This month’s talk was a tricky one for me to write. I had a lot of different ideas in my head, and getting them down in words proved difficult. I was literally tweaking it minutes before I had to drive to church. (In Brewer, this time.) And then once I was in the meeting, I needed to trim it from the 20 minutes I had prepared down to about 15 minutes. Despite all that, I’m quite happy with how the talk turned out. It allowed me to organize some thoughts I’d been having for the last several weeks:
- Do I believe God punishes people for their actions? In other words, does God smite people?
- How can I believe in God when it might just be confirmation bias at work?
Pretty weighty material, even for 20 minutes. The whole thing’s 4,000 words long, and I’m presenting the unedited version here, so enough preamble. Here’s the talk:
Before I get into my talk this morning, brothers and sisters, I want to apologize. This month’s topic (a talk by Sister Marriott this past general conference on Abiding in God) has proved a tricky one for me to navigate. I’ve had a number of thoughts on the topic that have taken me in a number of directions. I hope the final product helps some of you. I will say that writing it has helped me organize some different thoughts that have been careening around my head for the past few weeks, so I suppose even if none of you end up getting it, it helped me, and that’s something. Here we go.
I’ve been reading in the Book of Mormon lately. I’m back at the beginning, with Nephi dealing with his brothers and their seeming inability to remember anything for more than five seconds. It feels like angels are coming down every other day to threaten to smite them with the wrath of God. Each time, they cower and admit God was right and they were wrong, but it doesn’t take too long before they’ve forgotten that lesson once again and need to learn it all over.
In fact, that seems to be an overarching theme of the Book of Mormon and scripture in general. It’s played out with the Nephites and the Lamanites on a grand scale, with entire peoples forgetting God and lifting themselves up in pride, only to be brought low months or years later, forced to humble themselves as they once again seek for God’s help. We call it the Pride Cycle, and it happens as regularly as the seasons. Life is good, and people begin to think it’s because of just how awesome they are. And then life stops being so good, and they turn to God for help until life gets good again. Why can’t they just stay good all the time? Why can’t they abide in God?
We complain sometimes that church talks and lessons are all similar. That the answers to a Gospel question almost always boil down to studying the scriptures, listening to church leaders, praying, fasting, and keeping the commandments. But the more I read the scriptures and study the lives of those who have gone on before me, the more I am persuaded that the reason those answers keep coming up again and again and again is that we have yet to really learn and believe those lessons.
When we read books, it’s natural for us to identify with the person telling the story. The point of view character. It’s natural to relate to Nephi and to view his brothers as nothing more than antagonists.
However, I don’t think those brothers were included in the Book of Mormon so we could have a laugh at their expense. So we could feel better about ourselves because at least we’re not doing foolish things moments after being instructed by God’s messengers not to do those exact same foolish things. I think they’re in the Book of Mormon because they’re us. They’re me, at least. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for you. Maybe you’re all Sams, and I’m the only Lemuel. But there have been times when I’ve sat through a lovely, uplifting talk on being kind, only to find myself yelling at my kids a few minutes later.
In the middle of all of this drama between Nephi and his brothers, something else cropped up in my mind. It came to a head in 1 Nephi 17:22: Laman and Lemuel are complaining, as usual. They’re objecting for having to leave Jerusalem in the first place. They say to Nephi, “we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him.”
Basically, they question the whole idea that God would destroy Jerusalem. Which led me to wonder: do I do the same thing today?
There is little doubt in my mind that the amount of evil in the world is increasing. I have but to look at the events at Sandy Hook and Parkland to see how common decency and love of our fellow man is diminishing. If I want further confirmation, I can look at our politicians, and the political debates that stem from their actions. I include my own words and debates in that castigation.
But through it all, I have always somehow maintained a belief that we will be punished for our own sins. There’s the second Article of Faith, after all. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. Coupled with that, there are plenty of examples in the scriptures where good things happen to bad people. The Egyptians flourished while the Jews were enslaved. Psalms 73 focuses entirely on this. “3 For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. 5 They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men.” And we know as well that often bad things will happen to the best of people. Abel was murdered. John the Baptist was beheaded. Joseph Smith was martyred.
In the aftermath of disasters, both natural and manmade, there are still people who stand up to decry the actions of the people afflicted by those disasters. People who will claim the victims brought it on themselves because they were wicked. That’s always been a mentality I have rejected, but reading those words in the Book of Mormon a few weeks ago suddenly threw all of that certainty into the air.
Nephi and Lehi clearly believed it was the evil actions of the citizens of Jerusalem that led to the city’s destruction. Fire and brimstone rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. It was the hard heartedness of the Children of Israel that kept them wandering in the wilderness for forty years. We have no qualms saying that and analyzing how we can be less hard hearted, but when it comes time to look at our own society, do we apply the same measuring stick?
As a species, humanity is remarkably susceptible to apophenia, a tendency to look for patterns, even when no patterns exist. We see this happen when people see a face in a piece of burnt toast, or when a gambler believes a table has gotten “hot.” People look for omens or believe they can tell the future from the lines on their palm.
A relative of this phenomenon is called confirmation bias. My first exposure to the concept was on my mission. I was on splits with Elder Dodge, and we were teaching a couple of new members. They were friends, and we were over at their apartment when one of them looked at the clock. “It’s 12:34!” she exclaimed, and her friend groaned and said, “Always!” We asked what they were talking about, and they told us that they always look at the clock when it’s 12:34. Without fail.
Elder Dodge sighed and shook his head. He was a very level-headed missionary. Not one to put up with any nonsense. “That’s not it at all,” he said. “You only pay attention to the times you look at the clock and it’s 12:34. All the other times you check, you don’t remember.”
They remained skeptical, but I began to look for evidence of this in myself. Twenty years later, I can state with confidence this happens all the time. It’s all too easy to start out with a hypothesis and then look around for evidence that supports it, ignoring the things that would undermine it. I see it happen in politics, science, the workplace, and more.
The other week I was sitting in an academic lecture on filmmaking, and religion came up in the course of the talk. The speaker alleged that all too often, that “voice of God” religious people hear and follow is nothing more than their own interior voice telling them to do the things they’d like to do anyway. Religion, in this light, becomes an excuse. A mind trick people use to magically justify whatever they want to do. Answers to prayer, in this light, become nothing more than confirmation bias at work. How can you abide in God when the very basis of your faith is in question?
In some cases, I have no doubt this is what’s at work with a person’s purported faith. People can use any number of excuses to justify their actions. But to attribute all of religion to confirmation bias overlooks an enormous elephant in the room: the existence or non-existence of God. If God doesn’t exist, then all religion is no more than a sham. But if He does exist–if there is a being of higher power than us, and He takes an active role in our lives–then suddenly the window is opened for at least some religion to have merit.
So to me, the first question must be: does God exist? Back when I was a missionary, we were taught to build on common beliefs when discussion the Gospel with those not of our faith. The first discussion at the time started with, “Most people believe in a supreme being.” Except in former East Germany, this wasn’t true. Most of the people I met and talked to on the street did not believe in God. They didn’t see a need for Him, and thought Him nothing more than a story made up to get other people to fall in line. The opiate of the masses.
When we tried to teach these people about Christ, repentance, and the Atonement, we had little success. First we had to establish the need for God.
Philosophers have struggled for years with big thoughts. Big questions. Rene Descartes tried to ascertain what things we can know with certainty. Cogito Ergo Sum. I think, therefore I am. He recognized that simply being able to doubt your own existence proved you existed in the first place, for only things that exist can have feelings like doubt. But once you went outside the simple question of “Do I exist?”, proving things beyond doubt becomes more more difficult. We experience the world through our senses. Sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell. And each of those can be deceived.
This is readily apparent in today’s society, where even video evidence of something happening is no longer unassailable. Videos can be faked. Pictures can be doctored. Memories can be deceived. We like to try to use evidence to prove things one way or the other, but the fact is that even the most concrete of experiences can be doubted over time. It’s the Laman and Lemuel principle, alive and well. Something is proven one moment and forgotten the next. This is one of the reasons, I believe, that God doesn’t have us rely on tangible evidences of His existence. Instead, He invites us to do something far simpler: Ask.
Prayer is one of the most powerful evidences we can receive. I have had numerous experiences with it, and I know my prayers have been answered. Not in the generic “good things ended up happening” or “it all worked out” sort of way that might be easily swayed by confirmation bias. But in “I received answers I didn’t know to questions I didn’t understand.” Even then, someone might suggest it was nothing more than my subconscious at work. But I personally have had inspiration. Glimpses into the future that ended up being completely accurate.
To me, the truth and reality of prayer is more often to be found when the answers ask us to do things we’d rather not do, as opposed to just stick with the comfortable, well-worn path. In her talk Sister Marriott noted that “Sacrifice of our personal agendas is required to make room for the eternal plans of God.” And later, “It is now, with our mortal limitations, that the Father asks us to love when loving is most difficult, to serve when serving is inconvenient, to forgive when forgiving is soul stretching.”
As I’ve looked at religion, studying out its history and its impact on various cultures and societies, I’ve seen plenty of reasons for some to dismiss it as an excuse. Too often, I see people shop around for a religion that’s most comfortable to them. As if they were born and raised with the right set of values, and the true religion would confirm their preconceived ideals. To me, this is nothing more than humanity trying to define who God is and what He wants, and it separates God from the question of religion entirely. We can’t abide in God as we would have Him be. We must abide in Him as he is.
Again, if God doesn’t exist, then religion is nothing more than a sham. If He does exist, then true religion would be to find the way we can best understand Him. Who He is, what He wants of us, and how we can rise to His expectations. I do not believe that one faith has a monopoly on truth. Rather, I believe God does His best to ensure as many of His children can come to return to live with Him as possible, and that He puts each of us in a situation where that is most likely to happen. I believe an atheist who strives to do her best to make good decisions and moral choices has just as good a chance of being saved as someone who has been raised in the church and gifted with a wealth of knowledge about God.
Sister Marriott quoted Bruce R. McConkie, who said, “We are duty-bound to learn all that God has revealed about himself.” Joseph Smith, in his Lectures on Faith, described the different aspects of God. He is all knowing, all powerful, just, and merciful. He passes judgement, and He will not lie. He will reveal Himself to us through revelation and prayer as we humbly seek to know more of Him. To those that seek harder, more will be revealed.
In my experience, religion stretches me. Challenges me to be more than I am now. But it’s one thing to say that, and another to give some specific examples. I’m not going to stand up here and list all the things I do wrong, but I can talk about a few.
I am not, by nature, a social creature. Leaving my friends and family for two years to go and serve a mission in Germany was not a comfortable sensation. And yet when I think of the ways that experience changed me, I am amazed. And I’m not simply talking about the spiritual attributes fostered in that time: compassion, understanding, humility. Things I learned on my mission made me a better leader. I developed a better ability to read people and understand what they wanted and what motivated them. I became a better person in practically every way, because I was stretched and forced out of my comfort zone time and time again.
Another example: my religion challenged me to get married, even when I didn’t really want to. My parents divorced when I was young, and I was terrified I’d end up doing the same. I was not eager to jump into marriage, but I knew it was something I should do. Thankfully, when I met someone as wonderful as Denisa, the decision became that much simpler.
Likewise, my religion stretched my abilities as a parent. I always wanted to be a father. That was never a question, and Denisa and I held off having children until we felt we were ready. But what was very much up in the air was the number of children we wanted. Granted, I look around the church and see some families out there with six children or more, so I’m sure some of you might roll your eyes a little when I say I was completely happy with two children and unsure if I really wanted a third. Denisa and I wavered back and forth on it for months at least. When we received an answer to our prayers–confirmation that we should have another child–it was clearly not a case of me just finding a simple excuse to do something I wanted to do anyway.
And yet I’m so grateful that we did have a third. She’s brought so much extra joy into our lives, though it hasn’t always been easy. There were times when she was a baby that I felt stretched to the limit. It was difficult for me, mentally more than anything. I’m not even sure I can describe why. The thought of providing for my now larger family weighed heavily on me. I got stressed much more easily, and everything seemed more difficult.
I’ve adjusted now, but that remains one of my most faith-trying experiences. Receiving an undeniable answer to a prayer, following it, and then struggling in the aftermath.
If the answers I get to prayer are nothing more than the voice in my head telling me to do what I want to do, then I have a very self-destructive voice in my head. I’d much rather have one that says I should eat more pizza, play more video games, and spend more money on my Magic the Gathering collection.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “It’s not paranoia if everyone really is out to get you.” Likewise, just because confirmation bias exists doesn’t mean patterns do not exist. Let’s say, then, that confirmation bias and the reality of God are two different hypotheses that explain the existence of religion. And like any good hypothesis, they can each be tested and examined in turn. As our faith and understanding of God increase and our experiences deepen, the odds of the confirmation bias hypothesis being the true explanation diminishes, despite what the Lamans and Lemuels of the world would have us think.
I understand why an atheist would be inclined to discount prayer as a reliable indicator for God’s presence. After all, there’s no way God can lose out in the analysis. If prayers are answered, then it’s because God exists and loves us. If prayers go unanswered, it’s because we were asking for something that wasn’t right for us. It would be just as simple to say those answers (or lack thereof) were things that were going to happen anyway.
This leads me back to my earlier question. If you’ve forgotten it by now, I can’t blame you. Here’s a refresher. In the scriptures, we read about God judging a people as a whole and punishing that people all at once. Destroying cities and nations because of wickedness or unbelief. Does He do the same thing today? Are the calamities that befall us God trying to get us to remember Him? What about in our personal lives? Does God still smite?
I believe the answer is, “It depends.” Nephi explains to us the reason God continued to punish Laman and Lemuel. 1 Nephi 18:20: “There was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts.” I believe God sends us challenges to try to get us to return to live with Him. To humble us and force us to recognize we can’t do this on our own.
Of course, I also believe that typically, humanity takes care of most of the smiting on our own. We fight each other and bicker over things that don’t matter. We fail to prepare for disasters. But I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, there were some who said it was God punishing our country for our evils. The same sentiment has been repeated after other catastrophes. Earthquakes and tsunamis.
Certainly the God of the Old Testament seems like a God who would go in for a good smiting. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind, as do the armies of Pharaoh. A God who is so insistent on commandments being obeyed that he would turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, just for a backward glance, is a God who is not messing around. That sounds like a God who would dole out cancer or ebola at the drop of a hat.
And yet we don’t believe He does that today. Do we? I don’t. My stepmother just died of cancer less than a year ago. She was a lovely woman, and didn’t deserve what happened to her at the end of her life, just as plenty of people in the news seem to live charmed lives, despite the wicked, evil things they do and say. It’s easy when bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good. It’s when the two don’t match up that it all starts to fall apart.
Or does it?
As I’ve thought about this the last few weeks, the conclusion I’ve come to is fairly tame. I don’t know how things operated in the Old Testament. I didn’t live then. But I do know how things operate around me in the present. Bad and good things happen to everyone, regardless of the lives they lead. That’s part of life. You can try to find some sort of pattern between them, but I think that by and large, the pattern we find will be steeped in confirmation bias.
Our responses to those incidents, however, depend very much upon the individual. Sister Marriott said, “When we give our heart to the Father and the Son, we change our world—even if circumstances around us do not change. We draw closer to Heavenly Father and feel His tender acceptance of our efforts to be true disciples of Christ. Our discernment, confidence, and faith increase.”
The amount of faith we have in God allows Him to work in our lives, more or less. Because faith is an active principle. It inspires us not just to feel, but to do. It changes who we are and how we behave. Bad things will happen. Good things will happen. But it’s easy to handle the good things, but difficult to handle the bad. Faith in God allows us to better handle the bad, and it prompts us to take those bad experiences and turn closer to God for help and comfort.
I believe in God and abide in my faith not because prayer has always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do anyway, but because it’s helped me do the things I didn’t want to do, and when I’ve followed those promptings, I’ve been blessed. I believe in God not because I have seen Him, but because I have felt His love and guidance, even when I feel like everything else has abandoned me. It’s the very opposite of confirmation bias.
It’s one thing to see a pattern and expect it to continue based on past results. But once you’re putting your entire future on the hope that pattern will continue, things get much more serious. Taking that unknown step, hoping there will be support when you get there, is what faith is all about. It’s something that has to be experienced to be believed, and no amount of skepticism or study can make up for that.
I testify that God does live and loves us. That faith in Him and following his guidance does not insulate us from trials and tribulations, because we were sent to this Earth for the express purpose of experiencing those trials. But our faith will help us through those tribulations better than anything else can. As we abide in Him, He will abide with us.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.