious tendencies don't have to be adaptive, they only have to be associated with other adaptive traits. A few months ago I was pondering the question as to whether the strength of certain components of our religious tendencies would have been necessary to allow government formation and other important social functions.

I guess we'll see if this point gets followed. From the introduction, I suspect that this question may be too difficult to discern, and thus be useless for academic work (sociology excepted of course :).

Monday, December 05, 2005

Favorite Posts - November

Jim Faulconer has a great post suggesting that some forms of religion may encourage idolatry. In particular he mentions that valuing a construct, perhpas due to systematic theology, over the real, or revealed, may lead one to idolatry. This is because we are worhsipping what we create rather than the thing we are trying to describe. This seems like some of the problems some forms of protestantism has. The crreds become tantamount to scripture and systems of interpretations equivalent to revelation.

See Life Differently is a blog I had bookmarked some time ago, but haven't checked in on for quite some time. Looking for a bit of novelty in my reading lists, I stumbled on it again. Generous orthodoxy has quite a few interesting links. Trust the Spirit seems similar to a number of posts last month on the bloggernacle. Orthodoxy also seems similar to quite a few Mormon takes on translations and revelations. The Creedal topic could have been promising but seemed to skirt around the main issue. If one accepts creeds as a necessary part of religious heritage, what is to stop us today from making the equivalent of our own creeds. It seems that they really get validated by time, rather than by anything else. Sure the majority agree to them, but what the majority pushes needn't always be right. Accepting that God's will always ensures proper direction seems to be too deterministic for me, although I am aware it isn't so for many others (or at least not once significant time has lasped).

The Spinozist Mormon has a very good discussion on seer stones. The comments are the highlight. We seem to be afraid to acknowledge the possible use of seer stones. While individuals can assume what ever reason they want for this hesistency, it is probably correct that they cause people to think in terms of dictographic revelation. Since this doesn't happen much (if at all), at least not so that it gets reported as a "thus saith", we assume they don't exist, or don't work. However, one possible conclusion is that they just act as inspirational tools for a more conventional form of personal revelation.

Geoff at New Cool Thang had a good post and lots of good comments on the theological foundations of momon religion. I came in too late to post anything, but figure the merits of the creation account will percolate up again in a week or two, once people have had a time to digest some of the big issues. Personally the Pearl of Great Price is far and away my favorite scripture. I just can't get over how much is in there.

I lost track of the last half of November, so consider this an abbreviated list.

InG we T - Expectations

In Gods we trust
1.0 - Expectations

Who can resist a book whose subtitle is "The evolutionary landscape of religion". While some people like befuddling themselves with questions of when commandment A is more appropriate than commandment B, I find hard fundamental questions much more entertaining. It seems like a good way to keep oneself humble, and hence teachable. After all, from a naturalistic perspective, religious positions already seem so improbable I can't imagine why one would want to meld their hard won personal experiences within an inflexible paradigm. Extracting reliable knowledge from revelation is difficult enough, why make it more so by insisting that the baggage of construction is without err.

Thought provoking posts like The Main Issue at Issues in Mormon Doctrine intrigue me. They force me to step back and rexamine the possibilities that underlay my beliefs. Is my testimony of God's reality contingent upon his existence as an ex nihlo creator? Do my assurances about the reality of Adam force me to conclude that non-adamic homonids were really an impossibility? Is Adam's ascendance to God any more improbable if his mortal existence was through evolutionary lines rather than, ID direction or outright divine manufacture? With these ideas in mind I bought "In Gods we trust" with aspirations to see where my social and biological baggage about religion could lay. After all, there is not much point in making tradition a trump card if one is after anything non-circular.

In Gods We Trust

In Gods We Trust by Scott Atran (another review here) deals with the evolutionary landscape of religion. In it, he offers a well researched analysis of how supernatural religion is a natural consequence of our basic natures.

This book is written from a decidedly atheistic point of view. While it certainly isn't written in a pejorative way, it certainly can be a challenge to some types of testimonies. If you came into the book looking for ways to try and distinguish genuine religious experience from societal baggage, it certainly can lead to some interesting, and self defacing insights. As with any book, the more one looks for personal applications, the more one gets out of it.

Overall, I don't think this book will have a wide appeal for mormon audiences. To build something constructive from it requires a unique perspective on religion. The unnecessarily complex writing style in much of the book will further filter the audience. This is unfortunate because the experimental detail backing claims is quite nice to see. Unlike most anthropological or sociological works, assumptions are made minimally. Those with a science bend will feel comfortable with the style of presentation. Those interested in a light read will be disappointed.

During this next month I will be starting a series of posts on this book. While this seems to be a bloggernacle trend of late, I don't think my posts will summarize much of the book. Instead they will focus on interesting ideas that the book brings out in my world view. I would like to take about 1 week a section, meaning this should be a month long event. Along the way I will try and summarize my general reactions. So far it has been intriguing. It is just too bad I can only take it in short doses before getting bogged down with tangential ideas and issues.

Monday, November 28, 2005

World Lecture Hall

As a teacher I often have to run around the internet looking for resources. A few years ago I found the World Lecture Hall. This excellent resource has a listing of online college courses. Most courses are fairly complete. There are a few religion courses up there that I haven't gone through. If one is looking to get a bit more out of one's studies, picking up a text, and following through a course timeline and assignment schedule is not a bad idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Fundamentalists - just like us

From the Oct 8 2005 New Scientist:

The conclusion they came to was that there was no real difference between fundamentalists and everybody else. "The fundamentalist mentality is part of human nature." writes Stuart Sim, a cultural theorist at the University of Sunderland in the UK. "All of us are capable of exhibiting this kind of behaviour".

Attention has now turned away from individual psychology to focus on the power of the group. "We evolved to have close and intimate group contacts: we cooperate to compete, "says Atran. The psychology of fundamentalism is, literally, more than the sum of its parts; taken individually, fundamentalists are rather unremarkable. "The notion that you might be able to find something in a fundamentalist's brain scan is a non-starter," says John Brooke, a professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford.

My thought on this issue are probably best summed up by my rather incomprehensible essay on zealotry. To avoid the difficulty associated with making it through that post, I suspect that what we normally consider cultish zealotism is just an intersection between the high points on a couple of bell curves: one representing how easily people zone into to something, one representing how much an institution encourages such zoning, and the last being how uncommon chosen behaviours or interests are.

From a religious standpoint though, I think it is important to recognize that zealotry and fundamentalism, in whatever area most likely represent the easy road to escapism. Sure one can argue that biblical injunctions to extreme devotion are divinely mandated, but I don't believe imbalance and unsustainable actions designed to make or break us into relying on Jesus are necessarily the best way for long term progression. Continually laying down a gauntlet of fundamentalism, hoping that God will always be there to properly direct seems rather manic. Plus it seems to force an overly taxing solution on God when it would be much simpler for us just to move out of this rather selfish externalism.

New Scienctist Humility

From the October 8-14th New Scientist article "Meeting of the Minds" on fundamentalism we get the following, hopefully humility inspiring quote:

But how does the conflict [the compartmentalization of religious and scientific thought] translate into a social war, like that being waged over the role of science? part of the answer lies in fundamentalist's need to bolster group identity by reframing their belief in the terms of the dominant culture. In a secular, scientific culture, Savage points out, a certain level of evidence is generally required in order for knowledge to count and for individuals to act on it. Fundamentalists respond by attempting to "prove" their core beliefs: the "science-up" their faith, framing it in a way that they think ought to make sense to a scientific culture. Their claims then become, in their eyes at least, as valid as science's claims. No wonder scientists find fundamentalist's claims so infuriating: they are operating on patently false credentials.

I think in todays society, we are often too quick to self justify. While I think the minority movements of the 80's and 90's certainly actualized this human tendency, I suspect unless we are willing to look for the good that critical thought can offer, we are setting ourselves up for a compartmentalization of belief. While this may be a fine way to deal with abstract potentials, it may not be the wisest choice on the market. I fail to see why dealing with, and accepting day to day reality at face value is limiting. If religion doesn't match up with our current existence, it can only ever be applicable in an abstract world. While certain utopias may exist, limiting the conditions wherein beliefs may be correct certainly seems to severely limit the sphere of power over which one is able to operate. If I can't deal with this life, I may be missing out on a substantial fraction of the next.

Monday, November 21, 2005


Browsing throught the Jesus Creed today, there was an interesting article in the on the Emergent Movement. The problem, as I see it, is centered around the non-denominational aspect of some brances of protestantism. Hence the importance that Mormonism doesn't have on defining belief.

What do we really need? Is not a doctrinal statement a locally-defined statement in order to delineate one church from another (”we believe this, but the other denominations believe this — come join us as the true church”)? Do we need more than Creeds and Confessions when it comes to “what we believe”?

So, let me define “doctrinal statement” as a local-church phenomenon, “confessions” as larger denominational level articulations, and “creeds” as the ancient, orthodox articulation.

It is interesting to see the tension faced in this post between legalism, philosophical rationalism, and small c catholocism (ie inclusion). One can certainly see where creeds come into play as a nice way to balance these issues. This is mentioned down in comment #7

In terms of function I find Luke Timothy Johnson’s (The Creed) description of the role of creeds to be helpful – profession of faith (personal & communal commitment), rule of faith (measure of Christian identity), definition of faith (boundaries), and symbol of faith (community’s shared story).

To me, one of the fundamental problems inherrent in religion is its lack of non-overt direction. Schisms seem innevitable. The Catholic fear of the leavening involved in protestantism was, perhaps, justified. To combat dispertion, one has to either tighten the boundaries of acceptance, or rally around specific take on the gospel - like the Jesus Creed for example, or modern revelation to be equitable. From my point of view, the difference lies in the level of ambiguity each direction can function within.

Each specific take on the Gospel requires a certain amount of expansion. For example, an apocalypic view of religion requires a different take on Old Testament scripture than does a redeemer paradigm. The problem, as I see it, with this is that it expands religion according to one's own ideas. In effect as it becomes more specific, probability dictates it becomes less certain. This depsite the fact that perceived certainlty seems to increase with extra information.

So the challenge of religion seems to be keeping a direction in a "catholic" environment. I think the Spirit is the only thing that could ever do that. Since this is functionally invisible on a group scale, one gets left in a situation where one has to resist the organizational and directional benefits of fundamentalism by functioning in a soup of Rayleigh Taylor hydrodynamic instability (small instabilites increase very rapidly before breaking off - think water drops on the ceilings, or the coalescence of planets)

New Scientist Fundamentalism

The October issue of New Scientist has quite a few good articles on religion. Unfortunately the articles aren't available online without a subscription. However, I thought some of the letters were interesting. The one point I found interesting was how some evangelicals, as evidenced by a forum sample size of one, are rather miffed at evangelism being equated with fundamentalism. It seems quite analagous to the annoyance many Mormons have at the perjoritive cult label.

I was reading the first article on fundamentalism with some interest until I reached the suggestion that the terms evangelical and fundamentalist are synonymous. This is semantically inaccurate and, given the negative connotations of the term fundamentalist, most unfair. - From Robert Cailliau, CERN

From the evangelical perspective I would hazard that the non-Christian, cult label is given to Mormons, and other religions precisely because of the perjoritive connotations. It helps steer people aways from the perceived perniciousness of said institutions. From this perspective it is clear that many scientists view evangelism as something warranting similar treatment. More generally, I can imagine some scientists reacting to ID, and the Marshall Institute's supposed attack on science as something now annoying enough to be confronted. In effect some may be realizing that letting religous fundamentalists frame PR arguments is damaging. By not presenting a case, one is doing diservice to society. One can easily imagine lines being drawn in attempts to prevent "innocents" from falling into the wrong camp.

So why is there such an empowering of fundamentalism? I would be tempted to argue that in the West, the empowering of minority views is coming to fruition. Such empowerment doesn't just work for the opressed groups we like to see helped out. However this doesn't explain the rise of fundamentalism in non-western societies. In the New Scientists articles some mention was given to the idea of compartmentalization. The faith based world, and the modern world are separate. Some discongruity is fine, but as it widens one must choose one path or the other. Thus the world is getting framed in secular vs. religious terms.

While I don't agree with this argument, I can certainly see how one could create these conditions if one wanted. I think a big question is whether or not we really want to draw a line for the imagined help it would offer those on the balancing edge? To me, doing this seems tantamount to faith based paradigm choice. Each side presents their evidence, and those on the middle really choose their side based on what evidence feels good to them. Certainly some things in one paradigm have more potential than those in another, but this seems to assume that those making the choice will actually take advantage of these potentials. As society removes more and more consequences from individual and even group and national choices, the advantage to choosing one road or the other is diminished. It is like Hutterites who reject most science, yet still get to have their trucks and computerized dairy farms. I can choose fundamentalism knowing I can get the next generation of laptops and RPG's, created by those values I reject.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I stumbled across a number of good posts on this subject over at Jesus Creed. I don't really like the blog title (mormons use Christ, evangelicals Jesus, but the posts are nicely balanced and mature. Return of the Pharisees 3 seems like the best post.

From this post it seems as if the pharisees were acting like prophets without a divine mandate. By focusing in on prophetic tradition they validated themselves and their reasoning more than they should have. One could almost say they felt it was their job to guide the people in the little things in life, after all prophets are supposed to provide modern day guidance, aren't they? From a mormon perspective one would say things went wrong when pharisees starting taking prophetic roles upon themselves, instead of responding to divine direction. The problem with this mimics the problems many of the Church of LDS have with Christian creeds and non-denominational preachers - there is no control, and hence no way pragmatic way to limit self appointed abuse.

Of course Christian creeds had the voice of majority, tradition and reason to temper their decisions. Also hundreds of years of acceptance makes it easy to view their decisions as divinely inspired. "Calls to the ministry", which can turn into pseudo prophethood (a seemingly well intentioned priestcraft), have little in the way of limits. Hence a possible explanation for biblical authoritarianism. In essence, they seem to follow the phariseutical role, authority is via tradition, the tradition we have is right, I am right because I feel I have been authorized by God. God authorizes by the Spirit.

Ignoring the circularity issues, the problem with this approach is, it didn't pan out. It lead to direct conflict with God (Christ). Indeed, one could say that the more a self selected group uses context and history as justifications of their position, the more out of whack they are. Prophets usually don't try to gently guide people in this sense. Things come across much more stark and confrontational (at least when versed against tradition).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Formalized theology

There is a sense in which metaphysics is unavoidable if we are to reflect on anything. So, for me, the question isn’t one of entirely avoiding metaphysics or going beyond it. The supposition of such a possibility is itself a metaphysical supposition. Rather, the point is to find ways of reflecting that are more likely to disrupt the metaphysics that reflection unavoidably creates.

-Jim Faulconer at T&S

One of the scriptures LDS shun away from is Joseph Smith History 1:19

all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof."

Aside from this being one of the very few instances where God is quoted directly instead of paraphrased, or interpreted via revelation, it is interesting, not in the way it attacks other religions, but in the way it attacks formalized theology.

From this context, formalized theology, as represented by creedal tendencies, is problematic because it invariable supplants reflection and change for inferred accuracy. While it certainly acknowledge and promotes the divine, according to the quote of God, power must not lie in the ability to be specific, awe inspiring, or complete, but rather, in something else.

But this begs the question, where does the power of godliness that was mentioned lie? Moses 1 gives some ideas related to worship. One can also search the scriptures, pulling things out of context. Usually one assumes that the power mentioned refers to the ability of divine knowledge to accomplish good ends. I wonder though, if part of the problem is a belief that things need to be very precise in order to be workable. It seems like this is one of the things that creeds and their inherent leavening of the scriptures do. They assume that blanks must be filled in, and precise details known before they can be used as tools in divine discovery.

Obviously this approach is biased towards philosophical enquiry, the type mentioned that facilitates an idolatrous worship of the idea of god over god himself. Perhaps though, power is able to lie in the world of ambiguity. In this sense, the power of god doesn't need to lie in specifics. It may partially lie in humble reformulation and adaptation - repentance. It may partially lie in belief that doing good can build a heaven -faith, and it may lie in the admission that our preferred learning style may need to get changed to fit with the way things are done - baptism.

Depth of meaning

We are most happy when the depth of meaning we are able to create with something matches the amount of reality it is able to provide.

Naomi Klein's book "No Logo", while often times frustrating to read due to the naivete about implications of her idealistic view had some interesting tangential implications.

In one section she complains of how, as children, she and her brothers would run around the house of her hippie parents shouting commercial slogans like "cukoo for Cocoa Puffs". Reading between the lines, it seems like the complaint is the obvious superficiality of these ideas. They have no depth and hence little meaning. However this raises an interesting question. Shouldn't the amount of meaning one is able to get from something determine it's appropriateness? It seems like too often people, like perhaps Klein, assume that we base our judgments on collective ideas of appropriate depth and usefullness. Unfortunately for Klein, she assumes that the minority progressive counter culture elite should get to tell the majority what they should like. But doesn't this fail to take into account the amount of meaning an individual may actually be able to get from something. For kids, "cukoo for cocoa puffs" may actually mean more than any anti-burgeouse rallying cry. While it may not lead to much, isn't is naive to force people into things that are not understandable or meaningful for their reality? In this sense, always planning for the future may mean you have no base on which to progress.

In terms of the gospel, it is interesting that lack of a systematic theology seems to imply that relative value may be more important that absolute value. If not, wouldn't we have more focus on the incomprehensible (abstract doctrine) than on the applicable (faith repentance baptism)? What we do with things may be more important that what we could do with things. Of course this may just be my empirical leanings coming through.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Modern Religion

Over at my favorite blog, Belmont Club there is a really good post on True Believers. In it Paul Berman wonders why much of the left doesn't vilify radical Islam the way it vilifies Nazism and other tolitalitarian, or oppressive regimes. Wretchard, as usual, has a very insightful comment.

At Auschwitz the SS said, "Here there is no why." That grimly hilarious punchline was not exclusive to Auschwitz. Piers Brendon recalls in Dark Valley, his history of the 1930s, that the most common scrawl left by doomed Old Bolsheviks at Lubyanka prison were the words "What For?" But more poignant yet was the refusal of some Party members, exiled to Magadan, the worst camp of the Gulag, to smuggle news to their comrades of their fate. One said,  'at least now they still have hope in Communism. If I let them know the truth then they will have nothing'. Even in Magadan the Left's deepest need was to believe. Having abolished the God of their forefathers and finding themselves prostrate before the false god they fashioned for themselves, as between extinction and despair they chose extinction

One of the annoying hypocrisies as I see it, is a radical leftist's religious like attack of organized religion. While certainly not all of the consequences of organized religion have been benign, the thing that is interesting to me is not whether organized religion has on the whole had a positive or negative influence on society, but how religious tendencies seem to creep into collective ideologies.

So how do groups that tends to abhor organized religion, denounce war, tolitalitarianism, racism, bigotry etc. mimic organized religion?

1. Universalists - most organized religions are essentially universalist in nature. They believe the have access to special knowledge of correct, progressive behaviours. In much the same way the PC Left believes that what are now considered human rights are fundamentally good. Many believe rational individuals could not think otherwise. After all who could consider racism, equality of the sexes, etc as not being good and something that every human should seek after? In this way the PC Left are universalists. They believe there is a set cannon of correct morals that are universally applicable. Anyone who doesn't agree is repressed or repressive.

2. Faith - The humanistic PC Left seems to need an idealizing belief. To me the belief around which they organize is that there is an ideal solution to the world's problems. Education will elucidate this ideal, resulting in the unification necessary for any such utopia. More than this though progressive ideals are often valued for the spin off good that they foster. This seems similar to a Christian belief that through faith, good works become manifest.

3. Morality - Most idealizing organizations push a set morality, whether they admit it or not. For example, support for gender equality and sexual preference, is as much a moral stance as biblical injunctions of chastity. The method by which these morals are pushed also seem similar. Peer pressure is usually the strongest factor. Religions will use church courts to force the issue, the PC Left uses state courts.

Other parallels will take some time to figure out.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Starting a secret culture of combinations

Reading through Ether the other night, I found the comments about secret combinations interesting. Perhaps part of the reason was the transparent grab for power reflected in anti-establishment books like "No Logo". To me it always seems apparent that some people consider anything a majority does or chooses oppressive. Whether it is Walmart not carrying graphic magazines, or the loss of diversity caused by big stores serving the wants of the majority, someone always seems to feel trampled.

In the last few decades numerous groups have sprung up to fight the rolling monopoly of the majority. In No Logo, what struck me as odd, and revealing was how Naomi Klein mentioned that while identity politics certainly gave individuals more freedom, the tools that empowered this change were misuse and corrupted as corporations exploited the new dynamic balance. To me the main complaint seemed to be "We found a tool that could change things to suit our desires, we don't want any other group to use it. Once the majority get hold of it, someone will always get oppressed". Really this is just a transparent power grab. One group is asserting their right to control others due to a sense of entitlement.

Now couple this idea with the rising view that many far left (and far right) movements act in a pseudo religious fashion. They tend to have a set group of dogmatic beliefs giving them a unique world view. They believe people fundamentally want to accept their values, and fail to do so because they are either oppressed, or prefer to remain hegemonic oppressors. They evangelize their position by demonizing opposition and selling themselves as a light. And perhaps most importantly, there is a noticeable demarcation whether you are in communion with the group or not.

A third point that brings everything together revolves around the way civilizations collapse. As Wrethcard mentions this week at Belmont Club, civilizations run into problems when they can no longer identify "we". Once unification is lost, competition for power creates destabilization. In fact destabilization is what any group who wants power must achieve. Usually what is wanted is just enough destabilization to let them in, but not enough to let any one else in.

When one looks at scriptural references to secret combinations one usually assumes, quite correctly, that these groups are after profit and gain. However I wonder what conditions lead to a flooding of society with secret combinations? Is it a sense of entitlement combined with a false sense of justification? If it is, are activist groups setting up society for a culture of secret combinations? Or is it possible to view some of the more power hungry versions of these groups as embryonic secret combinations?

One of the defining characteristic of secret combinations in the difficulty in distinguishing them. Sure signs and tokens are used, but can social clues like rainbow necklaces, tatoos, nike=evil t-shirts, etc be thought of as signs of identification? Can professed attitudes and assumptions be thought of as tokens of participation? Certainly we find it easy to categorize people into social groups. Demographers are remarkably good at predicting the clustering of your habits. But to be a secret combination a group needs a clear agenda. Not all social groups have this. However most reform oriented ones do. This doesn't mean reformation is bad, however it may mean that once society is replete with quasi formal groups who organize around power grabs, we are set up for the type of coup that the Book of Mormon frequently encountered. We have created a culture of secret combinations.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Religion's entry point

Jeff has a good, thorough post up at Issues in Mormon Doctrine. While I don't think I have the skills to tackle the questions in the way they need to be, I certainly enjoy fundamental questions like this.

Since so many points are made in this post, I thought I would try and answer a few that jumped out at me. Instead of adding this to his blog, I figure I will do it hear. Things will be rather tangential.

Many religionists, however, might want to call their ultimate epistemic claims authoritative by expertise as well, after all, God knows everything and that's why we should accept His claims. Nevertheless, this authority is qualitatively different than that claimed by scientists. For starters, this Authority is always hidden from us. He is unable to give His own testimony, instead relying upon the authority of position granted to the chosen few. Secondly and similarly, these claims to expertise are shrouded in mystery. No attempts are made, nor can they be, to verify this Expert's methods. Whereas the verifiable expertise of the scientist is ultimately based in experience, the unverifiable expertise of religion is filtered through the illegitimate authority of position and is ultimately shrowded in impenetrable mystery.

I don't think I accept this point. I think God's knowledge is certainly knowable and communicable. However, I think dissemination of this knowledge may be impractical. For instance, if 6 billion people were asking a single prof the answer for every question they had, he might not be able to answer much. There would have to be a way to filter things down to important questions. Since I think God has much more to do than deal with just us right now, things are even more limited. Of course not many people accept the idea of such a limited God.

However this doesn't seem to be the main point. Verification seems to be the issue. The contention is that religion needs to be reliable. To me, reliability must exist in balance with accessibility. If people have different ways of conceiving God, interpreting context, and reaching conclusions, the entry point for revelation is rather large. There is not one way to receive it. Certainly there could be, but then the people who do not experience things in similar ways would be left out. Look at the problems we have with people assuming the spirit can only be felt by a burning bossom. It seems part of the problem is our assumption of inherit uniformity. We seem to accept the idea that spiritual information could in fact be disseminated in the way everyday knowledge is. However this is based on an assumption that there is a common way to communicate. For mormons this would have been standardized in the pre-mortal life, for other Christians, it would have been part of how God made us.

Ignoring the creedal Christian approach, I don't know if we should assume that we actually knew how to communicate with God overly well in the pre-mortal life. Things could well have been close to the hit and miss fare we have now (hence a possible need for Christ as a pre-mortal mediator between us and the Father). If this is the case, it only stands to reason that our communication skills would now be quite varied. Perhaps part of this mortal experience is to standardize the way we communicate, forcing us to come to partial terms with this variety.

If we agree communication skills may be varied, there must be a compromise between access and reliability. Greater access means less rigor and lower reliability. Communication is fuzzy as it conforms to individual backgrounds, skils, and previous experience. This compounds interpretive problems. This is not necessarily bad, just not scientific. Basically we have numerous people running wild with applications that are taken out of context and applied as specifics when they really may be quite vague or contextually dependent.

Why? Well I think we certainly do have a tendency to avoid vagueness. I think we also have a tendency to expect revelation to be infallible, not withstanding human conveyance and interpretation. We avoid enforcing revelatory rigor because it certainly isn't our job and certainly not within our skill set. So perhaps the answer to the whole issue is to take a look at the type of religious experience that is common, and hence testable. From this we should be able to get a list of things that can be concluded.

To be continued

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

October Favorites

Council in heaven
Geoff talks about the idea that there may be quite a few physical worlds in which we live and progress. Like many others I may be misunderstanding his post, but it seems one of the things being said is that the Kingdoms are descriptors of personal character rather than exclusionary spheres of existence. Thus a traditional telestial person who has been around for a while may be sharing an existence with a traditional celestial person who has not been through much yet. They both have the same character, only one has had to suffer and pay for their sins themselves going through several more steps, the other used the atonement, saving quite a few steps.

angels, what good are they?
Don asks why angels are doing things that the godhead should be capable of? This is an interesting question to me. It seems one can explain this by saying
1. God lets angels act for them so they continue progressing in his image. In this way they learn how to act like he does. ie the standard reason we give for our laity having callings.
2. God is a busy person and uses this help to accomplish those things he feels are important, and are impractical for him to do himself. (Kurt's comment)
3. God's unlimited protestant like omnipotence means that angels are used because we are not worthy to experience things directly from him. Intermediates are necessary. (no Catholics seemed to comment)
4. The godhead is the vehicle in whose name angels act. ie, the play the part thye need to as long as things are seamless. I forget the fancy name given to this type of role playing.

The main issue at Issues in Mormon Doctrine took a while for comments to get roling. You could probably hear all the gears grinding as people worked through the problem or stalled out from the challenge. I still have a few posts that are half finished from tangential ideas brought up.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Religion - the purpose of a shared story

As I was reading the final chapter in Twitchell's "Branded Nation", there was an interesting statement, "humans congregate to share stories." From this perspective shared history, commonly understood images and attitudes are what enables communication and hence society.

My last few posts seemed to have been dealing with the purpose of traditional religion. Perhaps our strongly individualized society has lost sight of the benefits of shared stories. Indeed, the book of mormon seems to stress how important unification was. Unification, in their case based on religion, seems to mirror their level of righteousness, and ultimately their survival.

Perhaps it is an overly selfish idea to believe that we can discover tall the mysteries of godliness through an individual based exploration. Perhaps traditional religious tendencies are important because of the need for strongly uniting stories. Something is needed that enables disparate groups to share a common language (or story) thus enabling communication.

Now I don't think brand spin is what is sought for this unifying story. It seems like one purpose of religion is to force us to admit that what I can do will only take me so far. Why? Well one could argue that limiting ourselves to one's own experience will only actualize things that already exist rather than reveal things that are new.

Personally, I find this explanation rather weak. Instead it seems more logical to believe that limiting ourselves to our own capabilities may result in a plodding progression that distances ourselves from those who are at the forefront of creation. Using more religious terminology, one would say that relying upon ourselves as a light distances us from Christ and the way in which he reveals the Father.

Now if there is a point destination for god, one really has a hard time arguing than slow steady progression will never lead us to exaltation. Even if relying on ourselves results in an incredibly slow progression, with infinite time, all that matters is the direction, not the degree of the slope. Because of this one usually interjects that some hurdles must be passed that allow continued progression. ie, you must have the gift of the holy ghost or else you can only go so far, you must have a temple marriage or you can only go so far, you must be baptized or you can only go so far, etc. However one could take a different approach and say with a continually increasing God, the only way to stay in communion with him is to progress at a sufficiently quick pace. Abraham 3:19 seems a possible hint at this, although there are certainly many other explanations.

With the idea of eternal increase though, one certainly runs into a problem of divergence. Even with the idea of co-eternalness with God, the vast difference between our capabilities and those of Christ or God quickly become unbridgeable. So how does the chasm get crossed? The only way I know of is through Christ. Somehow he has the key to staying in contact with the Father. However, this idea is problematic. It assumes that as God increases he is somehow unable to stay in contact with those who do not progress. This seems rather improbable. Perhaps though, the way that real two way communication can occur is limited to certain channels.

In essence while things like face to face communication may be feasible, they are rather unworkable. After all if God is in time and subject to natural constraints, having a one on one talk with a sequence of trillions of people could be rather time consuming. Instead it seems like there would have to be a venue by which two way communication could occur. So I wonder if this may not be one of the roles that religion plays. Certainly one could say that religion facilitates us hearing what God has to say, in the way that he has chosen to say it. Yet if one way communication is all that God does, then Biblical fundamentalism or some such strategy is reasonable. I am hesitant to accede this. My take on the scriptures is that there is an equal amount of becoming as there is of listening. When phrased in denominational appropriate terms, I am sure that many people would agree. However it seems like religion is doing more than forcing us into a certain mode of listening, it is also forcing us into a certain mode of communicating. Perhaps this is just to create a shared story in which we can all participate, helping out others. Perhaps though there is more to it than that.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Gospel brand

While there are some superb chapters in the Book of Mormon, my favorite is 3 Nephi 27. In this chapter Christ lays out the essence of his Gospel.

27. Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do;

Interpretations of this idea are usually pretty constant. We should follow the example of Christ. However this idea certainly downplays philosophical styled theology. The religious branding tendencies I have been talking about seem to be give sophisticated theology much more weight than the Gospel in this chapter seems to. In fact from this chapter one could get an idea that detailed theology, like faith vs. works, trinitarian considerations, etc really aren't overly important. However downplaying institutionalized religion and doctrines certainly doesn't seem what Christ is saying either.

A downplay of sophisticated, brand expanded theology tends to flow from a belief that abstract details aren't important in and of themselves. Rather they are important as distinguishing details. In this sense they just help one chose which path has divine approval. However, if we believe that branding details really are irrelevant, it seems like a slippery slope is created. People may feel that their idiosyncratic take on religion is as appropriate as any other take, institutionalized or not. In fact, like many people today, one could be tempted to say that traditional religious conventions and roles, like the law of Moses - appropriate for stiff necked people, but easily outdated by an increase in social sophistication and intelligence, or by increased needs and abilities.

Now I am never very keen when people start thinking they are always the exception to a rule. I think the Nephite's extended use of Mosaic law is a good counter point to the modern, "I'm sophisticated enough to be an exception" tendency. What I find interesting in 3 Nephi 27 comes about as one starts looking at the way businesses and large projects are run.

When working as a team on a specific project, there are usually quite a few different ways things can get carried out. You can have very rigid management, you can have laissez faire direction, or anything in between. Usually what matters most is that people adapt to what ever method is chosen, avoiding working at cross purposes. It is very hard for a manager to run a rigid time lined project when some members are accomplishing their tasks with laissez faire open endedness. Others can not follow because they have to reconstruct the mindset of all the underlying pieces to predict how details need to be accomplished.

Now this is not a problem if everyone is creating things on their own. It is not much of a problem if we are collecting outside help. Ultimately this is because as the sole filter, everything will mesh. However, once one is in a position of following rather than creating, things change. They change even more when one is following a large goal and simultaneously directing people underneath you. In this case, one needs to be very certain of the methodology and direction chosen by the head for the project. If not, things will not mesh.

And so it is interesting that Christ has chosen imitation as the model we are to follow. While not to shocking for people with religious backgrounds, it is interesting to see where this puts us. It certainly doesn't put us in a position to brand a product, expanding on rather insignificant details. It doesn't even put us in much of a position to choose the way we want direction. Instead it puts us firmly in a role of adaption. Adapting to what? Well the methodology chosen to relay information. And what is that? Well vs. 7, 28, 29 certainly give us the answer. "In his name" certainly implies emulation.

And so it seems like Christ is using the vehicle our natural religious, zealot like tendencies despite the harm that religious fundamentalism may have. (pharisees, muslim & christian extremists, leavening of the gospel, etc). And so even if one sees little point to some rituals or religious behaviour, it seems like what matters is how they are used in our adaptation to Christ's chosen methodology rather than any intrinsic value they may have when isolated.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Branding Religion

As I finish up "Branded Nation", one recurring point is that product saturation leads to indistinguishable goods which leads to branding (putting a story to your product to differentiate it). It seems as if religion fits into the process.

There is a relative abundance of religions in North America. Numerous Christian sects have given the consumer power of choice. While specialization could occur, niche markets can never be very big or competitive. Instead, large suppliers tend to dominate. However, to be a successful large supplier one needs to meet mainstream needs. Thus goods tend to become interchangeable. As a result of this relatively superficial differences are exaggerated, stories are told about interchangeable goods creating a sense of uniqueness. In this sense, what the consumer wants is the best bargain with a strong sense of differentiation.

Of course, to my mind these two things are mutually exclusive. True differentiation will never have mainstream appeal. Bargains can never get produced for anything other than a broad market. So the competitive environment a consumer creates demands the production of brand.

So how does this apply to religion? Well it means the demands that people have for their religion to be consumer oriented may have quite a few unintended consequences. It certainly means proselytizing that is based on meeting consumer needs may be a slippery slope. And what does this imply? To me it means for a religion to keep any sort of authentic, not branded, identity, there will always be a cliff that the consumer must jump off. While some may argue that religion should be a smooth transition building on previous beliefs, I wonder if this strategy can only function as an exception and never as a rule?

Friday, September 30, 2005

Branding god

I have been going through more of Branded nation, and despite a quite slow and weak start, I have begun to enjoy the book more. Perhaps this is because it is a welcome excuse from plumbing in a dirty 2 foot crawl space in a 100 year old house. However, Twitchell's section on the branding involved in the megachurch movement was quite good.

We depend on the law to organize our human transactions. We consider that law comes from some mythic source. With us, that's the Constitution. The myth of the urtext holding everything together is central to the American brand of jurisprudence. It's not good to believe that it's every judge for himself or, worse, that there is a high degree of uncertainty built into the story. This is also true with religion.

From the lead in to this section of the book, it seems as if "the high degree of uncertainty" is one thing branding removes. One does not need to doubt the story behind the product. The manufactured connections pin down the product, concretizing it - solidifying the connections making it more immovable and life like - less abstract and ethereal. But, as I mentioned before, is the associated leavening caused by this concretization good?

It seems obvious that different people appreciate different levels of manufactured firmness in this regard. Or perhaps from a religious perspective it is better to say, different people need different degrees of religious absolutism. but the end of the paragraph, to me, is the kicker.

If we ever countenanced the possibility that man makes his gods in his own image, would we ever give ourselves over to the priest?

Countenancing this idea seems blasphemous. It is the ultimate priestcraft, the end road of the magachurch brand. And yet, to me, it seems like a very worthwhile question.

As LDS we believe that prophets do speak for god, perhaps not always in the form of a mathematical one to one mapping, but nonetheless in way whose net outcome must exceed that of any other method we could use. Now one could take the approach like I mused some time ago that the specific kingdom we achieve may depend on the model for god we are willing to accept and create in our lives. But the question still seems to remain, would we ever give ourselves over to a priestly divestiture of divine knowledge if cocneptions of god are subject to branding influences?

Perhaps religion is a much simpler product than we want to accept. Perhaps it really is nothing more than faith repentance and baptism, all done through Christ towards the Father. If this is the case, churches are in a predicament. People demand, overtly or not, a branded product. Yet the essence of religion may be the rejection of such etherals in favor of pragmatic certainty. In essence, it may be a rejection of feel good culturally created and appropriate associations in favor of lots of loose ends grounded by a few irrefutable testimonial pillars. Is religion a story providing helpful morals, or is it a mist surrounding an iron rod?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Using the grey

There are good and bad consequences in every decision. It seems as if negative consequences are defined as such because of the loss of future opportunity caused by them. However, no path that we ever take will be without negative consequences. Attempts at minimizing negative consequences may end up being more a function of what we do with a grey world than how much grey there may actually be.

Perhaps negative consequences can be thought of as a linear function. What we do with negatives may be a quadratic function. Initially the value of the linear function may be larger than the quadratic, but over time, a quadratic will always dominate. So while avoiding negatives may look appealing in the short run, eventually, real benefit may involve finding out how to deal with a grey world.

In this light, righteousness involves less avoidance and more action. Righteousness may involve getting the most out grey situations. It may mean having an ability to make all things work for our benefit. It may be akin to changing our environment by changing our perceptions of it. In effect, it would mean putting on a pair of rose colored glasses, not to hide what is wrong, but to highlight what may be done with it.

Now this doesn’t mean that there is no wrong, no sin. From my point of view it also doesn’t mean one should go out and walk the edge of right and wrong under the misguided rationalization that it is beneficial. Rather it means knowledge of consequence is essential. Goals are paramount, and all decisions are to some extent limiting. (Thus to my mind, faith is the power of action with a sure knowledge of the effects of implementation)

Sometimes the Spirit isn't there to tell us which decision is the absolute best. Sometimes the merit of decisions depends on what we are willing to do with them. It involves, how we are willing to use the unique opportunities that each presents. In essence, the Spirit lets us know if what we are thinking of doing lines up with what we hope to get out of it. In this sense, the spirit can't make us into automatons. All it can do is line up our desires with the options that are available.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Often lessons stress the importance of avoiding even the appearance of evil. While I won’t disagree with the importance of this, I do wonder if the way people interpret the application of this idea isn’t somewhat removed from some of the intents of this admonition?

Many people bring up the point that the worst thing we can do for non-members around us is to set a bad example by not living up to our beliefs. After some recent comments from my non-LDS friends, I started to think more about what non-members really understand about our beliefs and subsequent examples.

Most of my friends have been non-members. This is still true. To be honest, I think we fool ourselves when we think that non-members understand many of the rules we follow. Most don’t even know what they are. Of course things like drinking, smoking, swearing, etc, are easy monikers to identify. However, I wonder if they really know why we are following these laws. I think most people interpret these rules as just weird things that mormons choose not to do. Of course we like to think that there are grand reasons why we follow these rules. We also like to think that people outside of the church are so inspired by our examples on these points that they eventually come to recognize their fundamental importance. While lots of people have come to investigate the church because of this, personally, I think this reasoning comes off a bit too egotistical.

I think a lot of the behaviours that make us unique get filed away under “one of those crazy things mormons do”. Due to our social nature, people have a need to be able to understand why the people around them act the way they do. For instance, as a social creature I need to be aware of signs for “don’t touch that or I will hurt you”. One of the most frustrating things for people is not being able to understand the rules by which other people are playing. I strongly suspect this is one of the reasons why play is so important for children. When non-members look at some of the different things we do, I think they interpret our actions based on some arbitrarily strange requirements of our religion. I think it takes a long time and some rather profound experiences for others to see that many of the things we do have a rational rather than dogmatic basis. Something is required that lets people shift they way they interpret our example. They have to grasp that there is a world view in which these examples make sense as something more than dogma.

In this light, example has an effect only if people are able to grasp our frame of reference. To me, this shoots down the standard motivator of “don’t do anything that could be considered a sin, because it may cause others to do wrong”. This is a non-sequitr. Unless people have significant interaction with us, there is no possible way they can understand the context behind non-stereotypical actions. Our actions will always get interpreted according to what others seem as plausible. For some this means no-drinking is really just a way for us not to be too jovial. For others, no activity on Sunday may be interpreted as making sure you are somber one day of the week. etc. In my experience, many of the things non-members see lds people refraining from relate to social interaction. They often see us as rather strange because many of the things we avoid, significantly affect the way we socialize. This is ironic because often the more we try to set a good example, the more we can alienate those around us.

So what is the answer for how to set a good example? I wonder if the best example we can set involves making it easy for others to see the world view by which we live. In other words, the best example may not be one that avoids even the appearance of evil, but one that fosters understanding. Well so long as we actually have a good reason for living some of the relatively strange ways we do.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Currently I am reading Branded Nation by James Twitchell. In his introduction he mentions that people favor things that appear to have distinguishing depth. We anthropomorphize pets because we feel better thinking they can communicate more than they do. We favor brands because they are associated with stories that make them seem more than they are. In effect, the more similar things become, the more we favor the invention of distinction. Added to this, the created backgrounds we favor are usually ones that lead to environmental congruence. In other words they fit in with the other things we have - the Diderot effect. (Think of the renovator who puts up a new mirror, but needs to update one thing after another to keep things harmonic). The interesting thing is quest for distinguishing depth relates to religion.

First off I'll admit that I believe that much of the antagonism in religion comes from attempts to clearly distinguish one belief set from another, exaggerating rather benign differences. However this apparently human tendency may lead to some problems. It reminds me of the use of leaven in the scriptures. It seems like our desire for uniqueness, expressed in the need for branded, story filled things is an easy way for us to turn open areas of the gospel into products of our own congruence. Often we can't accept the overlapping that could occur by leaving things open. We need a type and depth of story that matches the type and depth of the other stories involved in our life. We turn our interpretation of religion into just such a story. We look for it to communicate with us just enough to put things into harmony, not discord. We expect it to answer just enough our our questions to be satisfying, but not to provide questions we don't want and conclusions we don't want to tender. In essence, we want a religion that just feels "right".

However such a view requires either a completely amorphous religion, or one that accommodates an infinite level of different stories and depth. To many, Christ's unconditional acceptance provides this ability. Yet the more our view of him morphs, the more abstract and supernatural he and religion become. The more we try and ground him, the more we insist on congruence, and its inevitable leavening. To me, the question is, can we accept reality? Watching politics, perhaps many people will always need spin.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Organized Religion

As one reads history books, one thing that continually disturbs many people is the role organzied religion has played in conflict. To many people organized religion is associated with intolerance, cultural extermination, and a host of other downfalls. As people search through eastern spiritualism or indivualistic new age spiritualism to replace organized religion they often tend to get caught up in a cycle where the problems of things with which they are familiar are obvious, while those of the pristine foreign cultural mining fields are pure and undefiled.

While one can attempt to defend organized religion by appealing to the advantages and disadvantages of other quasi-religion philosophies, eventually this just results in unproductive dogmatic boxing. So perhaps the better question is, knowing the propensity for possible abuse in tightly controlled hierchial buearacracies, why would God choose to use this venue?

A few possible answers come to mind.
1. It prevents individuals usurping authority and proclaiming themselves as a source of truth. Thus the organization helps prevent people from having to choose between innumerable competing voices. Of course this may mean a reduction in efficiency as fulfilling the needs of a large diverse population necessarily means individual exceptions are harder to accommodate, and thus, eventually harder for the general population to accept.
2. Related to the last point, it may be the best of a series of compromise solutions. When one considers the individual benefit times the number of individual likely to benefit, institutions are a natural maximizing outcome. While individualism may maximize what any individual can get from readily available sources, it does not mean that a large population will cummulatively be maximized in a similar way. Often a single capable individual can assist a number of incapable individuals, even if the method of transfer isn't perfected tailored to those on the receiving end.
3. Our natural propensity for religion is a seed in human nature around which basic governing structures can evolve. In this sense, people have a strong inheritied tendency to want religious like uniformity within their group. In this way organized government would have evolved as a watered down version of orthopraxy.
4. Perhaps our tendency to organized religion is an associated consequence of our tendency to institutionalize successful practices or strategies. Of course this is precisely what those who argue for individualized spritirualism state. Proponents of organized religion consider this tendency beneficial, while detractors consider it limiting or oppressive.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


What is it that makes some actions so bad. In religious terms what trait do some actions have that make them sins?

Of course the obvious answer is that they displease god, offend the spirit etc. However, these answers deal more with the consequences of the action than the characteristics inherit in the actions themselves. I wonder if one aspect of sin is an unwillinglness to see or accept possible consequences.

For instance, if I were to steal, I may be tempted to minimize direct consequences. Insurance companies cover the cost. People expect this to happen. It may be a relatively minor inconvience to those affected when compared to the relative reward for me. Here the action assumes consequences that certainly may not be valid. In many cases the perpertraitor may even feel that consequences don't really matter. Perhaps this is because they happen to other people, not to themselves.

What happens when we look at these actions in the worst case scenario? Are individuals really still as willing to commit these actions? Certainly some aren't. Hence they try to not think about the consequences. However, many people are perfectly willing to commit such actions even in the face of the human consequences.

So what then is the answer? My guess is that part of what makes something a sin, is the lack of good that can be accomplished through these actions. In effect, nothing worthwile is created.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Vacation's Over

I am back from summer vacation, so hopefully things will get going again. I don't expect the frequency of posting will change much from the usual one a week or so. As always, the posting is mainly for myself. Putting ideas on paper seems to draw out many of the associated consequences. Of course it will take some time to get caught up to everything in the blogosphere. Plus this fall home renovations and a girlfriend will be competing for time.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Slow Posting

I still have a few things to say, but having a social life is taking its toll, especially since kayaking season is on. However, here is a good spoof that was up on my customized google news page.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Photo Contest

There is a photo contest over at the Waterton Scrambling page. If anyone is interested, head over and vote, or head over and grab some nice images for your desktop.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Favorite Posts - April

Potential Russia Nuclear Counter Strike in 1983

Cognitive Disonance Why do we view prophets as if from an ivory tower?

A simple post from powerline on the radical un-chic

Can the spirit lead you out of the church I don't think the comments were willing to really tackle the question. It is a really good one. It was followed up by this one

Some great comments on how some church pratices that apparently seem quite differnt, turn out quite similar when you look at the again

A good post on the importance of intent, Actually it was about how important just being a good person is, but I thought I would generalize it for my self.

Ways of Knowing II I tend to agree with how lazy we treat revelation. The story of Gideon and the wool in the old testamanet was one of my favorites on my mission. I think we are too afraid to ask God to repeat something. Obviously part of that may be similar to what happened when Joseph Smith lent out the 112 pages. I think the is a fundamental difference between asking the same question repeatedly, and asking a question from slightly different perspectives each time. The former seems like you are trying to get a different answer, the latter seems similar to looking for a range of values. Or perphaps it is an exercise in learning how to be precise.

Here is a great series of posts on the problems of pinning down mormon doctrineNew Cool Thang Blake on T&S, Jim F on T&S and Jim F again on T&S

Bureaucracy vs. Business

Perhpas it is just me, but having attended a number of meeting over the last few months I am surprised how unique life is in a bureacratic institution. Education is a perfect example of this. The truth is, education has very few specific goals. Rarely do we want to accomplish specifc goals that are not intimately tied to the educational structure itself. From an interdivisional (province wide) perpsective the goal of education seems to be about facillitating individual progress. This means that specific learner objectives are replaced by more holistic goals. (ex standardized tests bad, empowerment good) While many from the business world scoff at this obviously inefficient method, the diversity of those involved may mean it can end up being more efficient that an objective oriented business model. (the loss of efficiency in the former is offset by the net individual losses in the latter).

I think churches are rather like this. There are very few specific objective that can be pushed. The ones that can, usually end up being more about the overall design of the structure than anything else. This means that churhces have to provide supportive holding patterns. Directions and training are more about developing the whole than they are about accomplishing specific objectives. Now this is very frustrating to some. However, like education, moving in any spefic direction ends up disenfranching people. Sure it helps some develop, but only at the expense of others. In education what usually happens is oscillation between a diverse, but repetitive range of philsophies and programs. Sure it is always changing, but it is never really changing into anything. It is an amorphous institute that requires large amounts of effort in the cyclic pattern required to meet everyone's needs.

Are religions like this? To some extent, yes. We like to think we have specific objectives. The temple seems like a great focal point. However, rarely are any single ideas run with the way they are in business. There is not pressure to get a project into production. Instead effort seems to be spent ensuring there is a venue for empowerment. Should it be any different? As frustrated as bureaucracy would be for me, I would say no.