Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Problem

Man is a social animal. We make clubs. We make corporations. We make churches. We make governments and mafias. We then use these organizations to order our lives, to bless and to curse. All organizations subsist by a give-and-take between conferring advantages and causing harm (both to those who belong and to those who don't). There is no historical organization that has not hurt somebody. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I have yet to learn of an organization that didn't hurt some innocent person, at some point. And yet we need organizations to survive. This puts us in a sticky place, a place from which there is no easy exit.

If there are no perfect organizations, then there are at least some that appear decidedly better than others. I can readily understand why someone with means would want to belong to these groups and not others that work against them. I think it makes perfect sense for someone in John Larsen's shoes to come to the conclusion that he has reached and work against the LDS church. But not all people are John Larsen. Some people lack the tools (mental, emotional, physical) to save themselves from bad (or at least suboptimal) organizations. Calling for these people to throw off the chains that oppress them is like telling a cripple to ditch the crutch and walk already. Worse than that, some of the cripples function even worse without the "oppression" that the church gives them. (A good friend of mine, when asked the rhetorical question, "Would you go around committing crimes if you weren't LDS?" has responded, "Yes, actually, I think I would." I believe he is sincere, and he might even be right. I don't want to push him. For what it is worth, he didn't reject me when I decided to distance myself from LDS Mormondom.)

In my experience (actual and vicarious), what really improves the quality of human life is something more subtle than simple affiliation (with any group, including churches of all kinds). Some people are better at empathizing with others. Some people are better at learning from others. Some people are better at coming up with methods for cultivating and spreading the benefits of civilization (humanity en groupe). There are ways around these people: historically speaking, many groups like to suppress them, control them, use them for the group's own purposes, etc. But if the world survives, then their work always rises to the top (even if some dead ne'er-do-well like Joseph Smith gets the credit for it). Real quality is something against which there can be no effective argument. Even Muslims (to name one religion frequently mistrusted these days) believe in things like compassion, charity, and honor (which has some positive meaning for them, too, not just rejoicing that another idiot has blown himself up in the marketplace praising Allah).

There are moments in history when we would like to pull humanity up by the bootstraps, raising the moral level of every person such that each and every one might see that suicide bombing (or nuclear war, or any war waged for profit) is just wrong. We would like to make the bad mafias go away and replace them with good ones. But the bad ones are all good, in some way, or they would not exist. (This is true even of the worst Muslim sect you can imagine, I think.) And no good one that has ever existed has not, at some point, been bad. This is part of why I am having a hard time disentangling myself from Mormonism (even as I leave the church behind, along with any kind of positive theism). Maybe in time I will advance to the place where John is today, but for the present I am not there. I do not see how it is possible to strip superstition and ignorance out of the human psyche. I do not see how kicking the religious idiots out the front door doesn't inevitably turn into admitting them in again through the back. (A good example of this is Soviet Russia, which secularized enough to lose God but not enough to get rid of all the worst aspects of human organized behavior, i.e. religion.)  People are stupid. In large numbers, it seems that our stupidity compounds. There is no easy way out of this (that I can find, anyway). In the end, our best hope is for thoughtful individuals to take the time and make the effort necessary to publicize human stupidity, warning the people (the way prophets are supposed to) that they are all idiots.  (Naturally, prophets are idiots too, being human.)

It really doesn't matter what clubs one belongs to, or what "doctrines" one espouses (in the abstract). Theory is often wrong, and its wrongness can lead to unnecessary suffering and death whether practitioners are rational or not (and many are simply never going to be: until people in the Third World stop having to fight for survival every day, some of them are always going to be violent lunatics, with some justification: if I had been born in their place, I would be as they are; fortunately for me, the USA is not Yemen or Saudi Arabia, and LDS Mormonism is not conservative Islam, though Brigham and Joseph tried to take it that way in their time). What we need is a massive dose of introspective, individual skepticism--something that does not come with declarations for or against this or that company. If we want to convert the idiots, we have to speak their language. Some of them will respond well to explicit deconstruction ("you are wrong and your prophets are full of shit"); others will respond to something less harsh ("there is another way to find peace between heaven and earth: this war is not the will of God").

If you take a tally of the deaths caused by the LDS church and compare it to the deaths caused by other companies in human history, I think you will find that the LDS are small potatoes. I could be wrong, and Sam Harris would no doubt say that we are still a time bomb waiting for our chance to become the next al-Qaeda. He could be right, but I don't see it happening, at this point. Where any individual stands relative to Mormonism, institutional or otherwise, has relatively little bearing on the central problems facing humanity (e.g. how to live in harmony when our big brains require socialization that leads to tribalization, and then turn around and invent weapons of mass destruction). I think these problems might be better served if more energy were spent engaging them directly, which necessarily means spending less time quibbling over whether a like-minded person is Mormon or not, Christian or not, Jewish or not, Muslim or not, religious or secular. In the fight against barbarism, the humanist finds all kinds of unexpected allies (including some who choose, for reasons of their own, to retain organizational affiliations that strike the outsider as dangerous and/or ludicrous).

1 comment:

  1. Maybe if certain individual Mormons were to suddenly get their hands on WMDs, we might have a problem. To the credit of the LDS leaders, I don't think they would be interested in that kind of business, at all.

    While I find the LDS church's business practices less than honest, it is better (in my mind) to talk nice people out of their money in order to build malls than for the purpose of blowing malls up (as some terrorist organizations do). I would rather be cheated by a robber than by a murderer.