Tag Archives: truth

Quotes, authority and truth

UPDATE: Apparently, Dr. King did say it. Well, some of it. Kind of. And we think we know who started it. Maybe.

By now, people have probably seen both of the following in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s death:

“‎I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

They have also probably seen this Atlantic article (or a derivative thereof) about how the quote is misattributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. He never said it. And we don’t really know who started it.

Wait, wait...don't tell me!

Most people use the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote to encourage sobriety during the news of Bin Laden’s death. Others use this idea that the quote is misattributed to excuse their jubilation. What most people don’t ask is, why does a misattribution make the quote somehow less valuable?

It’s human nature to appeal to authority. After all, authorities usually know a lot about whatever they’re an authority of. For the most part, even the most independent, iconoclastic hipster or libertarian still makes appeals to authority on a daily basis. If you’ve never seen Australia with your own eyes but talk about Australia as if it is actually there because you read it in a book, that’s an appeal to authority, just as much as someone uses a Founding Father quote to prove that their economic policy or ideology is “right.” Appeal to authority is important and even necessary when constructing our world view.

But then we get into cases like this Martin Luther King, Jr. quote. Just because Dr. King didn’t say it, does it automatically discredit the information? Why do we like this quote? Is it a profound truth, one that resonates within our souls, and we simply want to give credit where credit is due? Or do we believe in it more, that it is somehow “more true,” because a famous civil rights leader said it? If, instead, it was our grandmother, or a drunk off the street, does it make it somehow “less true”? We all like to think that we, as people, are more interested in actual truthfulness of statements more than who said it, but do we act like it?

All of these are important questions to ask when it comes to considering the validity and worth of any quote.

“I hate quotes. Tell me what you know.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson 

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Know Your Enthymeme

“Just because it says 100% whole grain on the box doesn’t mean it has to taste like 100% whole grain,” reads an advertisement for some kind of healthy cracker. I’ve been noticing a lot of these lately while flipping through ads — no, not advertisements promising good tasting yet healthy products. Specifically, really interesting enthymemes.

Enthymemes, at the risk of oversimplification, is basically a truncated syllogism. A syllogism is the basic unit of an argument in logic — two premises and a conclusion. For example:

Premise #1: Aristotle is human.

Premise #2: Humans are animals.

Conclusion: Therefore, Aristotle is an animal.

Now, even the most novice philosopher or rhetorician will notice that the syllogism is not perfect in deriving truth. For example:

Premise #1: Aristotle is an animal.

Premise #2: Cats are animals.

Conclusion: Aristotle is a cat.

The rumors were true!

Unless your cat’s name is Aristotle, this argument’s conclusion is not true, despite its internal consistency. Syllogisms are useful in framing the world and can be used to derive truth, but it’s not a fool-proof way of figuring things out.

What does this have to do with enthymemes, 100% whole grain wheat, or advertisements? Everything. An enthymeme is, as said before, a truncated syllogism, which means out of the three parts (two premises and one conclusion), one of the parts is left out. For example, a enthymeme might go like this:

Premise #1: Aristotle is an animal.

Conclusion: Aristotle is a cat.

Enthymemes may seem stupid to you now, but they are an incredibly powerful tool, and just as how the syllogism is the basic unit of logic, enthymemes could be suggested as the basic unit for rhetoric. The sheer power of enthymemes relies on the fact that the unsaid portion (usually one of the premises) must be a “social truth” that the audience believes. Social truths do not necessarily have to be true in the clinical, sterilized sense. For example, “loyalty to the state is a virtue” is a social truth in China, but not so much in America. However, social truths contain an immense amount of power. Try telling an American, for example, that the American social truth “distrust in the government is healthy and a virtue” is not actually a “truth,” it’s just a socially accepted norm.

When enthymemes succeed, and when enthymemes fail (and why)

For example, here’s an enthymeme that has persuaded a good portion of the country to believe it is true:

Premise #1. The traditional, nuclear family is good and all-American.

Conclusion: Gay marriage should be banned.

Huuuuuh? How did we get here, pro-gay marriage proponents will rage (and often do). This is because they don’t understand that there’s a powerful, unsaid current of social truth lying underneath this seemingly perplexing argument, like a raging underground river.

Unsaid premise: Homosexuality hurts and undermines the traditional nuclear family.

Of course, whenever anti-gay marriage proponents try to convey their message to the family, they try to do it tactfully and will often present it as this seemingly logical (to them) argument.

Premise #1: Homosexuality hurts and undermines the traditional nuclear family.

Conclusion: Gay marriage should be banned.

But the problem is that most of the pro-gay marriage community might actually take issue with the social truth “the traditional nuclear family is good and all-American,” which they usually do not share. And thus, the argument falls flat and just seems silly. But we can still see how the enthymeme can tap into normally dormant and latent lines of communal, societal power. When done right, it’s quite literally the perfect mix of logos (syllogism), pathos (social truth), and ethos (when delivered by the right person). Aristotle’s ultimate rhetorical machine.

The power of social truth and emotion

In fact, this unsaid social truth is where the enthymeme derives its fear-inducing, awe-inspiring power from. For example, President Obama is often criticized of being too much of a policy wonk. The pundits often say he has failed to “sell” health care. Why should the President “sell” anything? Numbers are numbers, right? So when he gets up at the pulpit and lays out all the logical, mathematical reasons for why we should have universal health care, the numbers and data should convince us, right?

Except rhetoric is never about whether someone is wrong or right (a common misconception of rhetoric). It’s about moving people to action, and numbers don’t move people. Enthymemes move people, or, that is, tapping into powerful social truths move people. So when President Obama fails to deliver, in step the Republicans (whose political machine is genius at making effective enthymemes) and they lay out this simple argument:

Premise #1: Obamacare stifles innovation.

Conclusion: Therefore, we should stop Obamacare.


Premise #1: Obamacare is government control.

Conclusion: Therefore, we should stop Obamacare.


Premise #1: Obamacare hurts American business.

Conclusion: Therefore, we should stop Obamacare.

The unsaid premises are, of course, that innovation and American business is what makes America great, durn it, and government control is un-American. These are powerful social values Americans, especially conservative Americans, hold, and that’s why these arguments hold such powerful sway over the targeted demographics, even if the arguments themselves might not actually be “factual” or “right.” What really matters is if it persuades.

Rhetorical whole grains

So, 100% whole grain wheat and tasty crackers. What do enthymemes have to do with them? The thing is, commercials use enthymemes all the freaking time to get us to buy things, and the unspoken premise pushed is often an incredibly dangerous and destructive one. For example, what unspoken premise does this specific snack company want to push on us in order for us to buy 100% whole grain wheat crackers that don’t taste like 100% whole grain wheat?

Spoken premise: 100% whole grain wheat is good for you.

Unspoken premise: 100% whole grain wheat tastes bad.

Conclusion: 100% whole grain wheat crackers that don’t taste bad are best for you.

In this case, the unspoken premise is relatively harmless (well, my medical student sister wouldn’t agree). However, the unspoken premise is a powerful social truth, but also holds the distinction of not being true — I’ve sampled many dishes that have whole grains which taste amazing. And I know of many people who become very distrustful of anything that is 100% whole grain because it might taste bad. This unspoken premise taps into a very potent emotional vein (what we like to eat) and then uses it to try and convince you that their 100% whole grain wheat is the best. We often know what the advertisement’s goal is — to sell us something. But what we may not notice is the unspoken premises that they push on us, and this is where the really destructive stuff lies.

For example, take a look at this camera advert:

Find the enthymeme in this picture!

Find the enthymeme in this picture!

What enthymeme is Nikon pushing (and believe me, all advertisements are pushing enthymemes)? This is the one I came up with, but certainly there can be others:

Spoken premise: Nikon’s cameras can take sexy pictures.

Conclusion: Buy this camera and you can take sexy pictures.

What is the unspoken premise?

Unspoken premise: Sexy pictures make you awesome (if you’re a female) or taking sexy pictures makes you awesome (if you’re a male).

Here, again, illustrates the power of social truths (and also why sex is used so often in advertising, and why it sells so well). What is wrong with sex? Sex is good, right? It feels good, and it’s one of the two major biological drives of every organism! But think! A camera that can take sexy pictures magically through the simple act of ownership? Absurd! Every critically thinking human would reject that such a camera exists — that even with zero skills and zero access to sexy people (here using the cultural, worldly definition of sexy), buying this Nikon camera will make this come true.

The power of the enthymeme thus comes in a two-stage sucker punch. Powerful advertisements will use a very strong social truth (like “sex is awesome”), but will then make you feel like you came up with the idea yourself because, as the audience, you filled in the blank. You realized that there needs to be two premises to make at least once conclusion, and your semantically wonderful, pattern recognizing, connection creating brain filled in the blank and now you think that the unspoken premise (“Sexy pictures make you awesome”) is your idea. Yeah, Inception was completely wrong; making someone think that an idea is actually an idea that he or she came up with is incredibly easy. Advertisements do it all the time. And just as Inception suggested, feeling the thought is your own (rather than someone else’s) is very powerful. And if you’re not taking sexy pictures, then man, you are not awesome, and you came up with the idea all by yourself! Nikon had nothing to do with it!

Or did they?

Here’s another advert:

Okay, you know the drill. What’s the enthymeme? Here’s the one I came up with.

Spoken premise: Isaiah Mustafa is epic (or hawt, pick your adjective).

Conclusion: If you buy this body wash, you will be that much closer to being as epic as Isaiah Mustafa.

And the dangerous unspoken premise?

Unspoken premise: Wow, you (or your man) is not even close to Isaiah Mustafa, huh? This is bad.

Old Spice’s own description for this video on YouTube says it out right: “We’re not saying this body wash will make your man smell into a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, but we are insinuating it.” At least they’re honest. But this speaks to a powerful inadequacy that males are enduring culturally. On top of a recession that has been mostly punishing males and emasculating them by taking away their jobs, more than ever the elusive “ideal male physique” has entered the cultural mindscape, via advertising. But since males are culturally able to handle it or not care, we don’t hear about it. Still, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 1 million men suffer from eating disorders. It’s hard to say that Old Spice adverts make men want to throw up (literally) after eating, but I think we can all agree that this kind of internal message is not helping.

Advertising agencies are brainwashing you and rhetoric will save the day (kind of)

I once posted a blog about how I, for one, embrace this new age of targeted ads because it beats the age of untargeted ads (and the volumes of junk mail, both physical and electronic) carpet bombing my residence and inbox in hopes that they’ll hit the right demographic. But my friend Jill very quickly pointed out the problem with this unabashed love affair with advertising:

The point of marketing is to convince you that you are not content. You of all people understand the power of rhetoric. Seeing a fleeting image of a thin, happy woman with a Nikon D3 in her hands may make me roll my eyes and move on because I’m not foolish enough to believe buying a Nikon D3 will solve all my problems. But on a subconscious level, I have associated happiness with not only that Nikon, but with attractiveness as well.

Targeted ads do more then present you with options to save money on stuff you would have normally bought. They make you buy things you wouldn’t have before (regardless of how “in control” you think you are…sometimes a deal is “too good” to pass up right?). But worse, they add to the repository of images that subconsciously tell you that you are not happy.

And Jill was right; of all the people she knew, I should have been the first one to jump and down and say advertising as a whole seems unsustainable, or at the very least, maliciously and intentionally destructive towards their own targets. And what’s even worse is that they don’t need to destroy us; they’re happy enough to sow the seeds of discontent and watch us destroy ourselves (and hopefully spend a lot of money in the process).

Which is why I am taking the time to write about enthymemes. We’re all aware of logic, and a good portion of us are even aware of the rhetorical term logos. But enthymemes are not something they teach unless you take at least a 200 level course specifically in rhetoric, and let’s be honest — who does that anymore?

While advertising may “add to the repository of images that subconsciously tell you that you are not happy” in general, and while I will admit that advertising will always have some sort of affect on us, even if we’re conscious of it (Kimberly, a logic minor, pinned me to the wall when I said that a knowledge of rhetoric will make you completely immune to the effects of advertisment — she abhors the vacuum of judiciously placed qualifiers), I believe that at the very least, a knowledge of what enthymemes are how to look for them can steel us against the massive blast advertising tries to fire over and over again.

In “How to Teach a Child to Argue,” Jay Henrichs details the results of taking the time to educate his young children on the hows and whys of rhetoric. In the end, he notices this interesting scene:

My kids grew so fond of debate, in fact, that they disputed the TV itself.

“Why should I eat candy that talks?”

“A doll that goes to the bathroom? I have a brother who does that.” It was as if I’d given them advertising immunization shots.

Why, indeed, should I eat candy that talks? Or buy bodywash that puts me on a horse with some tickets to that thing she really likes? Or use a camera to take sexy pictures? And that’s the beauty of identifying and isolating enthymemes. Just like how Aristotle is not a cat, cameras cannot only take sexy pictures, candy can’t talk, and bodywash will not magically make me a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, much to my wife’s loss, I guess. I would venture to guess that at least half (if not 75%) of the advertisements I see today seem purely insulting[1], if not sad. Like the enthymeme of Aristotle is an animal, and thus, therefore a cat, advertising’s logic really starts to break down once you start ferreting out the unspoken premises that lie in wait, sometimes to hilarious results, but also dark and disturbing. Like the age old question of whether art imitates life or whether life imitates art, does advertising reflect social truths, or are social truths created and enforced by advertising? And when you see that weird, deep, gut emotion premise that they’re trying to push on you, it’s not enough to just recognize them. Challenge it. In the words of Jay Henrichs:

Our culture has lost the ability to usefully disagree. Most Americans seem to avoid argument. But this has produced passive aggression and groupthink in the office, red and blue states, and families unable to discuss things as simple as what to watch on television. Rhetoric doesn’t turn kids into back-sassers; it makes them think about other points of view.


[1] For example, a billboard for breast implants along I-5 in Utah once read, “Finally, getting D’s is a good thing.” This, more than any other breast implant advertisment, seems to really prey on insecurity.

Spoken premise: D’s are usually a bad thing.

Conclusion: If you get breast implants and increase your bust size to D’s, it will be a good thing.

Unspoken premise: You usually get D’s, huh? You’re not too bright, are you? Perfect. Wow, not only is it insulting your physical appearance, but your intelligence, too. Nasty.

Very honest advert.


Filed under wordsmithing

Ethos and the Mormon hierarchy of quotational worth

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

So my friend Beth said on my last blog post:

I think I would like to see your treatises include more source material. I only mention it because it seems you like to use your blog as a forum to encourage sch0larly discussion, but you don’t include, for example, what Hugh Nibley had to say on the subject.

Same with your discussion on polygamy. It’s mostly your thoughts and opinions, but since you’re wanting to incite greater theological discussion I think actual quotes from the Manifesto would have been warranted.

I took this as pretty good advice, and so for the last entry on our Mormon version of American exceptionalism I set out to find quotes of varying opinion to present to you, the wonderful reader. Immediately, I ran into a problem — which quotes were “good” and which were “not-so-good”?

By good and not-so-good, I’m talking about a complex metric system that involves relevance, accuracy, and authority. Everyone has their own metric system to determine what somebody said is actually worth anything. Generally speaking, this metric system is pretty consistent within subcultures and the arguments they use. For example, in an academic setting, using your little brother’s opinions to back up your own in a paper will net you with a big fat zero, while using an anecdote of your sweet little brother’s kind actions will net you big rhetorical points with a talk during Sacrament meeting.

The Mormon Quotational Worth Hierarchy, or, who said it matters most

Mormons, too, tend to have a hierarchial system of “quotational worth.” It generally trends in this direction (the more important ones listed before the least important ones):

1. Anything Joseph Smith said
2. Current general authorities (i.e., Thomas S. Monson)
3. Old general authorities (i.e., Brigham Young)
4. More recently revealed scripture (i.e., Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants)
5. The Holy Bible (note: JST counts as #4)
6. Non-members we like (i.e., C.S. Lewis, whenever the Pew Forum has something nice to say about us)
7. The Founding Fathers (i.e., Thomas Jefferson, Mormonism’s favorite deist)
8. Non-members we’re neutral on (i.e., Emerson)
9. Other scriptures, sort of (i.e., Qu’ran, the Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls)
10. Academics (hissssss)

Your mileage may vary. For example, some liberal Mormons I know would say that academics are definitely at least higher than the Founding Fathers, while other more Constitutional Mormons would say that what the Founding Fathers say has more clout than the Holy Bible. And some people I know might say that the Qu’ran is a pretty neat piece of scripture and will put it around #5 or #6. My own hierarchal system does not match the one I just listed; this one is more of my very general guess of how a “standard” Mormon might grade quotational worth.

To illustrate, let me show you these quotes:

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Gloria Steinem, prominent feminist

Show this quote to a good, orthodox Mormon, and they would say, “Ugh, so typical of a feminazi,” and they would dismiss it without further thought. But who really said these quotes? Brigham Young.

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Brigham Young

Ah! Suddenly, this quote becomes worthy of discussion for our Church. Mormons would sit together and ask, “What does Brigham Young mean? What does education constitute? Why do daughters need education more than sons?” Why? Because of who said it.

How Important is Ethos compared to Pathos or Logos?

For those who need a refresher course on classical rhetoric, Aristotle argued that there are three modes of persuasion — ethos, pathos, and logos. Pathos and logos are pretty easy to understand — pathos deals with the emotional aspect of the argument, while logos deals with the “logical” side of the argument. Ethos is slightly harder to understand, but the basic idea of ethos is the rhetorician’s “moral authority,” or how much the audience trusts and believes the speaker.

A good argument will consist of all three of these modes — it will make sense, it will have emotional weight and impact, and the speaker is trusted and respected by the community. If you don’t have ethos, no one will listen to you in the first place. Without logos, your ideas will not make sense. Without pathos, there is little drive or motivation for action. But when you rely solely on pathos, your arguments become emotionally manipulative. When you rely solely on logos, your arguments become dry and weak. And when you rely solely on ethos, well, you have what many people call “blind obedience.”

Do we as Mormons accept arguments solely on ethos? This is not to say that ethos is worthless, but rather that a good argument utilizes all components of a classical argument (pathos, logos, and ethos). Do we put too much emphasis on ethos and ignore the others (though longtime members might say we go overboard on the pathos, too)? We are taught (some would say conditioned) to follow what the prophet says, no matter what. We are taught that who says what very much matters, but just how much does this matter? Should we and do we as a culture consider quotations (or teachings, or ideas) on the merit of their actual content instead of who said it?

Quotational value fluctuation

Of course content does matter, and ethos cannot always carry the day in our culture. I’m reminded of a talk given by Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 titled “Strengthening the Family — The Basic Unit of the Church” in which he recounted a hymn we once had called “Don’t Kill the Little Birds,” and then gave a very anti-hunting anecdote:

“I had a sling and I had a flipper. I made them myself, and they worked very well. It was my duty to walk the cows to the pasture a mile away from home. There were large cottonwood trees lining the road, and I remember that it was quite a temptation to shoot the little birds ‘that sing on bush and tree,’ because I was a pretty good shot and I could hit a post at fifty yards’ distance or I could hit the trunk of a tree. But I think perhaps because I sang nearly every Sunday, ‘Don’t Kill the Little Birds,’ I was restrained.”

According to those who remember that talk, many said that the Mormon hunting community hated this quote, and would even openly mock President Kimball’s reading of the verses. Ethos did not matter as much this time as content (though it is important to note that those who witnessed such mocking behavior were severely disturbed and scandalized). At the same time, if you mention this to someone who is rabidly “anti-environmentalist” (whatever that means), they may do this uncomfortable shuffling of feet and attempt to reinterpret what President Kimball really meant, or perhaps will introduce another quote from a (take note) General Authority that contradicts this statement and trump that as somehow “more true,” because again, we as Mormons are uncomfortable with the idea of rejecting an argument out right from an anointed servant of God.

On top of that, note that many Mormons joke that C.S. Lewis is the “Thirteenth Apostle” because he’s the most quoted non-member in General Conference. Why? Because so many of what he says could have come right out of an apostle’s mouth:

“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him — for we can prevent Him, if we choose — He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 163

And, content again plays in part when C.S. Lewis says something like this:

“I am afraid I am not going to be much help about all the religious bodies mentioned in your letter of March 2nd. I have always in my books been concerned simply to put forward ‘mere’ Christianity, and am no guide on these (most regrettable) ‘interdenominational’ questions. I do however strongly object to the tyrannic and unscriptural insolence of anything that calls itself a Church and makes teetotalism [abstinence from alcoholic beverages] a condition of membership.”

– C.S. Lewis, in a letter replying to a woman he corresponded with in Salt Lake City, quoted by Marianna Richardson and Christine Thackeray in “What C.S. Lewis Thought about the Mormons”

“Well,” Mormon C.S. Lewis fans would say, throwing their hands up in the air, “I’m sure he accepted the gospel in the next life.” And when asked why this information is not as good as the previous quote from Mere Christianity, they would probably respond with, “Well, he’s not the prophet or anything.” Again, ethos takes precedence (even though C.S. Lewis introduces a very strong argument that “teetotalism” has very little scriptural support). Once again, the ethos argument comes out.

Ethos — what is it good for?

So again I ask, how important is ethos in an argument for Mormons? Does it trump pathos and logos? Is who says it more important than what is being said or how it makes us feel? Is “[insert priesthood office here] So-and-so said it and that’s good enough for me” really good enough?

“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

– Brigham Young

But what if Hugh Nibley said the above quote instead? Or Billy Graham? Or Martin Luther? Or Ralph Waldo Emerson? How does that change the value of the quote, for better or for worse?

And yes, I’m still digging up stuff on Mormon American exceptionalism. Don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten.


Filed under education, religion, wordsmithing

The blurring lines between fact and folklore

So, lately I’ve been working on a blog with a friend of mine where we chase down and document Mormon folklore. Usually, when people get past the idea that we are saying “These stories are true” and merely “We heard this story,” they also enjoy it, both those in and outside of the Church.

Lately I have been contemplating what exactly constitutes folklore and what constitutes doctrine. For example, I wrote about how some people say that similarities in the shape of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers’ junction and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers’ junction show that the Garden of Eden may have been in Jackson County and then Noah relocated to the Middle East during the Flood. This got me interested in the whole concept of the American Garden of Eden and especially Adam-ondi-Ahman.

Adam-ondi-Ahman is one of those things where it’s established as pretty solid doctrine in our Church — sort of. We have a hymn about it, which is about as solid as you can get when it comes to “Is it official doctrine?” A lot of the information we can piece together from journals and sermons from Joseph Smith, but when it comes to the Church saying, “This is the official definition of Adam-ondi-Ahman,” we don’t really find many contemporary sources, if any. So what is it? Is it doctrine or is it folklore?

The more I look into Mormon folklore, the more I begin to believe there might not be much of a difference. Our Mormon doctrines and Mormon narrative intertwine with each other until they are inseparable. Joseph Smith’s vision of his older brother Alvin’s eventual fate in the next life has greatly influenced our understandings of agency and the Atonement. And our unique eschatological timeline (such as Adam-ondi-Ahman) relies heavily on a patchwork of sermons and statements pieced together like an incomplete puzzle.

Storytelling is an integral part of our Mormon theology. Stories such as the famous “milk and strippings” story concerning Thomas B. Marsh and his wife (and their eventual apostasy) or the transfiguration of Brigham Young may not actually be factual, but we tell and re-tell it as a warning against personal ego interfering with the greater good of the community or to show God’s approval of prophetic succession. The Book of Mormon, which we purport as the complete gospel of Jesus Christ, comes to us not in the form of a bullet-point presentation or a treatise on Christian theology; it comes in the form of stories. And as we interpret and re-interpret those stories, so goes our doctrine.

So what do you guys think? Adam-ondi-Ahman — is it folklore? Or is it doctrine? Is it even possible to separate Adam-ondi-Ahman folklore from Adam-ondi-Ahman doctrine?

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Apologies, clarifications, and assertions

The title of this post could very well be the title of my blog (or the title of my life).

Last night, I made a regrettable error. We had several people over for an impromptu homemade pizza party, and one of the parties involved were our local missionaries. When talking about a person who had been attending our church, they mentioned that he had moved on from reading the Book of Mormon to reading philosophy, to which I blurted out (more loudly than I wanted), “Well, that’ll never work.”

I then spent the next five minutes back-pedaling and hedging my way as some of my more astute friends held me accountable to this assertion.

I’ll admit, what I said surprised even myself. Just one year ago, had the missionaries told me this, I would probably had said, “Good for him!” I suppose this outburst reflects some massive overhauls in how I view religion, philosophy, and science over the past months, and it starts with my wife.

As many of you good, consistent readers probably know, the search for a Grand Unified Theory of Mormonism drove most of my thoughts and actions for the last few years. I thought and thought and thought and thought some more, trying to figure out how to create a consistent Mormon worldview from the hodgepodge of Mormon literature and thinking we have inherited from the last century and a half. In the end, this failed catastrophically, mostly because of my wife.

My wife is astute, and one of the reasons why I married her is because she knows how to poke holes in my arguments in a disarmingly cute way. Every time I would present a new idea that would be the one that would tie everything together, she would shred it to pieces. “There is no such thing as Mormon theology,” she would say over and over, and I’m starting to agree.

I guess I’ve mellowed out a bit in the religion front. Instead of looking for religious truth, I’ve been focusing more on religious good, and we have a lot of religious good in our church. We are in an incredible ward, and it has provided much stability for my family, both now and in the past. I am a better person because of the teachings of the Church, and I believe that the real reason for religion is not to explain events in the world, but rather a way to overcome the natural shortsightedness of man.

Humans are very shortsighted creatures. Science has proven this with a battery of tests that show humans will take advantage of short-term gratification rather than long-term gratification, even if it’s self-destructive and harmful. As humans grow older, I’m sure they saw how instant gratification hurt them, and wanting their children to avoid the same mistakes, they began to codify teachings and observations in life that evolved into religion.

When you think about it, at least for Mormonism, we have a terrible theology. It’s internally inconsistent, full of holes, and constantly changing. We have a difficult time trying to explain why certain things happen in life, especially bad things.

But as a way of life, Mormonism does a really good job. A lot of my friends mention that they could never live the lifestyle, but they admire the strong, happy families Mormonism usually produces (this isn’t to say it’s a guarantee, but we do seem to do a pretty good job in the family department). We appear to be perpetually happy (which some people view as smugness) and we tend to have strong, conservative, community and family-oriented values. Along with love your neighbor and God, we have prescriptive rules such as be clean in dress and language, love your spouse, prepare for a rainy day, get out of debt, take care of the weak, sick, and despised, and so forth.

The way Mormonism does this is it provides a reason, which we take on faith, to live life. We work hard to have strong, happy families because we believe that the family unit has the potential to stay together for eternity. We tell people to be loving and hospitable because you never know if someone is an angel in disguise. We tell people we should forgive each other because God died for our sins and we must then love everyone. We tell people to curtail sexual desire for maximum stability in human relationships because our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit.

None of these ideas really explain why things are in the world. They only give reason on why we should do certain things.

Philosophy is a different animal. Explaining why things are in the world is what philosophy strives to do. Logic, for example, is an entire specialized branch of philosophy dedicated to extrapolate truths from the universe. From time to time, philosophy branches into prescriptive advice, such as utilitarianism or Nietzsche’s ubermensch or the classical idea of eudaimonia. But for the most part, philosophy is dedicated to understanding why things in the universe are.

Science, for example, is philosophy’s direct child which now cruelly turns its back on its parent. Science takes the basic principles of philosophy (mostly logic) and applies it (via the scientific method) to the natural world. And because we now pay more lip service to science than philosophy, we have relegated philosophy to the dustbin, the direct opponent of theology (even though theology is simply using philosophical principles with spiritual underpinning – a desperate, maybe impossible endeavor). Many people see philosophy as a mindless exercise, a sort of mental gymnastics that is only appropriate for stuffy intellectuals, posing hipsters, or aging New Age hippies. This is a travesty, and it needs to be stopped.

I guess that comment I made was born out of my frustration at how people view philosophy. Philosophy’s main tenet is logic; science’s main tenet is the scientific method and empiricism; religion’s is faith. They don’t mix well. I cannot use logic to “prove” eternal families exist, and I can only observe the effects of the belief through empiricism. Faith in such a principle is all I have, and it’s what my religious belief in such a doctrine runs on. To me, using logic to ascertain prescriptive living is futile, just as I believe that faith makes a poor scientist. If you seek for “truth,” use philosophy. But if you’re seeking for peace, or happiness, or stability in life, study religion seriously, and all types of religion. And, of course, use logic and empiricism to determine whether it may be right for you. But eventually, no matter how you look at it, you will have to take that leap of faith. Using philosophy or science to try and find religion is like constantly, hungrily circling a chocolate cake, wondering if it’s right for you, but never actually eating it. Eventually, you must take that first bite.

But I apologize publicly all the same. I did not mean to say that philosophy is somehow inferior to religion. Philosophy, religion, and science all work together to somehow find a Grand Unified Theory for Life, and without each other, they easily devolve into soulless, destructive fanaticism.

I am, like everyone else, a walking contradiction sometimes.


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Oh Say, What Is Truth?: Marriage and Childbearing

I’m taking a sociology and philosophy course right now in school. I had several people in my church give misgivings about taking philosophy – apparently, the discipline can shake your testimony and turn you into an atheistic, flaming liberal. However, I’ve found my philosophy class to be incredibly enriching to my religious beliefs and hopefully can continue to pursue learning about such an interesting and varied field. Sociology, however, rocks my testimony to its core. I have since then come terms to the constant assailing on what I used to think as fundamental truths – in this time of uncertainty, this I know – God is real, and somehow, Jesus performed some sort of miracle that has cleansing, healing power. All the rest – all of the commentary, the folklore, the myths, the pithy sayings, the unchallenged assertions – is burned away like dross. In this way, I feel my testimony is now stronger than ever. I live in an environment of uncertainty, but of two simple truths, I now know more than ever. I need not base my belief on faith-promoting rumors but on truth.

However, my social mores have been attacked once more by the cold, unflinching discipline of scientific inquiry and statistics. This time, it concerns the family. My wife has never been too keen on having children any time soon. In our marriage, it has always been me that brings up the prospect of children or how we should raise them or when we should start considering child raising. And I attended some of the most liberal sexual education courses in high school ever. I saw a video of a head crowning during a birth. I learned how to put condoms on bananas. We even tried to see how many hands we could fit into a stretched condom (answer: A lot). We had these baby dolls to carry around that would cry if you did anything wrong, and then wouldn’t shut up until you rectified this (it revealed a surprising number of our classmates as potential child absuers. Scary). None of this has ever deterred me from abstinence until marriage or the desire to have babies.

But then I took sociology. Forget sex ed classes. Teach kids sociology and they will be scared straight.

Concerning the effect of children on marriage:

“Many in the U.S. grow up embracing the notion that having children brings one closer to one’s spouse and helps hold a marriage together. Actually, the data shows otherwise, in that, at least for the wife, the fewer the children the happier the marriage (Ross and Van Willigen 1996). The aforementioned researchers found that, ‘…children increased anger more for mothers than fathers and each additional child in the household increased the level of anger. Two major types of stressors included economic strains and the strains associated with childcare.'”

“Not only is it true that the fewer the number of children, the greater the level of marital happiness, all else equal, it is also the case that the less involved with children the couple is, the greater the level of marital happiness. The nature and degree of such involvement changes predictably over the life course – and along with it, marital satisfaction. Keller (2000) and others have charted how marital satisfaction starts off high (before the birth of children), takes a dip when children are born, reaches a marital low during the children’s teenage years, then rises back to a high level once the grown children have left the household. Non-parents and empty-nesters, he notes, enjoys the highest level of marital satisfaction.”

Concerning divorce laws:

“..the more lenient the divorce laws, the higher a country’s over all level of marital satisfaction.”

Concerning women working out of the home:

“Although some pundits have noted a correlation between women’s participation in paid employment and a higher divorce rate, researchers examining the actual dynamics within marriages find that the more equally shared the housework, over all, the happier the marriage (Hochschild and Machung 1989). And as may not be surprising, at least up to a point, wives working in paid employment hold greater leverage for negotiating an equitable sharing between themselves and their husbands on the chores front. So in a roundabout way, women’s greater paid labor participation has actually enhanced, rather than detracted from the over all rate of marital satisfaction.”

Concerning the effect of gay people parenting:

“Although there has been much consternation over potential harm to children raised in gay families, Golombok (2003) and colleagues, as well as Lambart (2005), find children raised by gay parents to be as psychologically healthy and well-adjusted as their peers from heterosexual couple households. Actually, when difference between hetero- and homosexual parenting practices are found, the gay parents’ practices tend to be superior. Johnson and O’Connor (2002) found gay parents to be more responsive to their children and more child-oriented. Some critics worry children raised by gay parents will, themselves, somehow be forced into growing up gay. Bailey et all (1995), however, found 90% of sons of gay or bisexual men self-identified as heterosexual. And Golombok and Tasker (1996) found the large majority of female children raised by lesbians self-identified as heterosexual by their young adult years.”

And for the politically conservative:

“Another key reason for the trends of increased childlessness, delayed childbearing and the bearing of fewer children is policy decisions by American voters. With the ‘smaller government is better’ ethos that prevails in the present-day U.S., childbearing is, for all but the wealthiest or poorest, an act of financial self-destruction. What few provisions there are in the way of medical care and childcare are erratic at best and whether fine or poor quality, markedly expensive…

“With the lack of governmental provisions for health care and childcare, the U.S. is one of the most (financially) punitive nations on earth in which to raise a child.”

Now, I do not post these statistics to drag everyone around me down to hell. Quite the contrary. We must admit as a Church that divorce is a problem. Child abuse – verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually – is a problem. Keeping young people in the Church as they leave homes, get married, and contemplate families of their own is a problem. Truth, we are taught, are things as they really are, and we need to examine our social problems within the Church and the larger society in general as they really are, and not simply hide behind pithy sayings, comforting platitudes, or useless, folksy sayings. And I don’t want people trying to counter this information with circumstantial “well I know some families are happy and so this information must be untrue.” If you wish to counter these statistics, I implore you to dig up studies of your own – peer reviewed and accepted by the discipline’s community. I am not concerned with comfort when seeking truth or trying to convince myself out of a pickle. Realizing truth – things as they really are – can help us face the roots of these social evils and eradicate them, rather than treating symptoms haphazardly while never striving to understand the real reasons. To do less than that would be to fulfill Marx’s scathing indictment against religion as an opiate of the masses.

When we have widespread problems amongst society as an aggregate, there are serious structural problems that cause and perpetuate this problem. In the political, social, and economical environment we live in, how prudent is it to teach young married couples to have children right away? Can we truly condemn gay people as a whole as abominable, when they turn out to be better parents than us? Is this no different than Jacob’s Nephite society, who widely considered the Lamanites inferior when the Lamanite culture actually treated their families better? What cultural factors are contributing to high divorce rates, high rates of unhappiness within marriage, and why has child or spousal abuse not been stamped out within our population? And most importantly, which of these cultural mores we hold as sacrosanct concerning the family are rooted in gospel doctrine and theology and which are rooted within unchallenged, misguided, or ignorant cultural ideals or misinterpreted religious thought?

All quotes taken from Sociology: A Critical and Contemporary Perspective by Scott Lukas, MaryKriss Mcilwaine, Sue Dowden, and Chien Huang.


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