Cognitive Dissonance, Self-deception and delusions

by: Jake

March 15, 2012

Anyone who has listened to the Mormon Stories podcasts, or spent any time around New Order Mormons, or any Ex-mormon site should be familiar (they are used often enough) with the terms cognitive dissonance, deception and delusions. It seems as if they have a particular traction amongst these groups. Personally I think they are over used, and more importantly that they are misused for rhetorical effect.

Cognitive Dissonance

Simply put cognitive dissonance is the mental friction that comes from holding conflicting or contradictory ideas. For instance, a person who smokes knows that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, is bad for their heart, and will shorten their life; at the same time they may believe that they are a rational person capable of making smart choices. Clearly, however, the smart choice is not to smoke.  The friction of holding both beliefs at once (“I’m smart” but “I smoke”) is cognitive dissonance. George Orwell described cognitive dissonence as doublethink which means “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them.”

Cognitive dissonance gains traction amongst the Mormon Stories devotees as a useful phrase to describe the contradictions that result in disaffection. The narrative goes as follows:  I believed X; I then found out Y.  I tried to balance the two or put it on the shelf, but then one day the shelf collapsed from the weight of contradictions. Or I got tired of all the mental gymnastics required to make sense of it all.  The general idea is that the contradiction in certain ideas such as Joseph Smith being the greatest man alive after Jesus and the fact that he had multiple extra wives leads to cognitive dissonance.

Leaving the church is seen as an escape from cognitive dissonance. The narratives of the Wizard of Oz and the Emperors new clothes are often used as a metaphor for this experience.  The person realises that the emporer is really naked and that for years they have been pretending to see something that wasn’t there. Yet, is life outside of the church any less contradictory than life inside the church?  This is not to say that the dissonance and contradictions they experienced within the church are not important. In other words they may have exposed the emperor to be naked, but have they ever looked at themselves to see that perhaps they are just as naked as the emperor?

The eighteenth century writer Johnathan Swift said that “if man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion and learning, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last.”  The fact is that everyone is inconsistent.  Just as the church does not have a monopoly on good people, truth or boring meetings, it does not have a monopoly on cognitive dissonance and inconsistency.  Everyone is inconsistent to a degree, some more than others. The problem is that the rhetoric of cognitive dissonance implies that a person has achieved a state of less cognitive dissonance when perhaps it is simply that they are less aware of it. They were aware of contradictions before, and in reaching for security they have hidden the contradictions from their awareness.

Self-deception and delusions

The simple fact is that we all are under cognitive dissonance, because we are all lying to ourselves. An article in the New Scientist last year looked at the many ways in which we deceive ourselves and why. Neuroscience in the past 20 years has revealed that our perceptions are not as good as we think they are. In courts eyewitness testimonies are particularly untrustworthy, as this Pulitzer prize winning article points out about the problems with line ups and eye witnesses, we see what we expect to see, and what we see can changes according to context and focus.  The problem with our perceptions is that they depend upon our neuroanatomy and our experience.  As no one has the same neuroanatomy or experience, nobody experiences and perceives the world in the same way. This is of course rather obvious, but the problem is our interpretation of what we see. Because we do not see reality directly, but rather through a glass darkly, our impressions are simply guesses and interpretations that our minds create. Thankfully, our minds our phenomenally good at making accurate guesses and approximations, but approximations they are nonetheless.

We use these guesses and approximations that we gain every day to create our world view and the ideas about reality that we have. The problem is that if everything that we perceive is an approximation, then it is very easy for new information to invalidate our ideas. If we approximate that the majority of English people sound like the Queen, then it would only be a matter of minutes before we would have that idea invalidated when we travelled to England. For trivial beliefs this is fairly innocuous, but many of our ideas are deeply tied to our sense of self and letting go of them is much more serious. When something comes along that contradicts our ideas it not only threatens that individual idea, but it threatens all of our ideas. Our ideas are all woven together into a system and to doubt one can bring the entire system into doubt.  Because our world view is tied to our sense of self, this threatens who we are.

The risk of the annihilation of our ideas and our world view often means that we lie to ourselves about it. We minimise, ignore, pretend, in order to maintain the world view that we hold. We do this in order to maintain a security personal identity. Deconstructing our ideas about the world can destabilize us and leave us feeling confused. In order to preserve our sense of self we lie to ourselves. Perhaps, we do not have the strength to confront the truth or our mind has a need to maintain order. The truth can be painful, upsetting, chaotic and messy.  Mental peace involves minimising the risk of disruptive truths.  As the writer of the article points out:

No matter how much evidence we accumulate, our truths will always be approximations and absolute certainty will exist only in our fantasies. Lying gives us the temporary delusion that our personal and social worlds are intact, that we are loved, that we are safe, and above all, that we are not likely to overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know.

The end of the Yellow brick road

The idea that we all inhabit a world that is only meaningful to ourselves can be terrifying. It means that we are responsible for the way in which we interpret the world.  For instance, when facing a disaster, one person might interpret it as a challenge to be mastered, another as a certain defeat, while a third might see it as the punishment he or she deserves (or worse, doesn’t deserve). Crucially, the decisions about what to do follow from the interpretation each person has made.  If we acknowledge this, we see that the responsibility for our actions is entirely in our own hands. We deny this truth because while we are not responsible for most of what happens to us, we are always responsible for how we interpret it and therefore act.  And we dislike taking responsibility for ourselves as much as we dislike uncertainty.  As the New Scientist writer said:

We can never escape uncertainty: it is part of our very being. Scientists struggle daily to accept uncertainty, and still search for “evidence”. In our personal, professional and collective social lives it looks as if we may have no choice but to confront uncertainty if we are to survive – and survive well.

This is most likely what the poet John Keats was thinking of when he coined the phrase Negative Capability which he described in a letter to his friend as the following:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

The disruption of our ideas can be both a blessing and a curse. When Dorothy discovers that the Wizard does not have all the answers to her problems she becomes a stronger person. On the other hand, when Othello believes his wife Desdemona is unfaithful, he acts on his belief and kills her.  When he discovers his belief was wrong, he is driven to suicide; his cognitive dissonance literally destroyed Othello’s self.  Bringing it back to the original point, many within and without the church claim to be certain that the church is either true or not true. The fact that someone can be so certain about it not being true leads me to wonder if they have simply substituted one form of fantasy for another, one mistaken certainty for another equally mistaken certainty. The discovery of contradictions and paradoxes within the church can be a means to strengthen us as individuals or it can be destructive. In either case care must be made that we do not substitute one delusion for another.

This leaves me to wonder:

  • Does living in uncertainty and paradox really mean we are free of self-deception?
  • If we are all deluding ourselves in some form then does it really matter what the delusion is?
  • How do we deal with evidence that conflicts with some of our ideas that we hold dear and precious?

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33 Responses to Cognitive Dissonance, Self-deception and delusions

  1. Justin on March 15, 2012 at 4:20 PM

    Just because those outside the church experience cognitive dissonance too, doesn’t lessen or minimize the staggering effects of cognitive dissonance experienced by balancing reality with the full teachings of TSCC..

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  2. Cowboy on March 15, 2012 at 5:56 PM

    •Does living in uncertainty and paradox really mean we are free of self-deception?

    Of course not, uncertainty exists only as function of our perception. So long as self-deception = error, uncertainty implies a margin of error. The key revolves around our methods for reducing that margin.

    •If we are all deluding ourselves in some form then does it really matter what the delusion is?

    Yes! Kidding myself that I get plenty of exercise by walking to my car each day, is bad. Telling myself that ciggarettes won’t harm me while smoking 3 pack per day, is far worse. All delusions are not created equal.

    •How do we deal with evidence that conflicts with some of our ideas that we hold dear and precious?

    We should weigh it an measure it, and see if it proves that our precious idea’s are out of whack with reality. The grand delusions revolve around those things we often consider precious.

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  3. Howard on March 15, 2012 at 6:00 PM

    Great post!

    I suspect we are never free of self-deception but minimizing it leads to less stress and greater health. In small amounts self-deception may color our personalities like timbre colors a musical note. Some delusions are healthier and less disruptive than others. We are threatened by evidence that conflicts with our beliefs, we react emotionally, we may deny it or redefine it or irrationally defend our beliefs or we might react with a broad variety of other defenses. This causes many blogging disputes. We must observe our reactions and take responsibility for them and learn to control of them if we wish to escape the victim role, mature and become autonomous.

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  4. Jake on March 15, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    Justin, agreed, we can’t minimise the level of dissonance experienced. From my own experience it makes me think that maybe because the level is so great that it makes the appeal of another certainty (that the church is certainly not true) appealing. So people leap from one to another to escape the bewildering chaos of dissonance.

    Cowboy, I love the point you raise about our precious ideas. That is something crucial, we tend to ring post ideas we hold dear as impervious of scrutiny, when perhaps, those closest to our heart are the ones that we should question. But then how do we recognize when we are being over protective of one of our ideas?

    Howard, wise words indeed. It is interesting that we tie our ideas so closley to our sense of self. We personally feel threatened when our ideas are criticised, or shown to be wrong. It is perhaps this emotional attachment to ideas and beliefs that leads to bitter disputes.

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  5. Mike S on March 15, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    Jake: I liked your post.

    Much of my thinking on this is influenced by Buddhism. I try to experience and observe things as they are. I also understand that what we think is “real” is necessarily influenced by our backgrounds, our experiences, and so on.

    With regards to the LDS Church and some of the areas of cognitive dissonance there, I don’t worry about them as much as I used to. I focus more on the here and now. This sparked my post that also went up today. For example, I don’t care as much about things that went on in our history (as ALL organizations have “history”) as I do with our current leaders’ reactions to the history.

    Similarly, I focus on the now. What is important now. What can I do now to help someone else. What can I do now to make myself a better person. When seen like that, there are silly things like earrings and such that don’t take on as much significance.

    I could go on and on, but won’t. Thanks for the post.

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  6. Jake on March 15, 2012 at 6:57 PM


    As I get older I find myself becoming more like your approach. I simply have stopped worrying about it all. What matters most is the here and now, and doing what we can to make ourselves and the world better. Every history has warts on it somewhere, and every religion, or ideological system has its inconsistencies and all institutions are flawed in some way.

    There seems to be no point in giving yourself a hernia with worry about them and dwelling on the contradictions and ways in which I am possibly self-deceiving myself. That along with the realization that I am probably wrong about a lot of things, or mistaken in my thinking means that most ideas seem less significant then I once thought they were.

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  7. Howard on March 15, 2012 at 7:00 PM

    Like Mike, I too am influenced by Buddhism which offers us an understanding of suffering caused by craving. Non-physical suffering is caused by clinging to the way we want things to be instead of accepting them as the are. Once we accept things as they are dissonance is eliminated. So we are the cause of our own suffering. Once we master this we are no longer threatened from without, the concept of another non-physically hurting or threatening us becomes an oxymoron and we understand the victim role implicit in that position.

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  8. Taryn Fox on March 15, 2012 at 11:28 PM

    I agree that it’s possible to get too hung up on a search for absolute truth. It infuriates me to see newly minted exmormon atheists shouting to the heavens that there are no gods, that this is a fact, and that people who disagree are dangerous.

    Mormonism encourages this kind of hangup though. And this essay is nothing but long-winded victim blaming, telling them it’s their fault they turned out this way and became the “truth seekers” the church wanted.

    I personally left because of a different kind of cognitive dissonance: I thought I was “defending the family” by fighting LGBT rights, when I was really destroying families and hurting innocent people. Including myself. I’m sorry, the church’s actions with this regard are evil and wrong.

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  9. Bob on March 16, 2012 at 1:15 AM

    OP: Jake,
    “Cognitive Dissonance, Self-deception and delusions”. I admit I have thing things in my life.
    But I also like to think I use wisdom, commonsense, maturity, and courage in my thinking about what I believe.
    You don’t see a place for these in your OP(?)

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  10. Jake on March 16, 2012 at 2:59 AM


    That’s really interesting. I don’t know very much about buddhism, but I think that the need to see things the way they really are rather then how we want them to be seems to be a good attitude. Although, that brings in all kinds of questions about if we can ever see things how they really are, how can we tell if what we see is what we want to see or what is really happening. It does seem worthwhile to try and work out what is a product of our own bias and what is the raw truth.

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  11. Jake on March 16, 2012 at 3:04 AM

    Taryn Fox,

    If I am guilty of victim blaming, then I am guilty of saying that everyone in the world is a victim. My point is that the cognitive dissonance rhetoric, and the delusional, self-deception speak of ex-mormons and Mormon Stories seems to imply that they no longer are experiencing cognitive dissonance and self-deceptions, when the truth is that there is no escape from it. Everyone lies to themselves to varying degrees. Nor am I saying its anyone’s fault for it. Our brains are wired so that we automatically lie to ourselves and mask cognitive delusions in order to maintain mental stability. Its a natural self-preservation technique, you can hardly blame someone for something our brains naturally do.

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  12. Bob on March 16, 2012 at 3:42 AM

    #10: Jake,
    “that brings in all kinds of questions about if we can ever see things how they really are, how can we tell if what we see is what we want to see or what is really happening”.
    Yes we can. Man is very capable of critical thinking. That’s what has gotten us to where we are today. We are going to iPad4 because we could see how to make an iPad3 better. Man’s whole ‘edge’ in this world is his ability to think clearly/critically most of the time.

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  13. Howard on March 16, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    Jake I’ve seen your comments; What is truth? What are facts? Can we ever see things as they really are? These are great questions to ponder they help decontaminate our thinking which leads to fewer delusions and less self-deception. If we’re purists or mathematicians, no we can never get there but if we’re practical it in the way that engineers are we certainly can get close enough for practical application. The psychological path to decontaminating your thinking is your emotions they will alert you to an issue that requires attention. Analyzing emotions can be simplified by squeezing them all into just four categories: mad, sad, glad and scared and asking yourself why you feel that way when they arise. It’s also helpful to know that since it’s generally socially unacceptable for men to express fear so they often express anger in it’s place and visa versa for women although exceptions for both genders do exist. You will also need to take a hard look at you denial system. I can recommend a great little book that can strip out your denial but be careful it is very powerful and the loss of nearly all of your denial without replacing it with something more healthy can be very destabilizing for some people. It is called An End to Innocence by Sheldon Kopp. The spiritual path is different it includes meditation and setting aside materialism which leads you to connect with others in a fundamentally different and more profound way than before. This work leads to actually seeing things as they are or nearly so and tends to pull you into the present the past has little negative attraction because you’ve fully accepted it eliminating regret and shame you only go there to enjoy or share positive memories, you no longer crave so you’re not focused on the next new thing and the future becomes a blank canvas, a painting waiting to be created, that pretty much leaves the present which is where you tend to reside in a very confident, calm and peaceful way creating your future as you go. Here is an Ensign article on Buddhism. Of course to the church there is only one true religion and Buddhism isn’t it, but Buddhism answers the question what is suffering and Mormonism has no clue in that regard. So we can learn from Buddhism without having to accept it’s conclusions.

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  14. SilverRain on March 16, 2012 at 7:55 AM

    I needed to read about this right now, so thank you.

    I have found that too much perception of reality can be paralytic. I find myself, lately, being afraid to do anything because I can see how I have hurt others by my actions, or being afraid to act in my own best interests because I see the best interests of others.

    Facing realities takes a whole lot of courage and energy, so we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves because we don’t have the strength to face more reality than we have at the moment. Just because there are two sides to every issue, doesn’t mean that one side is just as valid as another.

    In the end, it is only yourself and your perceptions that you have, no matter how hard you try to include others and their perceptions into things. Even those are filtered through your lens.

    Perhaps it should be that way. The only “reality” we should be actively seeking is the one that the Lord wants us to understand and see. And we should trust Him to take care of the reality that we can’t face yet. We are weak. Once we accept that, we develop more ability to forgive others for being weak.

    But I find that accepting that is a daily struggle.

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  15. hawkgrrrl on March 16, 2012 at 8:01 AM

    To me the key is to always remember to question our assumptions because we are all deluded about some aspects of our self-perception and our world view. The only true mark of ignorance (and lack of self-awareness) is certainty for then we are no longer questioning our assumptions.

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  16. Howard on March 16, 2012 at 8:07 AM

    I find myself, lately, being afraid to do anything because I can see others have chosen to be hurt by my actions.

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  17. Bob on March 16, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    #13: Howard,
    You sound like the “Age of Aquarius “. :)
    This was to be an Age of the “Love In’. An Age of ‘Meditation’. An Age of ‘Anti- Materalism’.
    It all seemed to peak__then end at Woodstock in 1969.

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  18. Howard on March 16, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    No that’s not me. Goggle “spontaneous kundalini awakening” then ignore all the new age hype you see, that’s me.

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  19. Bob on March 16, 2012 at 9:35 AM

    #18: Howard,
    “Spontaneous kundalini always occurs at the right time to the right person being ready to fully awake
    a psychotic break or psychotic problems occur only if proper preparation has been omitted at the right time before Spontaneous kundalini awakening occurs”.
    Wow! Good luck with that__it sounds like a strong brew.

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  20. Howard on March 16, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Thanks Bob it took place in 2003 it was a bumpy road for several years but I’ve long since integrated it. I’m left with a new perspective happy, centered, spiritual and at peace.

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  21. Howard on March 16, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    D&C 85:6 and 3 Nephi 11:3 are descriptions of a kundalini experience. Joseph was clearly an enlightened man. This is not something that comes to you in the moment and then leaves you as you were before or close to it, it takes years to work through as Joseph was doing following the first vision and it transforms you. Clearly the brethren have not been through this accounting for the difference in their prophetic abilities as compared to Joseph.

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  22. Ray on March 16, 2012 at 11:32 AM

    We all have blind spots. The problem is that we are blind to them.

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  23. bonnieblythe on March 16, 2012 at 11:38 AM

    I think individual resilience is fundamentally tied to our tolerance for ambiguity. Wilkinson’s Modes of Leadership does a nice job of outlining the effects this has in different situations. Certainly, it has a lot to do with personality development and creativity. I really enjoyed Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” for her research on the consequences of fixed vs. growth mindset. Personally, I think the best thing we do for one another is to encourage each other in our examinations, however patiently we do so. To use a birth analogy, it doesn’t do much good to push between contractions (there’s a rhythm to our growth and it proceeds organically), but sometimes a mother needs encouragement that it’s helpful to push *during* contractions. It hurts. It’s counter-intuitive for some. It’s completely natural for others. But our life is a constant birth process, as Isaiah discusses when he talks about the children coming to the birth and there is no strength to deliver. We need to move forward and help one another move forward, or at least face forward while we take a breather. It’s a disaster when there’s no strength to deliver, for everyone. It’s true that we can never escape uncertainty, but how we respond to others response to uncertainty often determines whether they can summon “the strength to deliver.”

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  24. Howard on March 16, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    Ray wrote: We all have blind spots. The problem is that we are blind to them. True fortunately our blind spots can be seen by others so they can point them out to us.

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  25. Heber13 on March 16, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    I think it is a sign of maturity to be able to accept and be aware of CogDis and conflicting ideas.

    It doesn’t solve the problem to be aware of them, however, you still have to choose how to deal with the conundrums.

    I think knowing others deal with the same conundrums is comforting to know there isn’t something wrong with me (for the most part), it is just part of life to experience CodDis. OK, with that, now I can choose to move forward dealing with it. So that is helpful.

    But if so many of us experience this, why does the church do nothing to prepare people for this, or give any direction on it? It feels like a very lonely path…even if it is lonely for so many at the same time.

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  26. SilverRain on March 16, 2012 at 10:23 PM

    Hawkgrrrl, don’t you think that there is a time when you need to be certain enough to act?

    I don’t know if certainty is the problem, as much as the inability to accept that even certainty can change. And maybe to be certain in a way that doesn’t try to control others through your certainty.

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  27. Thomas Parkin on March 17, 2012 at 5:43 AM

    We all have blind spots. The problem is that we are blind to them.

    True fortunately our blind spots can be seen by others so they can point them out to us.

    The additional step to point out here is that other people are largely blind to us, as well as to themselves. There are surely many times a person might see into me where I cannot see into myself; but at least as often what they are seeing in me is themselves, either as in a mirror or a reverse voodoo mirror. The very reasons that I look into them and them into me are both to avoid our own problems and to work out our own problems in the seemingly safer vehicle of another. The damage done is immeasurable.

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  28. Howard on March 17, 2012 at 11:02 AM

    Thomas I like your description, projection often plays a part and it can be difficult to sort out. What do you mean by reverse voodoo mirror and damage?

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  29. Jake on March 17, 2012 at 2:52 PM


    I love your comment. I hadn’t thought about the fact that to face reality require courage and a mental strength. Something, that I know that I often lack. Reality is a cold brutal beast, and I think its easy and nicer to avoid it. Your comment leaves me wondering though, what is it that provides us with the strength to face our blind spots and self-deceptions. Part of me thinks that this is faith, to act and face the unknown not knowing the outcome with only hope that you will emerge stronger at the end.

    Faith also is what allows us to live in uncertainty and still able to act. It is in my eyes true faith to act when you are not certain.

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  30. Ray on March 17, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    “It is in my eyes true faith to act when you are not certain.”

    Amen – and that is why I really don’t like what I see as an over-emphasis on knowledge and an under-emphasis on faith in the Church right now.

    I’m not downplaying knowledge in saying that. I believe in trying to know, and I believe in being able to “know” some things (according to our own experiences) – but I don’t like the tendency to criticize or even denigrate real faith, since it is the “hopeful substance” that animates our actions in the midst of not knowing. I also believe it is the catalyst for the best growth we experience – when we act without knowing and then, because of that faith, come to know (or, at least, undertand better).

    The following link is to a post I wrote about that exact issue:

    “To Be More Humble: The Danger of Being Absolutely Certain”

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  31. Jake on March 17, 2012 at 5:44 PM


    It is a tragedy that the church does nothing to help people other then pat answers like pray and read the scriptures more to help people come to terms with these existential crises. But then we like to pretend that these problems don’t happen, and if they do its obviously a result of your sinful state.


    Thanks for the article and the book. I will put it on my list of books to read.

    Whilst its true that other people can see our blind spots, how often do we ever listen to them? When people do point out our blind spots is when I think we are most liable to distort and deceive ourselves instead of taking on board the blind spots that they reveal to us.


    I agree the shift from knowledge to faith is a much needed shift. I think we need to consider more what we mean by knowledge. In my experience people often have a contradictory and flawed understanding of what knowledge actually is. There is a huge difference between saying that you know something and acting as if you had knowledge. I tend to think that knowledge is not so much intellectual stuff, but a manifestation of how we act.

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  32. Thomas Parkin on March 18, 2012 at 12:10 AM


    Really quick. I saw your questions and they have been on my mind today. So much so that I feel I need to write about it at length. I’ll try to do that before Monday, or so. Cool.

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  33. George on July 1, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    The Mormon sect known as “The Community of Christ” is having severe cognitive dissonance at this time. By my perception, it has abandoned Joseph Smith Jr.’s teachings that the Christian church gradually went into apostasy after the death of the apostles and substituted for it a teaching that the Church went into apostasy immediately after Jesus stopped administering the church in person. This permits an even greater ability to reject New Testament teachings than under Joseph Smith, Jr.’s doctrine, because the Book of Mormon itself reiterates Christian doctrines of the New Testament that are thought to be inconvenient nowadays.

    This doesn’t get rid of the cognitive dissonance between the teaching of a Great Apostasy versus desire to join orthodox Christian groups and be accepted. However, it does ease doctrinal restrictions on modern lifestyles that would never have been possible under classical 1830’s-style Mormonism.

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