Monday, January 24, 2005

It's not just about religion...

So far, I've written mostly about religion here. But I just ran across this example of what political belief can lead folks to do, another aspect of belief that I am quite interested in.

It seems that fiveDemocratic Party activists in Wisconsin have been charged with criminal damage to property for the slashing of tires on 25 of about 100 vehicles Republican Party activists had rented in order to get poll watchers and voters to the polls last November on Election Day. You can see the whole story, as reported by CNN, here. One of those charged is the son of a congresswoman and another is the son of the former acting mayor of Milwaukee.

In a way, it seems like a silly prank. Those who carried it out probably saw it that way, as a silly little action that would have the result of advancing the interests of their party and their candidates. But that's exactly how some of the principals in the Watergate scandal saw their activities as well, and that little prank nearly tore the United States apart. So it isn't just a prank; it's an offensive act. I'm a registered Democrat, and my first reaction to seeing that story is that those folks should be ridden out of the party on a rail, preferrably tarred and feathered. Which is why I am so interested in what made them do such a thing. They had to know that it was not only illegal but unethical. Yet they went ahead and did it. Just like a lot of people go ahead and do things they know will not reflect positively on themselves and the institutions they represent.

So, did they act out of belief, or just out of rank stupidity? Unfortunately, there is a good chance that they did it out of belief in their cause.

"Under the Banner of Heaven": A Reveiw and a few Thoughts

I’ve always been interested in the things people believe and why they believe them. Always. But about a year ago I first read a book that not only stirred my curiosity, my determination to look at belief more closely, but also opened up a new dimension of that interest that I had not really thought much about before. That was the question of what belief leads people – as individuals and as groups – to do. It wasn’t the only thing that emphasized this practical aspect of belief in my mind. Certainly, the events of September 11, 2001, made a lot of people aware that beliefs have practical consequences in the real world in a way that they had not thought about before. But 9/11 was such an overwhelming event that I had tried not to plunge too deeply into its implications, including the particular issue of belief and action.

When I read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Random House, 2003), however, I realized that I could not ignore that aspect of belief. The actions that people undertake in the name of what they believe are an integral part of the examination of belief, belief systems, and the people who hold them. Belief isn’t only, or even mostly, internal. Everyone’s actions, every day, depend on what they believe, how strong their beliefs are, and how they think others feel about their beliefs. And, like it or not, our actions affect the lives of others, and others’ actions affect our lives every single day.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer looks at the story of how belief impacted the lives of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, a young mother and her infant daughter, when two of her brothers-in-law came to believe that God was sending them revelations, including the instructions to kill Brenda and Erica. This is, of course, an extreme example of the impact of belief on individuals, but the reality is that sometimes belief leads people to do extreme things. That horrible 1984 case is, in turn, a jumping-off point for Krakauer’s examination of various offshoots of the Mormon faith which have not abandoned the early beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as introduced by the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith. These doctrines include plural marriage and blood atonement, doctrines that the official Mormon church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, has long since officially abandoned and proscribed. Included in these offshoots are the so-called “Mormon fundamentalist” sects such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the United Effort Plan (UEP) or FLDS, as well as individual fundamentalist believers such as Brian David Mitchell, also known as Immanuel David Isaiah, who currently stands accused of the widely-reported kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in Utah in 2002. Krakauer also looks at some of the events that such beliefs led to during the early years of what grew into the official church, when such beliefs were still openly held and practiced. Krakauer’s main examples of this aspect of the story are the events surrounding the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith and the issues and events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath.

Other adherents to earlier, now mostly abandoned, doctrines of Mormonism included Ron and Dan Lafferty, Brenda and Erica Lafferty’s murderers. Raised in orthodox Mormonism, the Lafferty brothers came to accept the idea that the mainstream church had been wrong in abandoning plural marriage, blood atonement, and other doctrines and practices that the orthodox church currently denies. It is a story of what deeply held faith can lead people to do. Krakauer’s account of this story is a fascinating, meticulously researched, and well-written account that reads like a novel, one in which the flashbacks enhance rather than detract from the story.

Some might argue that the story Krakauer tells is really simply a story of religious belief used as a tool for rationalizing what these particular individuals chose to do in pursuit of their goals, or in revenge for the frustration of their goals, when they knew that their actions would violate the most deeply-held mores of the culture in which they were living. Indeed, one way of interpreting the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty is that when they were faced with someone who was standing in the way of their desire to practice polygamy, they used archaic religious doctrines from their own religious upbringing to justify the murder of their sister-in-law and niece, who they saw as frustrating their wishes. After all, it was Brenda Lafferty who urged Ron’s wife to leave him over his desire to practice polygamy. Further, she was the one wife, out of all the brothers’ spouses, who would not submit to their excursions into polygamous practice.

In truth, however, that seems a bit too Byzantine an explanation to be the whole truth. Every day, people get mad at others who stand in the way of their desires. And every day, people commit violent acts to remove those obstacles. Most of these people do not feel the need to fall back on some sort of religious belief system to justify their actions, to themselves or to others. That sort of long way around seems to me to be just too much work. In addition, the Lafferty brothers had a history of serious study of the doctrines they claimed as the reason for their crimes. It isn’t as if they killed Brenda and Erica and then said, as an afterthought, "Oh, and by the way, God told us to do it."

Another way to look at this story, one that Krakauer specifically brings up in the course of his book, is that Ron Lafferty, in claiming to receive revelations and, to a lesser extent Dan, in helping him to carry those revelations out, were victims of a delusion. Ron’s defense tried to use that argument in an insanity defense. However, one of the witnesses in Ron’s trial, Dr. Noel Gardner, a psychiatrist, testified that holding unusual religious beliefs does not necessarily mean that the person holding those beliefs is delusional. Gardner also testified that while Ron Lafferty might well fit the profile for one suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, most self-proclaimed prophets – including the founders of most major world religions – could be classed this way, and that very few of them were murderers. Consequently, it seems to me that one must finally conclude, at least on the basis of the information presented in Krakauer’s book, that Ron and Dan Lafferty were not mentally ill in a clinical sense, really believed that they were receiving revelations from God, and that their actions in killing Brenda and Erica Lafferty stemmed directly from, and were justified in their minds, by the beliefs they held.

The Laffertys' story is a fascinating one, even if only in the same sense that any disaster is fascinating. The wider story the books tells of the birth, growth, and schism of a new religious movement and its offshoots is equally interesting. I would be willing to wager that most Americans have no idea that there is an entire town in the Arizona desert, north of the Grand Canyon and near the Utah border, that lives a strictly religious, polygamous, lifestyle led by a prophet who wields near-total control over the lives of the town’s citizens, to the extent of reassigning the wives of apostates to other men. Even paying attention to such issues, I did not know about this particular group until I read Krakauer’s book. Likewise, I did not realize until reading this book that experts estimate of the number of fundamentalist Mormon polygamists at between thirty and one hundred thousand. Krakauer’s inclusion of the information about these groups serve as an illustration of the sort of schisms that have split believers in Joseph Smith’s teachings into widely diverse groups. This information also shows one of the sources of encouragement the Lafferty brothers might have had in their own split from the orthodox Mormonism of their upbringing.

Another aspect of Krakauer’s book that interests me is the fact that the mainstream Mormon church had problems with it, so much so that they denounced it publicly. I suspect that a huge part of what the Salt Lake church took issue with was Krakauer’s persistence in calling the folks who still believe in and practice things like polygamy and blood atonement “fundamentalist Mormons.” The mainstream church insists that there is no such thing as a fundamentalist Mormon and that people like Ron and Dan Lafferty and the polygamist sects are not Mormon (a label the church doesn’t much like anymore, anyway) in any way, shape, or form. And, it is true that the official church excommunicates anyone who publicly practices and advocates polygamy. I understand from those who might have reason to know that this might not necessarily be true of those who practice polygamy privately, but because I only have hearsay to go on I can’t say that I know this for sure. I do know that most of the prosecutions of polygamists in Utah have been on other grounds, such as child abuse, statutory rape, or welfare fraud, and not for the actual practice of plural marriage. There is, interestingly, one interpretation of current mainstream Mormon doctrine that holds that only the practice of polygamy in this world was halted, but that orthodox doctrine still accepts it as an essential practice in the afterlife. Whatever the official stance and actions of the Salt Lake church, among those excommunicated for nonorthodox practices are both Ron and Dan Lafferty.

A second part of the problem the mainstream church has with Krakauer’s book is that he discusses some very controversial aspects of the history of the church and the actions of some of its early leaders. For example, Krakauer asserts early on that the promotional materials handed out by mainstream Mormon missionaries neglect to mention that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, was married to at least thirty-three women and that he may have married at least one girl as young as fourteen years of age, or that Smith apparently denounced plural marriage to his followers even while he practiced it himself for a period of time before he announced that he had received a revelation endorsing the practice. Krakauer also claims that Brigham Young, who gained leadership of the early church after Smith was killed in jail, and who led the church to Utah, occasionally hired local Native Americans in Utah in his struggle against the Gentiles (to a Mormon, anyone who is not a Mormon is a Gentile). This was at a time when the United States government and the Mormon church in Utah Territory were on less than friendly terms. The role of these Native Americans was to harass Gentile wagon trains crossing the territory, presumably so that they would not be inclined to settle in the area.

This sort of activity culminated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 11, 1857, in which approximately 120 members of what was known as the Fancher Party of emigrants – men, women, and children – were killed. Despite reports from some who claimed that most of the “Indians” who were said to have carried out the massacre were actually Mormons disguised as Native Americans, historians, Krakauer says, are divided on the issue of what Brigham Young’s intentions were with regard to the Fancher Party. The facts seem to be that Young’s first tactic was to blame the Native Americans, but that later he put the whole blame for the massacre on John D. Lee, Young’s own adopted son and a devout Mormon. Young was instrumental in having Lee tried (a second time), convicted, and executed for the murders of members of the Fancher Party. Was Young pursuing justice, as he claimed, or making sure his own complicity in the crime remained unknown? Again, historians are apparently divided as to the truth of the matter. What is clear is that the mainstream Mormon church, as an institution, is not interested in having anyone even speculate in public about the matter.

The mainstream church’s position on these matters, as I understand it, is that these “facts of history” are actually lies manufactured and disseminated by enemies of the church, meant to damage if not destroy the institution and its leaders, past and present. There are church authorities who have been known to advocate the idea that it is more important that histories of the church be “faith promoting” than that they hew strictly to the information discovered by historical scholarship. In an article in the Summer 1981 issue of the journal Brigham Young University Studies, Boyd K. Packer, one of the General Authorities of the church, said that “Some things that are true are not very useful.” Specifically speaking of the history of the church, he said, “The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be taught selectively and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy.” Going one step further, he addresses the issue of historical information that is already in print but does not support the church’s official history; he believes that such information should not be “disseminated.” It isn't just for prospective converts that the mainstream church wants to santitize history; I have heard reports that a current church lesson manual focusing on the life of Brigham Young represents him as having been monogamous even though there is plentiful historical evidence that he practiced polygamy. Again, I haven't seen this manual myself, but the reports are plentiful enough that I tend to believe them.

No wonder the mainstream Mormon church was upset with Krakauer for writing Under the Banner of Heaven. He makes a good case that the history set forth in his book is the result of solid historical research, and not just an attack on the Mormon church. It would have helped to strengthen his case even further if Krakauer had more thoroughly documented his research through footnotes, although he does include chapter notes and an extensive bibliography to aid anyone who wishes to validate his contentions in the book. Even by discussing these issues, however, Krakauer made himself a target of the mainstream church. You can find the defense he issued when the church attacked his book even before it was published online at

The mainstream Mormon church does not help their case by its practice of limiting access to its official archives to researchers they deem friendly to the church. Nor does it improve its position through its treatment of Mormon scholars who do not toe the official doctrinal line in their publications. In a section of “Author’s Remarks” at the end of his book, Krakauer writes about two Mormon historians, Fawn Brodie and D. Michael Quinn, who were ultimately excommunicated from the church at least in part because they did not write history as the church wishes it to be represented. A third writer, Juanita Brooks, who wrote about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is mentioned, but it is unclear weather she was excommunicated or left the church of her own volition. This sort of treatment of scholars who write the truth as they see it and not necessarily as the church sees it continues up to the present day. In the past month or two Grant Palmer, a devout Mormon and longtime employee of the church’s educational system, was disfellowshipped for the things he wrote in his book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. The mainstream Mormon church is clearly not fond of the concept of academic freedom.

In a way, Krakauer had it easier as a non-Mormon writing about the Mormon church’s early history and its later dissenters and schismatics. All the Mormon church could do to him was to denounce his book, which probably only called more attention to it and likely gained him more readers than he would otherwise have had. At any rate, the postscript added to the revised paperback edition of Under the Banner of Heaven, in which he addresses the church’s criticisms and concerns over his book, seems to indicate that the church was much more bothered by his book than he was by their criticisms.

All of this is a lesson for anyone interested in looking at and writing about beliefs and belief systems, especially religious beliefs but, more and more, political beliefs as well. Individuals and institutions, sometimes especially institutions, can be protective of their deeply held beliefs. The writer must realize going in that some folks are going to be highly sensitive about anything you might say about what they believe. What the writer considers completely non-controversial might be perceived by the believer as highly inflammatory. One of the many reasons I’m so interested in looking at beliefs and belief systems is that I want to see if there is any way to ratchet down the sensitivity so we can talk about the things we each believe without so much defensiveness and stress.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

And people wonder why I'm interested in this stuff...

For an example of why belief and believers fascinate me so much, I invite you to click over to JP's blog, scroll down a bit to read "Religion as Usual", his take on what is going on in Bangalore, India over a visit of faith healer and evangelist Benny Hinn to that city. I have to say that I just don't understand (and want to desperately) why some folks (some Hindus in this case) get so exercised by others who believe differently from themselves.

But this also illustrates what comes from the excessive emphasis some Christian adherents put on conversion. That's mostly a monotheistic thing, I suspect, and from one point of view I can see how believers from other traditions might not appreciate that. On the other hand, as JP points out, going so far as asking the government to guarantee that no conversions be allowed, as some Hindus have done in this case, in a violation of India's constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion (thanks, JP, I hadn't realized that before). It is also, as I see it, a violation of any individual's right to make decisions of a personal nature - as the choice of one's religion certainly is - on their own. On the third hand (?!), the sad truth is that there are certain Christian traditions which seem just as reluctant as these particular Hindus to allow their followers the right to change their mind about which religion to follow.

I suppose I don't understand this because I don't expect everyone to believe exactly the things I believe. I've been told on occasion that this attitude means that there is something wrong with me. My view is that it would be a really boring world if everyone believed the same things and understood those things in the same way. It would also mean that I would have to find another subject to investigate, because the questions I'm asking as part of this project wouldn't even exist.

Friday, January 21, 2005

In Which Yours Truly Sinks Into the Abyss of Definition...

At first, I thought that I would just look into the things people believe and why they believe those things. But, as usually happens, matters are a little more complicated than that. I should have known; after all, the philosophers have gotten hold of knowledge, which includes belief, as a category for inquiry. They even gave this study, as philosophers are prone to do, a ten-dollar name: epistemology. Not to be confused with eschatology which, in Christian theology (and perhaps in other theologies as well), is the study of matters related to the end times. That is a matter of belief, but not related to the study of knowledge or belief. I mention it because, when I was at university, I got those two words confused for the longest time.

Yes, I’m wandering. It’s easy to do when dealing with belief, since almost anything you can think of can be a matter of belief. But wait. There is even a school of thought in philosophy, fueled by neurobiology, called eliminative materialism. This school of thought holds, as I understand it, that consciousness does not really exist at all and that therefore things like belief are illusory. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that.) I’m in the process of tracking down more information on this theory, but it frankly sounds a little bit too reductionistic for my taste.

Be that as it may, I have a habit of starting out a project like this by looking for definitions. When I say I’m interested in looking a belief, for example, I figure it’s a good idea to have some guidelines for the type of thing I’m dealing with. This is especially important in this case, as it turns out, as belief seems to be a fairly elastic concept. From the definitions I’ve seen so far, it seems like there is a sort of hierarchy of knowledge/belief that revolves around how much confidence the individual has in the thing believed. Which in turn is very elastic, as what one person would say is a matter not only of faith, but of blind faith, another person would claim as a matter of sure knowledge. We’re looking at quite a wide gulf between the two, faith and knowledge, sometimes.

Anyway, the progression, as I’ve been able to classify it so far, goes something like this, at least as far as general definitions run: knowledge, opinion, belief, faith.

First, there is knowledge, which The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press, 1967) defines as “justified true belief” (vol. 4, p. 345). This definition assumes that knowledge is, indeed, a species of belief. There are apparently some who would argue “that knowledge cannot be a kind of belief…because they exclude each other” (p. 346). According to Anthony Quinton, the author of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Knowledge and Belief”, this argument is based on a notion that belief implies not knowing. Quinton dismisses this argument as absurd, and I tend to agree. So, I think, it is justified to call knowledge the most secure form of belief. It is a belief that has lots of facts to back it up.

It might be a toss-up as to whether the next level of belief is “opinion” or the general understanding of “belief” itself. The definition of “opinion” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition, 2003) differentiates them this way: “Opinion implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute….Belief implies often deliberate acceptance and intellectual assent” (p. 870). That sounds to me very much as if opinion implies belief on a more factual basis than belief requires. In fact, the second definition of “opinion” is that an opinion is “a belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge” (p. 870).

Merriam-Webster defines “belief”, in the first instance, as “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing” (p. 111). The third definition calls belief a “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon esp. when based on examination of evidence.” I suppose that the caveat “based on examination of evidence” might be seen as putting opinion and belief on approximately the same footing. On the other hand, it seems to me that “evidence” does not necessarily imply hard fact. I guess I’ll have to look that up, too – but not now. For the moment, I’ll work on the assumption that the progression can legitimately be considered to run with opinion having more bearing of fact behind it than belief has behind it.

This brings us to faith. I think it is fairly clear that faith would rank after belief when ordering the species of knowledge based on how much reliance on proven fact they each imply. As a synonym of belief, Merriam Webster says: “Faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof” (p. 111). That same dictionary’s definitions of “faith” run from “belief and trust in and loyalty to God”, to “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”, to “something that is believed esp. with strong conviction; esp: a system of religious beliefs” (p. 450). There is also something in there about loyalty as a general concept, but that is beyond what is being considered here. That is one of the beauties and frustrations of the English language: one word can have widely different meanings and implications. Aside from that, the point here is that, as a species of belief, faith has the least to do with proven fact. It is also abundantly clear that faith is the species of belief that has the most to do with religion, although it can have much to do with other objects of belief as well.

So, I’ve got a tentative definition of terms that will give me an idea of the sorts of things I want to look at as a part of this project. Thus far, I’ve been trying to avoid too much philosophy. Reading philosophy tends to give me a headache. I doubt I’ll be able to avoid it forever. I just hope that when I do get into it, it won’t confuse me too much. Meanwhile, I’ll just continue to follow up on what I’ve found and will continue to find in light of this hierarchy of belief. At least it gives me a structure to start with. I just wish I didn’t have this fear that someone has already gotten there first and already constructed the same hierarchy. Well, if they have, I’ll find it eventually.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

What this is all about...

As a writer working on a book-length project, I need a place where I can work out ideas I’m thinking about and to perhaps get some feedback from others on the directions I’m going with the ideas I am thinking about. Writing is a solitary pursuit, even more so where I am living in a fairly small predominantly agricultural town where writing is often seen as a bit of a suspect activity. But it always helps to have a place to bounce ideas around, not necessarily on the writing itself, as that has to be mine (although I might share some of that at some point) so much as the ideas going into the writing. This web journal seems like a good way to do that.

I’m mainly interested, here, in belief systems and the ideas that power them. At bottom, I think these ideas are individuals’ and institutions’ opinions about how the world works – physically, culturally, politically, spiritually, and in all other ways. So, I’ll be writing a lot about ways of belief and how people seem to arrive at the things they believe. I think all this is fascinating because these beliefs are responsible for how the world, ultimately, works – or does not work.

Because I consider the whole universe to be fair game in this exploration, however, belief systems are likely not to be the whole of the discussion here. I imagine there will be some excursions here that will make some folks reading these entries tilt their heads and say, “Huh? What does that have to do with anything?” The thing is, I tend to agree with what John Muir had to say about connections and connectedness: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” (My First Summer in the Sierra, quoted in The American Wilderness in the Words of John Muir [Waukesha, Wisconsin: Country Beautiful, 1973], p. 60.) In other words, I suspect that on some level everything has to do with everything.

I hope you will bear with me. Besides being a writing project, this is a journey I’m on, a quest to figure out why people believe the things they do, how the world and the universe work, and most of all what I really believe about all of it. There is a reason for my taking on this project. I used to think I understood the world and how it works. Now, most of the time I’m not sure I understand anything about the world. I’m not looking to be converted to anything, mind you. I’ve been down that road – something else I’ll no doubt be writing about from time to time, if only as to make my own biases and their sources clear – and, frankly, once was one too many times for me. I’m not looking for anyone to hand me any ready-made answers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear what you think or that I won’t learn from you.

I will also probably be expressing a lot of my opinions on a lot of topics here. That means I’ll probably make everyone who reads this on a regular basis angry from time to time. That’s okay. It just means that I’m doing my job as a writer. I’ll just hope that no one will take any of my comments personally. I really won’t mean them that way. I will also not, I hope, come across as being entrenched in my opinions. If anything, I’ve always been honest enough with myself that I realize my opinions might well be wrong. I’m not easily argued out of some positions, but I’m always willing to consider the other sides of an argument (I’ve never met an argument that had only two sides), and I’ve even been known to change my opinion from time to time. In political terms, I don’t consider that to be flip-flopping on issues; I just agree with the person (it may have been Oscar Wilde, but I’m not sure) who said that the only people who are truly consistent are the dead.

I don’t know, even, if anyone will read this web journal but myself, although I’ll definitely be inviting a few people specifically to look in from time to time, and as I’m able I’ll also be issuing general invitations for anyone who is interested to read whenever they like. In other words, I might well end up only talking to myself here. But I’ll welcome any and all readers and whatever contributions they have to make to this endeavor.