long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Triggers for cognitive dissonance

I was going to schedule this post for next week, but I decided to schedule it for today, even though I've already made several posts this week.

For long-time readers, the introductory material may be repetitive, but there are new readers coming all the time, so the intro is necessary.

Let's say you still believe in a Mesoamerican (Central American) setting for the Book of Mormon. I empathize. I believed that for most of my life, too. How could I not, when pretty much every teacher I ever had in Church and at BYU taught it? We even taught it as missionaries. Still today, it is being taught, albeit indirectly, in the "blue book" missionary editions of the Book of Mormon, on Temple Square, and in most meetinghouses thanks to the official artwork.

Or, you might believe in another setting for the Book of Mormon, such as Baja, Panama, Chile, Eritrea, Malaysia, etc. In my opinion, it doesn't really matter where you think the Book of Mormon took place if you reject the New York Cumorah.

There are only two categories: those who believe Cumorah is in New York, and those who believe it is somewhere else.

If you're among the group who believes the Hill Cumorah is not in New York, you believe in a "two-Cumorahs" theory. This is the theory that the hill in New York where Joseph got the plates is Moroni's hill and it should not have been named Cumorah; some unknown early Mormon named it that and the false tradition stuck. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery perpetuated that false tradition. The two-Cumorahs theory also claims that the "real" Cumorah of Mormon 6:6, known as Mormon's Cumorah, is somewhere else. For example, if you accept the Mesoamerican setting, you think the "real" Cumorah is somewhere in southern Mexico. (I can relate, because I accepted the "two-Cumorahs" theory enough to visit ruins down there, thinking they were related to the Book of Mormon.) There are LDS people actively scouting around southern Mexico in search of Cumorah.

If you're a "two-Cumorahs" believer, eventually, like me, you will be confronted with a fact you didn't know before that conflicts with your belief. There are four general categories that I've discussed in my books and blogs.

These four items are triggers for cognitive dissonance.

Here's how it works.

When we are confronted with a fact that conflicts with our beliefs, and we refuse to change our beliefs, the fact triggers a response in our mind. We can:

1. Deny the fact or explain it away.
2. Filter it through confirmation bias.
3. Live with the cognitive dissonance somehow.

All three options are a form of hallucination; i.e., our minds deal with discrepancy by creating a new reality that denies the reality of the triggering fact.

Here's a graphic that explains the options:

I'll go through the options with one of the triggers in a moment, but first I'll list the four categories of triggers for those who still believe in the two-Cumorahs theory:

1. How Letter VII establishes the New York Cumorah.
2. How anonymous articles were wrongly attributed to Joseph Smith (i.e., 1842 Times and Seasons, Benjamin Winchester, Bernhisel letter, etc.)
3. How the BoM text describes North America.
4. How Joseph translated two separate sets of plates.

Each of these triggers directly contradicts the two-Cumorahs theories, so it doesn't matter which one I choose for an example. I'll go with #1, Letter VII.

Because it is the most heavily promoted, I'll use the Mesoamerican theory as a proxy for all two-Cumorahs theories.

For a moment, pretend you still believe in the Mesoamerian theory of Book of Mormon geography. You accept one of the dozen or more detailed geographies that have been proposed for that area. They all pretty well agree that the "real" Cumorah (Mormon 6:6) is in southern Mexico.

Then you read Letter VII. (If you don't know what that is, read the blog here:

Basically, in that letter, Oliver Cowdery declared in no uncertain terms that it is a fact that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6, the scene of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites, is in New York; i.e., that Moroni's Cumorah and Mormon's Cumorah are one and the same.

What response does this fact trigger in your mind?

1. Denial.

Denial has been the prevailing response. No one is denying the existence of Letter VII, and no on is denying that Oliver wrote these letters with Joseph's assistance. Nor is anyone denying that Joseph endorsed these letters. Letter VII was ubiquitous during Joseph's lifetime.

In this case, denial takes the form of suppression.

Once the two-Cumorahs theory took hold (it was started by RLDS scholars and then adopted by LDS scholars despite the objection of Church Historian and Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith), Letter VII essentially vanished. It has never been published in the Ensign, for example. Very few Church history books mention it. So far as I've been able to determine, none of the major LDS scholarly books and publications that promote the Mesoamerican setting have reprinted it. Letter VII has never been translated outside of English. In my experience, very, very few LDS people have ever heard of it, let alone read it. And yet, many LDS scholars and educators are aware of it. They just haven't told people about it. They've pretended it didn't exist.

Denial is a losing strategy, obviously. Not only because I've been writing and speaking about Letter VII, but because critics of the LDS Church have been promoting it on their web pages and publications. Any investigator or LDS member who uses the Internet will find it.

If you still believe in a version of the two-Cumorahs theory and you haven't read Letter VII, then you're in denial. Time to fix that.

2. Filter it through confirmation bias.

Once you realize denial is not a viable option, your brain may try to filter Letter VII to fit your two-Cumorahs theory somehow. It's a difficult thing to filter, though; Oliver wrote as clearly as words can be, and he left no possibility for two Cumorahs:

"At about one mile west [of the New York Hill Cumorah where Joseph found the plates] rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed... In this valley fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites... From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains...This hill, by the Jaredites, was called Ramah: by it, or around it, pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tent."

I haven't seen any attempts to filter or spin Letter VII through confirmation bias. I can't imagine how it could be done. Maybe someone has done it; if so, please let me know the rationale and methodology.

Instead, once people realize denial won't work any longer, they move right into the third option of cognitive dissonance.

3. Cognitive dissonance.

When a fact we can't deny or filter through confirmation bias contradicts our beliefs, and we won't change our beliefs, the fact triggers our brain into creating a hallucination that rationalizes the discrepancy into oblivion.

Or at least some dark corner of the mind where we can try to forget it.

We have to examine the significance of Letter VII to see why it triggers such a strong hallucination.

First, Letter VII simply states it is a fact that the one and only Cumorah is in New York, which necessarily refutes the two-Cumorah theory. Of course, this doesn't, by itself, answer every question about Book of Mormon geography. The New York Cumorah is a single pin in the map. It still allows anything from a localized New York setting to a hemispheric setting.

Second, Letter VII was written by Oliver Cowdery and published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1835. Some may reject it--deny it--on that ground alone. But we also have to realize that when he wrote Letter VII (it was one of eight letters about Church history that Oliver wrote), Oliver was the Assistant President of the Church. He was the only witness besides Joseph Smith to the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods, to many of the revelations, and to most of the translation of the Book of Mormon. A few months later, he and Joseph would receive Priesthood keys from Moses, Elijah, Elias, and the Lord Himself in the Kirtland temple. Plus, Oliver was one of the Three Witnesses. Next to Joseph himself, no one had more experience and credibility with regard to the Restoration.

Third, although Oliver wrote Letter VII, we must also recognize that Joseph Smith helped Oliver write the letters, providing details only Joseph could have known, such as what Moroni told him during his first visit. Joseph had his scribes copy Letter VII into his personal history as part of his own story. He endorsed it when he gave Benjamin Winchester express permission to reprint it in the Gospel Reflector. Joseph's brothers reprinted it as well: Don Carlos published it in the Times and Seasons, and William published it in The Prophet. In February 1844, a special booklet consisting solely of Oliver's letters was printed in England to satisfy numerous requests for the material. The letters were reprinted in the Millennial Star and the Improvement Era. In each case, only Oliver's letters were reprinted; the speculative responses from W.W. Phelps were not reprinted or copied into Joseph's journal.

Fourth, the claim of Letter VII--that there is one Cumorah and it is in New York--has been spelled out by modern prophets and apostles in General Conference as recently as 1978. At least two members of the First Presidency have declared it in General Conference. No modern prophet or apostle has ever rejected the New York Cumorah, at least not officially or in General Conference.

These circumstances make Letter VII a powerful trigger for cognitive dissonance in the minds of those who still believe in a two-Cumorah theory. And it has triggered an equally powerful hallucination.

Some current LDS scholars and educators are trying to persuade Church members to reject Letter VII. Their arguments fall into one of 8 categories that I've discussed here:

All of these arguments rely on the premise that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were ignorant speculators who misled the Church about the location of Cumorah. We are expected to believe that they were reliable and credible witnesses for everything they wrote and said except for this one detail. And we're expected to believe that the modern prophets and apostles who accepted what Joseph and Oliver taught perpetuated a false tradition themselves because they were speaking as men, not a prophets and apostles, even when they spoke in General Conference.

(I discussed this in this post: http://www.lettervii.com/2016/08/olver-was-truthful-about-everything.html).

In the terminology of cognitive dissonance, this is a hallucination. It exists solely to allow those who believe in the two-Cumorahs theory to hold onto their beliefs. And it's no minor hallucination; repudiating Joseph, Oliver and the modern apostles and prophets is a powerful hallucination, which it needs to be to counter the powerful words in Letter VII and the associated circumstances.

The hallucination is also powerful because it is built on thin air. There is no evidence of a Cumorah outside of New York. No one has "found Cumorah" anywhere else on the Earth. Believers have told themselves that the text establishes "criteria" that cannot be satisfied by the New York hill, but in every case, these "criteria" are self-serving impositions on the text, designed to point to whatever non-New York Cumorah the proponents advocate for other reasons. It's all circular reasoning.

The hallucination that Joseph and Oliver were ignorant speculators who misled the Church is itself unsupported by evidence; it. like the two-Cumorah theory, stands "as it were in the air." But it is powerful enough to offset the power of the facts and circumstances of Letter VII.

We are in a situation in the Church where two people can read Letter VII and see two different movies playing in their heads, as Scott Adams puts it.

One reader sees a movie in which Oliver and Joseph describe, in detail, exactly where the final battles of the Nephites took place. They claim it is a fact. True, they don't specify how they know it is a fact. But in these same letters, they describe Moroni's visits to Joseph. Elsewhere, they describe numerous interactions with other heavenly messengers, the translation of the Book of Mormon, and their experiences in the actual Nephite repository inside the Hill Cumorah. So this reader accepts what Joseph and Oliver say about Cumorah in Letter VII.

The other reader sees a movie in which Oliver and Joseph are--we might as well get real about it-- lying. In this movie, Oliver and Joseph have no idea where the Book of Mormon took place, but some unknown person started a false tradition, and they decide to adopt this false tradition and state it as a fact. Then the prophets and apostles who succeed them decide to perpetuate this same false tradition.

Which movie do you see when you read Letter VII?

A similar analysis applies for the other three triggers. In each case, proponents of "two-Cumorahs" theories must deny the facts, filter them through confirmation bias, or create a hallucination to live with their cognitive dissonance.

As the example of Letter VII shows, the mental effort of retaining a belief in a two-Cumorahs theory is intense just with one trigger. Every additional trigger we add makes that mental effort all the more difficult.

The biggest question, really, is why? Why stick to a two-Cumorahs theory?

That's a question every proponent of a two-Cumorahs theory ought to be asking.

I'll be interested if anyone can come up with an answer that justifies the powerful hallucination that Joseph and Oliver were ignorant speculators who misled the Church.

Note: If you click on the diagram above, you'll go to a web page that gets into a lot more detail than I can address in this blog. I don't agree with everyone on that page, but overall, the information is very useful. For example, the three shapes at the bottom of the diagram represent Thought, Emotion, and Behavior, like this:
The page includes a section on information control, which is a fascinating topic on its own. One way to control minds is to deliberately hold back information, which has been done in the case of Letter VII, as I've mentioned. Another is to compartmentalize information and minimize or discourage access to "non-cult" sources of information. There has been a lot of that in the LDS scholarly community; that's why you can't find anything published by the citation cartel written by any proponent of the North American, Heartland, or Moroni's America models.

Nor will you find a comparison chart anywhere except on my blog here:


A great "tell" for intellectual insecurity is when academics don't want people to even know about alternative views or interpretations, much less be able to easily compare them..

Another sign of intellectual insecurity is when academics refuse to share their data for independent analysis, or refuse to let proponents defend themselves against attacks made by the academics in their own journals.

Of course, everyone is entitled to believe whatever they want. Even academics, scholars, and educators. But if you're a student or an ordinary member of the Church, you need to recognize what has been going on and seek to avoid the information control mechanisms that prevent you from learning about such basic concepts as the Hill Cumorah in New York.

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