Illusions of Grandeur: Politics, Religion, and Polite Company

Considering the relative ease with which one buries refuse at a landfill, relative to the difficulty one faces of burying within their mind harmful, detestable, insidious ideology, it would seem one method of trash handling is not applicable to all circumstances. Neither is the modern ease with which we dispose of excrement to be found in the shit-sifting that is breaking free of childhood indoctrination. Without a severe blow to the head, it would seem the evolved primate brain to which we are dependent, is nearly incapable of purging noxious patterns of  programming. Perhaps this understanding illuminated Christopher Hitchens when he wrote, “Illusions, of course, cannot be abolished. But they can and must be outgrown.” 

Growth is about change. Change comes as we enlarge our view of the world, of others, and of ourselves. The foremost challenge is against our preconcieved notions and long-held traditions. When we refuse to entertain new information we become prisoners of our own illusions.  “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the Earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” The appetizing fruit at the top of the pile is enough to satisfy our eyes to the point that we may say either the rot doesn’t exist–a willfully ignorant position–or, more sinisterly, the rot doesn’t matter at all. How deep are we willing to dig for truth? Does complete truth matter or only our small, superficial view of the surface layer we allow ourselves to see?

I once believed and was often taught that after death, one of my regrets would almost invariably be that I had spent too little time in study of the scriptures. Now I can say that I feel precisely the opposite. Committed to my memory are a small collection of wisdom from Kipling, Shakespeare, Frost, and Twain. Crowding the precious and seemingly more resistant space within the same memory are a festering, heaping, landfill of Bible and Book of Mormon versus. Myths and fanciful teachings of men like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other “prophets.” These are largely passages and phrases to which I was exposed from the ages of fourteen to thirty. Try as I might, the process of “burying” the refuse with fresh soil in which new epigrams, lessons, and sonnets may be stored has proved much more difficult than I might have imagined. But where I cannot obscure or flush away the stinking waste, I am attempting to outgrow it.

In addition, I faced the guilt of wanting to read anything if I had not yet read from The Book of Mormon. If I hadn’t given time to reading the Mormon foundational scripture that day, I was making a poor choice to read something else. I felt less guilt for reading books or articles by church leaders or apologists, slightly more for clever but harmless fiction, and shame for an interest in literature or philosophy with their dangerous, liberal ideas. This guilt often won and, despite my piety, I wound up reading nothing at all. Outside of school obligations, I found reading or studying those things that interested me a burden rather than a joy. I sated myself with the droning punditry of Fox News and thought I had learned something. 

Unfortunately, it is not simply an issue of available space or adequate time. As the venerable Twain was known to have said, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.” Former Congressional Librarian, Daniel J. Boorstin is credited with refining and focussing Twain’s sentiment when he said, “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” Herein lies the greater tragedy of my youth. Space can be made or expanded in the miraculous mind of a human, but changing the manner in which one learns, the lens through which they view the world, and reclaiming the time spent conforming the square mind of the indoctrinated to the round hole of reason and logic proves far more difficult than I might have imagined. Falling into old ways of thinking and responding to feelings in a reactionary reflex to protect my ideas and, indeed, my feelings from a perceived attack requires some professional help to deprogram. Especially when I was nurtured to equate disagreement with hostility and depravity.

Though I ask for and accept no sympathy regarding these emotional and mental handicaps, I cannot keep my reader from recoiling in disgust and their heart swelling with the natural primate impulse to empathy when I reveal that I received a degree in Neuroscience from Brigham Young University. The only ill-will I hold in regards to my time there is with respect to the academic integrity. I’ll allow one example to speak for my scientific education at BYU. (Though a great deal could be said about the required “religious” studies credits which amounted to one, two-credit course each semester!)

On a pleasant afternoon, I made my usual journey on foot from my off-campus apartment to the heart of campus for a class. I took a path through the Wilkinson Student Center to find that the university President, Merrill J. Bateman (a member of the LDS church’s First Quorum of the Seventy and thus sustained as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” by the membership of the church), had subjected himself to an open question and answer session. Any student willing to wait in line could ask whatever question was on their mind. I watched the display for some time as students asked questions ranging from the understandable “married housing is too expensive on campus, what are you going to do about it?” to the inane “how can we keep the girls on campus from wearing immodest clothing? For gosh-sakes, their knees are visible! And sometimes their clavicle!”

Finding that I had time on my hands, I stepped in line to see if I could ask a question. This was not long after I had returned home from my two-year missionary service. I had become more indoctrinated in that time and more confident in my faith. I had a real world to live and work in. I wanted to know and understand the secular arguments that I would inevitably encounter. The sooner I was exposed, the sooner I could wrap them tidily in the revealed truth of the gospel. As it turns out, due to the time constraints, I became the last individual to ask a question. “It seems to me that students are not treated as adults in our science classes. My professors hedge as if they walk on broken glass when the subjects of big bang cosmology or evolution come up. We hear a banal statement from the church on the first day of each semester in any natural science class. A statement from 1909. Why can’t our professors treat us like thinking adults and teach us what they surely learned in their PhD programs?”

As if his brain shut down or, rather, went into his ecclesiastical programming at the mention of “big bang” and its debaucherous cousin, “evolution,” Mr. Bateman said nothing more or less than, “The church has made a statement on the origin of man. I would refer you to their statement for any clarification anyone would seek on this matter.” And, like a good prophet, seer, and revelator, he walked away. The crowd dispersed, and I went to whatever class was on my schedule with a strange sense of anti-fulfillment. It wasn’t that I had failed to be fulfilled, it was that any fire of scholastic fulfillment had been doused by a needless evasion. What if I had asked him about the veracity of the 1969 Moon landing and he had said, “I refer you to a statement by LDS Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, from 1961:

We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.

I wonder how many books this was written in? Remember, this was from the mouth of an Apostle of Jesus Christ, a prophet, seer, and revelator to members of the church that sustained him as such. To take it to the ultimate endgame, he believed himself an Apostle chosen by God to minister to the WHOLE WORLD even if only his acolytes in the church were listening. He didn’t muse it in a journal or say it jokingly over donuts and cider. It was said in an official church meeting in Hawaii over which he would have been viewed as the presiding authority. 

So, it came as no surprise to read another compelling observation of Mark Twain. “All schools, all colleges have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge which they conceal cannot justly be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten.” It turns out that Mr. Twain was more prophetic about BYU than Joseph Fielding Smith was regarding space exploration. He was also more insightful regarding the Mormon church’s long history of consciously concealing the unsavory and deceitful aspects of the church’s history that rot at the bottom of the basket of the “appealing” fruit they sell. By their fruits, ye shall know them! Just don’t forget to raise the first layer to see what lurks beneath. 

This type of wizard-behind-the-curtain or king’s-new-clothes might be nothing more than an amusing blip in the human species collective history if reason could win the day. In his iconoclastic expose on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, Christopher Hitchens adroitly observed, “In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjurer is only the instrument of the audience. He may even announce himself as a trickster and a clever prestidigitator and yet gull the crowd.” Ask those who sustained Joseph Fielding Smith a prophet of God if his rotten, prophetic fruit dissuaded their opinion in any way? Or, more to Hitchens point, what about the followers of Mormonism’s not-so-distant cousin led by Warren Jeffs? This man, once placed in prison and after languishing for some time, announced to his followers that he was a fallen prophet. Ironically, the statement is a “revelation” that the Lord “dictated” to Jeffs. But, he was their prophet! Of course, they would not listen–even to him. Not listening to what you don’t want to hear is a long-honored tradition for the zealous faithful. For the faithful, their hearing may be selective though not so selective as what they choose to believe. Where the ears cannot always be guarded, the mind can be made nearly impervious to challenges to one’s faith.

Merrill Bateman’s answer demonstrated two aspects of NEWSPEAK from George Orwell’s 1984. At the end of the narrative story, Orwell includes a section called “The Principles of Newspeak.” Of the need for brain activity in answering questions regarding INGSOC, or in my case, The Church, he said: 

Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brains centres at all…[words were] ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox one, it implied nothing but praise…

I don’t doubt that, in a private conversation with Mr. Bateman, the topic of evolution or The Big Bang would result in much more fulfilling and insightful dialectic. Orwell further expressed regarding Newspeak: 

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray for the the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument, and the texture of the words, with their harsh sound and a certain wifely ugliness which was in accord with the spirit of Ingsoc, assisted the process still further.

Language is simply a tool for the pious devotees to those truths who’s only evidence is faith. The real depth of the chasm to be crossed is determined by the height of the cliffs which abut it. They are the tangible reality on one side in which everyone shares sense experience. On the other side is the reality that many “see” through their lens of faith. They have a scriptural teaching that “now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Worse yet, they are instructed in their perfect, divinely inspired book in the same verse that “now I know in part; but then shall I know…”

We can share the experience of watching the sun rise. We can expect similar physiologic results from medicines. We can watch the same video of the President lying to the world. We can read the same histories of “holy men” declaring that they are the husband of one wife while secretly having wed dozens of other women and girls. We can study the same anthropology, archaeology, and DNA history of the world. The reality of these facts and countless others, are there for the individuals of the world to share.The facts remain indifferent the conclusions drawn. In the world of falsifiable science, we are eager to render the best conclusions. Often we are right! That does not make the intellectually honest unwilling to change or outgrow their assumptions and conclusions under the light of new information or contrary evidence.  

But what about the unfalsifiable? How can we verify heaven? Especially when we have so many, conflicting versions of the same? There is no evidence we can point to that a person can share or verify in any way. In a recent conversation with my own mother, I was told that with the coronavirus pandemic, the wildfires, the social unrest, and the threat of war with various countries, the second coming of Jesus Christ couldn’t be far off. “When the church announces temples in Independence and Far West, Missouri,” (a totally Mormon thing associated with Jesus coming again) “I’m gonna say I told you so.” 

Aside from my disdain for those who crave death and destruction upon the world for their illusion to be made real, I was hurt by my mother’s attitude. However, I have developed a thicker skin and a confidence in how my mind works. I attribute this to my confidence in my intellect but my willingness to be proven wrong. My reply was calm as I said, “Well, your position is unfalsifiable. You’ll always be waiting to tell me ‘I told you so.’ I would never want to say that to you. But there is not and never will be anything you’d accept as evidence against your position. If it does happen, you’ll say I’m right. If it doesn’t you’ll say, ‘We weren’t worthy of it.’ Or, ‘God works in His time.'”

My mother, and many others, believe their concept of heaven is more real than their experience here. This veil of tears is an illusion. They will reject any and all evidence present in this illusion if it does not conform to the reality of their heaven. They can reject evolution, physics, climate science, psychology, medicine, etc because they are products of an illusion. “I reject the evidence of my eyes and ears for the ideas of my mind and heart because right now, we see through a glass darkly.”

How many families have been torn apart because the faith-devoted spouse rejects the love of their unbelieving husband, demonstrated through decades of commitment, affection, and intimacy for the illusion, born of hope and unsupported by ANY evidence, that after she dies she can bask in the eternal love of a white-bearded old man in heaven? The pious will willingly and joyfully sacrifice relationships with children and grandchildren in the tangible now to build a future kingdom through missionary work and to save the dead. All of this is dependent upon their illusion of a future kingdom–an illusion they “know” is more real than reality. “You may be LGBT now but I will cut you off to show you that I care more about an illusory exaltation than our real, demonstrable relationship. One day you’ll thank me, my child.”

It’s not only the power of religion that can and does arouse such devotion. I used to view iconoclasts as petty, negative swamp rats that gloried in controversy and provocation. I see them quite differently now. To place any individual in a position of glory, saviorship, and adoration creates a fertile bed for cults of personality to take root. It is then a short growing season to the harvest of tyranny. 

How often have we heard Donald Trump say something grotesque regarding women, those with mental or physical handicaps, or call dead soldiers “losers”? How many times has he said something idiotic or wrong regarding the coronavirus? He may be ill-informed or simply ignorant of facts in some cases. But do a web search of the verified LIES he has said or written. The stance I’ve heard from his supporters? “The media doesn’t give him a fair shake.” And, yes, I’ve heard this one, including yesterday from a Republican Party pollster going door to door in my neighborhood, “The real Donald Trump isn’t the one you see on TV or Twitter.”

Their idea of him is more real that the reality of what he has said and done on record. Again, what he says and does are well-reported facts that supporters and opposers alike can share. But for the believer, there is no way to falsify their position. NEWSPEAK has gone from Trump’s witless rambling to infect his supporters. Their brains have shut-off to let Trump and the vociferous right’s inane language become their bulwark. He mocks you for your belief. He’s bragged–BRAGGED–that his followers are so loyal, he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and not lose a single vote. He’s not an idiot but he knows his supporters are. That is why he mocks you. This is not praise for you. Can you imagine anyone saying this? Even Stalin was more shrewd than this. It’s the equivalent of a mob boss looking you in the face and, knowing how pathetic and sycophantic you are, telling you, “I could tear your kids from your arms, kick you out of the country, and kill your spouse in-front-of you and you’d still love me.” It’s not praise, it’s bragging! He’s taunting you. Your illusion of who he is is more real to you than the reality we can actually, mutually see, hear, and read about.

There is another level of devotion to an illusion, however, that may be more disturbing. What is truly frightening is when people acknowledge the shared reality in the face of their individual illusion, yet claim it does not have any affect on their reality. This degree of devotion requires an obscene amount of “inoculation” and “brainwashing.” It is nearly always a case of special pleading. They reserve their harshest judgements for any and all other individuals while refraining from applying the same to their revered leader/savior/prophet. If Joe Biden were to have said or done what Donald Trump had said or done, the rules they refuse to apply to Trump suddenly become paramount against Biden. This is a broader human problem for which both sides of the aisle are guilty. It seems, to me, far more apparent now with the would-be-dictator currently inhabiting the White House. 

Oft attributed to Jonathan Swift, the following is perhaps less eloquently rendered but still as true, “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.” Put another way that elucidates the emotional aspect of the same epigrammatic image, English Poet John Dryden said, “A man is to be cheated into passion, but to be reason’d into truth.” The two topics, politics and religion, that we oft avoid but of which G.K. Chesterton said, “There is nothing else to discuss,” are simply emotional realms. They don’t have to be, but changing human nature will not happen by the dialectic. Again, we can’t change our illusions or our nature, we must learn to and work to outgrow them. This is where the dialectic is ALL THAT WE HAVE.

Along my journey, I’ve leaned on many forms of support as I challenged my own illusions and grown to accept my doubts. My journey accelerated around a significant back injury, surgery, and recovery. Frequent walks were the prescription therapy in the weeks following surgery. Up to five walks a day with increasing duration. As the paths I walked around my home became more familiar, I looked for insight and distraction from audiobooks and music. Already a casual fan of Coldplay, they had a new album released, Ghost Stories, that I began listening to during these walks. This led me to other albums. The most supportive and insightful during that time was their album X&Y. Among the applicable tracks, the song Talk applies well here: 

Oh brother, I can’t, I can’t get through

I’ve been trying hard to reach you ’cause I don’t know what to do

Oh brother, I can’t believe it’s true

I’m so scared about the future, and I wanna talk to you

Oh, I wanna talk to you

You can take a picture of something you see

In the future where will I be?

You can climb a ladder up to the sun

Or a write a song nobody has sung

Or do something that’s never been done

Are you lost or incomplete?

Do you feel like a puzzle, you can’t find your missing piece?

Tell me, how do you feel?

Well, I feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak

And they’re talking it to me

So you take a picture of something you see

In the future where will I be?

You can climb a ladder up to the sun

Or write a song nobody has sung

Or do something that’s never been done

Or do something that’s never been done

So you don’t know where you’re going and you wanna talk

And you feel like you’re going where you’ve been before

You tell anyone who’ll listen, but you feel ignored

Nothing’s really making any sense at all, let’s talk

Let’s talk, let’s talk, let’s talk

It’s all we have. Talk. Conversation. Open-mindedness and shared experience. If we can’t share it, we can’t talk about it in a meaningful way. If what we share is an illusion compared to what you believe is yet to come, we can’t talk. We need to talk about here and now. The climate is changing. The serious researchers that spend their lives studying it are in almost perfect consensus on the fact that mankind is largely responsible. If you believe an unseen God whose more real to you than your neighbor will destroy the earth with fire and war and plaque and pestilence before restoring it, how can we talk about what our species can do now? If you feel that your illusion about the current political leadership is the real Trump and the comments, tweets, and lies we can both view are an illusion, we can’t talk about it. If you believe that glory awaits you in heaven for obedience to the dictates of an unseen God through other men and women on this planet, how can we find common ground on social justice issues?

At some point in the future, my teenage daughter will ask if I voted for Donald Trump. I have not. My reason the first time around were his degrading statements about and treatment toward women. We share the reality of what he said. I couldn’t face her if I had voted for him. I couldn’t talk to her and tell her that its not the real Trump. I couldn’t expect her to buy the illusion in which I would certainly have had to sell my integrity to believe. If we can’t talk about the only experiences which we can share as earth-born primates, we can’t talk.

Let’s talk.

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