Friday, October 4, 2013

Michael R. Ash's Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt (Second Edition)

Michael R. Ash, an LDS apologist, answers tough questions regarding doctrine, history, and issues in his book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt.  The version I have is an e-book on my Nook, published by the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) in Redding, California, in June 2013, and based upon the second printed edition with a publication date of February 2013.  The first edition of the book has a publication date of December 2008.

I came upon this book after having browsed a few Internet sites that contained Mormon-critical discussions.  I was perusing these sites because I wanted to know certain perspectives that ex-Mormons had about certain doctrines or customs.  Most of the time, they did not bother me, but one subject really caught my attention and started to shake my belief in the general leadership of the LDS Church.  What disturbed me was finding two very different video presentations of a talk given by Elder Ronald E. Poelman during a session of General Conference in October of 1984.  I understood talks could be redacted before appearing in the Church’s Ensign—maybe a word here or there—but this talk was heavily edited, causing the meaning of the talk to turn completely around.  I then came upon some information suggesting that the Church leadership changed the talk and the video presentation in order to keep the general membership in line with the physical institution, given the fact that Elder Poelman returned to the Tabernacle a few days later to re-record his talk.  The accusatory tone in an article started a series of thoughts in my head, leading down a mental path that I did not want to follow.  Too many arguments were running through my head, so I decided to sleep on it.  The next day, the feelings still persisted.  Although I considered myself strong enough to handle tough gospel questions, this topic just would not go away.  I remembered a term I heard called “shaken faith syndrome,” and I thought some resource could help me in my predicament.  That was when I found the book’s official website.  I decided to purchase the book on my Nook and see what the LDS apologist had to say.

Ash begins his book by explaining what it means to have shaken faith syndrome.  He sets up the parameters of what constitutes belief, doctrine, custom, and argument, situating the reader in a way for him or her to comprehend the philosophical minefield—leveling the playing field, so to speak.  He describes psychological terms like “cognition” and “cognitive dissonance,” along with four various, unconscious behaviors that people follow when new arguments arise that pit against their prior paradigms.  Ash continues by writing about fundamentalist assumptions, unrealistic expectations of Church leaders, confusion between tradition and doctrine, limitations of the scientific community, qualifications of LDS and non-LDS apologists, and resources for people to investigate certain topics.  Once this foundation has been laid, Ash then dives into the most pressing issues that face members of the LDS Church currently, topics ranging from the historicity of the Book of Mormon to the priesthood ban.  Each chapter ends with a list of further reading for anyone who wants to continue research on a particular topic.  The book also has annotations that number in the hundreds, so finding a primary source should be relatively easy.  When everything is said and done, one begins to accept the aphorism that “[a] lot more ink is required to respond to an accusation then to make an accusation” (“Testimony and the Danger of Fundamentalist Assumptions,” ch. 2).

Ash outlines four behaviors a person unconsciously makes when critical information assaults his or her beliefs: “(1) reject the new information—the competing cognition—as false; (2) reject the new information as unimportant; (3) add information (additional cognitions) to validate the original belief; or (4) reject old beliefs in favor of the new information” (“Cognitive Dissonance,” ch. 1).  The behaviors above make sense to me because I have reacted in similar ways to anti-Mormon arguments, like so:

(1) “That is completely wrong!”
(2) “Now you’re just complaining.”
(3) “Well, if you consider this circumstance, it will explain why so-and-so made that decision.”
(4) “This explanation sounds much better!”

Later, Ash dissects the tricks ex-Mormons or anti-Mormons use in their arguments that may cause cognitive dissonance in an unsuspecting believer, exposing them to be emotional and sensational smokescreens that detract believers from the fallacies of the ex-Mormon’s or anti-Mormon’s claims.  What Ash hopes to do in his book is give an LDS believer the means to defend his or her beliefs, or testimony, without resulting to distress, unmitigated contention, or defeatism.  “‘Though argument does not create conviction,’ wrote non-LDS Christian philosopher Austin Farrer, ‘lack of it destroys belief’” (“Anti-Mormon Disdain for LDS Scholarship and Apologetics,” ch. 8).

The most prominent principle I have learned from this book ties back to the doctrine that people must choose between one way or another while sojourning on this planet: Ambiguity must exist so that we can think for ourselves.  Otherwise, we would not be having debates in the first place, a sign that ambiguity is doing a pretty good job.  Ash notes, “There is no intellectually compelling evidence that requires a reasonable person to conclude that the Church is false.  Likewise, there is no intellectually compelling evidence that requires a reasonable person to conclude that the Church is true.  For those who reject a belief in God or His ability to speak to modern prophets or send new scripture, the data will be interpreted to support such a conclusion.  For those, however, who have received a spiritual witness that the Church is true, the data will be interpreted to support that conclusion as well” (“Supporting Belief,” ch. 9).

There are a few observations I want to put forward about this electronic edition.  First, I notice elements of Post-structuralism, especially those developed by Jacques Lacan.  Ash does not refer to Lacan, but the bulk of his arguments take on Lacan’s flavor of philosophy.  This may or may not make a difference in his overall goal.  Second, there are elements of phenomenology developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  Again, Ash does not mention him by name, but one can easily replace “cognitions” with “intentionalities.”  Third, Kantian manifolds appear with layers of meaning from time to time, thus complicating the process of reaching a specific word’s semantics.  Again, Ash does not refer to the philosopher by name, but having a cursory knowledge of this branch of philosophy may help in comprehending certain dilemmas.

Other observations are more serious.  For the next edition or a reprint of the current edition, I would like Ash to be more consistent in his arguments that relate to non-dualism.  He tends to get into a bind when he tries to use non-dualistic reasoning in a topic that fits better in a dualistic model.  For instance, religion does very well in explaining concepts like good versus evil, black versus white, etc.  However, when Ash tries to conflate black and white with skin color, in order to put Church leaders or doctrines in a favorable light, he ends up giving more weight to the opposition who posit those leaders or ideas as racist.  We may all come from Adam and Eve, but to ignore the obvious distinctions, between one skin color and another, does not help in justifying the treatment experienced by past generations.  Stretching the definitions of the words “skin” and “hide” to the breaking point ends up obfuscating a problem that needs to be addressed.  Reading the word “skin” should be taken literally in this instance, not metaphorically.  (To the author’s credit, his platform sounds more convincing when he relates personal stories and historical events at the end of the chapter, leaving befuddling interpolations behind.)

As well in the next edition or reprint, numerous and minor typographical errors that a spellchecker can miss should be corrected.  I find problems with subject/verb agreement, singular/plural mistakes, missing definite and indefinite articles, the use of the same where they should not be used, formatting inconsistencies (although common in e-books, they are glaring in this one), and missing punctuation.  A fresh proofreader should be able to pick these things out.

One more piece of criticism, and then I am done.  Wikipedia is a great resource to test the waters, but because it is edited by numerous, and mostly, unqualified submitters, the reliability of its contents falters.  I consider Wikipedia a tertiary source, not a primary one.  Wikipedia was referred to, in the endnotes, too many times to my liking.  Wikipedia should be avoided as much as possible.  If you have to, once is enough; twice, you are pushing it; thrice or more, you are not doing your research properly.

Shaken Faith Syndrome is a good book, and serves its purposes.  The discussion of the book easily speaks to a person who has had experience in literary criticism, philosophy, or education.  That is not to say no one else will not enjoy or get something out of it.  Unfamiliar jargon gets defined promptly, and the author does not disrupt the flow of ideas and information with tangential information.

By the way, the cognitive dissonance I felt while pondering my question mostly resolved itself because I realized that I was not alone in my situation.  I also found a piece of information that validated my original belief.  One possibility for the redaction was not to give cause for fundamentalist polygamists to say that they did not need the Church in the first place.  For a person who believes that the LDS Church is the only authorized organization to perform the ordinances that God expects us to make, this is important.  Once that cognition entered my mind, the dissonance disappeared.  The turbulent seas were stilled.

Andrew

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for your book review. I'm the author and I appreciate your feedback, input, and constructive criticisms.

    Regarding your concerns:

    1) Arguments relating to non-dualism: I'll certainly have to revisit my document at some point and see if I can improve my consistency.

    2) Typographical/Grammatical Errors: I would be grateful to anyone who can please point these out for me. I definitely want to have such problems fixed (including fixing e-book formatting issues).

    3) Wikipedia quotes: Your point is well taken & in future additions I'll look into finding more original sources for those notes. However, I should point out that if you look at the info to which the Wikipedia endnotes refer, you'll find that 99% are inconsequential to the main point of any argument. They are, in fact, notes to tertiary information in relation to bigger arguments within the book. In most cases, I simply linked to those Wikipedia sources so that interested parties could find succinct sources that engage some of the ancillary issues in the bigger discussions. Having noted this, however, I will likely reduce them in future editions. Thanks again so much for your thoughtful critique.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Mr. Ash:

      This is a surprise! Thank you for leaving a comment. I wasn't expecting this.

      I hope more information to give more weight to your arguments in the last chapter are forthcoming. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's talk this morning in General Conference certainly helped in giving more weight to your thesis. His frank admission that past leaders have made mistakes lends support to your stance that there are no infallible prophets, and that testimonies should not be built on such premises.

      For typographical errors, I would have been happy to help, but I did not make note of them particularly while reading the book the first time through. I was thinking the copy editor for the e-book would have picked them up. I was not sure if the same mistakes are found in the printed version or not, so I just suspected there were different people in different departments among different publishers to handle those kinds of things. I remember discussing this with Sam Brower when he was publishing his book.

      As for Wikipedia, my attitude comes from having studied Spanish Literature at Brigham Young University. Departments and colleges had different policies for papers and essays, but Wikipedia certainly was black-listed with many professors, telling undergraduate and graduate students not to cite such articles, threatening those who do with automatic failing grades in extreme cases, so I avoided Wikipedia at all costs. Admittedly, since your audience is the general LDS members and investigators, referring to Wikipedia is easier and more accessible than scholarly sources. I should have taken that into account.

      I enjoyed your book. Thank you for writing it. May the doors of publishing future works be open to you!

      Andrew

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