Standing Firmly on Dubious Truths

November 7, 2010 | 39 comments
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800px-Grjotagja_caves_in_summer_2009_(2)I recently watched The Crucible, a movie about the Salem witch trials. The core issue of the story is, how do you track down the criminal in an untraceable crime? The people of Salem believed that witchcraft could be performed by anyone, anywhere, with no outwardly visible evidence.

Convinced of the reality of witchcraft, and unwilling to accept that nothing could be done about it, the Salemites’ solution to the issue was to allow “spectral evidence” — testimony based on dreams. A person who had dreams of his or her neighbor as a witch could prosecute the neighbor solely on the evidence of the dream.

Of course spectral evidence requires two great leaps of faith: first, that dreams are reliable indicators of witchcraft, and second, that the people who claimed to have these dreams were being honest. The people of Salem recognized these risks, but ultimately had to ignore them. Regardless of whether or not spectral evidence was true, they needed it to be true. Otherwise their society would be defenseless prey to the perceived threat of witchcraft.

What are some similar “truths” we use today? Principles that, while perhaps dubious, we need to have be true in order to keep our society functioning? One example I can think of is the concept of “jail fixes criminals”. In my youth, I was taught that crimes are caused by criminals, and that criminals need to be incarcerated in order to learn to function correctly in society. I think that decades of research have since shown that our prison system is an ineffective approach to rehabilitation. Nevertheless, lacking any other solutions to crime, we need our prison system to be true, just as the people of Salem needed spectral evidence to be true.

In our sidebar on the right side of the screen, you’ll see that James linked to an article showing that most Utahns believe that same-sex attraction can be changed. This is unsurprising — with the church’s views on homosexuality, we need this to be true. Otherwise we’re left trying to answer Pres. Packer’s question, “Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so. Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?”

So what are some truths you have discovered we hold onto in society or in the church, not so much because they are true, but because we need them to be true?

39 Responses to Standing Firmly on Dubious Truths

  1. Dan on November 7, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Dane,

    So what are some truths you have discovered we hold onto in society or in the church, not so much because they are true, but because we need them to be true?

    You mean like, that we have to go to church on a weekly basis or we’ll eventually be thrust down to hell? Like the prophet would never lead us astray? Like there has to be an afterlife (even though we have absolutely no hard evidence of its existence) because if there is no afterlife, why would we sacrifice so much of the pleasurable things in this life just to die and no longer exist?

    I would like to posit that we don’t need that particular view of homosexuality to be true.

  2. Bill of Wasilla on November 7, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    So, once we figure these things out, that we come to dangerous judgments in order to justify beliefs based in ignorance, then why do we need religion at all?

    I think you may have launched a very challenging discussion, Dane.

  3. Angie on November 7, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    That if we complete certain works (FHE, church callings, etc.) then our kids will turn out fine (mission, temple marriage, etc.)

  4. Amber on November 7, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    “what are some truths you have discovered we hold onto in society?”

    Moms that stay at home are more righteous. Parents that choose to have big families are more righteous. Always voting for a Republican is the right choice.

    Just to put in my two cents about what President Packer said: I don’t think that he was saying that those with same-sex tendencies can just flip their sexual feelings. And, Pedophiles are also expected to overcome their “natural” tendencies. Why do people have a problem asking those with same-sex attraction to overcome their feelings, but not pedophiles? I know it’s not exactly the same, but along the same lines.

  5. mlu on November 7, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    A good many truths become true by believers committing to them. A good many truths we create by choices we make and promises we keep.

    Are Christians generous?

  6. the narrator on November 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    The denial of humans and all living things from a common ancestor. If humans evolved from lower lifeforms, then what does it mean to say that we are the same specie as God?

  7. Dan on November 7, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I can’t leave aside the biggest one. The existence of God. We need that to be true.

  8. Mark D. on November 7, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    I need gravity to be true too. And Newton’s law, can’t live without that.

  9. patricia k on November 7, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    If witches are folk who, seeking to advance their own interests, use culturally powerful language to isolate and attack other folk, then one question The Crucible raises is just who in that community actually were the practicing witches.

    So what are some truths you have discovered we hold onto in society or in the church, not so much because they are true, but because we need them to be true?

    When it comes to truth, I think many of us want more than the favored lore. Many of us want better ways to perceive truth, better ways to speak of it, better ways to act on it. There have been so many “truths” in the world. What matters, I think, is what comes out of them–what comes next.

    The ancient Jews thought the Law of Moses–the Law of Reciprocity—true (as many people across cultures still do). The lion’s share of Jesus’ mission was to release that narrative’s chokehold on his culture. To do that, he didn’t just discard the old ways as false, he created with his words a range of choices that included the old ways (“Choose ye this day…”). I, for one, still struggle to see the upper wavelengths of prospects he offered.

  10. jon on November 7, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    That people who “feel the spirit” and “cry” at church are the same ones who will say hi to you, be your friend, and hold up your hand when you are in need. Too many of us are “sacrament meeting on Sunday only” Mormons. Really…think about it…do you really love your neighbor as yourself….really?

  11. Dane Laverty on November 7, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Angie (#3), that’s a great example. I think the common denominator in all these examples is a need for control. We humans don’t handle not-having-control very well. And so, when we have no control, our first tendency is to reinterpret our circumstances in a way that gives us some control. My parents’ bishop told them just what you said, that if they would hold weekly FHEs, their children would never go astray. (Incidentally, I suppose that’s a safe promise to make, since I doubt that many families manage the 100% FHE for 18+ years needed to test it.)

    mlu (#5), you’ve managed to state that principle more clearly than I did in my whole post on “created truth” vs. “discovered truth”. Thanks for that great example.

    patricia k (#9), good point. It’s not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

    jon (#10), nope, I don’t. And I should. But I’m still working on it.

  12. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    That you can do without punishment for crimes.

    I’ll confess that Dane’s example about prisons is why most societies impose death penalties, slavery and exile for crime rather than prison.

    But we need to believe that something less drastic works. It often does.

  13. Course Correction on November 7, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Mormons need to believe that gay marriage will somehow erode family values–otherwise why would we oppose it?

  14. Nate W. on November 7, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Dane, I think the comments here highlight a little ambiguity when it comes to the phrase, “needs to be true.” The examples that you cite are quite dissimilar in why a community needs the stated proposition to be true. In the case of spectral evidence, the community needed it to be reliable because there was no other evidence available to them (this is sometimes known as the streetlight problem). It is a form of appeal to consequences–if spectral evidence is not reliable, than witchcraft cannot be punished. Witchcraft must be punished, therefore spectral evidence is reliable.

    In the case of same-sex orientation being changeable, the community needs it to be true because if it were false, it casts doubt upon the metaphysical proposition that the community holds to be true. The syllogism goes like this: if real-world statement x is false, then it casts doubt upon metaphysical doctrine y; therefore real-world statement x is true.

    The rehabilitative effectiveness of prison addresses yet another need–the need to be justified. The syllogism goes like this: I acted on the assumption that x was true. If x is false, then I acted unjustly. I did not act unjustly, therefore, x is true.

    I think that you can see the second and third categories in the Church all the time. I think that the question of blacks and the priesthood covers both of those categories at once. We need to believe that God sanctioned the priesthood ban because otherwise we acted unjustly and it raises the uncomfortable question of whether God would allow a prophet to lead the Church astray. There are, of course, acceptable responses to both of those concerns, but they require significantly more intellectual work and emotional discomfort than simply stating that the priesthood ban was ordained of God.

  15. jks on November 7, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    I have to disagree with you. Most people do NOT believe that jail rehabilitates most criminals, otherwise you’d have tons of people trying to hire them when they get out.
    I think you have a people in society believing a mix of the following:
    1. Crimes should be punished otherwise there will be anarchy.
    2. Jail keeps some criminals off the street and prevents them from committing crimes outside of jail during the years they are locked up.
    3. Jail time possibly works as a deterrent.
    4. Jail time possibly rehabilitates.

  16. Matthew on November 8, 2010 at 12:25 am

    It has been a while since I went to law school but I don’t think anyone any longer believes that incarceration is rehabilitative. We put people in prison for two reasons: retribution and deterrence (mostly special deterrence). Sorry for the aside.

    One HUGE thing people in the church have to believe is that God intended for the priesthood to be withheld from blacks until it was given them in the not too distant past. Most members simultaneously abhor racism but need very much to believe that prophets do in fact speak for God. Accordingly, it cannot be that the prophets had it wrong for so long, it must be that God had a policy of racism for reasons no one can articulate. I imagine most members would that this were not so, but too much rides on it being the case.

  17. RogerDodger on November 8, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Like liberals are evil, blood-sucking, treasonous fiends who couldn’t possibly be good members of the church….

  18. Tim on November 8, 2010 at 9:36 am

    “So what are some truths you have discovered we hold onto in society or in the church, not so much because they are true, but because we need them to be true?”

    That the people who disagree with us suffer from a pathology that makes them “need” to do so. ;)

  19. Dane Laverty on November 8, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Nate W., I think your second and third categories are the same. They are both instances of the concept, “I believe X and now I’m faced with the possibility of Y, which contradicts X. Because I’ve already decided that X is true, Y must not be true.”

    jks and Matthew, I think the “prison as retribution” is an interesting thought. Is our system of legal punishment founded on the human tendency to want to hurt those that hurt us? In other words, even if there were no other reason for it, would we continue punishing people just out of spite?

    Tim, thanks :)

  20. J.A.T. on November 8, 2010 at 10:46 am

    *That there is no repentance and no progression after final judgement. Your kingdom is eternally set after a fixed point, and that mortal probation is the hinge-pin for it all.

  21. SilverRain on November 8, 2010 at 10:51 am

    This seems little more to me than an attempt to discredit the opposition. After all, it is just as easy to flip the switches on most of these things. For example, many people need to believe that homosexual (and other) feelings cannot be overcome, because that justifies doing whatever they feel the urge to do. After all, if it is natural, it must be right.

    Or people have to believe that spectral evidence cannot be true, because if it were, there would a form of evidence for truth that cannot be validated or controlled. (Take Lehi’s dream, for example.)

  22. Wes Brown on November 8, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Why do we have ideas we hold as True (capital intended) when there is no evidence to believe so? Even more baffling is the habit of believing things as True when there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary. This is also done with about any political, cultural, and social group. However, the difference is that in those spheres people hold their ideas up to at least some form of evidence and are willing to modify their beliefs accordingly (i.e. Let’s go to war…OK maybe not.) The human condition of needing religious Truths to remain so was explored most thoroughly by Ernest Becker in his Terror Management Theory. In a nutshell, if the small parts (sexual orientation) of our beliefs are shown to be false, then maybe the big ones (heaven) are wrong, too. This stresses us out too much so we ignore or destroy evidence or people who may prove us wrong.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terror_management_theory

  23. Jon on November 8, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    “what are some truths you have discovered we hold onto in society?”

    -Policemen can keep us safe.
    -The military is protecting us so we won’t have to speak some other language.
    -That the US is not an empire.
    -That there is no such thing as blow back. That the US isn’t the creator of terrorism by interventionism.
    -That we need central planning to be good to each other.
    -That we need central planning to have an economy that is robust.
    -That we need central planning to prosper.
    -That God will not keep us safe (hence we need the super powerful military terrorizing the world).
    -That society is a separate thing from the individuals (as if society isn’t made up of individuals).
    -That porno scanners at airports keep us safe. That TSA workers groping our children (or us) if you say no to the porno scanner is not a bad thing.
    -That civil disobedience is a bad thing.
    -That it’s bad to flex your rights.
    -That republicans (if your a democrat) and democrats (if you are a republican) just want people to starve to death and don’t care about the poor.
    -That whichever party is in power will make a difference in how our government is run.
    -That it’s the government that is enslaving the people (vertical enslavement) rather then people around them that tell them not to say such things (horizontal enslavement).

    Those would be just a few that I can think of.

  24. palerobber on November 8, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    this brings to mind that famous quote from Upton Sinclair:
    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    but i don’t think the analogy really holds for religions. i don’t think they have much to lose from admitting mistakes on certain points.

  25. Thaddeus on November 8, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    I second SilverRain. If there are two truths in tension, which one will we choose to be the one we “need to be true” and which will we dismiss?

    I’m a big proponent of science for this reason, but science isn’t science when it is involved in politics. For instance, no psychologist today who asserts that orientation is changeable is taken seriously. But is this because the science is irrefutably settled, or is it merely the science community’s efforts at reparations to the gay community for the damages done by mandated electroshock treatments?

    In other words, the APA needs homosexuality to be immutable so they can appear repentant and compassionate in this new era.

  26. Mark N. on November 8, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    “Always voting for a Republican is the right choice.”

    Pretty sure I’ve never heard this over the pulpit, but I think it’s hinted at from time to time in Sunday School class.

  27. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    I second the proposition that the immutability of homosexual tendencies, and that they are caused by biological factors that are beyond the ability of the person to ameliorate, are beliefs that persist despite the lack of specific evidence that meets standards of scientific objectivity. We deal with all sorts of psychological and behavioral conditions that have mysterious origins and respond only with great effort and time, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. What is wrong with believing that homosexual tendencies are similar? That is, the ideation is not fully under conscious control and thus not a matter of sin, but the connection between ideation and behavior can be modified and weakened after great effort. The doctrine among the LGBT community that a broad class of sexual behaviors are exempt from even voluntary modification is something that people have chosen to believe because they think it is necessary to grant persons in such groups personal freedom. The belief that same sex marriage must be given legal status in order to secure freedom of sexual behavior is in the same category. SSM is a proposal to radically alter the meaning and function of marriage. There has been little effort by its advocates to assess the long term impacts on children, families and society from such a radical social change. In the environmental field, progressives advocate a strong precautionary principle, that burden of proof is on advocates of ecological change to demonstrate it will be benign. Yet many of the same progressives feel it is unjust to be required to present persuasive scientific evidence that SSM will not have negative impacts on the positive elements of our society.

  28. Mark Brown on November 8, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    I find it interesting and also very amusing that heterosexual people can pontificate forever about the mutability of homosexual orientation but never think of their own sexual orientation as changeable. However, I think that with the right amount of effort, years of aversion therapy involving pornography and electroshocks beginning in the teenage years, and a willingness to think of suicide as acceptable collateral damage, there is reason to believe we might actually train straights to be gay. Or at least fake it.

  29. SilverRain on November 9, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Mark—You assume a great deal. I think any behavior can be conditioned, if the person wants to be conditioned. Including sexuality.

  30. T on November 9, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Mark, I find it interesting you think only straight Mormons are here pontificating on this topic.

    Consider that there are some gay Mormons (like me) who have no desire to live a homosexual lifestyle and we would genuinely like a way out. If you were my bishop, would you say “Forget it, science has spoken. You’re stuck.”?

  31. Athena on November 10, 2010 at 2:35 am

    T – There are lots of gay Mormons who don’t want to be gay, for sure. Their situation is heart-rending.
    Your comment got me thinking. Here’s an off-the-cuff response, even though your question was probably rhetorical. I know it’s not very nuanced (it’s late), and I hope it’s not too blunt or otherwise offensive. This is such a sensitive topic.

    If I were your bishop I would of course seek inspiration about what to tell you. Not being your bishop, but trying to put myself in his place, I would tell you that you very well might be stuck with SSA no matter how hard you try, using every legitimate means available, to change. And I would have conversations with you about making decisions about how to approach life and religion if it turns out that you aren’t able to change. It’s so tough to be an active Mormon and be gay, but some people do choose that route, as difficult as it is, and find peace. I’m sure I would emphasize personal revelation so you can know what God would have you do. (In my experience, God sometimes tells gays to stay in the Church, sometimes He actually tells them to leave the Church, and sometimes He doesn’t give them particular direction but may confirm (or not) what they’ve worked out in their own mind.) I would emphasize that He and I will love you no matter which decision you make, but do try your best to know and follow his will for you. With whomever I was counseling, by the way, I would emphasize chastity until marriage (or commitment ceremony), and fidelity afterward, whether in a gay or straight relationship.

  32. palerobber on November 10, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Swenson #27

    We deal with all sorts of psychological and behavioral conditions that have mysterious origins and respond only with great effort and time, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. What is wrong with believing that homosexual tendencies are similar?

    that analogy would only make sense if homosexuality were a disability. but unlike people who suffer from OCD, the only obstacle gay people face to living a full, happy, and healthy life does not stem from their nature, but rather from the bigoted nature of certain others.

    The doctrine among the LGBT community that a broad class of sexual behaviors are exempt from even voluntary modification is something that people have chosen to believe because they think it is necessary to grant persons in such groups personal freedom.

    please tell us, Raymond, when the “LGBT community” has ever advocated for any exemptions (whatever that’s supposed to mean) or personal freedoms, sexual or otherwise, that heterosexuals do not already grant themselves.

    The belief that same sex marriage must be given legal status in order to secure freedom of sexual behavior is in the same category.

    and whose belief is that exactly, Raymond? that strawman doesn’t walk so well since the Lawrence decision, does it? if you want to obsess about gay sex that is your personal freedom, but as a legal matter the realization of equal marriage rights no longer carries any implications for rights to any particular “sexual behavior”.

    In the environmental field, progressives advocate a strong precautionary principle [...]

    lol. first, that’s irrelevant since this, you know, isn’t an environmental issue, it’s an equality issue. second, gay couples already raise children and they’ll continue to do so regardless of the legal status of their unions. those families will exist either way, the only question is whether they’ll be given equal treatment under the law. barring gay marriage does not magically make all those children you’re so concerned about suddenly not have gay parents.

    Raymond, your words would be silly and offensive far less often if you’d just say “gay is against my religion” and leave it at that.

  33. palerobber on November 10, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    SilverRain #29

    so do you want to be conditioned or not?

  34. It's Not Me on November 11, 2010 at 12:26 am

    I guess I’m a bit confused (and perhaps a bit off topic). I thought Pres. Packer’s point was that God will not allow a person to be tempted beyond his/her ability to resist (allowing for the possibility that God would allow a person to be homosexually inclined despite their desire otherwise). In other words, Pres. Packer wasn’t saying that gays have a choice to not be gay, but rather that they have a choice whether to act.

  35. Steve on November 11, 2010 at 10:57 am

    It’s Not Me #34:

    That’s my understanding of President Packer’s controversial remarks as well: that we don’t need to be slaves to our passions, and we are not ultimately compelled by our instincts to engage in any behavior contrary to God’s commandments (however tempted we may be.)

    However, some people apparently *need* President Packer to have meant that same-sex attraction is consciously chosen. I suspect that they *need* to understand his words this way because it lends support to a cherished belief–that the Church is led by a bunch of ignorant old bigots.

  36. Steve on November 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Palerobber #32:

    To highlight a few logical fallacies in your criticism of Raymond:

    1) “that analogy would only make sense if homosexuality were a disability.”

    Red Herring. A behavioral inclination’s classification (or lack thereof) as a pathology is irrelevant to the question of whether it can (not “should”) be modified.

    2) “…please tell us, Raymond, when the “LGBT community” has ever advocated for any exemptions (whatever that’s supposed to mean) or personal freedoms, sexual or otherwise, that heterosexuals do not already grant themselves.”

    Reification; Red Herring. Raymond’s reference to the “exemptions” sought by the “LGBT Community” obviously do not refer to a single, monolithic, organized entity, filing suit in court to have the immutability of same-sex attraction established by law. He was questioning a popular attitude (i.e. you have NO control over one’s sexual inclinations, etc.) that some people lean very heavily upon. He made no reference to any sought-after “exemptions” from social mores.

    “…and whose belief is that exactly, Raymond? that strawman doesn’t walk so well since the Lawrence decision, does it? if you want to obsess about gay sex that is your personal freedom, but as a legal matter the realization of equal marriage rights no longer carries any implications for rights to any particular ‘sexual behavior’”

    Red Herring (plus one other I’m having trouble naming). While homosexual activity is no longer subject to criminal prosecution, the argument is still widely made that people are not truly “free” to pursue same-sex relationships so long as SSM lacks legal recognition. Raymond was referring to the fact that some people make this assertion; he wasn’t endorsing its correctness. It makes little sense to argue with him on this point.

    “lol. first, that’s irrelevant since this, you know, isn’t an environmental issue, it’s an equality issue.”

    Non-sequitur; Appeal to Ridicule. An analogy *by necessity* compares things not properly classified together. If I refer to two politicans “playing cat and mouse,” does it make sense to rebut me by observing that neither of them has fur or goes about on four legs?

    “…second, gay couples already raise children and they’ll continue to do so regardless of the legal status of their unions. those families will exist either way, the only question is whether they’ll be given equal treatment under the law. barring gay marriage does not magically make all those children you’re so concerned about suddenly not have gay parents.”

    Straw Man. Raymond makes no specific reference to the children of gay parents, but to the broader implications to society of a significant change to one of its (arguably) most important institutions.

    “Raymond, your words would be silly and offensive far less often if you’d just say “gay is against my religion” and leave it at that.”

    Take offense, if you wish, at Raymond’s thoughtful, temperate comments, but you may want to avoid calling them “silly” unless you can refute them without the use of well-known logical fallacies.

  37. George Orwell on November 11, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned the fact that religious folks rely just as much on spectral evidence as the puritans did in the 17th century. Surely there is not any difference between relying on dreams to accuse one of being a witch, and the “burning in the bosom” to determine truth. Those who are religious need this “emotional epistemology” to be true, because otherwise they have no evidence of God.

  38. Paul Bohman on November 12, 2010 at 10:29 am

    George Orwell #37 makes an important point. I think that hits at the biggest truth/fiction decision point of anyone who has attempted to make sense of faith, reason, and evidence.

  39. KevinL on November 21, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    I need eternal truths to really be true