General Conference Buffet

By: Guest
April 23, 2014

This is our first guest post from Kristine A.

I think that General Conference could be called Mormonism’s Golden Corral. Twice a year, every year, we are invited to a feast of words of counsel and guidance from our leaders.

The past two years since my faith transition I’ve been more acutely aware of a certain phenomenon I call GC bashing – in which we hear talks from leaders that by in large echo our previously held perceptions, and then we use quotes from those to figuratively bash each other over the head. Too often we hear something and think of how “others” need to hear this counsel, instead of finding ways to apply it in our own lives. It’s also popular these days to passive aggressively join groups or share quotes on the Internet that confirm our beliefs.

One of the results of my faith transition is a loss of certainty, realization that I was wrong before, and the lenses with which I viewed everything were not true reality. I still don’t think the lenses with which I view things now are true reality, because I don’t think there is a human alive who sees things as they really are. Only God knows. Thus the reactions of members over GC weekend prove to me that every single one of us is operating under the influence of cognitive bias. See if you can think of examples over the last month of the following: confirmation bias (loving to agree with those who agree with us), cognitive dissonance (avoiding individuals, groups, or sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views), ingroup bias (fear, disdain, and suspicion of others we don’t know), gambler’s fallacy (believing a certain event in the past predicates a future outcome), status quo bias (fear of change), negativity bias (dwelling on the negative at the expense of good news), bandwagon effect (groupthink), projection bias (interpret our perceptions of universal, normal, or correct). Source

I think in truth we are all cafeteria Mormons at this buffet, not in the way that we reject what is being served, but that we all seem to prioritize and take seconds of our favorites. In a religion that, out of respect for the gift of agency, is organized upon the principle of “teaching correct principles and letting them govern themselves” we rely on the gift of personal revelation. The definition of how to keep the Sabbath day holy, pay a full tithe, be modest, or interpret the themes and messages of Conference varies widely, and it would be impossible to come to a perfect consensus.

As I reflected on General Conference, I thought of my own activities this past year. As a moderate Mormon feminist, I vociferously preach love and one-ness at the big table of Mormonism. I’ve sat and listened to my friend whose homosexual grandfather recently attempted suicide, and my heart broke while realizing Elder Oaks’ talk about Moral Courage last year could be use to bludgeon someone into feeling such hopelessness. I also listened to Elder Holland eviscerate the image of a “peace and love” type of Jesus; I uncomfortably agreed with him. Our Savior is not demand-less, He requires things of us. Yet, it just seemed like an incomplete picture of the Savior I know. Then Pres. Monson delivered a beautiful sermon on Christ’s love. Holland’s Christ, full of Justice, and President Monson’s Christ, full of Mercy, together teach us of the Savior. We cannot be obedient without caring and loving others, and we cannot love others unless we are encouraging them to obey. Partaking of one type of food at the buffet isn’t good for anyone’s health, perhaps we all need a more balanced diet.

What are your thoughts about General Conference?  What challenged your thinking?  Which biases do you have a problem with?

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11 Responses to General Conference Buffet

  1. Kevin Rex on April 23, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    I have a problem with the General Authorities who won’t even recognize that they have their own biases, let alone try to see through the biases to receive revelation from God that isn’t just exactly like their own worldviews, and I have a problem with so many members of the Church who think the General Authorities don’t have any biases at all. And, yes, I realize very acutely that I have my own cognitive biases.

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  2. Kristine A on April 23, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    I’ve tried to make a more concerted effort to ponder more on messages that either seem to be at odds with my perspective or that don’t necessarily speak to me. I think I’ve seen others post about how they sometimes suffer from General Conference Anxiety Disorder – for this reason I want to watch conference in silence, alone with my husband, to give myself a safe processing space.

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  3. Julie on April 23, 2014 at 5:25 PM

    I completely agree. I have been guilty of hearing what I want and having general conference duels when it comes to certain issues. I could do more to internalize what I hear, even the bits that make me shrink.
    Just curious, what is a faith transition? I’ve never heard the phrase before.

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  4. Mormon Heretic on April 23, 2014 at 6:11 PM

    Kristine, I think you ask some provocative questions. It is so easy to see the motes in others’ eyes, but we are blind to our own beams (biases.) I wish I could point out my biases better, but like most, I am pretty blind to my own.

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  5. Nate on April 23, 2014 at 6:42 PM

    I think one of the great purposes of General Conference is to confirm bias. Orthodox membership runs the gauntlet of secular voices for 6 months and then conference comes along to make sure no one has changed their biases.

    Conference is to remind people that they “know” and that they shouldn’t doubt the well established correlated doctrine of the church. They don’t ask us to change our views, only our behavior to better reflect those views.

    Of course it is true that “we are all kidding ourselves” but it is enough that we liberals and fringe members are troubled by this truth without dragging in the faithful. If God wanted to challenge Saints in their doctrinal understandings, he would call a radical prophet like Joseph Smith. But he hasn’t, so I assume God is cool with the current church biases.

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  6. Kristine A on April 23, 2014 at 7:37 PM

    Julie: I use the term faith transition to explain a shift in perspective of how I see the Gospel and the Church. I had a spiritual experience in my life, in fact an answer to prayer – that conflicted with some teachings of the Church. I was shaken. I never doubted the core doctrines of the Restored Gospel, but I had to repack how I saw everything until it fit back into my “testimony suitcase.” It can also be explained as a bit from moving from an ‘iron rod’ perspective of the Gospel where all the answers are found, to a ‘liahona’ perspective where many questions are found, but just enough answers that enable one to stay. I think it’s a term used more frequently over at Mormon Matters / John Dehlin sites.

    Nate: That’s an interesting perspective. I’ve often thought that I’m grateful the Lord provides many different types of leaders so that each of us get a piece of confirmation bias pie at the GC buffet. And it may be true that we are asked to change our behavior for the better, but I typically find that our behavior would change if we applied more fervently the advice of those we didn’t agree with. If we balanced our diets we might not seem so polarized and could be more able to meet in the middle. Is God just good with how things are or calling us to a higher level of our own accord? I feel we underestimate how willing God is to wait for us to catch up to Him before giving us the next line.

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  7. hawkgrrrl on April 23, 2014 at 11:29 PM

    I’ve always been irritated by speakers who seem to be pandering to the base. I like what Joe Spencer from Feast Upon the Word said once, that the gospel is supposed to provoke us, to point out the flaws in our thinking, to change our perspective – in essence, to bust our biases, not to confirm them. Of course, we all suffer from confirmation bias. And it’s easier to see it in others than ourselves. I also listen more closely to the things I don’t agree with for this reason. If I can tell (which is difficult) that the speaker isn’t merely speaking from his own biases, I have found things that are illuminating.

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  8. New Iconoclast on April 24, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    My biggest struggle with General Conference, frankly, is staying awake and attentive. I don’t mean that it’s boring (although some talks are); just that I’m a multi-functional learner and two-hour stretches of straight auditory input make it almost impossible for me to concentrate effectively. I’ve found that it’s somewhat effective for me to play solitaire on my cell phone – this occupies a part of my brain given to daydreaming and fidgeting, while leaving free the part that listens and comprehends, most of the time. From an adult learning standpoint, to say nothing of how kids learn, Conference is horribly planned and even more horribly executed.

    As a professional corporate trainer, I’m not sure I see how it could be a lot different, and I do applaud the efforts made in recent years to provide some visual stimuli other than the face of the speaker – verses, pictures, shots of the crowd, whatever. But they should hire someone who knows what they’re doing to come up with some kind of kinesthetic activity kit to help people actually pay attention.

    My second-biggest struggle with Conference (and this is a phenomenon I’ve noted at the stake level, too) is what I think of as “giggly fan-girl syndrome.” Cut loose from its admittedly sexist appearance (and I beg y’all’s forgiveness, but for me it was personified by a married woman in her late 20s who reacted to her stake president’s appearance as if she were a teenager who’d just been touched by Justin Bieber – “He’s so spiritual! I Just Love Him!”), it consists of the reaction common among members of both genders to certain speakers and certain talks that make you think they might be harboring some impure thoughts. OK, it was a good talk. Not that good.

    My favorite reaction from this General Conference was a tweet from Connor Boyack of Utah’s Libertas Institute: paraphrased, it was something like, “Uchtdorf mentioned airplanes. Drink!”

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  9. howarddirkson on April 24, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    The art of the parable could be (but isn’t) used to bring unity and offer a variety of milk to meat, right to left, orthodox to investigator. In my view true Prophetic leadership is missing. Although I enjoy TSM’s widow stories and messages of love he seems to abdicate to Oak’s Pharisaical gospel legalism and as Hawk pointed out general pandering to the base while Uchtdorf’s charisma seems to be needed to tie a bow on an otherwise eclectic half year casserole.

    Doctrine has been quietly removed over the years but what has been added? The Family Proclamation? It generates more questions than it answers and it’s isn’t canon. What meaningful purpose does on-going revelation serve? 20 hours a year (less prayers and songs) of face time with “prophets” of God and what do we take home a few nuggets at best!? An hour or two with a Dalai Lama or Pope Francis would likely exceed that total and I’d much rather listen to every man Rick Warren than our flat affect monotoned great grandfathers. Rejoicing in the gospel? With the exception of Uchtdorf I don’t see any of them rejoicing in anything, they all look depressed to me!

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  10. Hedgehog on April 24, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    I seem to be wearing my critic spectacles a lot more in recent conferences, with a tendency to over-analyse perhaps. It’s much harder to let it wash over me and pick out the nice bits and ignore the rest. The bits that ruffle my fur the wrong way just seem to glare out at me…

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  11. Kristine A on April 24, 2014 at 11:26 PM

    NewIcon: are you referring to le Silver Fox, perhaps? Because he really is a GA Ryan Gosling with all that charm. He smiles and we’re done.

    Hedgehog: I try to make peace with the ruffly parts, it doesn’t always work, but it challenges me to examine my own position.

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