Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Making Molehills out of Mountains

I recently had a long conversation with a good friend who is tbm.  I talked about my qualms with the LDS faith and with faith in general.  His advice to me was to stop sweating the small stuff and have faith in the simplest way, the way a child believes.

More recently, I talked with my mother about a similar subject.  She mentioned that she thought that I find fault in things that LDS leaders have said and with specific points of doctrine. 

I understand where both of these people are coming from.  Not seeing the forest for the trees, I could miss a lot of good things in life if I were to reject anything and everything that did not seem perfect to me.

However, I am not convinced that it is wrong to heavily consider details in this situation.  The is absolute truth we're talking about, it's a big deal if one religion happens to be true (making the others all false to various degrees).
So I guess I probably shouldn't attack the church because Brigham Young was misogynistic and racist in his personal opinions... nobody's perfect, but they can still be right about some things even if wrong about others.  However, when church doctrine seems unlikely or patently false, I think that this is relevant.  And when the so-called prophet speaks to the church, he is supposed to be standing in for god.  So I could care less what Ol' Brother Brigham said to friends, family, and acquaintances.  However, when he spoke in general conference or wrote things down for the church, that is the stuff that is supposed to be guaranteed.  What's the point of a prophet when he could always be "speaking as a man?"  (And he always turns out to have been when he said something wrong.)

I countered that the prophet is pointless if you are never sure of the validity of what he's saying.  The reply that I got asserted that one does not need to believe the prophet necessarily, that one can receive one's own confirmation of what the prophet has said.  I think this is a refreshingly liberal thought from members of a faith that is sometimes frighteningly dogmatic and protective of its leaders.
However, I think that this argument puts the final nail in the coffin of the "necessity of prophets."  If we are not to believe anything they say until we go ask ourselves, why not just ask god ourselves in the first place?  I mean, the whole "stewardship" thing, where you need a certain calling or priesthood to be able to reveal things for a certain group, is useless if nothing they say is to be trusted anyway.

 So if I'm a little upset about what they didn't tell me about the Book of Abraham, is that me throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  (frankly, as an atheist, I would never waste a perfectly tasty baby in such a way)  I don't think so!  The book is fraudulent.  The "translation" is fiction.  The facsimiles are inaccurately reconstructed and  the symbols on them wildly misinterpreted.
And then people try to tell me "Joseph Smith was just a man!"  Well, I never doubted the fact, but what happened to "the prophet will never lead the church astray?"  The fact that millions of Mormons believe that the Book of Abraham is a direct translation of some papyrus that Smith got from mummies being sold (the tiny little archaeologist inside me cringes) on the American frontier seems to fall within the realm of "astray."

There is a great analog of this from the world of physics.  The Michelson-Morley experiment performed in the 19th century failed to confirm what it was designed to confirm: that since the Earth is moving through the fixed "ether" of space, there should be an "ether wind" that makes light travel faster in some directions than others (because the ether is what the waves propagate through).  The physics community was puzzled, and kept building bigger and better experiments to try to figure out how they'd missed the ether wind.  Then, a bored patent-office clerk named Albert Einstein decided to take this seemingly-small discrepancy out to its weird logical conclusion: that light propagates at the same speed in all directions as observed from any reference frame.  Thus the theory of relativity was born, a theory which has repeatedly been confirmed by various experiments, has fundamentally changed our view of the structure and behavior of the universe, and without which GPS navigation devices would be accurate to within tens of miles instead of tens of feet.

Did Einstein err by making a mountain out of what so many regarded as a molehill?  If by "err" you mean "make the most important discovery made by the physical sciences in centuries," then yes.

Near the end of the 19th century, Rutherford (the physicist responsible for hiring the grad students who discovered the atomic nucleus) noted that the Physics community had solved nearly every problem about how the world works.  He described two little dinky things, two discrepancies that were about all that remained:  The Michelson-Morley experiment and the behavior of black-body radiation.
Rutherford is frequently mocked for his assertion that physics was almost "done,"  but I think he was quite astute.  As I've already mentioned, the M-M experiment's results led to the development of the theory of relativity.  Black-body radiation is one of the very first things that made certain physicist start noticing that quantities which were assumed to be continuous only came in certain discreet values, an idea that led to the development of quantum mechanics.  Thus, 19th-century physical science was completely swept aside by radical, powerful new theories that arose from curious investigation from the last, dinky little discrepancies that seemed to exist in the models of the day.  These are not just abstract physics, either.  Relativity and quantum mechanics are essential to things from NASA's calculations of spaceship trajectories to the operation of the tiny electronic circuits printed on silicon microchips.

I think that the "put it on the shelf" attitude is misled.  Just ignore anything I have qualms about, because ultimately the gospel is something much bigger?  Just because lots of parts of it are consistent with each other (which I readily admit... I would have become atheist quicker if I had been of a denomination other than LDS,
I suspect) does not mean that the entire structure is not misled, as was the case of 19th-century science.
Disregarding things like the Book of Abraham and the inconsistency of church doctrine through the years is not a path to truth.  It is making molehills out of mountains, keeping the bathwater sitting in the bath forever (yuck) just in case the baby's in there, and missing the ravenous tigers for the forest.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this explanation even though science and math tend to zoom over my head. Fortunately I can go back and reread. THANKS. And the title is just great too...would be a good title for a book.