Guest Post: On Patent Lawyers and Postmodernism

February 16, 2011

A friend of mine wrote this a while back and has graciously allowed me to reprint it, but I think it has some bearing on my postmodernism series:

I posted … yesterday about my morbid fascination with FAIR and the FAIR message boards. They’re like my personal nightmare—a bizarro world of “scholarship” particularly disturbing to an academic.

My area of scholarly expertise is cultural theory, so I’ve been half trying to rationalize my FAIR time-wastage as “research.” And actually the use of postmodern theories in mormon apologetics, albeit in confused and contradictory ways is kind of interesting. Trixie replied to my posts yesterday, and I spent last night following up on some of her suggestions.

I ended up reading an essay by Juliann Reynolds on the FAIR website that summarizes an argument I’d caught traces of the FAIR boards (an assertion that critics of mormonism are really backward, old-fashioned, conservatives with hopelessly dated paradigms, while mormon apologists comprise an exciting postmodern vanguard). It was a good example of the problematic way certain concepts were being used, and more importantly it led me to the source for this argument—an essay by sociologist Massimo Introvigne (also found on the FAIR site).

Massimo Introvigne turns out to be quite a guy.

FAIR has at least two of his essays on their website, and Signature books has published one of his many, many works. He’s affiliated with the Mormon Social Science Association and was also the organizer, under the auspices of his own Center for Study of New Religions, of a conference in 2002 at both BYU and the U of U on “New Religions.” He seems to be really thick with LDS scholars in general.

I did some quick Googling and turned up his neo-fascist politics. He’s one of the leaders of “Alleanza Cattolica,” the Italian branch of “Tradition, Family and Property” a really ugly right-wing Catholic organization that originated in Brazil. Besides the usual anti-gay polemics, anti-feminist rhetoric and theocratic agenda, “Alleanza Cattolica” has also supported General Pinochet in his attempts to dodge responsibility for mass murder. That should give you sort of an idea where they’re coming from.

There’s also some controversy concerning his credentials as a sociologist as well as the scholarly legitimacy of the Centre for Study of New Religions. CESNUR is supposedly an objective and independent academic organization, but since they’ve also acted on the behalf of Scientology and Reverend Moon, CESNUR is listed as cult apologists on the Apologetics Index and covered extensively on the Rick Ross website.

This is a description of Introvigne and CESNUR by Miguel Martinez, one of his critics:

“CESNUR is supposedly an objective resource on cults established by the sociologist Massimo Introvigne. Actually, Introvigne does not have a degree in sociology, but is a patent lawyer; nor is CESNUR an objective resource: the organization is intimately linked to another organisation called “Alleanza Cattolica”. The ideology of the latter is entirely based on the teachings of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a Brazilian extremist and self-styled “prophet”, founder of a “crusade” against agrarian reform and “Communism” which openly calls for the implementation of a world-wide “Christian” regime based on Medieval hierarchy and repression. This “crusade” is called Tradition, Family and Property (TFP). …while waiting for the Kingdom to come, this organization is happy to work together with the US “New Right.” … often accused of being a cult, T.F.P. in 1985 started promoting the notions that CESNUR currently promotes—that there is a worldwide “anti-cult conspiracy”, manipulated by “psychiatrists and Communists”.

This last business of an “anti-cult conspiracy” is really interesting too. Introvigne has written about what he terms “anti-cult cyberterrorists.” In his definition these terrorists are “apostates”—people who have left a religion which they now term “a cult”—-who publish criticisms of their former religion the internet.

Politically Introvigne comes off like a really scary right wing Opus Dei nut-job. And as an intellectual he seems like near charlatan: hundreds of “publications” and very little academic credibility. What I’ve read of his work so far is pretty thin: lots of “theory talk” and plenty of name-dropping—a kind of Nibley manque.

(I was quite amused to find that a person posting as “Gadianton” on a mormon philosophy blog concurs with my opinion: “Anyway, I think with her [Juliann Reynolds] commitment to Introvigne Massimo, her primary source, the biggest issue is identifying the so-called “mormon conservatives” like “David Bohn” who take a “postmodern” view on history. I emailed Massimo about this, and he really couldn’t answer my question. Further, his response suggested he hasn’t spent 5 minutes studying derrida or any of the others. I’m no expert, but i can tell when someone knows less about this than I do…”

So my question is how did Introvigne hook up with the Mormons? Even though his politics wouldn’t ultimately be a problem, and con-job “scholarship” is an honored tradition at FAIR, he still seems like far too shady a wack job for “lds endorsement.”

And how long before “anti-cult terrorist” becomes the new FAIR catchword for exmormons?

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Tribal Moral Communities

February 15, 2011

Tribal Moral Communities

I ran across this address from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt11/haidt11_index.html

The address is concerned with diversity of political belief among social psychologists, but it is also a fascinating look at how social systems evolve into “tribal moral communities” with their own sets of taboos and rituals:

Morality binds and blinds. This principle can reveal a rut we’ve gotten ourselves into, and it will show us a way out.

The biggest question of all time has sometimes been said to be this: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Why is there a universe at all, and why did it begin so rapidly 14 billion years ago? The question is usually asked of astronomers and other natural scientists, but it is just as puzzling, and just as grand, when addressed to social scientists. Why are there large cooperative societies at all, and why did they emerge so rapidly in the last 10,000 years? How did humans become ultrasocial?

Many animals are social. That’s not hard to explain from an evolutionary point of view. But only a few are ultrasocial. That is, they live together in very large groups of hundreds or thousands, with a massive division of labor, and a willingness to sacrifice for the group. This trick was first discovered over 100 million years ago by the hymenoptera, that is bees, wasps, and ants. But it was discovered completely independently by some cockroaches who became ultrasocial; we now know them as termites. And it was also discovered completely independently by one species of mammal, the naked mole rat. In all of these cases, though, the trick is the same, that is, they are all first degree relatives. They’re all sisters, or sisters and brothers, and they concentrate breeding in a queen. The queen is not the ruler; she’s simply the ovary, and in all of these species it’s one for all, all for one. If they keep the queen alive to reproduce, they reproduce.

There’s just one ultrasocial species on Earth that doesn’t use this trick, and that’s us. We humans qualify as being ultrasocial. We live together in very large groups of hundreds or thousands or millions, with a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the group. But how do we do it? What’s our trick? Clearly we don’t suppress breeding and concentrate it in one queen or one breeding couple.

Our trick is very different, Our evolved trick is our ability to forge a team by circling around sacred objects & principles. This is a photograph of Muslims circling the Ka’ba, at Mecca. People of all faiths are brought together by their shared devotion to sacred objects, people, and principles. This ability is crucial in war. And in politics. We’re just really good at binding ourselves together into teams, mostly when we’re competing with other teams.

The central organizing principle is “sacredness” in that societies agree on the sacred and then build themselves around those principles and practices that are sacred.

Sacredness is a central and subtle concept in sociology and anthropology, but we can get a simple working definition of it from Phil Tetlock [a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania]. Tetlock defines a sacred values as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance.” If something is a sacred value, you can’t make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can’t think in a utilitarian way. You can’t sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into “intuitive theologians.” That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.

It’s important that the sacred is not infinitely significant because it has some empirical, utilitarian value, but because it is inherently sacred and of transcendent value. Thus, we can’t really defend the sacred on rational grounds, but instead we “use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred. Conversely, when reason and evidence conflict with the sacred, members of the community must choose the sacred or at least adapt their understanding of the sacred to accommodate the evidence. Thomas Kuhn has referred to this adaptation as a “paradigm shift.”

You can see sacredness at work most clearly in religion, of course. In Christianity, as in Hinduism and many other religions, there’s a very explicit vertical dimension running from God at the top to the Devil at the bottom. Religious Christians generally see the bible as holy; it’s not a book like any other book; it has to be protected from threats to its holiness. Those threats can be physical, as when somebody spits on or burns a bible. Or those threats can be threats to its veracity and authority, as arose when Darwin’s ideas began to spread. There’s a direct contradiction between Darwin and the book of Genesis, so something’s gotta give. Some Christians started reading Adam and Eve as metaphor. But those who really sacralized the bible were not able to make such a compromise. They went the other way. They became even more literalist, more fundamentalist. The bible goes up, Darwin goes down.

Of course, this makes it harder for them to understand the biological world around them, and they are then forced into a lot of bad biology, such as intelligent design. Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field.

And I really mean force field. Sacred values act like a powerful electromagnet, generating moral flux lines. Everyone and everything must fall into place along those lines. Here’s an image of a magnet under a piece of glass, with iron ore shavings spread on top. The shavings all fall into line.

We of course see this in Mormonism in that there is a sort of “force field” of acceptable behavior, but also correct thoughts. And as Dr. Haidt puts it, “Within a moral force field, deviance is deeply disturbing. Apostates and heretics must be banished or executed.” One example is how we treat our church leaders. When a prophet dies, a new prophet is chosen (basically by being the apostle with the longest tenure), and we hear of a “prophetic mantle” falling on the new leader. It is not uncommon to hear the virtues of the old leader transferred to the new one, and even the least charismatic apostle can suddenly demand the attention of everyone. I’m thinking of when Howard W. Hunter assumed the presidency of the LDS church. Before that time, most people I knew thought he was sort of anonymous, a bland, uninspiring speaker. As soon as he became the prophet, he was spoken of in reverent terms as humble, inspirational, and extremely spiritual. (I should say that I always liked President Hunter; I never enjoyed listening to his conference talks, but they were much better when I read them later.)

But the unwritten rule is that you must not ever say anything critical of the prophet. That goes double for Joseph Smith. I mentioned once that my father, in trying to resolve my concerns with Joseph Smith’s “flaws,” had referred to Joseph as a “womanizer” and his moneydigging days as a “con.” He also said that Joseph Fielding Smith could be an “absolute idiot,” and his book on evolution was “pure crap.” One church member told me that my father was an apostate and should resign from the church or be excommunicated.

My aim here isn’t to argue that both Smiths were or were not what my father said, but rather that there’s a social-moral taboo against even entertaining the thought. It doesn’t really matter what the evidence is (JFS’s “Man, His Origin and Destiny” really was that idiotic) because these men have become sacred, moved to the top of the vertical dimension Haidt mentions. And from the top, one is unassailable. Some thoughts really do become literally unthinkable.

But other social structures have been organized into “moral force fields,” as well. Haidt argues that social psychology as a field has become such a tribal moral society, with its own sacred spaces and thoughts that define what is acceptable to say and do and study within the field. He gives as an example the study of racial dynamics in the United States, which by the 1960s had made criticism of the “culture of poverty” so taboo that it could not be factored into policies and research:

Morality binds and blinds, and so, open-minded inquiry into the problems of the Black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along. Sacralizing distorts thinking. Sacred values bind teams together, and then blind them to the truth. That’s fine if you are a religious community. I follow Emile Durkheim in believing that the social function of religion is group binding. But this is not fine for scientists, who ought to value truth above group cohesion.

There’s a term you’ve probably heard in the last 5 years: the “reality based community”. It was a term used contemptuously by Karl Rove at the height of Republican power, when it looked as though the invasion of Iraq had been a smashing success, and Republicans could make their own reality. When the term was brought to light in 2004, liberals then embraced it, because liberals believe that they have science on their side, while conservatives are blinded by religion and ignorance.

But if it’s true that morality binds and blinds, then no partisan community is based in reality. If a group circles around sacred values, they’ll evolve into a tribal moral community. They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value. You can see this on the right with global warming denialism. They’re protecting their sacralized free markets. But when sacred values are threatened, the moral force field turns on, and beliefs fall into line. We become intuitive theologians.

This observation, then, applies to communities beyond religion. It certainly applies to the ex-Mormon community insofar as there is any cohesive group of people who have shared similar experiences in leaving Mormonism. If you’re on the team, you cannot, for example, speak well of the other team. This is as common on the Recovery from Mormonism web site as it is at the Maxwell Institute (though the latter rarely uses profanity beyond “butthead”). I hear ex-Mormons speak of themselves as being grounded in “reality” and “facts,” whereas believing Mormons are presumably lost in the clouds of fantasy and wishful thinking. And I hear Mormons refer to ex-Mormons as “following Satan,” “prideful,” “liars,” and so on; the presumption seems to be that Mormons occupy the higher, righteous position in the vertical dimension.

Dr. Haidt says that when we allow ourselves to organize into these moral force fields, we put ourselves into a rut that discourages discourse, learning, and progress. He describes how Stephen Jay Gould’s hostility to sociobiology (“because it opened up a space for differences among human groups” and thus violated the taboos of liberal politics) led to the widely held view among psychologists and anthropologists that human genetic evolution had been “trivial” over the last 50,000 years, though this assumption “was never based on any evidence.” Recent research has shown that human evolution has been, in fact, quite rapid, but we would not know that if we hadn’t gotten past the rut the moral force field put us into.

The only way out is to shut off the magnet that maintains the force field: “The most important benefit we’ll get from shutting off the magnet will be better science and freer thinking. We’ll escape from some ruts we are currently stuck in.”

So, how do we shut off the magnet? Dr. Haidt makes three recommendations I think are quite appropriate in how we as Mormons and ex-Mormons deal with each other:

1. “First, be careful about “locker room” talk. Be careful when there are students around about creating a hostile climate.” I think it goes without saying that in talking with others, we should not make disparaging remarks or treat them as “us vs. them.” It’s hard, and I certainly have fallen into that trap regularly and often (to quote David Brent: “Hypocrite alert!”), but I continue to try to improve.

2. “Second, expose yourself to other perspectives. I have a project along with Ravi Iyer and Matt Motyl, at CivilPolitics.org, where we bring together materials to help people understand the other side. I also suggest that you read a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. And consider subscribing to National Review. I read about 8 magazines every month. Seven of them lean left. I get more new ideas from reading National Review than from any of the others.” I really love this. Often, we read the other team’s writings looking for things to disagree with and use as ammunition in the next battle. But Dr. Haidt is right that, if we read broadly with an intent to understand other perspectives, we’ll spend less time on the battle and more on learning from each other.

3. “Third, advocate for moral diversity, in admissions and hiring.” Obviously, I’m not doing any hiring, but I think this can apply in simply making an effort to interact personally with people who may not share our beliefs. I have good friends with whom I completely disagree about religion, but I enjoy their company, I respect their opinions, and I learn from them. I think they feel the same about me.

I honestly believe that we will not get out of the rut of recrimination, hurt feelings, and anger, unless we try very hard to turn off our moral force fields. I’m not advocating that we give up our beliefs or compromise our moral values, but rather that we recognize that we can only benefit from the exchange of ideas, even passionate ones.


My Evil Plan Backfires

February 10, 2011

Two of my children have had some issues with the LDS church in the last while.

One of them said that it felt hypocritical to be attending church if [he or she] wasn’t sure the church was true.

The other has no problem with seminary (and in fact is fascinated by our family history in the church and how it relates to the scriptures) but was completely unwilling to go to church on Sundays (there were better things to do with those three hours, I was told).

I told both of them that they shouldn’t make decisions about their beliefs without some serious thought. I also said that, once a decision is made, it should be stuck with until or unless there is a good reason not to stick with it. I told both of them that I would support them whatever they decided. I said they were free to ask me any questions they had, and I would answer as honestly as possible, but I would not go out of my way to push my own beliefs on them.

I thought I had set up the perfect plan and that apostasy was in the cards for both. Alas, the first child just made an appointment for a patriarchal blessing, and the other is attending church consistently and tells me a mission is in the works.

Oh, well. I still have four others kids and lots of time.


Why I’m glad Jesse Gause left the LDS Church

February 3, 2011

From the current LDS Institute manual on church history:

On 15 March 1832 the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation calling Frederick G. Williams to be a Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church. Originally, however, this revelation was directed to Jesse Gause.

“Our earliest reference to Jesse Gause is as a member of the Shaker communities in Hancock near Pittsfield, and possibly in North Union, Ohio as well. His conversion and baptism are not found in any of the records of the Church, but one writer has suggested that he was converted by Reynolds Cahoon in late 1830. It was not until 8 March 1832, when Jesse Gause was called to be a counselor to Joseph Smith in the presidency of the high priesthood, that his name is even mentioned in surviving Church records. The notation in the Kirtland Revelation Book is as follows:

“‘March 8, 1832. Chose this day and ordained Brother Jesse Gause and Brother Sidney to be my counselors of the ministry of the presidency of the high priesthood . . .’ [spelling standardized].

“One week later, a revelation concerning Jesse Gause was received by Joseph Smith, confirming Jesse in his work and giving further direction in his office and calling. There are two manuscript copies of this revelation extant. . . . In both of these Jesse Gause’s name has been crossed out and Frederick G. Williams’ name written above it. Since that time, all published copies of this revelation (Section 81 of the Doctrine and Covenants) list Frederick G. Williams as the one to whom it is directed. Since this revelation contains instructions, duties, and promised blessings to the one called as counselor to the Prophet, the revelation was just as appropriate for Frederick G. Williams as it was to Jesse Gause.

“After Jesse Gause was ordained, he appeared in a leading role in the Church for only a short time. In April 1832, he accompanied Joseph Smith, Newel K. Whitney, and Peter Whitmer, Jr. on a trip to Missouri. They arrived 24 April and began holding conferences with the Saints in Zion on the 26th. In the minutes of a meeting of the Literary Firm held on Monday, 30 April, Jesse Gause was listed as a counselor to Joseph Smith. . . .

“Upon his return to Kirtland, Jesse was called to serve a mission with Zebedee Coltrin. They began their journey on 1 August 1832, and traveled until the 19th, at which time Coltrin decided to return to Kirtland because of severe pains in his head. After praying with and for each other, they parted. Jesse Gause continued east and walked right out of the history of the Church, never again to return. There appears to be no other record of the man either in or out of the Church.

“Some months after the departure of Jesse Gause, the presidency of the high priesthood was reorganized with Frederick G. Williams replacing him as counselor. This reorganization was commanded in Section 90 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and actually took place on 18 March 1833.” (Robert J. Woodford, “Jesse Gause, Counselor to the Prophet,” BYU Studies, Spring 1975, pp. 362–64.)

Had President Gause not literally walked away from the church, my ancestor Frederick G. Williams would not have been chosen as a counselor in the First Presidency. Had he not occupied that position and received certain blessings and promises from Joseph Smith, it’s unlikely that Heber C. Kimball would have taken Frederick’s widow as a plural wife and brought her to Utah.

I would probably not exist were it not for Jesse Gause walking away from his mission. And they say there’s no upside to apostasy.


Shifting Gears

February 2, 2011

A few years ago, I started a blog that was designed to help people who had decided they no longer believed in Mormonism to navigate what for me had been a personal trip through hell. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in convincing anyone to disbelieve in Mormonism; my blog was for those who already had decided they no longer believe.

I figured I had screwed things up so badly during my crisis of faith that maybe someone could learn from what I had done wrong. After all, someone like me who ends up in a psychiatric hospital after an attempted suicide is not exactly an expert on how to do things right.

I figured the blog was doing its job because I would get emails and comments from people who were in a lot of pain, and they said my blog helped. Ultimately, I killed the blog because my wife didn’t like it. It was about that time that I ventured back into apologetics discussions and debate.

But engaging in this kind of arguing and debate doesn’t do me any good, and my interactions with some people have unwittingly made me feel less positively about the LDS church. I know, I’ve given as good as I’ve received, and I take responsibility for that. I honestly don’t understand all the personal animus thrown around, but I guess I just generally like most people and prefer to deal with common ground.

But too often I am far more hostile and antagonistic than I should be, and it makes me feel worse about things. So I’ve decided to retire from my career as “unapologetic anti-Mormon” and go back to my original plan to help people who are in pain because of losing faith in Mormonism. Maybe I have something to offer. I don’t know.

One of my longtime stalkers once said that I was one of those people standing in shark-infested waters encouraging people to jump in: “Come on in, the water’s fine!” I guess I’d rather see myself as someone helping those who have already decided to jump in to avoid the rocks and the hazards. I don’t think there’s a right answer to loss of faith, but if there are wrong answers, I am an expert.

I’ll still write, but I’m putting away my debate trophy. (Note: it was a literal trophy, which I won in 1982 as the district champion for Lincoln-Douglas debate. I’m not speaking of some supposed debates I have “won” with Mormons.)


Update on “Dr.” Todd Coontz

February 1, 2011

A while back, I wrote about a particularly evil scam being perpetrated in the name of faith and religion (see “Shameless“). The scam works this way: Our friend “Dr.” Coontz appears on television in a prerecorded infomercial-style program, urging you to plant “seed faith” money to help spread the gospel, and in return, you’ll be blessed with an end to your financial problems. But you have to act quickly! The good doctor gives you a specific time frame within which you must call and pledge money, or you will not be eligible for the blessings.

I just received the following rather heartbreaking comment on my blog that explains further how the scam works:

I am one of those naive people that believe that if I gave money ($100), God would get me out of debt and that all the blessings of God would get me out of the mess I was in; unfortunately, 6 hours after I gave $100, I received a telephone call from Dr Todd Coonitz saying that I did not take advantage of $130 seed faith pledge and that I was disobedient to God. I have tried to get my money back, but they refused to give back money donated to Rock Wealth.

I know, many people might say that this person should have known better and shouldn’t have been taken in so easily. But, as I said in my earlier post, this guy is preying on people’s faith, and a lot of people have a great deal of faith, both in God and in religious leaders. Most religious leaders I have known would not betray that kind of trust, but unfortunately many will. (And I will add the same disclaimer I did before: I gave 10%-plus of my gross income to a religion for 40 years, so I’m hardly one to claim a higher moral or intellectual position than my commenter.)

I will give Todd Coontz one thing: he is completely transparent in his goal, which is to collect money from you. He doesn’t make any grand claims of building churches, feeding the hungry, or sheltering the homeless. His only promise is simple: “Send me money, and your financial problems will disappear.”

Now we know what happens when you send him money: he tells you it wasn’t enough, that you didn’t have enough faith, didn’t obey absolutely. (For some reason, I know have that song from The Cure stuck in my head: “Whatever I do is never enough.”) This approach isn’t exclusive to Rock Wealth Ministries (it takes real balls, by the way, to call yourself a “wealth ministry.”) In my religion, if you didn’t get blessings, didn’t receive a witness of the Book of Mormon, or any number of things you didn’t achieve, it was your fault: you didn’t have enough faith, you weren’t diligent enough, you weren’t humble, submissive, and prayerful enough.

And so it is with Todd Coontz. I know it must be a character flaw, but I cannot imagine preying on people like that. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t live with myself. But he does, and quite comfortably, so it seems. And I’ll bet he sleeps well at night.

For another update on the good “doctor,” see “Tod’s Triple Favor?

Just a note for newcomers: I’ve started a new feature called “Ask a Mormon Apostate” for those who want fair and honest answers about Mormonism. If you have a question about Mormonism you’d like answered, please email me at runnertx@hotmail.com with the subject line: “Ask a Mormon Apostate.” Thanks!