Tuesday, February 23, 2016

For Mormonism

The attitude of non-Mormons to Mormonism usually tells you quite a lot about what else they value.

And the critiques are well-rehearsed.

Militant atheists like to mock Mormonism’s odd beliefs about the universe, amply documented (in otherwise quite fair and sympathetic portrayals) in Southpark and The Book of Mormon. The beliefs themselves, including disappearing golden tablets and the like, are not really much more absurd than many other religions. But they are claimed to have happened more recently, which seems to make an unusually large difference. Partly this makes certain events easier to disprove, but I don’t think that’s really it. I think actually most of the difference in perception is psychological. To the rationalist, it is no more plausible that Jesus turned water into wine two thousand years ago than that I turned water into wine yesterday. To the common person, however, the latter seems to require a larger suspension of disbelief – the rest of the scene is suddenly palpable and gets compared with what we know about the modern world. For some reason, with old religions, part of the brain thinks ‘well, who knows what things were like back then’.

Social Justice types tend to berate Mormons for their socially conservative views. They dislike abortion, they dislike gay marriage, they tend to hold to quite traditional views of gender roles. Add in desired talking points to taste on whatever side you like here and this writes itself. I do note, however, that the volume of the criticism they receive seems better explained by the fact that they’re a soft target in social terms and won’t fight back. After Proposition 8 passed in California, lefties angrily protested against the Mormons (who supported it on average), but not against Blacks and Hispanics who also supported it on average (the same is probably true of Muslims too). Interpret how you will.

Myself, I’ve always been far more struck by something much simpler. Nearly all the Mormons I’ve ever met have been really friendly, nice people. And that matters to me, a lot. We’re talking maybe n=20 or 30 by this point. How many groups of people, in any category, can you honestly say that about?

If I were to choose a religion based purely on the personal qualities and behavior of its average adherent, I’m pretty sure that I’d pick Mormonism.

This hypothetical is less absurd than it sounds. It actually corresponds fairly closely to the thought process that atheist parents might have if they’d just had a child, and saw social value in religion even though they doubted its metaphysical truth. I’ve known people who were in this exact position.

I was in Provo, Utah, a little while ago. It seemed like a movie scene depicting what America was like in the 1950s. Everyone was white. Everyone was clean cut, and friendly, and tastefully dressed. Everyone was polite, and nobody swore when talking. Brigham Young University, near where I was staying, has student policies against long hair and beards. I had both, but nobody I spoke to mentioned it, let alone displayed any hostility on that account.

Apparently everyone gets married quite young. I went skiing at a nearby mountain, and in the line on the chairlift, I stood behind two young men (for some reason, the term boys doesn’t seem appropriate) who couldn’t be more than 23 or so, perhaps younger. One was telling the other about the importance of making sure you got along well with the family of the girl you wanted to marry, given how much time you would be spending with them (although sometimes you love someone who doesn’t fall in that category). He offered the insight, which I thought quite perceptive, that mothers tended to like girlfriends who were somewhat like themselves, if for no other reason than that they feel they understand the girl better.

I cannot imagine such a conversation among 23 year old boys in most parts of this country. To most of them, the whole concept would be literally inconceivable. That I would not have wanted to get married by 23 does not detract at all from the fact that I think society is better off if more people married by 25 and had three or four kids, rather than getting married at 35 (if at all ) and having one or none.

But what I remember most vividly was when I was walking back from a restaurant in Provo. I walked past a young 20-something couple (probably married) who were about to walk into the restaurant. They were approached by a slightly older grizzled white guy with a long beard carrying a duffle bag. The beard guy asked the young man which way the bus station was. The young man told him it was a few blocks away, and gave him directions.

The older man thanked him, and started walking. He had gotten perhaps 10 metres when the young man came running up. ‘Look’, he said, ‘it’s a bit of a walk. Why don’t I just drive you there?’. ‘Are you sure?’ asked the old man. ‘Yeah, it’s no problem at all.’, the young man replied.

Reader, can you imagine this conversation playing out that way in the city or town where you live? In the context of Provo, the whole affair didn’t seem out of place at all.

What that young man believed about the afterlife troubles me not one jot. As Mr Jefferson put it, it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. But how that man acts to his fellow man is a subject that interests me considerably.

People like that young man are what’s great about America, actually. I would want them as my neighbors. All I know is that Mormonism seems to regularly produce people like that, and this is something that warms my heart. If a metaphysical belief in magic undergarments is the necessary price to pay to make this happen, I would pay it enthusiastically.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


There is an odd camaraderie among those who have failed.

I’ve been finding this out recently (which is the reason for the paucity of recent posts).

I used to be fairly insouciant about the prospect of getting fired. Then I got fired, and I suddenly had a lot more sympathy for people who seemed to be quite upset for a period afterwards. Like so many misfortunes in life, it’s easy to be glib about it until it happens to you. But when it does, you remember it.

Life does indeed go on, and I’m in a good position employment-wise. I initially decided that stoicism was the way forward, and asserted (part aspirationally) that everything was fine. ‘Whine less’ was already the motto of 2016, inspired by Epictetus's 'Discourses'. I stand by that motto, incidentally. But after a few days of hassling around emailing people and getting a good mix of polite but awkward refusals (along with some interest), I finally was a bit down. Now I’m actually getting towards the point I claimed to be at initially.

In the process of emailing work friends about the prospect of getting a job, when I explained the circumstances of my departure I got a surprising number of quite heartfelt responses. When I went through the list of who wrote back like this, I realised that a lot of them had gone through the same thing at one point. ‘I know how it feels’, one wrote. He wasn’t lying.

The last time I remember this happening was years ago when I was about 20, and working at my Dad’s office. There was an early 30’s guy there whom I got along with well, and looked up to in the way of young men who engage on somewhat jovial mockery and discussion. On a Saturday afternoon, when I was leaving the office, I told him that I was off to break up with my girlfriend. I expected him to make a joke, or some sort of bonhomie about the prospective fun of being single again. But his response was nothing of the sort. ‘That sucks man, I’m really sorry’, was his reply. Having not had a serious breakup before then, I found it a little unexpected, but didn’t think too much of it. 3 hours of break-up conversation later, I understood the kindness of his response a lot more.

The whole recent experience has made me want to be kinder to the people around me.

I think that’s a good addition to the 2016 motto as well, actually.