Sunday, April 01, 2012

Struggles, part VI: Internal dialogue:

Somewhat later, after Part IV and Part V, I ask myself, “What are you doing?”

“What does the Church, gospel, whatever mean to me practically? I ask myself. “Well, it means several things, the aesthetic element, difficult to describe, that deals with the kind of world that I want to live in. There’s the friend element. And there’s the aspect of what the church, gospel means to me. Of the experiences that I’ve had.”

I think about the spiritual low I’ve been going through.

How could I understand this?

The church explanation: “It’s part of the returned missionary experience, going through the ‘lone and dreary’ world again.”

The rationalist/humanist explanation: “You’re finally out of the closed system you were on your mission and are in a better position now to see the way things really are.”

Hmm…then from a rationalist or humanist perspective, how should I understand the act of going to church?

Rationalist: “It’s part of being part of a group and having group identity, loyalty, feeling, emotion, etc.”

So if God doesn’t exist, do I have to leave the church?
The rationalist continues: “Why would you stay? The point of life is to discover truth.”

Now the pragmatist on my shoulder kicks in, channeling C.S. Lewis.

He brings to mind a scene in the Narnia series, where a group of people discovered at the last day that the god they had been fighting for was a false idol, yet it had led them to do and be good. Brings to mind similar passages in the Screwtape Letters.

So what’s the bottom line?

Pragmatist: “Well, think about your life at church. Perhaps, as you were ‘by staying here you can do more good than by any other way, you will live a happier life than any other way of living life.’ Then you should stay. With caveats; forge your own path, but stay.”

I start thinking again about the various worldviews.

In the rationalist worldview, words like holy and sacred and the accompanying emotions are, if not entirely lacking, than definitely muted. Value to things like sacrifice and self-mastery are difficult to see. Do I want to live, only in that world? I am more than a bit unsettled about that.

Struggles, part V: "I'm done"

It’s a few days earlier, before part IV.

Wednesday, sitting and reflecting, I bring out my journal, the capstone of Mormonism in my life. In it, I write: “I think I’m done.” Done with the church.

“I just don’t want to fight anymore….fight myself. Fight the truth. I don’t know what anymore….there is no God…There are a lot of things I want to keep with me. But I need to find a new home….”

Since around April, I’ve been kicking this argument around in my head.

It’s basically an extension of Occam’s Razor, called minimum message length, or MML.
The basic form of the argument is that if you are explaining a particular situation, you need evidence in proportion to the complexity of your argument. If there are 1000 possible, equally complicated, explanations for a situation, then you need evidence that is 1:1000 in favor of your hypothesis to bring it to even odds.

An example is that the probability of some woman Jane being a blond-haired bank teller is equal to the probability of her being blond-haired (say 1/4) times the probability of her being a bank teller (say 1/100). By adding the extra detail ‘blond-haired’ you have made the likelihood of your statement being true smaller by a factor of 4.

The argument against God is that any explanation of God is very complicated and thus exponentially less likely to be true. If there are 100 independent pieces of information (“Moses led 5000 people across a water bridge” etc), then the “prior” probability starts at around 2^100:1 against*. (Think of the prior probability like really good bookies making odds on a game before it starts, or at least while it’s still going on, before it’s over.) As the evidence rolls in (as the game is played), you adjust the “prior” probability to get the real probability.

But at 2^100:1, you’re starting really, really far in the hole here. You’d need stuff like “Jesus is speaking on CNN now” as opposed to stuff like “I had a spiritual experience and felt the Holy Ghost.”

It bugs the heck out of me, because I don’t have any good response.

I talk about this with my friend Arandur, the handle of another Mormon on the blog I read, called Less Wrong. It’s a rationalist blog, and fairly hostile to religion.

We decide to embark on a Crisis of Faith together, and begin trading e-mails with a fellow I knew named Larry Judkins. Larry is the atheist columnist that I had known at the Sacramento Valley Mirror. He and I had traded barbs in the pages of the newspaper debating the origins of the Book of Mormon.

We trade e-mails. Mostly concerning the origins of the Book of Mormon. There are any number of reasons why a divine origin of the Book of Mormon makes sense to me – its composition process, dictated out loud steadily. The complicatedness of the narrative. Hebraisms in the text. There are other things that seem 19th century-like or otherwise demand explanation, like Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and can generally be solved in some sort of a synthesis. Like “The Book of Mormon is of divine origin, but sometimes runs through a 19th century filter that results in seeming anachronisms.”
Larry’s last post is on the topic of Nazareth. He argues that ‘a Nazarene’ is a title, the location of the village of Nazareth was folklore originating in the centuries after Christ, and that the use of the word Nazareth as a location in the Book of Mormon is evidence that it is a historical anachronism.

Something about his post his me. Not necessarily his specific arguments, but more his timing, hits me, along with the idea from MML that I do need a lot of evidence.

As I read Larry's e-mail, I write in my journal those possibly-fateful words: “I think I’m done.”

*Actually more than that, but we’ll just say this to keep it simple.

Struggles of a returned missionary, part IV

It’s Sunday evening, mid-October in San Francisco.

I’m slightly out of breath, having just walked up a hill to get to the Frat House. It’s in West Portal, a quiet residential neighborhood in San Francisco situated between the Twin Peaks and the Castro on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The three and four bedroom houses around me probably run between half a million and a million dollars, including the one I’m living in. I live with seven other guys from church in the so-called “Frat House.” which lets us get our own rooms and still keep rent at 700 bucks a month each, here in a city where the average studio apartment rents for a cool 1600.

I open the door and walk inside and down the stairs in front of me.

I walk by my roommate Drew; he’s dressed in a shirt and tie. “Hey, where were you at church,” comes the inevitable question. “Had some work,” I reply.

Not really. I just figured I’d take off so as to avoid questions.

The calculated church-skipping was a culmination of a variety of factors:

• Increased skepticism about the existence of God in general
• Dullness of life related to a frustrating work environment
• Not being able to see the gospel’s relevance in my everyday life.

You’ll see these as repeated themes.