Mormon Apologetics Redux

Some time ago, I wrote my usual long, verbose, redundant, meandering, biased, ad hominem, misleading analysis of how Mormon and other apologetic groups work. It was, of course, described this way by a Mormon apologist. You can find it at…..

For reasons unclear to me, I woke up this morning with a few things to add to this analysis. In particular, I felt the need to atone for the sin of describing Fanny Deterson (I am changing names for the hell of it) and his ilk as “fog machines” who kick up dust and otherwise create intellectual and information barriers around Mormonism that make it harder for people to find their way out of the maze. By using only one metaphor, I probably gave the false impression that these folks have only one function. I should have also referred to them as puss. Let me explain.

We humans are a strange mix of the conscious and the unconscious. Our behaviors are motivated by unconscious factors to a far greater extent than we generally appreciate. In particular, our social groups function in ways highly analogous to biological organisms. This can perhaps best be seen in the behavior of highly social insects, such as ants and bees. Their hives display a collective intelligence that emerges from the interaction of very simple parts, and that cannot be explained by the properties of any of those parts. It is the way in which they are organized, and interact, that creates the intelligence. See for example.

Similar phenomena are found within human groups. Perhaps the best-known example is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, that on the basis of selfish individual action allocates resources with amazing efficiency in most cases (present financial crisis excepted) within human society.

The so-called invisible hand is a great example for my purposes because it indicates the way in which conscious objectives (to get the best deal for me) at the individual level have nothing to do with the very clear function of the collective behavior (to move resources around more or less efficiently within society).

We see something similar with regard to Mormon and other apologetics. Think of the Mormon institution and its members as an organism. It needs energy, in the form of human resources such as time, money, intellectual talent, etc. It gets this in a variety of ways. And, importantly, it needs to defend what it has because there are other organisms out there that would love to take its resources, just as over its relatively short history it has prospered by taking resources from other religious organisms.

The allocation of human resources between various religious and other organisms is determined by how individual human beings choose to spend their time, and contribute their talent, money and other resources to one institution instead of another. A lot of this is determined by instinct, and so religious organisms are set up to take advantage of our cognitive biases (see starting at page 51). For this reason, they make heavy use of prominent authority figures, get people to publicly commit to the institution, get people to publicly express their beliefs, obtain small commitments first and gradually increase the severity of commitment, expend enormous resources to create strong teenage peer groups, monopolize time so as to limit interaction with competing groups, encourage the flow of faith promoting information, and discourage the flow of faith disconfirming information, etc.

When an organism is attacked, it defends itself. We all understand what that looks like in terms of an individual animal fighting another. However, that image does not convey the difference between the conscious and the unconscious. So, let’s use a biological metaphor instead.

When irritants of certain kinds penetrate the human body, white blood cells are marshalled, surround the irritant and attempt to kill and/or expel it from the body. In severe cases, this leads to the formation of puss, which can burst through the skin taking the irritant with it.

In the essay linked above, I indicate that the apologetic function is largely to kick up so much dust around the perimeter of religious organisms that it will be difficult for those on the inside to find their way out. There is no question that this is an accurate description of what a Mormon apologist does. However, the white blood cell analogy is informative in a different way. As irritating information penetrates the Mormon body, apologists swarm around in a pussy (be careful with pronunciation) sort of way, and attempt to force it out of the body, or least dilute and otherwise weaken the information so that it has a smaller impact inside the body. This includes, of course, swarming the source of the information to the extent it also enters the body. Have a look, for example, at what happens when people like Tal Bachman show up on one of the Mormon apologist bulletin boards. It is the equivalent of tossing a piece of raw meat into a piranha tank.

The swarming, pussy behavior I just described is a classic example of individual behaviors that are performed for conscious objectives that have nothing to do with those behaviors macro effect. Of course, apologists tend to see themselves as defenders of the faith. However, this is always characterized as the defence of abstract properties, such as truth. The fact of the matter is that when you move from religious organism to religious organism, you see precisely the same behavior. Truth has nothing to do with it. If the foundational principles of the organization are that the Holocaust did not exist or that the Earth is 6000 years old, that makes no difference whatsoever to the nature of the apologetic behavior. Just as white blood cells to the same thing from human body the human body, apologists do the same thing from religious organism to religious organism. They defend.

The analogy between Mormon apologists and puss is entertaining, but more importantly it draws attention to the unconscious driver of this behavior. From my perspective at least, this makes understanding and empathizing with these individuals easier. This might be best illustrated by reference to non-Mormon apologist, such as those who defend a 6000 year age for the Earth. The tendency is to dismiss these people as ignorant, mentally unbalanced, or simply evil. That does not do justice to the power of the human subconscious. In fact, when we recognize that good hearted, intelligent, well-educated, highly moral people can easily be found defending the young Earth hypothesis, this should help us to recognize our own propensity to be driven by subconscious factors relative to our own psychological weak spots to maintain certifiably crazy beliefs. We each need to be much more skeptical of our own ability to separate truth from falsehood, and be prepared to rely more upon the most well-informed, reliable people wecan find with regard to the important aspects of life. The most reliable group, by far, in this regard is the scientific mainstream.

So, I again apologize for referring to Fanny and his buddies as fog machines. I should have called them pussy fog machines.

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