The Shelf Breaks

Part of a series about My Faith Journey.

So, at this point my faith in the Gift of the Holy Ghost, local church leaders, LDS culture, modern prophets & apostles, and the foundations of the church were shot. But there was one thing left that I was holding onto: my spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon. I was wrestling with this conundrum: if there were so many problems with the Book of Mormon that cast doubt about its authenticity, why would the Holy Ghost testify to me that it was true?

Then I found this video.

Confirmation Bias

The method used to gain a "spiritual witness" of the truth (e.g. Moroni's promise) is highly suspect; the same method is used by numerous other faiths: Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, Heaven's Gate, you name it. Funny thing, everyone always gets a "spiritual witness" that their own faith is the "true" one.

I decided to test this myself. I've always had fond feelings for Buddhism, so one day I prayed to Buddha and asked him if Buddhism is true. (Just a different application of Moroni's Promise.) And the answer I got was... warm, fuzzy, feelings.

I later learned that this "warm, fuzzy, feeling" can be explained by a well-known psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, which basically means that we feel good about the things that we want to be true, not necessarily the things that actually are true. Put another way, confirmation bias makes us favor information that conforms to our existing beliefs, and discount information that conflicts with our existing beliefs.

There is actual science behind the "warm fuzzy feeling" that accompanies confirmation bias: When people process information that supports their existing beliefs, the brain releases dopamine (a pleasure hormone) that makes them feel good. (Article here, scroll about 3/4ths of the way down. Another article here.) In times past, people interpreted the "spiritual witness" as a supernatural phenomenon, but we now have a rational explanation for it.

The subtle craftiness of Moroni's Promise

Let's consider the wording of Moroni's Promise, recorded in Moroni 10:3-5:

3 Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

Notice how the wording of Moroni's promise primes people to validate their confirmation bias: "...and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent..." This isn't an intellectually honest proposition; you're being coached down a specific path.

There's also a subtle trick in the wording of Moroni's promise: If someone says "I prayed and didn't get a witness" a true-believer can respond with "You must not have had a sincere heart or real intent." The wording is carefully crafted such that all confirming/positive answers will be accepted, while all disconfirming/negative answers will be rejected. Again, this is not an honest proposition. It's like flipping a coin and saying, "Heads, I win; tails, we flip again."

While we're on the topic of Moroni's promise, I'd like to call attention to some of the wording in Moroni chapter 10.

26 And wo unto them who shall do these things away and die, for they die in their sins, and they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God; and I speak it according to the words of Christ; and I lie not.

27 And I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?

Note the repetition of the phrase "I lie not". What if a used car salesman gave you his pitch and then said "I ain't lyin'!" What if he told you that twice? Would you trust him?

See also: Richard Packham's analysis of Moroni's Promise.

Logical Fallacies

The church uses a number of logical fallacies to get people to draw erroneous conclusions from Moroni's promise. Logical fallacies are faulty arguments that cause people to make errors in their judgement.

Drawing a conclusion about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon based on a feeling is an example of appeal to emotion. Many lawyers use this same technique to prime a jury to feel a certain way (e.g. sympathy for the accused) so as to incline them toward a specific decision. Bonneville International (a company owned by the LDS church) uses a technique called HeartSell. From the page: "Our unique strength is the ability to touch the hearts and minds of our audiences, evoking first feeling, then thought and, finally, action." If the church can use this technique to sell products, could they be using to sell religion too? (Note that Bonneville took this page off their website because church members were starting to connect these dots.) Feelings are not a valid way to determine the truth.

Furthermore, it is fallacious to assert that gaining a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon determines (or even implies) that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I get the same "spiritual" feelings when I read Lord of the Rings. Should I conclude that J.R.R. Tolkien was a prophet of God? I got the same "spiritual" feelings when I watched Schindler's List, should I conclude that Oskar Schindler (or even Steven Spielberg) was a prophet of God? This is the false cause fallacy.

It is likewise fallacious to assume that, because Joseph Smith manifested a divine gift of being able to translate, we should esteem him as the leader of a church. Here is an analogous example: At a U.N. meeting, the president of Nicaragua delivers a speech which is translated by one of his aids from Spanish to English. At the conclusion of the speech, the translator claims that, because he did such a good job translating, he should now be the president of Nicaragua. Does that make any sense at all? This is an example of a non-sequitur.

Sometimes the church will present the argument thusly: Either Joseph Smith made up the Book of Mormon or it's an authentic record. Joseph Smith was an uneducated farm boy, incapable of inventing such a story, therefore the BofM must be authentic. This is a false dilemma (or "black and white" fallacy"). There could be other explanations rather than just those two. We know Joseph Smith had scribes who helped with the "translation" process. Could they have helped him write the BofM?  Is it possible that Joseph Smith copied from contemporary sources?

Social Pressure

We don't like thinking of ourselves this way, but humans are basically herd animals.

I learned about the Asch conformity experiments, which demonstrated that people will conform to the beliefs of their peer group, even when their own senses are telling them that the group is wrong. This can be explained by another cognitive bias called the bandwagon effect. We have a strong tendency to do whatever the group is doing and believe whatever the group is believing.

There is actually some science to explain why this happens. Many animals (most mammals, including humans) have mirror neurons, which are neurons in our brains that prompt us to mimic both feelings and actions that we see. This is why directors use reaction shots in movies. (See also this example.) When we see a character reacting to something, our mirror neurons prompt us to copycat that reaction. We see a similar phenomenon when a crying child enters a nursery full of happy children. After a few minutes, all of the other (formerly) happy children will be crying as well, because their mirror neurons subconsciously make them mimic the behavior of the crying child.

When you attend a Fast & Testimony meeting and hear everyone else saying "I know the church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.", you'll pick up on that, and you'll mimic it.

See: But intelligent people believe it...

Memory Distortion

We would like to believe that we have perfect recall and that our memories are incapable of being corrupted. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Memories frequently fade with time. Here are some tests you can try on your own:

Furthermore, every time we access a memory, we alter one element of it. We observe this in the quintessential "fish story" where the fish gets bigger and bigger with every retelling. The end result is that the memories you access most often are the most erroneous. Most of our memories are fiction and frequently-accessed memories are the most fictional.

Emotion has a way of distorting memories. "Spiritual experiences" are emotionally charged, which makes our memories of them very susceptible to distortion.

Latter-day Saints are encouraged to bear their testimonies frequently. Often, these testimonies include memories of conversion stories, answered prayers, or other spiritual events. They are also usually emotionally-charged memories (often causing people to cry with the retelling). The end result is that our testimonies are the most distorted memories in our heads. The events as they actually occurred were probably far less grandiose than we recall, and probably could have naturalistic (i.e. non-supernatural) explanations.

Cognitive Consonance / Dissonance

Cognitions are thoughts, beliefs, values, ideals, and even behaviors. "Cognitive consonance" means you have a set of cognitions that are all in harmony with each other. It's kind of like a machine where all the gears mesh together well. "Cognitive Dissonance" is experienced when you are exposed to something (information, experiences, feelings) that conflicts with your existing set of cognitions. In this case, a gear in the machinery of your mind isn't meshing properly and it's causing hiccups in your cognitive processing, which manifests as mental stress.

One example, if someone is raised to believe that "coffee is bad for you" but they see an article describing the health benefits of coffee, that will cause cognitive dissonance. There are many ways they might try to resolve this.

It is worth noting that it is easier to change a belief (an invisible cognition) than it is to change a behavior (an expressed cognition). One you've publicly displayed a certain behavior, the fear of shame will prompt you to alter your beliefs to match your behavior. The church exploits this by saying things like "A testimony is found in the bearing of it." Note that church leaders are asking you to bear false witness: Even if you don't have a testimony, get up there and say that you do. In so doing, you will most likely change your beliefs to match your behavior.

As a general rule, when the importance of the cognitions is very high, or abandoning the cognitions is seen as risky, people will favor keeping their existing cognitions, and just stuff more gears into the machine to make it work. The church exploits this by setting the importance/risk as high as possible: If you lose your testimony, you'll jeopardize your eternal salvation. You won't get into the Celestial Kingdom. You won't get to live with God or become like him. You'll be separated from your family forever. With the stakes set this high, most members, when they encounter cognitive dissonance, will add more and more gears to their machinery to try to bring the conflicting information into harmony with their existing cognitions. I did this for awhile. Eventually, my mental machinery started to look like a Rube Goldberg contraption.

I vividly remember the moment of my deconversion when I was sitting in front of my computer, reading about the disturbing aspects of the church and trying to make sense of it all. At one point, I admitted to myself, "Maybe the church isn't true." At that instant, all of gears popped out and fell to the floor, and all of my cognitive dissonance went away.

I no longer had to try to reconcile why so many church teachings conflict with science (e.g. the scriptures teach that the earth is 6000 years old, and that there was no death before Adam & Eve, but archaeologists have found numerous fossils of now-dead creatures (including humans) that are millions of years old). I no longer had to wonder why God wouldn't allow blacks to have the priesthood or attend the temple. (Answer: God had nothing to do with it; it was just the racist attitudes of ordinary men.) I no longer had to wonder why priesthood blessings sometimes work and sometimes don't. (It's just a placebo effect.)

I've heard that high levels of cognitive dissonance can lead to depression and anxiety. This actually explains a lot, because true-believing church members have to maintain very high levels of cognitive dissonance. When my cognitive dissonance disappeared, my depression began to evaporate as well. As the weeks went by, it lightened more and more until the depression was completely gone. I can honestly say that the moment of my deconversion was more satisfying, more relieving, and more profound than the moment of my conversion ever was.

Conclusion

The human brain is an amazing computing device, but the software it runs is very buggy. Our bodies have numerous defects and our minds have similar, cognitive defects. The church exploits the bugs in our thinking to get us to come to faulty conclusions. These are tricks that con artists have been using for ages... and I was taken in by them. I was asked to make lifelong commitments based a cheap con artist scam. I was robbed of tens of thousands of dollars of my money, decades of my life, and even my mental health.

I was swindled.