Different People, Different Paths

I have been starting my “fact gathering” phase of figuring out my beliefs. I am starting with listening to The Four Horsemen of New Atheism, as they are called (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens). Ricardo gets a lot of his ideas from Dawkins, Harris, and (especially) Hitchens, so I am familiar with many of their arguments. But it will be an interesting experience really trying to analyze their arguments for myself. I am also going to start reading Rough Stone Rolling as a starting point for the church history issues surrounding Joseph Smith. On top of that I have been re-reading the papers someone close to me wrote documenting some church history issues and her reason for maintaining belief. So, that’s what I have been up to, rather than writing so much.

But as I was reading and listening to all of this, I had this thought that has often crossed my mind: there are facts, there are probable facts, and then there are people’s interpretations of all these facts–three different things. So, I started trying to discuss this with Ricardo tonight by talking to him about this paper someone wrote and some of her (very good, in my opinion) reasons for maintaining belief. Obviously, my husband has looked at all the same facts and come to a very different conclusion, so he wasn’t initially too happy about me trying to have him “hypothetically imagine Joseph Smith actually was a prophet” and “hypothetically imagine he really did think he was being inspired to practice polygamy”, and so forth. After a while of discussing this Ricardo blurted out, “I don’t get what the point of this is. My mind is made up. I feel like you have to do so much mental gymnastics to believe that stuff” (or something to that effect). And he’s right that it would be pointless to try to change his very educated opinion at this point; I’m certainly not going to change his mind since there is very little new information I could present to him. So, at this point I had to organize my thoughts a little better and more effectively communicate to him what I wanted him to consider.

“The point I’m trying to make is that there are facts, and then there are people’s interpretations of those facts. And two people who look at the facts are not necessarily going to come to the same conclusions” I told him. “Especially when it comes to things as complicated as history and human actions.” This is an important point I think. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to say.

Imagine to yourself that there is a person, Sally. Here are some facts about Sally. She has 3 kids. She asks her kids about their day every single night and spends an hour talking to them after school. She works 40 hours a week and spends the rest of her time at home, only going out occasionally. She had an affair. Her husband doesn’t know. Her kids report she is a great mom.

Given the facts about this fictional person, Sally, do you think she is a good or bad person? If you have been hurt previously by someone close to you having an affair, you maybe think she is more bad than good. If you had a neglectful parent growing up, maybe you see how much time she spends with her family and her kids and you think she is more good than bad. The point is, people are complicated and basically no one is all bad or all good. The same goes for historical figures like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Maybe, after reading all the facts you can find about Joseph Smith, you decide that he was a pretty self-sacrificing person, generous, often kind, but you also think he lied frequently, was manipulative, and drank too much alcohol (even if that was not so taboo at the time). Maybe you read the facts about Joseph Smith and don’t even see him quite this way. Whatever you decide his personality is like, given the facts you read about, you then have to decide if this is the kind of person you can believe was a prophet? Probably that depends a lot on what your expectations are of a prophet. Do you see how two people could read most of the same facts and come to two different conclusions? I do.

And this extends beyond just whether or not we can view Joseph and Brigham as prophets. It extends to everything. The facts are often available. I think it is important to know those facts–as many of them as we can (which, it is impossible to know all the facts about everything). This is an area I think the LDS church (and other churches) could improve dramatically–people need to know the facts, and they need to hear them from the people that lead them. I think individuals could also improve, and I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to be educated about their beliefs, even if that process is difficult (probably I have a lot of respect because I know how hard it is). But every person also has a wealth of human experience and, given his/her experiences, the narrative that person creates surrounding those facts can differ significantly from another person’s interpretation of the same facts. For me, this is why one person I know, who is smart, is not afraid of reading things that challenge the way she believes, and has read a lot can decide it makes the most sense for her to continue believing, and yet, another person I know who is also smart, is always willing to reconsider his views when new and better facts arise, and also researches things thoroughly can decide atheism is the only logical path. They are two different people. They have both tried to be educated in their beliefs. Different facts probably struck them as most important. In the end, they reached two different conclusions.

I think it is key to know the facts, as many facts as we can find, the best we can. That really is of highest importance to me now. But I think it is also imperative to realize the big questions about life are complicated. Learning new facts is so valuable and is going to change a person’s view on those big questions in a great, and sometimes painful, way. But two people who read the same facts will not necessarily reach the same conclusion. That can be frustrating, but it is also beautiful.

Now comment, and change my mind 🙂

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2 Responses to Different People, Different Paths

  1. Crystal says:

    Hey chica! I have to say I do agree with you. There’s a great deal we can learn about our faith, the good and the bad. I’ve come across people in leadership in the Church who in my opinion are ignorant, foolish, pretentious, and completely undeserving of respect. I have. To this day I do not like them. Does that mean the religion is untrue because there are ‘bad’ or, well, stupid people in it? Well, if my faith was based in people then I would say yes. I certainly would turn off a lot of people if they knew the bad things I’ve done. I’ve been rude, insulting, selfish, profane, etc. And those are things I have or will try to overcome in time. But I think the point of what you’re saying is that there are facts, and then there are ‘facts.’ I see posts all the time by a relative of mine pointing out the flaws of early church leaders and their public behavior. But when I read the articles, there’s a lot of hearsay and interpretive opinions. Over recent years I’ve had lots of therapy, and I’ve learned some important things about opinion. As much as we want things to be all OR nothing, the fact is everything is all AND nothing. There is both good and bad in all of us. So really when one reads these articles pointing out the ‘facts,’ that person will use that information in light of what they already believe. For example, I believe abortion is bad. So when I read articles trying to argue the opposite, no matter how good their argument, I will only see how it is still bad. I cannot see the good, because my mind is set. Does that make me wrong? Maybe. In the end, the best advice I can give myself in the midst of all the information thrown at me on a daily basis is this: What makes me happy? Does my lifestyle make me feel content? There’s lots more I can say I guess but that’s what it boils down to.

  2. sean says:

    Alicia,

    I like this approach — do your best to get the more-or-less objective facts and try to sort out the difference between those facts and the more-or-less subjective interpretations/conclusions we impose on those facts.

    I think that’s a very important step, but I think the next one is also important: after reaching those tentative conclusions, pause to re-examine whether the “glasses” I’m seeing thing through can be improved — are there ways that my mind has sneakily inserted an assumption into the conclusion? Do the conclusions (or at least the process I followed to reach those conclusions) align with my values? If not, is there a different way of thinking about facts and thinking about interpretations that might be more consistent with what I think/feel is most important (whether that “most important” bit is “being right,” “seeing clearly,” “offering compassion,” or “being honest” (or whatever)?

    Good stuff to think about. Thanks.

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