Apostasy as Conspiracy Theory: Reason, Logic, Insanity and Mormon Intellectualism

[Cross Posted from Sixteen Small Stones]

It’s time to talk about Apostasy. Again.

In this post, however, I want to introduce a new approach to thinking about personal apostasy by drawing what I think are compelling comparisons between apostasy and conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories appeal to some very fundamental aspects of human nature and can wield a great deal of influence over people. I believe that a closer look at the appeal and mechanics of conspiracy theories can help illuminate some important aspects of personal apostasy from the church.

My hope is that by exposing these aspects of apostasy I can help not only those members of the church who are dealing with family or friends who have apostatized, but also give pause to those who find themselves being drawn down the path of apostasy, and raise doubts among those who are already a far distance down that path.

Ultimately this is a warning about the limits of reason and logic and the potential dangers of the rational mind.

The concept of conspiracy is deeply ingrained into our entertainment, our political discourse, and even our religion. Conspiracy theories exist among the atheistic as well as religious. They propagate among liberals as well as conservatives, and among the educated as well as the ignorant.

The Logic of Insanity

To understand conspiracy theories better, and by extension apostasy, we must first look at insanity. G.K. Chesterton’s keen observations concerning madness provide an excellent foundation upon which I hope to build. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes the following observations which, with a plea for patience from the reader, I quote at length:

“Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.”

“Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.”

“Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner.”

Now, while my own experience generally validates Chesterton’s insight, I would add that insanity is not an all-consuming binary state; a person is often neither completely mad nor completely sane. Madness comes in degrees and compartments, and an otherwise sane person can succumb to this kind of insane thinking in only some aspects of his or her life, while retaining a great deal of apparent sanity in other respects. All of us experience degrees of insane thinking in one or more aspect of our lives. It’s part of being human.

Aspects of Conspiracy Theories

Let me mention briefly that there are real conspiracies. I have seen the acts of conspiring men and women myself. Both the Book of Mormon and modern prophets have affirmed the reality of secret combinations.

That said, we can recognize Chesterton’s description of insanity in the logic of conspiracy theories. There is the same “logical completeness,” the same “unanswerable” reasoning, the same “horrible clarity of detail”, the same “connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze.”

Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories are not fools. On the contrary they are commonly very intelligent, logical, “successful reasoners.” As Chesterton would say, it’s not that their theories don’t make logical sense, it’s that the conspiracy theory “explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.” I call this aspect of conspiracy theories “logical completeness”.

Human reason is very good at finding logical patterns and connecting mathematical dots. Conspiracy theories have power because they provide a sense of logical completeness and rational satisfaction; a sense of order from chaos. Those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory often take this logical completeness and the fact that their logic is at least unanswerable as evidence of the truthfulness of the theory. On the contrary, it could just as easily be the hallmark of insanity.

The second aspect of conspiracy theories that gives them power over us is what I call “gossip appeal”. Gossip carries a great deal of explanatory power and provides a narrative framework in which the actions of another can be interpreted. And because human nature often finds pleasure in discovering the dirty secrets, misdeeds, or misfortunes of others (even when the dirt is perceived more than real) gossip spreads quickly. And because gossip appears to agree with the observable facts, and often exhibits a great deal of logical completeness itself, it is very damaging and difficult to correct; the messy unintentionality of reality is often less logically satisfying than the scuttlebutt.

Conspiracy theories appeal to the same base human pleasure in sordid news as gossip does. The adherent feels compelled by the logical, explanatory power of the theory and the gossip-like discovery of the dirty secret.

Which brings us to the third aspect of conspiracy theories that give them power, which I call “perceived superiority”. Adopting a conspiracy theory has the effect of placing the believer in what they perceive to be a small group of intellectually superior people who, unlike the “sheeple” who believe the official story, have figured out “what is really going on.” It’s like qualifying for an elite club. This perception is reinforced by a like-minded community as well as the logical completeness of the theory and the gossip appeal previously discussed. It is natural for everyone to believe that they are more astute and more informed than their peers, and conspiracy theories confirm that natural bias.

These three aspects– logical completeness, gossip appeal, and perceived superiority — contribute to the power of conspiracy theories over the human mind.

The Tragedy of Bobby Fischer

I’m sure that you have already noticed at least a few similarities to apostasy. But before fleshing them out, I want to provide a couple of more concrete examples and experiences.

First, I would like to look at the sad example of Bobby Fischer.

Some of you probably became aware of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer through the 1993 film, Searching for Bobby Fischer. Fischer, who passed away in 2008, was considered one of the greatest chess players of all time. He didn’t just play chess, he had such a huge influence that he permanently changed the way other people play chess.

His genius and ability for logical thought are unquestionable. And yet, he is a perfect example of the kind of logical insanity that Chesterton described. Fischer descended into paranoia and embraced increasingly strident conspiracy theories. In last decade of his life, he was so steeped in anti-Jewish and anti-United States conspiracy theories that he denied the Jewish Holocaust, admired Hitler, actually wrote Osama Bin Laden a letter of solidarity, and regularly denounced both the Jewish people and the United States in the most vile, crude terms.

Now, Fischer’s paranoia was not completely baseless. He ended up a fugitive from the U.S. government over tax evasion and for playing a 1992 competition chess game in Yugoslavia in defiance to an embargo by executive order of President George H .W. Bush. He felt personally wronged by the U.S. and, to avoid an arrest warrant, never returned to the country.

It is a distressing and tragic story, but in order to avoid distracting from my primary theme I won’t pursue the details any more here. If you are interested, there is a lot of good information on the Wikipedia entry, as well as an excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly from December 2002.

Rather than allow him to see through the conspiracy theories, Bobby Fischer’s amazingly analytical, logical mind conspired against him to build an elaborate map of logical connections that reinforced his paranoia. When he passed away, Fischer, mostly devoid of humor, and charity, and dignity, had lost everything BUT his reason, just as Chesterton had described almost exactly 100 years beforehand.

My First Hand Experience with Conspiracy Theory

The tragedy of Bobby Fischer is an extreme example. Let me share a couple of my own experiences with the lure of conspiracy theories, paranoia, and the limits of reason.

It’s hard to explain my own experience with conspiracy theories without getting mired in the details of the conspiracy theory itself and also without offending anyone who might subscribe to it.

Many years ago, as I became more interested in politics, I was introduced to what is called the Straussian conspiracy theory. Leo Strauss was a very influential political philosopher. His students have been quite influential in conservative political thought, though their influence is often not widely noticed (which contributes to the conspiracy idea). Strauss wrote a book called Persecution and the Art of Writing in which he argued that historically philosophers have hidden their true beliefs because of fear of persecution, and that hidden behind the seemingly obvious meaning of their writing is an “esoteric text” that communicates their true thoughts to those willing to really study it. The conspiracy theory alleges that Strauss himself wrote in the same fashion and that all of his contributions to conservative thought are really a Machiavellian “noble lie” which he believed was necessary for the good of society and to maintain the power of a secret elite to which he belonged, and that his students have followed this same esoteric objective.

At first I found this theory preposterous, and argued with its advocates extensively. But just to make sure, I eventually bought a copy of Persecution and the Art of Writing and began to read it.

I still remember how it felt as the conspiracy theory took ahold of me while I read. The conspiracy was true! It carried all the exhilaration of making a terrible discovery. It all made sense! All the logical puzzle pieces fit! It took my breath away.  It was mind blowing! It was an incredibly powerful feeling, terrifying and yet empowering at the same time. I was one of only a few who had found out what was going on. I paced the room as my mind churned through the logical circle over and over again. I couldn’t find any way out of the maze of connected ideas.

Fortunately for me, I was saved by my Mormon faith. Despite the seemingly inescapable logic, as a Mormon I had been taught to test the spirits; to verify through personal revelation and not just through reason, and that I could know the truth of all things through the power of the Holy Spirit. So I prayed and asked my Heavenly Father if what I had discovered was true. And the Holy Spirit answered me and freed my mind from the logical trap, which had indeed seemed to possess my mind like an evil spirit. It did so not by refuting the logic, but by enlarging my understanding and vision and exposing the humor in the rapture to which I had momentarily been subject.

My Experience with the Lure of Apostasy

A couple of years later, I had another experience. I am familiar with many of the anti-Mormon attacks on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but one day I came across a post in an Internet forum where the author explained that he finally realized that the Book of Mormon was a sham when he saw irrefutable proof that Joseph Smith had made it up. He gave a link to the proof. So I clicked through to it, confident that it would be weak and easily refutable. It was an argument that I had never seen before and I will readily admit that it appeared very, very damning. As I read it a feeling gripped me that was amazingly powerful: The church was false! Joseph Smith made it all up! I had stumbled upon this terrifying, mind-blowing secret! Here was the proof and all the logical puzzle pieces fit! And I was one of only a few who had found it out. It was terrifying and intoxicating.

And it was at that moment that I recognized where I had felt those feelings and followed those thought patterns before: it was exactly the same as my experience with the Straussian conspiracy theory. The seductive logical completeness, the gossip appeal, and the lure of the perceived superiority over the blind followers who still believed in the official story were all there. And it was the recognition of that similarity, and a remembrance of Chesterton’s words concerning insanity, that pulled me out of it.

Once I was free of the spell, it was only a matter of minutes before the error of the argument became obvious to me. Had I succumbed to that spirit of apostasy that had attempted to possess my mind, I could easily see how I could have fallen into a self-reinforcing mental trap that could have been very difficult to escape, and would have made it increasingly unlikely that I would have recognized the error.

Confronting the Limitations of My Mind

More recently, these experiences, along with the help of the Holy Spirit, have help me escape additional logical traps that were damaging to my family relationships. Without going into detail, these logical maps held such sway over my mind that I could not see any way in which they could not be true. And yet, the map maze of interconnected proofs, while seemingly irrefutable, was completely false. And one day, not long ago, that logical map was shattered, not by logical refutation, but through an epiphany granted by the Holy Spirit. And that spiritual gift changed everything.

Apostasy as Conspiracy Theory

So, having established this foundation I return to what is my primary point: Apostasy is dangerously similar to being seduced by a conspiracy theory.

There are a lot of reasons why people leave the church. Some leave because they do not want to, or have been convinced that they cannot, abide by the church’s strict code of conduct. Others leave because of perceived interpersonal grievances or solidarity with others who feel wronged. But I am talking about those who apostatize for intellectual reasons. They feel that what they know or have experienced compels them to abandon their belief.

Many of those who apostatize from the church for this reason have established their own genre of writing or oral presentation which I call Apostasy Literature. The purpose of apostasy literature is to help friends, family, and others who still believe, understand why the individual no longer believes; to demonstrate that their apostasy is reasonable and logical and not in pursuit of sinful lusts or to escape responsibilities. And they are often disappointed when their well-crafted narratives and essays fail to convince others of what is so obvious to them.

In apostasy narratives they recount the process by which they came to believe that the church is not true and attempt to bring the reader along on the author’s journey of discovery. Apostasy essays are more of a laundry list of “did you know” bullet points of what the author believes are facts that disprove the truth of the church, followed sometimes by a logical explanation.

Apostasy literature often includes a brief recounting of past callings and active participation in the church which the writer believes will establish his or her authenticity as a previously active, devout, believing member: they have served as a relief society president, a bishop, stake president, a missionary, a seminary teacher; they had 100% home or visiting teaching; married in the temple; &c. This list of callings and achievements is a way of establishing a kind of credentials that they think should lend credibility to their journey.

Apostasy literature also often includes genuine sorrow at having lost their belief, and expressions of the wish that they could reclaim that belief, but they don’t see any alternative considering what they have uncovered. It is an expression of a very sincerely felt loss of innocence. They feel forced out of Eden for having partaken of the fruit of knowledge.

Conspiracy theorists produce a very similar kind of literature and with a very similar objective. The purpose of conspiracy theory literature is to help others understand why the conspiracy theorists view is reasonable and logical instead of crazy. The conspiracy theorist is also often disappointed that his or her well-crafted arguments fail to convince others when it seems so obvious. Conspiracy theory literature also employs credential citation and lamentation of a loss of innocence.

Both groups feel that they have stumbled upon a terrible secret and feel the need to raise a warning to others. The gossip appeal affords even greater power to the apostate views over their minds.

When confronted with the fact that others do not find their arguments convincing, both conspiracy theorists and apostates question the intelligence of those who continue to accept the official story. They are so enthralled to the logical completeness of their view that they can hardly comprehend how someone else could reject it without rejecting reason itself.

In Internet forums of the like-minded, conspiracy theorists and apostates employ strikingly similar language to refer to those who are not convinced by their arguments or who aren’t astute enough to see through the supposed smoke screen on their own: sheep, sheeple, robots, dupes, rubes, and other expressions that imply intellectual inferiority or mindless submission. This perceived superiority lends power to the apostate views over their minds as well.

I have little hope of refuting the logic of apostasy through reasoned argument. Apostates, like conspiracy theorists, are not fools. They are often exceptional thinkers. Like the conspiracy theorist, the logical completeness of their map of connected data points, the gossip appeal of having discovered a terrible secret, and the perceived superiority of their views make it very difficult to convince the apostate of their errors. It is likely that they will mistake the fact that their arguments are not easily answerable as proof that they are true.

I hope to introduce a seed of doubt into the minds of those plagued by apostate thoughts and those who wish they could still believe, but feel that they are forced to stop believing by what they have learned. Ask yourself:

“So what if my logic is unanswerable and logically complete? So is the logic of a madman. So what if I can recite a litany of historical facts and connect them together in a sordid logical map? So can a Truther, a Birther, and a Bircher. Reason can betray me as much as emotion. How do I know that it has not?”

Not to be misconstrued, I am not advocating that reason be abandoned. But reason is limited by the frailties of the mind. A madman is as convinced of the soundness his logic as you are of your own. Reason untempered and unchecked by humor, charity, or common sense can be a liability as much as it can be an asset.

To those who are friends or family of someone seduced by apostate ideas, I hope to help you see that you will not have much success in trying to reason them out of their views, just as you are not likely to succeed in convincing a conspiracy theorist to abandon their conspiracy through logical argument.

If Thy Head Offend Thee…

From my own experiences, I believe that reason, emotion, and spirit are not as easily compartmentalized as we often believe. The logic of conspiracy and apostasy are not divorce-able from the frailty of the mind or of humanity. The temptations of gossip appeal, of uncovering a deception, of perceived superiority, and the preference for logical completeness over the unexplained or unknown lend emotional power to reason. Ideas can possess your mind like an evil spirit.

This is one of the dangers of “Mormon Intellectualism.” An over-emphasis on reason can leave people open to a combination of “logical completeness and spiritual contraction.” A blindness to the spiritual and emotional dimensions of ideas can leave people open to spiritual deception. This is also why reading faithless and anti-Mormon literature can be dangerous. It can subtly subject the reader to the spirit and emotions that accompany it, which can amplify the feeling of and appearance of logical compulsion. The appeal of logical completeness is emotional.

Chesterton explicitly compared the logic of insanity to the kind of thinking in academia in which he observed the same “combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense.”

Take for instance modern Biblical studies or Mormon Studies. Scholars construct hypothetical explanatory narratives based on observable facts and historical records, and then confusing logical completeness with truth, talk about them as if they were proven. And the next thing you know they are telling you the “real” motivations of the author of the Gospel of Mark or that Joseph Smith was a philanderer with as much confidence as if it were unassailable fact. They presume to read the minds and hearts of men and women long dead when they cannot so much as read the mind or heart of the living person standing next to them.

Reality is messy. People do unexpected and illogical things. Beware the theory that explains too much, connects every dot, or attributes motivations to every action. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

Of course, I recognize that many of these same criticisms and comparisons to conspiracy thinking can be turned around and pointed back at the believer. Fair enough. As I said earlier, all of us experience degrees of insane thinking. And just because ideas exhibit many of the qualities of a conspiracy theory does not automatically mean that they are false. My comparison of apostasy to conspiracy theory is intended less as an weapon than as a tool for self-checking introspection and a source of empathy toward those stuck in the kind of logical ruts to which we are all susceptible.

My point is that reason and logic are not a trump card. Those who do not find apostate logic as convincing as its preachers are not necessarily mindless followers, sheeple, or the “morg.” Spiritual and emotional dimensions to reason are as much a part of the apostate’s argument as the believer’s.

Let me end with this passage from Chesterton:

“A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle… Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil….

“If thy HEAD offend thee, cut it off; for it is better, not merely to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, but to enter it as an imbecile, rather than with your whole intellect to be cast into hell…”

51 thoughts on “Apostasy as Conspiracy Theory: Reason, Logic, Insanity and Mormon Intellectualism

  1. I find this concept compelling. In my life, I have known several people who have defined me a certain way, usually by logically attributing meaning that THEY would have, should they act that way, but that I do not. When this happens, it doesn’t matter what action I take, everything I do only serves to cement their opinion of me.

    I think that is the same with the Church. Once someone is caught in a logical loop, any action by the Church is interpreted through that lens, and serves to reinforce the original opinion.

    I have found that stepping back and applying a dose of humility to the situation is the best remedy for it. If I can admit that I may not understand everything, I can let go of the tightly-wound reason, and let it relax a bit. I don’t abandon it, but it stops defining everything.

  2. Great post, very enlightening take on the limitations and dangers of purely rational thinking.

    I would add that religion in general, including Mormonism, is an exercise in a kind of irrational thinking: believing without conclusive proof, without perfect reason, love, faith, hope, trusting in elusive feelings of the Spirit.

    I would also add that some of our own apologetic literature relies upon the same blind rationality that the apostate literature does. The apologetic and apostate mind is very similar, and someone who holds onto their faith through apologetics can be in danger of slipping into apostasy.

    To truly understand Mormonism, or any spiritual tradition, one must engage the mystical and spiritual mind.

  3. I wouldn’t push this too far as an explanation for or a phenomenology of apostasy, because that would be the same kind of reductionism and insistence on a completely integrated theory that you’re complaining about. Still, I think there’s something to it.

    I believe in your central insight, that mankinds *needs* explanations and understanding and is willing to accept artificial substitutes if the real thing isn’t available. When our daughter had cancer, people were more bothered that we had no causal explanation than by the cancer itself. They really, really wanted to know what gave her cancer–probably because if there were a reason, they could avoid cancer themselves, or at least try too.

    Like SilverRain says, this need is behind the common phenomenon where non-Mormons tell us that we believe X. Nuh-uh, we say, and uh-huh, they say, and they show clear evidence that we believe Y. But that’s Y, we say. They are astounded. But Y clearly follows from X, surely you agree? But we don’t. And even then they aren’t satisfied, because Y clearly follows from X, you must agree even if you say you don’t! We are on the other end of the stick sometimes when we argue what Muslims must believe based on passages of the Koran. In both cases, we underestimate the human capacity for muddle as a factor in human affairs (or our own ability to be mistaken).

  4. Pingback: Apostasy as Conspiracy Theory | Junior Ganymede

  5. Nate, totally agree with your comment #2 about the similar mindset of people who base their faith on apologetics and the people who form what Jmax has described as the “apostasy conspiracy theory.” Apologetics without faith and the spirit gets you very little, in my opinion.

  6. Nate, I have to agree with what you said that, “some of our own apologetic literature relies upon the same blind rationality that the apostate literature does.”

    I wrote a blog problems with apologetics:

    “Improving the dialogue in apologetics is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, they don’t exist to deliver sermons or moral lessons. It is a blunt instrument meant to block the blows of other blunt weapons against faith. In some ways the subject matter is determined by ‘the enemies’ goals and arguments. Yet, they are dealing with faith and religion where morality and theology are what make the fight important. That should at least make those engaged in the business think of things better to say than what kind of swords people carried. Many people might be able to recognize instances of parallelism, but how many can explain the meaning of the teachings between the lines? It can be a vacuous study of minutiae.”

  7. Thanks; this was an excellent article, and as you noted the concepts you discuss can be applied to many situations, including personal relationships.

  8. J Max: excellent. you’ve put into words some thoughts I’ve had over the years, as I’ve tried to make sense of some of the pointy-headed bloggernacle intellectualism, and some of the emotionally and spiritually immature exmo stuff.

    adam, that’s the clearest and most concise explanation of one way that anti’s twist what we believe that i remember reading. (By the way, i think you reversed x and y at a point in your example.)

  9. Thanks for the link to your article Jettboy. It made a lot of sense to me. Apologists try to defend the faith, and their work is important for like minded rationalists, who think that their religion should always “make sense.”

    For me, seeing religious experience in a purely rational way is the “milk” before the “meat.” But ultimately, it is a somewhat immature way of understanding the gospel. The meat of the gospel is embracing paradox and contradiction, to “hope till Hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”

  10. Good post and excellent comments Nate, I think we have all seen people swing from apologist to apostate.

  11. I think John is complaining that we all agree too often. 😉 Same as I used to feel at Mormon Matters, actually. Guess we’re on to another human trait here.

    I finally decided that Mormon Matters was a place *meant* to complain about Mormonism and that my presence there was a disruption to it’s purpose.

    I later had another thought that perhaps the problem was that I was expecting MM to be *fair* when in reality *fairness* can’t exist in a single spot like that. It really only exists if we allow some blogs to be anti-Mormon, some to be John Dehlinish (practicing but not believing), and some to be Mormon. Let them all criticize each other, try to convert each other, and form their own respective audiences, I say.

    Or at least that is my current working hypothesis because, frankly, I can’t think of anything else.

    J Max, great post. Wish I had written it. 🙂

    I agree with Adam that it’s not an all encompassing theory. But I don’t believe it’s trying to be. It is just to point out something that many might have missed or that we know but haven’t yet put into words. And I agree that human beings come pre-packaged needing explanations and that this can be a blessing or curse. (See my recent Black Swan post.)

  12. Does it occur to you that your argument against apostates can just as easily be turned against apologists?

    Chesterton doesn’t describe people who are thinking logically; their logical fallacies can be easily pointed out. The problem with Chesterton’s subjects is largely the circularity of their logic. I believe that is why Chesterton explains that although they may explain a lot of things, they explain them in a large way. This is the nature of circular reasoning, and is synonymous with the kind of logic that seeks to defend a single answer in light of myriad contrary evidence.

    Logical completeness, gossip appeal, and perceived superiority are the apologetic stock in trade.

  13. “Of course, I recognize that many of these same criticisms and comparisons to conspiracy thinking can be turned around and pointed back at the believer.”

    I agree that the arguments made can be applied to anyone who takes the material in question seriously, be they apostate, apologist, or faithful believer.

    In my opinion you missed a key aspect to the mental framework of the insane man or conspiracy theorist. While each may apply a solid logical scaffolding to their ideas, it is the foundation that must be examined. As Burtrand Russell famously illustrated, anything can be proven given a single false assumption or proposition: “Bertrand Russell, in a lecture on logic, mentioned that in the sense of material implication, a false proposition implies any proposition. A student raised his hand and said “In that case, given that 1 = 0, prove that you are the Pope”. Russell immediately replied, “Add 1 to both sides of the equation: then we have 2 = 1. The set containing just me and the Pope has 2 members. But 2 = 1, so it has only 1 member; therefore, I am the Pope.””

    Since anyone (including the believer) is susceptible of the same problems you illustrated in your post, it is our responsibility to examine the foundational assertions upon which the logical frameworks are built. It is through examining these foundational assertions that we can determine that someone is insane and not Napoleon or Jesus. It through examining the foundational assertions that we can determine if the conspiracy theory has validity or is inventive fantasy. And I hope that it is through examination and vetting of foundational claims and assertions that we can come to a firm knowledge of what is true regarding claims about religion and spirituality (be they Mormon, Hindu, Muslim, or Atheist).

  14. Actually, I find myself in complete agreement with your position on the foundational assumptions. I’ve thought about that repeatedly over the years.

    For instance, when I was younger, I read works by Ayn Rand and was quite taken in by her logic. It all seemed so logical. It wasn’t until I had the benefit of additional maturity and life experience that I realized that it wasn’t her logic that was problematic, it was the underlying assumptions that were terribly flawed. A poor foundation with a beautiful edifice of logic built on top still crumbles in the end.

    I find a certain irony in our agreement about this rhetorical position.

  15. Thanks for your comments everyone! You have made some excellent observations.

    As I said in the post, I am very aware that these arguments can be turned back at believers and that all people are susceptible to these kinds of traps. Some axioms and underlying assumptions are notoriously difficult to evaluate.

    I wish I had more time to respond. Hopefully some others who have more time this week can engage…

  16. Great post.

    But what may stick with me more was your choice of pictures! Funny.

    On a more serious note, I think it’s really, really important that we realize how quickly and easily any of us can slip into this kind of madness, on either ‘side’ of the coin. I think it’s all part of overcoming the natural/fallen self and letting Christ change our hearts. And it’s hard work to avoid these kinds of traps, I think.

    I also think there is an element of compulsion that is so dangerous, whether on the side of apostasy or apologetics…which brings in another reason why it’s madness: it can all violate the principle of agency. Anytime we violate eternal principles, we put ourselves at risk for this kind of insanity, I think.

    To me, one of the best talks ever given that has helped me to try not to get caught in that trap of violating others’ agency (or falling into contention or defensiveness) is this one: Christian Courage: The Price of Discipleship. It’s probably a talk I should read about once a week. 😉

  17. Just wanted to share one of the gems from that talk, which brings another facet into the madness — a desire to be ‘right’ or ‘vindicated’ or, in his words, to ‘score points in a theological debate.’

    “We should never confuse boldness with Satan’s counterfeit: overbearance (see Alma 38:12). True disciples speak with quiet confidence, not boastful pride.

    “As true disciples, our primary concern must be others’ welfare, not personal vindication.”

  18. Greg,

    Concerning your comment here: “This is the nature of circular reasoning, and is synonymous with the kind of logic that seeks to defend a single answer in light of myriad contrary evidence. Logical completeness, gossip appeal, and perceived superiority are the apologetic stock in trade.”

    In so far as your statement goes, you are spot on. That part of J Max’s post — the circular reasoning — can be applied to apologetics — of every sort. In fact, it can be applied to pretty much all political/religious/ideological positions know to humankind.

    So here is my question to you: did you see the other part of what J Max explains (or at least strongly hints at)? The part that shows that there is a difference between certain ‘apologists’ and others? Do you know what it is? How can we know a ‘good’ apologist from a ‘trapped’ one?

  19. Max, You describe a risk that we all encounter whenever we attempt to apprehend a whole by the sum of its parts. The result of all scientistic analysis is despair.

  20. Have you researched apostates of other religions? Do you see conspiracy theorist parallels with ex-muslims, ex-scientologists, ex-christians, etc?

  21. Max, Why do you keep deleting comments from people? I have great comments coming into my email that aren’t showing up here.

    Are you afraid of a real discussion?

  22. Bruce,

    I would love to know how to know a good apologist from a trapped one.

    My short answer is the one that doesn’t use easy to spot circular logic… but they usually look more like apostates to me.

    Actually, I have a confession to make (which may not be well received here), judging by the light of the actual teachings of the leaders of the Church, I haven’t seen an apologist yet who doesn’t look like an apostate.

  23. Max, Why do you keep deleting comments from people? I have great comments coming into my email that aren’t showing up here.

    Are you afraid of a real discussion?

    Greg, and everyone else, my Bite The Wax Tadpole manifesto applies to this post.


    Suggesting that I cannot delete comments and that doing so represents fear of discussion is out of bounds. This is our virtual living room. Comments discussing particular gripes with the church as well as snide, sarcastic, and accusatory comments are not welcome.

  24. If you grant Greg Rockwell’s assumption that no coherent defense of the church can be made, his arguments follow. If not, they don’t.

    I’ve seen some petulant apologetics and some decent apologetics.

  25. Dr Phil notes in one of his books that insane people have the ability to process things logically. They just do not start at the same beginning point, and so the logic leads them to a different conclusion.
    He notes walking down the sidewalk of the asylum he used to work at. A patient, hiding behind a bench, motioned for him to come quickly. When he got there, the patient told him to get down, because someone was shooting at them. Dr Phil ducked. Then he realized that no one was shooting, and everyone else was walking normally. Dr Phil asked him why he thought someone was shooting. The patient said he felt warmth on his shoulder and knew he’d been shot with a heat ray from an alien. Of course, the warmth had actually been the Sun, but then GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

    And while I do not consider apostates insane, I can see how they can use logic to talk themselves out of a testimony of the gospel, simply by not starting out at the same place we would.

  26. Bruce,

    I’d like to take a stab at answering the question you posed to Greg: “So here is my question to you: did you see the other part of what J Max explains (or at least strongly hints at)? The part that shows that there is a difference between certain ‘apologists’ and others? Do you know what it is? How can we know a ‘good’ apologist from a ‘trapped’ one?”

    Since the traps of mentioned in this article can potentially trip up anyone who takes seriously the claims of Mormonism (be they apostate, apologist or regular faithful believer) we need a consistent, reliable method of determining when someone is off on a tangent that takes them away from truth. Whether they use logic is just the wrong tool to do this. The application and use of logic is not an indicator that someone is wrong. If it were then every side on this issue would be wrong… and where does that leave us.

    I would rather take a two pronged approach:

    1) assess and examine underlying assumptions and premises (as I mentioned in my earlier comment above). A single false or unsupported assumption can lead one to any conclusion. Logic certainly fails us when we misuse it by applying unsupported assumptions, or allowing others to do so.

    2) examine the direction of the arguments being made. By this I mean are we starting with a conclusion (any conclusion, including ‘the church is entirely false’ or ‘the church is entirely true’) and working from there… or are we starting with evidence and reason and working towards a conclusion. I have seem many apostates and probably more apologists who start with a conclusion and everything after that is bent and twisted to support that conclusion. This gets us nowhere. The individual who takes this approach only ends up with a correct conclusion by chance. What is true is true, and we don’t get to vote on what that truth is any more than we can blindly assert what it is.

    Like everyone here, I think that my own views and beliefs are correct. If I thought otherwise, even for a moment, I would presumably change my views and beliefs and then safely think myself right again. The thing is that I’d rather be right than think I’m right, and I’m most interested in what methods can get me there. Can logic be misused? Certainly. Do people act on an excess of confidence in their own correctness? Certainly. Should we then mistrust anyone who employees logic or possesses certainty? Of course not. But we must independently examine their claims and their methods. And no one should be exempt from that.

    Honestly I was made very uncomfortable by the ties in this post between apostates and the insane and between apostates and conspiracy theorists. No one benefits from a weak argument and this argument was weak because it relied far too much on attacking character and far too little on arguments or methods. Certainly some apostates are conspiracy theorists, but so are some faithful Mormons, just as we could find mentally disturbed individuals on both sides of this debate. I would hope that we could all move the discussion away from character attacks and more toward a discussion of the arguments and methods.

  27. Cool post, J. Max. I don’t have much to add that hasn’t been noted by others above, so I’ll just say thanks.

  28. Honestly I was made very uncomfortable by the ties in this post between apostates and the insane and between apostates and conspiracy theorists. No one benefits from a weak argument and this argument was weak because it relied far too much on attacking character and far too little on arguments or methods.

    Relied far too much on attacking character? Can you elaborate?

  29. But what may stick with me more was your choice of pictures! Funny.

    Thanks, Michelle! I thought that the “Bathtub cannot unsee what has been seen” picture was a good fit because of its humor and its subtle self-referential-ness. Bathtubs don’t have faces. And yet once the faucet, handles, and overflow drain are construed as a face, it is hard not to see it as a face, so just like the bathtub’s perceived expression, we cannot unsee what has been seen, even though it is not true. That seemed to fit well with the idea that some people feel they cannot believe after what they have seen, or think they have seen.

  30. Nate (2), I disagree that religion necessarily engages in the irrational thinking. I fully agree it often does – but I don’t think it has to. Although sadly even within the Church I think it’s more common than it should be.

    I do think that many people come to apologetics not from a position of a strong testimony but from a position of hidden (often to themselves) doubts with a hope of erasing those doubts. Thus it’s an attempt to “rationally” connect the dots without necessarily asking how probable the leaps between dots are. (And of course, to be fair, sometimes the best apologetics can provide is plausibility rather than something being reasonably probable) It’s hardly surprising when these people leap the other way using a lot of the same logic.

  31. To add, I fully think that someone can completely rationally go apostate. Especially if they haven’t had the solid experiences that can engender a testimony. This simply isn’t conspiracy thinking. Rather it’s noticing that independent of certain confirming experiences there isn’t a lot of positive evidence for a particular position. So we should be careful about painting with too broad a brush. Honestly I think most apostates are being quite rational.

  32. I have a question about the logic suggested by your close encounter with apostasy.

    From what I read, you realized that logic was about to lead you to a conclusion just like conspiracy logic did–and therefore, you rejected the conclusion you were about to reach.

    However, Mormon sects such as the FLDS, Strangites, and etc. rely on the spirit like the LDS do.

    In other words, the spiritual reasoning that leads you to a conclusion about the LDS faith is just like the spiritual reasoning that leads FLDS and Strangites to their support of their prophet, new book material, etc.

    This seems pretty analogous, and I was wondering if all the excuses for the varieties of spiritual reasoning could be applied to all the varieties of logical reasoning.

  33. The simple fact that you block and delete comments on this blog shows that you are not interested in any sort of open and honest discussion. Which is fine. It’s your blog, do what you want. But just know that you are simply going to be talking to people that already agree with you. I don’t see the point of doing that but something tells me that is exactly your intent.

  34. Openminded said: “This seems pretty analogous, and I was wondering if all the excuses for the varieties of spiritual reasoning could be applied to all the varieties of logical reasoning.”

    I’d have agreed with you, Openminded, if you had admited the obvious: this is true for you too. There is no rational way to justify, say, the objective existence of morality, for example. Yet we all believe in it nonetheless based on essentially faith and testimony and what we feel in our hearts. If such faith is a trap, then we are all trapped by faith. Or, perhaps, I should say it this way: Faith is all that really matters to us all.

    So extra points for Mormonism for admitting this upfront when no one else seems to be able to. Perhaps this, by definition, makes them less trapped by their own logic by realizing we can’t dispense with faith nor our spiritual/emotive/feelings approach to reality. Rationality isn’t enough for us — yet.

  35. Kyle Harris, all quality blogs block and delete comments. Some because of bad language, others because trolls have taken over, others because the comments are off-topic. This is a blog for believing Latter-day Saints. Nobody is forcing you to read it. If you don’t like this blog, please spend your time elsewhere. Thanks.

  36. Spiritual reasoning, spiritual logic, testimony, faith, answers to prayers, are all internal and very _subjective_. I don’t believe they are subject to the same paradigms of logic and reason that external or objective topics are.

    This sort of makes faith, or religious beliefs, the antithesis of intellectualism.

    I suppose my problems with Mormon (or Bloggernacle) intellectualism is not in its attempts to be intellectual, but rather in its ignoring of the subjective, internal, non-intellectual side of Mormonism, or religion in general.

    As explained in the scriptures, the truth of the gospel is essentially hidden from intellectual or objective confirmation. “Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned.” An intellectual study, prior to spiritual truth-seeking, can only be useful if used to create space for faith. I firmly believe that an intellectual study cannot create an meaningful conversion. Post-conversion, intellectual study can be used hand-in-hand with learning by faith, and if need be, to answer challenges of an intellectual nature.

  37. Bookslinger said: “I’d have agreed with you, Openminded, if you had admited the obvious: this is true for you too. There is no rational way to justify, say, the objective existence of morality, for example. Yet we all believe in it nonetheless based on essentially faith and testimony and what we feel in our hearts. If such faith is a trap, then we are all trapped by faith. Or, perhaps, I should say it this way: Faith is all that really matters to us all.”

    For the amount of thought I’ve put into morality, I’m sure I do take certain assumptions on faith. I then follow a sort of intellectual discussion following these assumptions to determine how I should act, as you described (what do they call this, positivism?).

    But just as there is, perhaps, a good use of faith such as this–why can’t there be a good use of logic?

    To continue my analogy: if there’s a good use of spiritual reasoning that leads you towards the truth (or a more truthful truth) and there is a use of spiritual reasoning that leads you away from it, why can’t there be a use of logic that leads you to the truth (or a more truthful truth), and a use that leads you away from it?

    Continuing with the conspiracy logic theme, there’s definitely logic that overcomes a conspiracy theory. When people who are birthers, for instance, claim Obama wasn’t born in America, they do so without overcoming the evidence that he was (and reject the many birth certificates he’s shown by saying they were fake, or the newspaper citing Obama’s birth were made up, or etc.).

    Logically, birthers have it wrong. Their claims aren’t supported and the necessary evidence points in the opposite direction. Just like, you may say, the FLDS have their spiritual reasoning wrong because your spiritual evidence points in a different direction.

    And so we so how both logic and spirituality can fail people.

    So why toss out logic if it shares the same attributes as spiritual reasoning? When you mentioned the subjectivity of morality, you seemed to use that to generalize to all issues. But in Mormonism, faith and spirituality are used to justify more than morality: a history laid out by the Book of Mormon and other standard works, the truthfulness of the prophets when they were speaking as prophets, and whether a belief is true or false.

    Some or maybe all of these things can be thought out by logic. For instance, we can both logically reject a belief in the trinity. It’s not at all difficult to do without spiritual reasoning.

    And yet, if I were discouraged to approach trinitarian belief logically when I was that type of Evangelical believer because that’s how conspiracy theorists come to their conclusions, I’d be stuck in a rut. Maybe spiritual reasoning could’ve taken me out of it, but normal logic on its own does just fine.

    So why reject logical reasoning when there are ways it can be done right?

  38. Openminded,

    I think you are confusing bookslinger and Bruce.

    Based on your comments, I think you are misreading what I am saying about logic.

    I have not advocated the abandonment of logic. I explicitly said so in the post. I have pointed out that logic and reason have limits, as well as emotional and spiritual dimensions. I am making the case that reason and logic are not a “trump card”. They are important, but they need to be balanced by other attributes. A sense of humor, charity, proportionality, common sense, spirituality all contribute to making a whole, sane person along with reason.

    I haven’t said we should’t use reason, only that we shouldn’t use only reason.

  39. “I haven’t said we should’t use reason, only that we shouldn’t use only reason.”

    I originally didn’t think you were stating that, you made it clear in your writing. I think I was thrown off by Bookslinger’s responses.

    What I originally intended to point out is how you backed off from a conclusion because of how related the means of reaching your conclusion seemed too similar conspiracy theory logic, even though spirituality has led people down the wrong path as well (FLDS, Strangite, etc.).

    Simply put, if you applied that standard to logic (as in, logically-drawn conclusions deduced from history and etc. are something to back off from because that same use of logic is what conspiracy theorists use), then how are spiritually-based conclusions exempt from that standard (because of the misuse of spiritual evidence found in FLDS, Strangite, etc. sects)?

  40. Openminded,
    Looking back at your original comment you said “you realized that logic was about to lead you to a conclusion just like conspiracy logic did–and therefore, you rejected the conclusion you were about to reach.”

    And in your most recent comment you say “…you backed off from a conclusion because of how related the means of reaching your conclusion seemed too similar conspiracy theory logic…”

    I think you are oversimplifying here. I was able to see the _emotional dimension_ of the logic because of comparison to my experience with conspiracy theory. The appeal of the logical completeness, &c. was emotional. This allowed me to question myself. Logic was not a trump card. That recognition freed me from the emotional appeal entangled with the logic. But ultimately I rejected the logic through reason too: I was able to identify the flaw in the argument.

    As the late physicist Dr. Richard Feynman once put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

    You claim: “Mormon sects such as the FLDS, Strangites, and etc. rely on the spirit like the LDS do. In other words, the spiritual reasoning that leads you to a conclusion about the LDS faith is just like the spiritual reasoning that leads FLDS and Strangites to their support of their prophet…”

    How do you know that the spiritual reasoning I employ to help me identify truth is _just like_ that used by Strangites or the FLDS? If “the spirit” that the FLDS, the Strangites, and I follow is the same, then it would seem to be hard to trust it because it appears contradictory, as you point out.

    But just because we all identify it as “The Spirit” does not mean that we are referring to the same thing. Even if we are all appealing to the spiritual realm, that does not mean we are having the same spiritual experience, or receiving communications from the same spiritual being. Your assertion seems to presume a certain definition of “the spirit” (spiritual emotion) that ultimately begs the question.

    Faith means “trust” and we develop trust through experiences facilitated by trusting.

  41. “That recognition freed me from the emotional appeal entangled with the logic.”
    I see what you mean now, though a lot can be said of the emotional appeal entangled with spirituality. Even though you may be getting a spiritual communication from different spiritual beings, there’s still an emotional appeal that cements the belief that it’s actually from a spiritual being (instead of just an emotion we ascribe to a being out of faith, but for naught).

    Vice versa, yes, but the way you lay out how you build your faith:
    “Faith means “trust” and we develop trust through experiences facilitated by trusting.”
    has a self-sustaining nature that any religion or religious belief could be justified through (the implication being, like you said, that eventually religious beliefs contradict each other).

    The only self-checking mechanism faith seems to have is that an outside faith’s conflicting beliefs can’t be true (or else those parts of your own faith are false)

  42. J. Max,

    Have you taken a look at Seth Payne’s work on narrative structure in ex-Mormon accounts? (http://www.sethpayne.com/?p=369) He concludes that there are a set of common templates, and that ex-Mormon accounts mirror LDS converstion narratives in a number of striking ways (some of which you’ve noted here as well). For instance, they each tend to contain an arc from statements about the unhappy previous life, to a seeing-the-light moment or moments, and on to affirmations about the superiority of the current life. (That is, “I used to be Catholic, but always thought that there was something missing, and one day the missionaries knocked on my door” translates very easily into “I used to be Mormon, but always though that there was something wrong on polygamy, and one day I found Richard Packham’s website.”) I would summarize Seth’s analysis as that both groups tend to use the “I once was blind, but now I see” narrative structure.

    And of course, it’s true that the mind is very capable of connecting dots in ways which seem consistent. There’s some great research on the process of confabulation (as it’s called), demonstrating the extent to which the mind makes up reasons and justifies itself in seemingly logical language. The split-brain studies here are striking. People with a split corpus callosum will react in certain ways to stimuli that their brain cannot process using language, because these stimuli are directed at the eye which is not connected to the language processing centers of their brains. But when asked why they are behaving this way, these people will make up all sorts of logical-sounding explanations, after the fact, to explain their actions.

    The question is not whether apostates use self-justifying, logically inconsistent narratives. It’s pretty clear that these are very common in apostate discourse. The real question (as Greg and others point out) is whether this is any more common among apostates than among other groups such as apologists; or for that matter, the general populace. The research shows that people as a whole tend to use self-justifying, logically inconsistent narratives.

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