Apostasy as Conspiracy Theory: Reason, Logic, Insanity and Mormon Intellectualism

It’s time to talk about Apostasy. Again.

In this post, however, I want to introduce a new approach to thinking about personal apostasy by drawing what I think are compelling comparisons between apostasy and conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories appeal to some very fundamental aspects of human nature and can wield a great deal of influence over people. I believe that a closer look at the appeal and mechanics of conspiracy theories can help illuminate some important aspects of personal apostasy from the church.

My hope is that by exposing these aspects of apostasy I can help not only those members of the church who are dealing with family or friends who have apostatized, but also give pause to those who find themselves being drawn down the path of apostasy, and raise doubts among those who are already a far distance down that path.

Ultimately this is a warning about the limits of reason and logic and the potential dangers of the rational mind.

The concept of conspiracy is deeply ingrained into our entertainment, our political discourse, and even our religion. Conspiracy theories exist among the atheistic as well as religious. They propagate among liberals as well as conservatives, and among the educated as well as the ignorant.

The Logic of Insanity

To understand conspiracy theories better, and by extension apostasy, we must first look at insanity. G.K. Chesterton’s keen observations concerning madness provide an excellent foundation upon which I hope to build. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes the following observations which, with a plea for patience from the reader, I quote at length:

“Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.”

“Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.”

“Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner.”

Now, while my own experience generally validates Chesterton’s insight, I would add that insanity is not an all-consuming binary state; a person is often neither completely mad nor completely sane. Madness comes in degrees and compartments, and an otherwise sane person can succumb to this kind of insane thinking in only some aspects of his or her life, while retaining a great deal of apparent sanity in other respects. All of us experience degrees of insane thinking in one or more aspect of our lives. It’s part of being human.

Aspects of Conspiracy Theories

Let me mention briefly that there are real conspiracies. I have seen the acts of conspiring men and women myself. Both the Book of Mormon and modern prophets have affirmed the reality of secret combinations.

That said, we can recognize Chesterton’s description of insanity in the logic of conspiracy theories. There is the same “logical completeness,” the same “unanswerable” reasoning, the same “horrible clarity of detail”, the same “connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze.”

Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories are not fools. On the contrary they are commonly very intelligent, logical, “successful reasoners.” As Chesterton would say, it’s not that their theories don’t make logical sense, it’s that the conspiracy theory “explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.” I call this aspect of conspiracy theories “logical completeness”.

Human reason is very good at finding logical patterns and connecting mathematical dots. Conspiracy theories have power because they provide a sense of logical completeness and rational satisfaction; a sense of order from chaos. Those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory often take this logical completeness and the fact that their logic is at least unanswerable as evidence of the truthfulness of the theory. On the contrary, it could just as easily be the hallmark of insanity.

The second aspect of conspiracy theories that gives them power over us is what I call “gossip appeal”. Gossip carries a great deal of explanatory power and provides a narrative framework in which the actions of another can be interpreted. And because human nature often finds pleasure in discovering the dirty secrets, misdeeds, or misfortunes of others (even when the dirt is perceived more than real) gossip spreads quickly. And because gossip appears to agree with the observable facts, and often exhibits a great deal of logical completeness itself, it is very damaging and difficult to correct; the messy unintentionality of reality is often less logically satisfying than the scuttlebutt.

Conspiracy theories appeal to the same base human pleasure in sordid news as gossip does. The adherent feels compelled by the logical, explanatory power of the theory and the gossip-like discovery of the dirty secret.

Which brings us to the third aspect of conspiracy theories that give them power, which I call “perceived superiority”. Adopting a conspiracy theory has the effect of placing the believer in what they perceive to be a small group of intellectually superior people who, unlike the “sheeple” who believe the official story, have figured out “what is really going on.” It’s like qualifying for an elite club. This perception is reinforced by a like-minded community as well as the logical completeness of the theory and the gossip appeal previously discussed. It is natural for everyone to believe that they are more astute and more informed than their peers, and conspiracy theories confirm that natural bias.

These three aspects– logical completeness, gossip appeal, and perceived superiority — contribute to the power of conspiracy theories over the human mind.

The Tragedy of Bobby Fischer

I’m sure that you have already noticed at least a few similarities to apostasy. But before fleshing them out, I want to provide a couple of more concrete examples and experiences.

First, I would like to look at the sad example of Bobby Fischer.

Some of you probably became aware of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer through the 1993 film, Searching for Bobby Fischer. Fischer, who passed away in 2008, was considered one of the greatest chess players of all time. He didn’t just play chess, he had such a huge influence that he permanently changed the way other people play chess.

His genius and ability for logical thought are unquestionable. And yet, he is a perfect example of the kind of logical insanity that Chesterton described. Fischer descended into paranoia and embraced increasingly strident conspiracy theories. In last decade of his life, he was so steeped in anti-Jewish and anti-United States conspiracy theories that he denied the Jewish Holocaust, admired Hitler, actually wrote Osama Bin Laden a letter of solidarity, and regularly denounced both the Jewish people and the United States in the most vile, crude terms.

Now, Fischer’s paranoia was not completely baseless. He ended up a fugitive from the U.S. government over tax evasion and for playing a 1992 competition chess game in Yugoslavia in defiance to an embargo by executive order of President George H .W. Bush. He felt personally wronged by the U.S. and, to avoid an arrest warrant, never returned to the country.

It is a distressing and tragic story, but in order to avoid distracting from my primary theme I won’t pursue the details any more here. If you are interested, there is a lot of good information on the Wikipedia entry, as well as an excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly from December 2002.

Rather than allow him to see through the conspiracy theories, Bobby Fischer’s amazingly analytical, logical mind conspired against him to build an elaborate map of logical connections that reinforced his paranoia. When he passed away, Fischer, mostly devoid of humor, and charity, and dignity, had lost everything BUT his reason, just as Chesterton had described almost exactly 100 years beforehand.

My First Hand Experience with Conspiracy Theory

The tragedy of Bobby Fischer is an extreme example. Let me share a couple of my own experiences with the lure of conspiracy theories, paranoia, and the limits of reason.

It’s hard to explain my own experience with conspiracy theories without getting mired in the details of the conspiracy theory itself and also without offending anyone who might subscribe to it.

Many years ago, as I became more interested in politics, I was introduced to what is called the Straussian conspiracy theory. Leo Strauss was a very influential political philosopher. His students have been quite influential in conservative political thought, though their influence is often not widely noticed (which contributes to the conspiracy idea). Strauss wrote a book called Persecution and the Art of Writing in which he argued that historically philosophers have hidden their true beliefs because of fear of persecution, and that hidden behind the seemingly obvious meaning of their writing is an “esoteric text” that communicates their true thoughts to those willing to really study it. The conspiracy theory alleges that Strauss himself wrote in the same fashion and that all of his contributions to conservative thought are really a Machiavellian “noble lie” which he believed was necessary for the good of society and to maintain the power of a secret elite to which he belonged, and that his students have followed this same esoteric objective.

At first I found this theory preposterous, and argued with its advocates extensively. But just to make sure, I eventually bought a copy of Persecution and the Art of Writing and began to read it.

I still remember how it felt as the conspiracy theory took ahold of me while I read. The conspiracy was true! It carried all the exhilaration of making a terrible discovery. It all made sense! All the logical puzzle pieces fit! It took my breath away.  It was mind blowing! It was an incredibly powerful feeling, terrifying and yet empowering at the same time. I was one of only a few who had found out what was going on. I paced the room as my mind churned through the logical circle over and over again. I couldn’t find any way out of the maze of connected ideas.

Fortunately for me, I was saved by my Mormon faith. Despite the seemingly inescapable logic, as a Mormon I had been taught to test the spirits; to verify through personal revelation and not just through reason, and that I could know the truth of all things through the power of the Holy Spirit. So I prayed and asked my Heavenly Father if what I had discovered was true. And the Holy Spirit answered me and freed my mind from the logical trap, which had indeed seemed to possess my mind like an evil spirit. It did so not by refuting the logic, but by enlarging my understanding and vision and exposing the humor in the rapture to which I had momentarily been subject.

My Experience with the Lure of Apostasy

A couple of years later, I had another experience. I am familiar with many of the anti-Mormon attacks on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but one day I came across a post in an Internet forum where the author explained that he finally realized that the Book of Mormon was a sham when he saw irrefutable proof that Joseph Smith had made it up. He gave a link to the proof. So I clicked through to it, confident that it would be weak and easily refutable. It was an argument that I had never seen before and I will readily admit that it appeared very, very damning. As I read it a feeling gripped me that was amazingly powerful: The church was false! Joseph Smith made it all up! I had stumbled upon this terrifying, mind-blowing secret! Here was the proof and all the logical puzzle pieces fit! And I was one of only a few who had found it out. It was terrifying and intoxicating.

And it was at that moment that I recognized where I had felt those feelings and followed those thought patterns before: it was exactly the same as my experience with the Straussian conspiracy theory. The seductive logical completeness, the gossip appeal, and the lure of the perceived superiority over the blind followers who still believed in the official story were all there. And it was the recognition of that similarity, and a remembrance of Chesterton’s words concerning insanity, that pulled me out of it.

Once I was free of the spell, it was only a matter of minutes before the error of the argument became obvious to me. Had I succumbed to that spirit of apostasy that had attempted to possess my mind, I could easily see how I could have fallen into a self-reinforcing mental trap that could have been very difficult to escape, and would have made it increasingly unlikely that I would have recognized the error.

Confronting the Limitations of My Mind

More recently, these experiences, along with the help of the Holy Spirit, have help me escape additional logical traps that were damaging to my family relationships. Without going into detail, these logical maps held such sway over my mind that I could not see any way in which they could not be true. And yet, the map maze of interconnected proofs, while seemingly irrefutable, was completely false. And one day, not long ago, that logical map was shattered, not by logical refutation, but through an epiphany granted by the Holy Spirit. And that spiritual gift changed everything.

Apostasy as Conspiracy Theory

So, having established this foundation I return to what is my primary point: Apostasy is dangerously similar to being seduced by a conspiracy theory.

There are a lot of reasons why people leave the church. Some leave because they do not want to, or have been convinced that they cannot, abide by the church’s strict code of conduct. Others leave because of perceived interpersonal grievances or solidarity with others who feel wronged. But I am talking about those who apostatize for intellectual reasons. They feel that what they know or have experienced compels them to abandon their belief.

Many of those who apostatize from the church for this reason have established their own genre of writing or oral presentation which I call Apostasy Literature. The purpose of apostasy literature is to help friends, family, and others who still believe, understand why the individual no longer believes; to demonstrate that their apostasy is reasonable and logical and not in pursuit of sinful lusts or to escape responsibilities. And they are often disappointed when their well-crafted narratives and essays fail to convince others of what is so obvious to them.

In apostasy narratives they recount the process by which they came to believe that the church is not true and attempt to bring the reader along on the author’s journey of discovery. Apostasy essays are more of a laundry list of “did you know” bullet points of what the author believes are facts that disprove the truth of the church, followed sometimes by a logical explanation.

Apostasy literature often includes a brief recounting of past callings and active participation in the church which the writer believes will establish his or her authenticity as a previously active, devout, believing member: they have served as a relief society president, a bishop, stake president, a missionary, a seminary teacher; they had 100% home or visiting teaching; married in the temple; &c. This list of callings and achievements is a way of establishing a kind of credentials that they think should lend credibility to their journey.

Apostasy literature also often includes genuine sorrow at having lost their belief, and expressions of the wish that they could reclaim that belief, but they don’t see any alternative considering what they have uncovered. It is an expression of a very sincerely felt loss of innocence. They feel forced out of Eden for having partaken of the fruit of knowledge.

Conspiracy theorists produce a very similar kind of literature and with a very similar objective. The purpose of conspiracy theory literature is to help others understand why the conspiracy theorists view is reasonable and logical instead of crazy. The conspiracy theorist is also often disappointed that his or her well-crafted arguments fail to convince others when it seems so obvious. Conspiracy theory literature also employs credential citation and lamentation of a loss of innocence.

Both groups feel that they have stumbled upon a terrible secret and feel the need to raise a warning to others. The gossip appeal affords even greater power to the apostate views over their minds.

When confronted with the fact that others do not find their arguments convincing, both conspiracy theorists and apostates question the intelligence of those who continue to accept the official story. They are so enthralled to the logical completeness of their view that they can hardly comprehend how someone else could reject it without rejecting reason itself.

In Internet forums of the like-minded, conspiracy theorists and apostates employ strikingly similar language to refer to those who are not convinced by their arguments or who aren’t astute enough to see through the supposed smoke screen on their own: sheep, sheeple, robots, dupes, rubes, and other expressions that imply intellectual inferiority or mindless submission. This perceived superiority lends power to the apostate views over their minds as well.

I have little hope of refuting the logic of apostasy through reasoned argument. Apostates, like conspiracy theorists, are not fools. They are often exceptional thinkers. Like the conspiracy theorist, the logical completeness of their map of connected data points, the gossip appeal of having discovered a terrible secret, and the perceived superiority of their views make it very difficult to convince the apostate of their errors. It is likely that they will mistake the fact that their arguments are not easily answerable as proof that they are true.

I hope to introduce a seed of doubt into the minds of those plagued by apostate thoughts and those who wish they could still believe, but feel that they are forced to stop believing by what they have learned. Ask yourself:

“So what if my logic is unanswerable and logically complete? So is the logic of a madman. So what if I can recite a litany of historical facts and connect them together in a sordid logical map? So can a Truther, a Birther, and a Bircher. Reason can betray me as much as emotion. How do I know that it has not?”

Not to be misconstrued, I am not advocating that reason be abandoned. But reason is limited by the frailties of the mind. A madman is as convinced of the soundness his logic as you are of your own. Reason untempered and unchecked by humor, charity, or common sense can be a liability as much as it can be an asset.

To those who are friends or family of someone seduced by apostate ideas, I hope to help you see that you will not have much success in trying to reason them out of their views, just as you are not likely to succeed in convincing a conspiracy theorist to abandon their conspiracy through logical argument.

If Thy Head Offend Thee…

From my own experiences, I believe that reason, emotion, and spirit are not as easily compartmentalized as we often believe. The logic of conspiracy and apostasy are not divorce-able from the frailty of the mind or of humanity. The temptations of gossip appeal, of uncovering a deception, of perceived superiority, and the preference for logical completeness over the unexplained or unknown lend emotional power to reason. Ideas can possess your mind like an evil spirit.

This is one of the dangers of “Mormon Intellectualism.” An over-emphasis on reason can leave people open to a combination of “logical completeness and spiritual contraction.” A blindness to the spiritual and emotional dimensions of ideas can leave people open to spiritual deception. This is also why reading faithless and anti-Mormon literature can be dangerous. It can subtly subject the reader to the spirit and emotions that accompany it, which can amplify the feeling of and appearance of logical compulsion. The appeal of logical completeness is emotional.

Chesterton explicitly compared the logic of insanity to the kind of thinking in academia in which he observed the same “combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense.”

Take for instance modern Biblical studies or Mormon Studies. Scholars construct hypothetical explanatory narratives based on observable facts and historical records, and then confusing logical completeness with truth, talk about them as if they were proven. And the next thing you know they are telling you the “real” motivations of the author of the Gospel of Mark or that Joseph Smith was a philanderer with as much confidence as if it were unassailable fact. They presume to read the minds and hearts of men and women long dead when they cannot so much as read the mind or heart of the living person standing next to them.

Reality is messy. People do unexpected and illogical things. Beware the theory that explains too much, connects every dot, or attributes motivations to every action. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

Of course, I recognize that many of these same criticisms and comparisons to conspiracy thinking can be turned around and pointed back at the believer. Fair enough. As I said earlier, all of us experience degrees of insane thinking. And just because ideas exhibit many of the qualities of a conspiracy theory does not automatically mean that they are false. My comparison of apostasy to conspiracy theory is intended less as an weapon than as a tool for self-checking introspection and a source of empathy toward those stuck in the kind of logical ruts to which we are all susceptible.

My point is that reason and logic are not a trump card. Those who do not find apostate logic as convincing as its preachers are not necessarily mindless followers, sheeple, or the “morg.” Spiritual and emotional dimensions to reason are as much a part of the apostate’s argument as the believer’s.

Let me end with this passage from Chesterton:

“A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle… Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil….

“If thy HEAD offend thee, cut it off; for it is better, not merely to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, but to enter it as an imbecile, rather than with your whole intellect to be cast into hell…”

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