What Is So Strange about Believing as the Mormons Do?

James Alcock

Preserved in a bottle in the magnificent Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, are the tongue and larynx of that eponymous saint. Visitors are informed that when Anthony’s remains were exhumed for transfer to the newly completed basilica in 1263, thirty-two years after his death, these organs had survived intact in miraculous testament to the incorruptibility of the vocal apparatus that had so famously preached about Jesus Christ.

Should we be surprised when intelligent, well-adjusted, devout Roman Catholics accept that this truly was a miracle? Should we be puzzled when intelligent, well-adjusted, devout Hindus rub clarified butter on a temple lingam, a stylized phallus representing the god Shiva? Should we be astonished when intelligent, well-adjusted, devout Indian Parsees eschew burial, cremation, or dropping the bodies of their loved ones into a sacred river and instead leave them atop tall towers to be devoured by birds—all to avoid defiling the sacredness of the earth, air, fire, and water? And should we find it strange when intelligent, well-adjusted, devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe that in 1823, Joseph Smith Jr. was directed by an angel to dig up golden tablets buried in a hillside—tablets inscribed in Egyptian by the “ancient Hebrews of America”—and to translate them into the Book of Mormon?

To the nontheist, such beliefs and practices seem most odd, even ridiculous, and so he or she often struggles to understand how otherwise reasonable and intelligent people can hold such beliefs with unquestioning conviction. At the same time, religious individuals rarely understand just how very odd many of their key beliefs appear to others outside their faith. For example, even while Christians may find incomprehensible the Hindu’s belief in a thousand gods, including one with the head of an elephant, it is difficult for them to appreciate just how bizarre their act of Communion appears to many non-Christians. Eating and drinking the flesh and blood of their Lord, either symbolically in the Protestant denominations or supposedly literally through transubstantiation in Roman Catholicism, is certainly an odd thing to do in the eyes of those not steeped in the faith. However, socially shared beliefs and practices that we grow up with usually do not strike us as unusual or irrational, and as a result, even apostates who have rejected their particular religious belief system often cannot really appreciate just how nonsensical some of their erstwhile beliefs appear to others.

While it is easy for skeptical nontheists to smirk, we should be careful when throwing stones, for we all live in glass houses where beliefs are concerned, and it is doubtful that any of us are free of significant pockets of irrationality within our own belief systems. We are all likely to harbor some beliefs that are untrue and even irrational. The problem is that they seem no different from those that do correspond to reality.

 

Where do our beliefs come from, anyway? Why are some of us theists and others not? Why are some drawn to conspiracy theories while others dismiss them out of hand? Why do some accept the theory of evolution and their religious beliefs, while others can accept only one or the other? Why do some believe that nuclear energy provides the best hope for clean energy while others view it as one of the greatest threats facing humanity? And why, no matter what our deeply held beliefs are, do they seem reasonable to us even while they may appear irrational to others? Ambrose Bierce sarcastically defined absurdity as “a statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion,” and he was on to something. As much as we can readily see the foolishness of others who embrace wildly irrational beliefs, it is difficult for any of us to recognize such foolishness when it lies within ourselves.

We are born devoid of understanding of the world around us, but we begin to learn from the very get-go. We learn from watching other people behave; we learn from what other people tell us—teachers, parents, books, the media; and most important, we learn from our own direct experience. Our young brains find all sorts of associations among objects and events around us, and we come to interpret these associations in terms of cause and effect. Some of the causal links we discover are real, but many others are illusory, the result of the magical thinking that is a permanent feature of our information processing. Beginning our lives as magical thinkers—perceiving cause and effect without any concern about an actual causal link—and lacking the ability for reality testing, logical analysis, and critical scrutiny of information, it is easy for us to come to believe just about anything. We have no difficulty accepting, when we are young, that Santa Claus travels in a sleigh drawn by reindeer and in a single night crawls down millions of chimneys around the world to leave gifts for all good children; that the tooth fairy exchanges money for teeth left under the pillow at bedtime; or that there exists a shadowy world of ghosts or goblins or gods or leprechauns. In any case, why would a young child, inexperienced in life and unequipped with the tools of logic, question such beliefs when the information comes from parents and other trusted adults—the very people upon whom he or she relies for knowledge about the world?

It is at just such a time, when the child’s reality testing and logical abilities are inchoate, that religious instruction typically begins. Expose any young child to a steady diet of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, and one will readily inculcate a religious belief system that may last for life. The most fervent Hindu, had he or she been reared by fundamentalist Christians, would almost certainly not be a Hindu today; nor would the most fundamentalist of Christians, had he or she been reared in a Hindu home, likely be a Christian.

Of course, the child is not simply a passive absorber of information about the world, religion included. He or she is a dynamic agent: acting and responding, seeking and finding, influencing and being influenced. But when instilled with reverential respect, even awe, for the priests and deities of a particular religion, the child naturally begins to interpret the world around him or her through a religious framework. In consequence, there is likely to be substantial reinforcement of the associated beliefs and practices. If one prays to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, for relief from one’s worldly ills, from time to time by chance alone one will gain the favors sought after. Hanuman will get the credit, and the religious belief will be strengthened. Moreover, prayers do not have to always “work” in order to sustain and strengthen belief. Psychologists recognize that the most powerful reinforcement schedule is an intermittent one: behaviors and beliefs that are associated with desired outcomes—but only some of the time— become very durable and resistant, and so even when prayers seem to be “answered” in the desired way only some of the time, this still can be powerfully reinforcing. Moreover, being the great rationalizers that they are, humans can usually find a way to explain away inconsistencies with regard to important beliefs, and so the faithful come to believe that all prayers are answered, even if sometimes “no answer” is the answer. Such rationalization further renders the belief resistant to erosion.

Magical thinking is supplanted, gradually but never totally, by intellectual analysis. Children gradually begin to learn to reason—to go beyond direct experience and examine their interpretations of the experience. Adults teach them how to reality-test, how to distinguish what is “real” and “out there” from what is imaginary, inside one’s head. A crying child who has awakened from a nightmare is assured that “it was only a dream”; it was not reality. Imaginary friends who once seemed so real come to be recognized as the products of one’s own mind. Other beliefs, deeply held in childhood, also fall prey both to reality testing and the disambiguation provided by parents. This is the fate of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny. However, where religion is concerned, reality testing and logical analysis are not only not encouraged in many homes but are actively discouraged.

Psychologist Jerome Frank distinguished between two basic belief processes that develop as we grow up, partly in response to parents’ and society’s religious and supernatural leanings. He labeled the first the “scientific-humanist” belief system, in which children are specifically encouraged to use logic and to look for evidence. For example, a young child who cries to his mother that there is a stranger hiding in his room is likely to be taken to look for evidence to support or gainsay the allegation. On the other hand, the “transcendental” system, which includes beliefs of a supernatural, religious, or mystical nature, is characterized by a deliberate suppression of logical analysis in favor of uncritical acceptance based on faith alone. So, first there were Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel; Cain killed Abel and subsequently Cain was married. Who was there left to marry, asks the young child? Do not ask such questions, replies the religious parent or teacher, for this is all part of God’s mystery, which one must accept on faith. Indeed, religious leaders often trumpet the victory of faith over reason as a badge of honor.

When faith is allowed to trump reason, the belief system is all but impervious to challenge. And what if one does not accept on faith? In a fervently religious home or a fervently religious society, failure to believe and to demonstrate faith can lead to very undesirable outcomes. Depending on the place and the era, consequences can vary from mild disapproval to being “shunned” by one’s own family members to being stoned or even burned at the stake. External social pressure is a powerful force that often dissuades individuals from examining their belief systems critically. Just as powerful, if not more so, is the internal pressure, the guilt, that occurs in someone who has internalized the notion that it is a sin to question religious beliefs—a sin that does not go unnoticed by an omniscient and omnipresent deity who, like a super-policeman in the sky, monitors people’s thoughts and keeps a record about who is naughty or nice. Punishment will come later.

Important beliefs are never purely intellectual; they are associated with emotion as well. Indeed, when we hold something with conviction, when we know that something is true, we are actually describing an emotional state that surrounds the specific knowledge claim. You know that when you drop your bread spread with peanut butter, it will fall to the ground (but why so often peanut-butter side down?). We all have strong convictions about gravity, even if no one truly understands just what it is. Suppose, however, that the next time you lose your grip, the bread with peanut butter remains suspended in front of you. This apparent violation of your deeply held belief in gravity will produce not just an intellectual challenge to the belief but a strong emotional reaction as well: “This cannot be happening!” Rather than calmly accepting that gravity has been suspended, right here in this spot in your kitchen, one is likely to seek a logical explanation—a trick was played on us, there are hidden threads or magnets holding the bread, or whatever. And if we cannot find a rational explanation, we are likely to worry about our own sanity; so strong is this belief that it refuses to yield to this present experience.

Religious beliefs are for many people just as deeply anchored. The particular content is not important in this regard. Whether one believes in Zeus or Jehovah or, as Scientologists do, that humans are the descendants of a group of omnipotent gods called the Thetans, the process of maintaining beliefs is the same. The emotion associated with the assertion “I know this to be true” is so powerful that the individual avoids challenging—in fact feels no need to challenge—even the strangest aspects of the belief system. Can the deeply committed Hindu avoid emotion when non-Hindus make fun of Ganesh, a god with the head of an elephant? Of course, it is not just in the realm of religion that many of our beliefs are imbued with emotion. Can the scientist remain absolutely dispassionate when religious fundamentalists mock the theory of evolution? Can a dedicated social reformer stay perfectly calm when arch-conservatives argue against the provision of basic living conditions for the impoverished? Because of emotions associated with our beliefs, we are sometimes blind even to reasonable arguments made by those who do not share our views. We “know” when we are right and they are being unreasonable.

How difficult would it be to persuade you, the reader, that you do not have a liver? We all presume that we have one, for we have been taught that we could not live without it. Physicians aside, most of us have never seen one, and we certainly have not seen our own. Instead, we accept on faith that we possess such an organ. The belief was taught to us in childhood; it is universally shared by everyone we know; therefore, there is no inclination to question its truth, and it remains with us throughout our lives. How would we defend such a deeply held belief against arguments that it is in error? Most of us would simply view any such challenge as completely misguided, as more revealing of the benighted nature of the questioner than as something requiring scrutiny of our belief. For many religious people, their religious beliefs are as strong as their belief in their livers, and they are equally resistant to challenge.

When new information challenges our beliefs, we typically screen it against existing beliefs in order to judge its value. As a result, politically conservative individuals are likely to give little consideration to the pronouncements of socialists, and vice versa. The “health nut” is unlikely to give serious thought to an article promoting benefits of red meat; the skeptic is unlikely to devote much consideration to reports of paranormal activity; the believer in the paranormal is likely to downplay the importance of arguments put forth by skeptics; and the nontheist is rarely any more enthusiastic about examining the arguments put forth in defense of particular religious beliefs than is the religious individual with regard to arguments of the opposite sort. This screening out of information inconsistent with what we “know” provides a moat around our castle of belief.

 

But what about people who come to their religion in adulthood? What about the converts to Christianity or to Scientology or to other faiths? In most cases, such individuals received some religious training in childhood that provided an enduring basis for faith-based thinking. More important, however, is the functionality of religious belief. Religion is not simply a meaningless set of beliefs and practices. Religion is attractive to many people because of the emotional needs that it serves. It provides a structure for comprehending the world and giving meaning to our existence; it provides a sense of certainty and stability in times when uncertainty and ambiguity seem to reign; it provides a social network that furnishes friendship and a sense of belonging; it provides succor in times of grief; it provides relief from loneliness, for one’s God is always there; and most important perhaps,
it provides a powerful bulwark against anxiety: “God’s in his heaven and all’s right in the world.” When emotionally soothed by a belief system, it is often not difficult to bend one’s intellect into submission.

Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, was one of the first scientists to explore the appeal of religious belief. As part of his personal exploration, he mounted on his wall a Punch puppet (from a Punch and Judy show) and prayed to it morning, noon, and night. To his surprise, he found that after a few weeks, he began to react on an emotional level as though Punch really were a god, even though he knew intellectually that it was not true. He found that he would almost automatically speak silently to Punch throughout the day. This anecdotal account is important in that it reminds us that it is not the particular content of religious belief that accounts for its appeal. Thus, it is not surprising that people throughout history and around the world have invented and embraced religions, no matter how outlandish their content may appear to us today. Those who once worshiped Zeus, Odin, or Bast are long gone, and those gods are without followers today. Yet the same kinds of passions and convictions that energized belief in them continue to motivate billions of our fellow human beings around the world. In light of what we know about rationality and magical thinking, the child’s development of intellect and emotion, and the ubiquity of human emotional needs, we should hardly be surprised.

Taken in that light, what is so strange about believing as the Mormons do?

James Alcock

James Alcock is professor of psychology at Glendon College, York University, in Toronto and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.


Preserved in a bottle in the magnificent Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, are the tongue and larynx of that eponymous saint. Visitors are informed that when Anthony’s remains were exhumed for transfer to the newly completed basilica in 1263, thirty-two years after his death, these organs had survived intact in miraculous testament to …

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