If I could ask them one question . . .
Come Follow Me, Lesson 28
For Come Follow Me, lesson 28, Jul 13-19, Alma 32-35
If I wanted to encourage thought and try to understand devout believers better, I might ask:
“Could the Alma 32 experiment lead down a bad path?”
Things to consider:
- Alma 32 teaches to experiment with the word of God using an analogy comparing the word of God to a seed planted into the “soil” of your heart. It teaches that if you tend to this seed it will sprout and swell in your heart, that eventually, if you continue to care well for the plant, it will bear good fruit. By that good fruit you will know the seed (word of God) is good.
- The object is clear here. Practice the word of God to know it is good and continue this practice unto exaltation.
“… ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst” (Alma 32:42).
- What could be wrong with this? It’s an experiment, so it sounds sciency. Besides, if it doesn’t work, you can move on—no harm done. And, how could anyone complain about good fruit since it’s about following what inspires and enlightens?
- Unfortunately, this experiment is about as unscientific as it gets. Science (done well) should involve experiments designed to minimize bias in the results and to actually try to prove a hypothesis wrong. So, let’s take a look at how Alma’s experiment compares/contrasts with this.
- Leverages desire for social reciprocity
Alma 32:22 reminds a believer of God’s mercy for believers, which suggests a debt of gratitude. As a social being, a believer in God’s mercy will want to reciprocate, so it primes a believing reader to want to do what the Lord wants, and this verse says God wants the person to believe what is claimed to be the word of God.
- Suggests reward for belief
Alma 32:22 asserts that a person who believes in God will receive God’s mercy (and the obvious correlate: that a person who does not believe in God will not receive God’s mercy). If accepted by the reader, this could promote reward anticipation for belief or fear and guilt for disbelief. All of this, if believed to some extent, promotes a desire to believe further.
- Encourages sunk-cost bias
Clearly Alma is advocating for a significant amount of effort to reap the fruit of this tree. “…if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (Alma 32:41). This goes hand-in-hand with the teaching that if the word does not swell in your heart, it is your fault (Alma 32:28, 38-39).
- Promotes motivated reasoning
Alma 32:27 encourages to “…exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you….”
- “Motivated reasoning refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs” (Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School).
- As Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella explained, motivated reasoning
“is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead
people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than
objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads” (Dr. Novella).
- What if you applied a desire to believe to the teachings of some other religion that claims to be the only
true religion of God? Isn’t the following likely? “People may ultimately come
to believe that the weight of evidence supports the position that they
already wanted to believe was true. And they will believe this without
recognizing that their own desires influenced the evaluation of the evidence”
(Art Markman Ph.D.).
- Rather than trying to prove the gospel false, Alma’s experiment is set up to try to prove what he teaches is good. Consider how it might work to apply all of what Alma teaches about his experiment to Islam or Catholicism. If these biases were applied with a commitment to nourish and care for the word as presented by either of these religions, isn’t it quite likely that the method would result in a swelling in the heart and ultimately desirable fruit from the resulting plant? If you don’t think it would, please do a little research on how Muslims and Catholics are inspired and uplifted by their respective religions. And, if the fruit they harvest from that experiment is so good to them, why would they even think of investing effort in nourishing the word as taught by Mormonism? I wonder if I’ll get any argument that God promotes some to follow Islam and others Catholicism. It would be interesting if a devout Mormon posited this, because that would be concluding that sometimes God inspires people to believe in and stick to religions that contradict the truth and authority claims of the Mormon Church.
- The idea that nourishing the seed and the resulting plant is an interesting idea, especially when you consider that bull dung can be used to nourish plants. Bull dung is a toned down version of vulgar slang that means “nonsense.” Could such dung promote a word to grow regardless of whether or not the word is actually true or whether or not it’s the best path for someone to follow?
- The analogy of treating the word of God as a seed may illustrate how mindfully practicing a principle may uplift or inspire you, but I think it provides little by way of figuring out whether a religion is God’s one and only. I would also suggest that if a particular seed doesn’t swell within your heart or provide fruit, it may be that the seed is a bad match for the soil of your heart. However, I’d bet your heart will produce an amazing harvest with a different kind of seed. May you find joy in the process of discovering what grows best in your heart, using critical thinking along the way to protect yourself.
Other observations about this lesson’s reading:
- Signs are apparently bad, but evidence is good (Alma 32:17-19, Alma 32:28-35, and Alma 32:38-40).
- The double-bind of figuring out if Mormonism is true or good (Alma 32:20).
- Is your faith in Christ dormant (Alma 32:34)?
- According to the Book of Mormon, the Lord dwell in your heart (Alma 34:36), but the D&C says He cannot. Which way is it?
- The conversion of the poor Zoramites somehow destroys the “craft” of the rich Zoramites (Alma 35:6).
- The amazing flip-flopping Nephites (Alma 35:15).
If you could ask believers questions about the scriptures for this lesson, what would you ask?
Have fun studying!
If I could ask them one question, Lesson 28