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Flip Floppers

Dale McGowan has done a couple of posts about confirmation bias in reactions to the controversial nomination of Sarah Palin to be the Republican candidate for vice president. His latest post highlighted a Daily Show segment. This is a perfect example of confirmation bias.

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A Not So Eloquent Atheist Kerfluffle

I’ve been mulling over Sam Harris’ talk at the Atheist Alliance International Convention (video: part 1 and part 2). I avoided commenting on it while the debate crested in the atheist community because I wanted to think it over.

Up to that point, I’d begun to think Sam Harris a bit overzealous. This talk changed my opinion. The response from the leaders of the atheist community seemed largely to misunderstand what I thought Harris had said. I took away from his talk that by labeling ourselves as Atheist (or Bright, Humanist, etc.) we become incapable of seeing nuance in complex situations and finding common cause with our religious brothers and sisters.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.…

Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at moments like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment—with peaks and valleys and local attractors—and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.

I’m still considering dropping the atheist label and speaking out against ideas that I disagree with as nothing but myself.

Recently, I experienced the business end of the blunt instrument of atheism that Harris had observed. The Eloquent Atheist recently ran a four part memoir of growing up in a small Idaho town. Included in this memoir are some assertions about Mormon beliefs and history, many of which were in error. The inaccuracies disappointed me because I naïvely expected better from fellow atheists. I submitted the following comment.

Warning: A lot of petty back-and-forth follows, but if a blog isn’t good for getting pettiness out of my system once in a while, then I don’t know why I bother. :) Please skip to the end if you have better things to do.

As a former Mormon, I found your perspective as an outsider interesting, but as a former Mormon, I noticed that the historical and doctrinal information presented was riddled with inaccuracies. I’m as critical as the next guy of Mormon history and doctrine, but it’s a better education tool when it is presented as it really is. Otherwise, Mormons can justifiably charge that their critics are ignorant of the truth. Please fact check your memories and impressions before presenting a seemingly authoritative essay.

I admit that was quite blunt and confrontational. I had just finished reading Nonviolent Communication, so I knew a better way to dialog, but I was lazy and went the more familiar violent approach.

Somehow, I was mistaken for a Mormon apologist and challenged to provide proof of God and to produce the Golden Plates. Color me nonplussed. I then submitted the following comment (which has been removed from their website):

I regret that my comment didn’t make my position more clear. I’m not arguing that Mormonism is verifiable, but that the history and doctrine presented here are inaccurate. A believing Mormon (which I am not) could legitimately object to the inaccuracies of this series which aims to be an exposé. Allow me to give two examples from part 3:

they are white cotton underwear, somewhat similar to long johns, except that they are in two pieces, a “blouse” and pantaloons, which both men and women wear continually, after baptism, for the remainder of their lives.

This can be falsified by reading the Wikipedia article on temple garments. There seems to be some confusion in part 3 over whether the garment is worn after the receiving the ordinance of the Endowment in a temple or after receiving baptism which is received outside the temple. The garment is only worn after the Endowment.

Needless to say, only Mormons can enter any of three levels of Mormon Heaven.

This is an inaccurate and unfair statement of Mormon belief. Mormons are exclusive, but not quite that exclusive. The Celestial Kingdom is reserved for baptized Mormons, but the other two degrees of glory are open to all depending on their virute. In fact, vanishingly few people (no more than a dozen some have speculated) end up in Hell in Mormon eschatology. Even murderers end up in the lowest degree of heaven.

I worry that with inaccurate portrayals like these cropping up on the internet, believing Mormons will stop listening to the critics who do know what they’re talking about. I want them to hear the truth, but they might start to form the opinion that all critics are ignorant of the facts. I hope that all critics will inform themselves before taking up the pen.

Again, I confess to being in attack mode, and it had the ungratifying result of gaining me a place of dishonor: they took the trouble to devote an entire post to denouncing my theism, my Mormonism, caricaturing my statements, and refusing to allow any further comments until I could produce proof of God.

Mr. Blake, however, insists upon arguing about a few points of religious “history” and Mormon “philosophy” ad infinitum, apparently not understanding that we should not and do not care about the small points until the broad issues have been settled. As an example of a broad point I submit the following for Mr. Blake’s consideration: “There is no god.”

Yet Mr. Blake insists that we concern ourselves with the material out of which the magical Mormon royal undergarments are made. Now, Mr. Blake has sufficient unmitigated gall to tell me that I do not understand his point.

Well… that’s what I’m saying, yes. He misunderstood on a very fundamental level and then proceeded to argue against my nonexistent belief in God. I imagined him with his fingers in his ears saying “La La La La. I can’t hear you. There is no God. La La La La.”

Seeking to clear up this persistent misunderstanding (and being quite frustrated and disappointed at this point), I submitted the following comment which was never allowed to be seen on their website:

I am afraid that I haven’t made my position known clearly. Please let me be clear on this point: God is not great and Joseph Smith was not his prophet. No, perhaps I’m trying to be too clever. Let me try again to be direct: I believe that there is no God. If you read my comments again, carefully, you’ll see that I made that clear from the beginning. So requests for me to justify Mormonism or theism are equally misplaced.

The criticism that I offered came not from a Mormon apologist, but from a former Mormon/current atheist asking for more accuracy in the criticism of Mormonism. If you want to check my godless credentials, please feel welcome visit my personal blog, or take my word for it.

I realize that those posts were mostly in the spirit of memoir. That part was fine and interesting. The posts often however stepped beyond that role into exposition of what Mormons purportedly believe in an authoritative voice along the lines of “Mormons believe thus and such”. Mormons believe lots of crazy stuff, so there’s no shortage of silly things to highlight. This makes it not only irresponsible and unfair to publish falsehoods, but kind of lazy. And memoir doesn’t cover a multitude of sins, as James Frey discovered.

I regret that my comments have provoked such vehemently defensive posts, ad hominem attacks, caricaturization of my position, and censorship.

I don’t expect The Eloquent Atheist to be a debate club; that would run counter to its apparent purpose. I’m only asking for better editorial oversight. If I want to direct my Mormon friends to this site to show them how passionate and alive atheists can be (which I hoped to be able to do), I don’t want them to find half-hearted exposés in the guise of memoir.

Let me give you more of a flavor of the kind of misinformation that I object to. Here are the first passages of part 2 titled The History of the LDS Church:

Let’s begin with a capsule history of the Church. The founder, Joseph Smith, was born on a farm in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century. [Joseph Smith was born in Vermont.] That area later became known as The Burned-Over District, a nickname alluding to the many fire-and-brimstone preachers who roamed the area delivering jeremiads to the local residents in tent shows and so-called camp meetings, urging them to repent their sinful ways lest they burn eternally in Hell. In a time of great religious fervor, now called the Second Great Awakening, Smith allegedly searched for a system of religious belief that he could justify in his own mind as legitimate, and investigated a number of the Protestant denominations that existed in the region-Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and so on. None satisfied him as being The True Religion. [According to Smith's most widely known account (the 1838 account of the First Vision), he didn't go to the grove of trees to pray having made up his mind than no extant religion was God's true religion. He claims that he prayed to know which religion was true.] Then according to his account, in 1830, [The first vision is purported to have occurred in 1820.] while walking in a grove of trees on the Hill Cumorah, [The grove of trees reported to have been the site of the First Vision was not on the Hill Cumorah.] near the town of Elmira, [Both the grove and the Hill Cumorah are near Palmyra, New York which is over 50 miles north of Elmira.] he had a vision, in which an angel named Moroni (pronounced “mo-rōn-eye”) allegedly appeared, [While the purported vision of Moroni allegedly happened in 1830, an angel named Moroni plays no part in any account of the First Vision that I'm aware of. Perhaps I'm ignorant of one?] informed Smith that he came as a direct emissary from God, confirmed Smith’s opinion that none of the extant denominations or sects was The True Religion, [As noted above, Joseph claimed to have learned the falsehood of all religions in the First Vision rather than having a foregone conclusion.] and pronounced that Jehovah Himself had selected him (Smith) to found a church that would deliver the True Word of God to those who elected to follow him.

Smith later reputedly reported that he, like Moses, protested that he was unworthy of such a lofty and arduous task, but the angel insisted that he was to be the Prophet and that it was futile to deny the commands of the Almighty. Smith eventually acquiesced to his destiny, and Moroni instructed him where in the Sacred Gove to dig, [Another confusion of the First Vision and the vision of Moroni and also of the Hill Cumorah where Smith claimed to have unearthed the plates, and the Sacred Grove where he claimed to have seen God.] in order to recover the Golden Plates, on which Moroni’s father, Mormon, also an angel, had written, [Moroni is also the nominal author of significant portions of the Book of Mormon. Mormon didn't appear to Joseph as an angel, nor did he purportedly write the plates as an angel.] in an ancient and sacred tongue, the history of two of the Lost Tribes of Israel.…

It got much better after that, but this sloppiness was enough to appall me. Can someone give the man a Wikipedia search?

Once it was mistakenly determined that I was a theist, they didn’t care to read what I said, not carefully at least. Once they presumably realized their mistake, they seemed to cover their tracks by deleting the comments that made their mistake obvious. They weren’t open to nuanced discussion. I had expected better than censorship, dishonesty, and intellectual laziness from my supposedly enlightened fellow atheists.

Is this how some atheists treat theists? Alas, I think Sam Harris was right that labels like “atheist” are useless and probably harmful if they can cause people to turn off their critical thinking and circle the wagons like that.

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How to Believe in God

Sam Harris wrote the following description of faith:

In support of this noble enterprise, every religion has created a black market for irrationality, where people of like minds can trade transparently bad reasons in support of their religious beliefs, without the threat of criticism. You, too, can enter this economy of false knowledge and self-deception. The following method has worked for billions, and it will work for you:

How to Believe in God
Six Easy Steps

  1. First, you must want to believe in God.
  2. Next, understand that believing in God in the absence of evidence is especially noble.
  3. Then, realize that the human ability to believe in God in the absence of evidence might itself constitute evidence for the existence of God.
  4. Now consider any need for further evidence (both in yourself and in others) to be a form of temptation, spiritually unhealthy, or a corruption of the intellect.
  5. Refer to steps 2-4 as acts of “faith.”
  6. Return to 2.

My question is whether this is a fair assessment of everyone’s faith in God. I know that it mostly applied to me when I was religious, but do other people have a kind of faith that is essentially different?

It seems that Sam Harris’ definition of God is roughly a supernatural, personal entity which created the universe and answers prayers. He’s aiming at the more conservative, fundamentalist-leaning religious believer. For some, this definition doesn’t apply.

The steps seem incomplete even for those who believe in such a God. He mentions a kind of evidence which is taken as supportive of God’s existence, but his example seems arbitrarily specific and not sufficiently general. Perhaps his description would be more universal if it were restated as:

  1. First, you must want to believe in God.
  2. Next, understand that believing in God in the absence of evidence is especially noble.
  3. Now consider any need for further evidence (both in yourself and in others) to be a form of temptation, spiritually unhealthy, or a corruption of the intellect.
  4. Then, accept all manner of evidence for God’s existence which doesn’t necessarily imply that conclusion.
  5. Reject all evidence which might contradict your notions about God.
  6. If you can’t ignore some evidence, redefine your concept of God as minimally as you can to satisfy your doubts.
  7. Refer to steps 2-6 as acts of faith.
  8. Return to 2.

It is tempting to think that the liberal believer is someone who has incorporated more doubt into their faith via step 6. The conservative believer would then be someone who has successfully ignored or rejected more contradictory evidence. However, is there another way to look at religion which I’m ignoring here?

I keep thinking about Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, and various neopagans who don’t seem to need myths to be literally true to benefit therefrom. But is this still religious faith, or is this something else entirely?

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Mistakes Were Made

Does this scenario seem familiar?

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”

The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.

(Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), via The Situationist)

Quite a few prophecies have failed, yet people still believe. We’ve expected Jesus to come again for two thousand years, for example. It seems like people have been saying “any day now” forever, at least since the day he died.

Why don’t we collectively say “You know what, we were wrong. Christ really isn’t coming.”? Even if Christ really is coming (the big tease), disbelief would be a reasonable reaction after two millennia of disappointment. Why does the biggest failed (so far?) prophecy in history fail to cause widespread disbelief?

One reason is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when there are two conflicting beliefs fighting it out in our minds. For example, if I believe myself to be an honest person, but I cheat on my taxes, this conflicting information will cause cognitive dissonance. I will probably do one of two things: I could either stop cheating on my taxes, or I could rationalize my dishonesty, perhaps by saying that I worked hard for my money and I deserve it.

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways. (Ibid.)

In the case of the Second Coming, we don’t want to believe that we could be duped. “I’m not the kind of person who could fall for silly stuff like horoscopes, crystals, doomsday cults, and the like. But Christianity is different. Christianity is real. If it weren’t, I would see right through it because I’m not easily fooled.”

Personally, I have spent a lot of time in my life telling people that I knew that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, that Jesus loves us, and God has a plan for our lives. I spent two years doing this full time. I spent countless hours saying this and hearing it repeated in church services. Much of my life has been spent inside the walls of a church. I estimate that I’ve spent at least one full year of my life in church meetings. The church received 10% of my earnings before taxes, my whole life, every last penny. After committing so much time and energy to my beliefs, it was uncomfortable to think that I’d sacrificed all that for a lie.

I’m no fool, or so I like to tell myself. If my beliefs were false, then I’d have realized it a long time ago. False prophecies? You’re reading them wrong. Polygamy? It was God’s will. Racism? Talk to God ’cause I didn’t make the rules. Christianity borrowed from previous mythologies? No, the mythologies borrowed from Christianity. Contradictions in Holy Scripture? Errors in translation. Unanswered prayers? Maybe the answer was “No” or “Wait”, or maybe you weren’t faithful enough for God to speak to you.

I rationalized from morning till night. Evidence against my beliefs surrounded me. I constantly battled to preserve my self image as an intelligent, independent thinker. The truth was that I spent my intelligence in rationalization and followed like a sheep because I was too proud to admit that I didn’t see the Emperor’s clothes. I was the very thing I pretended not to be. I held on to my beliefs kicking and screaming until I was forced to see their absurdity.

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Head Full of Fluff

I recently found some rather amusing and unflattering parodies of the Mormon thought process (via Floating in the Milk). I recognize many of those thought patterns in myself and in the discourse of other members of the LDS church. I thought like this once. Here are a few of my favorites, handpicked for their relevance to me, and edited to my personal taste. I tried to make them less parody and more analysis.

Argument from warm fuzzies

  1. The Book of Mormon makes vague promises about good feelings which would show me that the words of the Book of Mormon are true.
  2. I sometimes have good feelings when I read it and pray about the Book of Mormon.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

This is my own contribution to the list. It’s a complete non sequitur. What makes it worse is that as a Mormon I allowed the Book of Mormon to tell me how to determine that the Book of Mormon is God’s word. I trusted it to tell me how to test its own truthfulness.

Argument from Anti-Mormonism

  1. Satan wants to destroy the true church.
  2. Anti-Mormons have all kinds of evidence that the church is false.
  3. This evidence is very destructive to the claims of the church.
  4. Anything which might destroy the church comes from Satan.
  5. Therefore the church is true.

This circular reasoning really frustrates me. No matter what evidence is brought against the claims of the church, it is all perceived as the work of the devil precisely because of the fact that it contradicts the claims of the church. The evidence is often discounted on that basis alone, prima facie. This line of reasoning makes Mormons immune to all contradictory evidence no matter how valid that evidence may be.

Argument from the round earth

  1. People once thought the Earth was flat.
  2. The Earth was actually round.
  3. Therefore all modern science, including archeology, is probably wrong when it contradicts the teachings of the church.
  4. Therefore the church is true.

I used this thought process to assuage many doubts that arose due to scientific evidence which contradicted the claims of Mormonism.

Argument from The Three Nephites

  1. There are three immortal white guys called the Three Nephites who have been walking around North America for 2000 years.
  2. Some Native American legends talk about “white ghosts”.
  3. I bet those stories are about the Three Nephites!
  4. Therefore the church is true.

I hear this kind of cherry-picking of historical evidence all the time at church: flood stories, Quetzalcoatl, etc. get used to demonstrate the ancient roots of Mormonism.

The Mormon Cosmological argument

  1. Something caused the universe to exist.
  2. It wasn’t God, because he is part of a society of Gods.
  3. It wasn’t his God, because he is part of a long line of Gods.
  4. What was it?
  5. It must have been something!
  6. Therefore the church is true.

I was always told as a Mormon to avoid delving into the mysteries of godliness. This warning translates into “Don’t ask so many questions (especially ones we don’t have answers for).” Why did I allow myself to be cowed into not asking more questions?

Argument from evil

  1. God has a plan for everything.
  2. He must allow bad things to happen because we learn and grow from them.
  3. Yes, even small children who were chopped up by machetes in Rwanda while their mothers watched.
  4. Yes, even the kids who were sent to the ovens in Nazi Germany.
  5. Horrible things do happen to innocent people, just as God planned!
  6. Therefore the church is true.

This is more of a defense against the problem of evil than a real argument for the truth of Mormonism.

Argument from my testimony

  1. You claim to not have a testimony.
  2. But the only reason you say that is so you can sin like Hugh Hefner.
  3. Deep down, you know the church is true. You’re just in denial.
  4. Therefore the church is true.

Even if no one says this out loud, to my face, I know many Mormons believe this about me and will continue to believe it no matter how much I protest.

Argument from numbers

  1. There are millions of Mormons.
  2. Millions of people believe in Mormonism.
  3. Millions of people can’t be wrong.
  4. Therefore the church is true.
  5. Therefore the Roman Catholic church is false.

There are some interesting trends in the statistics which the church publishes: raw growth, raw number of converts, converts per missionary, and percentage growth are all in long-term downward trends. Judging from the number of people I see at church on Sunday when compared to the list of members, extrapolating recklessly to the entire church, I would expect only about 4 million people bother to show up to church in a given month (the church’s benchmark for religious activity), far fewer than the 12 million names-on-the-church-records number that the church trumpets every General Conference. I actually think 4 million is a rather generous number. Another point: The LDS church is not the fastest growing church in the world.

Argument from obvious falseness—actually used by Nibley!

  1. Joseph Smith’s tale is obviously absurd.
  2. Joseph Smith wasn’t a complete idiot.
  3. If he was going to make stuff up he wouldn’t make it look obviously false.
  4. Therefore Joseph Smith wasn’t lying.
  5. Therefore the church is true.

Argument from personal incredulity

  1. I can’t believe Joseph Smith made the whole thing up. He wasn’t educated enough to come up with all those names and places.
  2. Who could do that? Certainly not me.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

Also seen in this variant: I personally have no good explanation for the existence of the Book of Mormon therefore the church is true. The lack of a really good explanation doesn’t mean that we must accept any of the equally poor alternatives.

Argument of ancestral sacrifice

  1. Your ancestors gave up everything for the church.
  2. One would not give up so much for something false.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

This assumes that our ancestors had better information than we do. Our Mormon ancestors also believed in men living on the moon and the surface of the sun.

Argument from Joe’s contribution

  1. Joseph Smith explained so many things.
  2. Nobody has given so many clear explanations (save Jesus).
  3. Therefore the church is true.

The explanations are only clear if you are asking the approved questions. Stray too far from that path and questions cease to have satisfactory answers.

Argument from crabs in a basket

  1. I am a General Authority pretending to be a special witness for Christ.
  2. The other General Authorities seem convinced they really are special witnesses.
  3. Sure as hell! I am not going to be the first to admit I am bluffing.
  4. Therefore the church is true.

I am positive that many General Authorities are sincere, but once they’re called as General Authorities, they are expected to project an image of certainty. There must be tremendous social pressure to play the part even if they really don’t feel like they’re any better qualified to be a witness for Christ than the average member. I can easily imagine a man being called as an Apostle thinking to himself “But I’ve never had a revelation of Jesus Christ that would justify being called an ‘Apostle’.” The man accepts his calling on the faith that the Lord would qualify whom he calls and waits patiently for something that would justify his calling as a special witness of Christ. Time goes on and he settles into his role and never receives that special witness, but his worries are swallowed up in the busy-ness of his calling.

This is pure speculation I admit, but this follows the pattern in my own life, even when I was called as an Elders Quorum President (which calling I never served in—long story). I’m simply extrapolating to Bishops, Stake Presidents, and (why not?) Apostles.

Argument from disasters

  1. The scriptures predict that calamities and wickedness will befall the earth before Christ’s second coming.
  2. The world is in the worst shape ever.
  3. Therefore the church is true.

This is another argument that I added to the list. The problem with this argument—other than that it is a non sequitur like all of the other arguments—is that it the world is not necessarily in the worst shape ever. It is just as easy to argue that we are all better off than ever. It depends on how you look at the data.

The truth is that I didn’t use these arguments to find out truth, but rather to rationalize my foregone conclusions. I wanted Mormonism to be the truth, so I found intellectually dishonest ways to shore up my beliefs. I’m pretty sure that I knew better, but I went along anyway. My own fears and desires kept me in a church which taught things that I couldn’t believe while being honest with myself.

Are there any other arguments that have been missed?

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