Dr Jesse James is a research psychologist and assistant professor at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. He gives a scientific explanation for spiritual experiences. We’ll get into artificial intelligence, free will, whether chimpanzees can communicate with humans, and lots of other topics! Check out our conversation…
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Can Chimps Speak Sign Language?
GT 00:35 All right, welcome to Gospel Tangents. I’m excited to have the outlaw Dr. Jesse James. (Chuckling) Anyway, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and where are we?
Jesse 00:51 Yeah, so we are right now in Lamoni, Iowa. This is my home, now, for the first time. We have moved away from the west where Mormonism is pretty strong, the Brighamite branch of Mormonism is pretty strong. We’ve just come out here to Lamoni so I could teach at Graceland University, which is the university that is sponsored by the Community of Christ.
GT 01:13 So it’s a Community of Christ version of BYU.
Jesse 01:16 Yes, exactly.
GT 01:17 Now, is it just as conservative as BYU?
Jesse 01:19 It’s not even close to as conservative. It’s incredibly liberal. There were some comparisons that I expected to be a lot more parallel than they have been. Like, for instance, here at Graceland University, hardly any of our students are Community of Christ members, maybe like I think an estimated 20% are members of the Community of Christ. Whereas like 99% of students at BYU or Latter-day Saints.
GT 01:47 Except for on the football team.
Jesse 01:48 (Chuckling) Right. Yeah, so because Graceland is so focused on their athletics program, kind of like how BYU’s football program is more interdenominational, Graceland University has all kinds of athletics and we pull in students to play those sports who are, many of them are not members of Community of Christ. Lots of the faculty are not members of Community of Christ. Because we live here in this town, that a hundred years [ago] was the headquarters of the Community of Christ Church, a lot of people here are Community of Christ. But, also, a lot of people here are kind of ex-Community of Christ or no longer really participating.
Jesse 02:25 So we’ve got a lot of people on campus, a lot more professors, I think, are Community of Christ than students are. But, still, maybe 50% to 60% of faculty are not members of the Church.
GT 02:36 Oh, so more than a half?
Jesse 02:38 I would estimate that.
GT 02:39 Because you’re LDS. (I would say Mormon, but I’m not supposed to say that.)
Jesse 02:44 Yes, I’m LDS. My boss at the institution is Catholic. Even our president, President Draves, right now, is not a member of the Community of Christ. She’s the first president of the university that has not been a member of the church.
GT 03:04 Wow.
Jesse 03:06 I mean, they still put a lot of emphasis on their faith statement, and their value statements and things like that. But it’s not been so focused on denominational membership anymore. It’s a lot more about, are you willing to live up to the standards? [It’s] kind of their version of the Honor Code.
GT 03:31 I was going to ask about the honor code. In the Community of Christ, the Word of Wisdom isn’t such a big deal, I’ve heard.
Jesse 03:34 Yeah, and so many facets are not [the same.] They don’t have the same standards and regulations that the Latter-day Saint Church has.
GT 03:43 Anybody can go to their temple. You don’t have to have a temple recommend. They don’t even exist.
Jesse 03:44 Yeah, it doesn’t even exist. It’s not even a thing. So, you’ve got lots of people, like, for instance, sexual relationships outside of marriage is not a frowned upon thing, as far as I’m aware. What’s important is that when you have sex, that you’re doing it in committed relationships, that it’s consensual, things like that. So, there’s not even like an honor code on campus that prevents students from having sexual relationships with each other before they’re married.
GT 04:17 It’s a liberal place.
Jesse 04:18 It’s very, very different from what you’d expect at BYU.
GT 04:19 Wow, that’s interesting.
Jesse 04:20 Yeah. So, it’s a very progressive version of Christianity. So it’s focused a lot more on the liberal concerns of avoiding harm to other people, caring for other people, but not the conservative concerns, things like loyalty to your ingroup or things like…
GT 04:44 I know they’re big into peace. They’ve got the Peace Plaza in Independence and like, world peace and LGBT is, well, the interesting thing about that is LGBT is okay, if it’s okay with the law of the land.
Jesse 05:02 Uh huh. Yeah.
GT 05:03 I think it is a really strange revelation. But, yeah, we’re very correlated in the LDS Church.
Jesse 05:08 Yeah. It seems foreign to us. But, if you’re going to be international, it’s almost the only viable position you can take where you have to reconcile the fact that different countries are going to have different laws. So, what’s acceptable in one place might not be in another. Therefore, if you decide that you’re going to allow for gay marriage, or other liberal practices, they can only be acceptable, morally, if they’re consistent with the law of the land. Right? So, it seems like if you’re going to open it up, like the only way you can do that is to do what the Community of Christ has done.
GT 05:49 Oh, by the way, before we get too far, but polygamy is actually okay now in the Community of Christ, if you’re in India or Africa, where it’s legal.
Jesse 06:00 Yes, exactly, where it’s legal. I don’t think they encourage it. I’ve even heard that they encourage people not to marry additional spouses after they become members of the church, but, if you’ve already married to a few wives, then you can be baptized and, just don’t take any more. It’s fascinating. Isn’t it?
GT 06:20 Do you ever see the LDS Church doing such a thing?
Jesse 06:24 Oh, heavens no. We spend so much effort to try and distance ourselves from polygamy that, even in places right now, where there are people who are interested in meeting with the missionaries, who are already married in polygamous relationships, we discourage our missionaries from teaching them and we don’t allow them to be baptized. So, would it ever happen? Perhaps, but it just seems really unlikely, given how hard we’ve tried to distance ourselves from the practice.
GT 06:56 So, who’s the most famous alumni from Graceland University?
Jesse 07:00 Bruce, or Caitlyn Jenner went to Graceland University.
GT 07:03 Isn’t that crazy?
Jesse 07:03 Yeah, it’s pretty fun.
GT 07:05 I want to go to Jenner Field. I can’t wait.
Jesse 07:07 Yeah.
GT 07:08 Bruce Jenner Field, I understand they took the Bruce off.
Jesse 07:10 Yeah, they took the Bruce off. Though, originally, they asked him/her, like, should they change the name of the field? And Caitlin said, “No. When I was at Graceland, when I was an athlete, I was Bruce Jenner. So, there’s no reason to change the name of the field.” So, they ended up changing it, but not at Caitlin’s request.
GT 07:29 Yeah. Well, now it’s just Jenner Field.
Jesse 07:31 Yeah. It’s just Jenner Field.
GT 07:33 I can’t wait to go there.
Jesse 07:37 It’s pretty neat to see the heritage there.
GT 07:39 Any other things we should know about Graceland?
Jesse 07:41 I’m trying to think.
GT 07:45 How many LDS faculty are at Graceland?
Jesse 07:48 I think I’m the only person there right now who’s LDS. There is another person in our ward, who worked at the library for a number of years and is now working in another local library nearby. But that’s the only other person that I’m aware of who was a member of the [LDS] Church working at the university. There may have been others through the years.
GT 08:08 They get along with you, though?
Jesse 08:10 Yeah, they’ve been so open. The Community of Christ is so pluralistic and open that it’s not about denominational membership for them. It’s really about the relationship that you develop with Christ. So, as far as I’m aware, they accept other Christian baptisms, and other Christians accept their baptisms, in much the same way that every Christian denomination, essentially, accepts each other’s baptisms at this point, unless you’re an isolationist branch, like the LDS Church. So, in the Community of Christ, we’ve got people from all different faiths, who are working there, who are attending there. You have people who attend the Community of Christ congregations who have never been baptized there, but are in full fellowship. It’s a really pluralistic organization.
GT 09:04 They treat you well.
Jesse 09:05 They’re really respectful. I’ve really enjoyed working here. It’s a lot of fun.
GT 09:07 Well, cool. Tell us let’s get a little bit of your background, especially your academic history. Where’d you get your bachelor’s and Master’s and Ph.D.?
Jesse 09:15 Yeah. I grew up in Washington State, and I finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both at Central Washington University, just a tiny little town in the center of the state. I went there because they had what’s called the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute. So, they had some chimpanzees who had been cross fostered meaning they had been raised as if they were human infants. So, they had been kind of raised in a trailer and they had human parents who spoke sign language with them.
GT 09:23 It sounds like Jane Goodall.
Jesse 09:47 Right. It’s, so fascinating. So, the chimpanzees, prior to this group had been raised, cross-fostered by humans. They had been taught English and chimpanzees do not have the same vocal structure that we have. So, they can’t learn the same kinds of words. They can’t construct the same sounds that we can make. So, one chimpanzee, for instance, learned only to say four words: mama, papa, cup and up. There are only phonemes that they could construct. They could understand more words than that. They just couldn’t produce more words than that. So, that was kind of a failed experiment. Then they decided, well, chimpanzees probably can learn to sign, even if they can’t speak English. They have the same hands we do, similar hands. Their thumbs are much further down on their wrist than ours, but, they essentially have hands enough to be able to sign with.
Jesse 10:39 So, they decided to raise them as deaf human infants. The principle here is you don’t teach them sign language as a party trick, you raise them naturally speaking sign language in naturalistic conversation, like you would raise a human infant. You don’t tutor and train an infant on natural language. You just speak with them, and they pick it up naturally. Right. So that was the principle at these chimpanzees. You would raise them and try to just interact with them and see if they picked it up. Several of these chimpanzees ended up learning sign language reasonably well, like, a couple hundred signs. And kind of telegraphic speech was just like the kind of speech you hear from a toddler, where a toddler might put together a couple of words. They might say, like, “Want more or…” exactly. So, you drop a lot of articles and things like that. But you put together, like a telegraph would, that’s why it’s called telegraphic speech, because a telegraph would kind of cut out all the unnecessary language, then you just piece together the necessary words.
GT 11:45 Infamous, that means more than famous.
Jesse 11:47 Yeah. So, these chimpanzees ended up going through this cross-fostering study in the 1970s. Then the study was kind of concluded. We concluded that they would be able to master approximately toddler language skills, but no more than that, no matter how old they got. So, after that was done, then, you know, chimpanzees live for, 40, 50, 60 years, depending. Then, what you do with them? So, these chimpanzees were essentially retired to a research institution, Washington State, where they lived out the rest of their lives, and participated voluntarily, when we could convince them to, in other language studies. So, we would kind of interact with them in sign language. We cared for them, of course. We had video cameras filming all the interactions with each other. So, we would kind of like code videotapes and stuff for humorous interactions, or the way that they would use vocabulary words, when one chimpanzee would always sign the word black, to indicate something was cool, right? It was like, it was just, she just liked the color black. So, whenever something else was cool, she would sign all that as black. So, those kinds of linguistic nuances and the interchanges that they would have, that’s the kind of stuff that we studied at that institution. So, that’s why I chose to study in Washington state at that university. I only ended up staying there for a little while, like, about a year and a half or so before I ended up kind of bowing out because of some political things going on with the director there at the Institute. So, I didn’t end up doing my master’s thesis there, like I anticipated.
GT 13:27 So what was this like languages or what was your bachelor’s?
Jesse 13:30 So my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD are all in psychology, not clinical psychology, research psychology. I was studying, intending to study the psychology of language. My master’s thesis ended up being about sign language. But it was studying the memory capacity of interpreters of American Sign Language. That’s what I ended up studying. I had intended, at some point, to go to Gallaudet University where the deaf congregate in the United States and learn to be a clinical psychologist for deaf people. But I didn’t end up following through that. So, I speak sign pretty well, not perfectly, but pretty fluently. I was disappointed not to serve a sign language speaking mission.
GT 14:19 I almost wonder if we should do this. We have subtitles, we’ll be okay.
Jesse 14:26 So sometimes people who, if you can’t hear, we’ll fill you in. Let’s see. So, then I ended up going to BYU, instead, for my PhD.
GT 14:37 Rise and shout.
Do we have Free Will?
Jesse 14:37 So, I finished my PhD under Dr. Brock Kerwin, who is researcher of memory. My emphasis was behavioral neuroscience. So I studied a lot about the brain. Some people study the brain in abnormal ways, like what goes wrong with the brain, and I studied the brain primarily in normal functioning ways. Like, how does the brain allow us to do everyday things that we all do, that we kind of take for granted. So, my emphasis was memory during that time. After I graduated, I started to study more religion, generally, and emphasizing a little bit, not a ton, but a little bit in the neurobiology of memory, or neurobiology of religion and spirituality, I mean.
GT 14:55 See now that’s fascinating to me, because I think there’s a field of study that says freewill does not exist.
Jesse 15:34 Yeah. Neuroscientists are…
GT 15:36 Very non-Mormon.
Jesse 15:37 Yeah, so neuroscientists are not philosophers, and, therefore, not really equipped to say one way or the other, right? Neuroscientists have collected some evidence that suggests maybe freewill is an illusion. It seems we make decisions in our brain before we’re consciously aware of them. And that suggests, maybe we’re, if we’ve already made the decision, and then we kind of post hoc rationalize the decision in a conscious way, and that’s all we’re actually doing is justifying the decision that was already made by our brain, then maybe we’re not actually free, after all. Maybe our brain is kind of automatically responding to the environment. And maybe we are just giving ourselves the illusion, because we have metacognition, where we can reflect back on our own thinking processes, maybe that allows us the illusion of free will, that maybe perhaps other animals don’t have. But that’s a question that, despite the scientific evidence, really requires integration with philosophy in order to answer. Because most neuroscientists are not sufficiently trained in philosophy, it’s not a question they can answer.
Jesse 16:50 So as an example, it doesn’t matter to me how many studies–I mean, I’m pretty hardcore scientist, but it doesn’t matter how many studies come out to suggest that freewill is an illusion, I will never not believe in freewill. As a philosopher, as a theologian, I am convinced that freewill exists, independent of the empirical evidence. So, I think…
GT 17:16 Doesn’t that show your bias?
Jesse 17:18 It could show my bias, but it also, to me, shows the limitations of science. Science is a pretty impressive tool. But, being a scientist, I can also look at it and I can say, “People who are too radical of scientists are as theocratic about their science…
GT 17:42 Dogmatic.
Jesse 17:42 Yeah, dogmatic about their science as a theologian might be.
GT 17:47 Are you familiar with Steven Pinker from Harvard?
Jesse 17:49 Yeah. He’s a phenomenal speaker. I love it.
GT 17:52 What do you think of Pinker?
Jesse 17:55 He is an expert on a bunch of different things. One of the things that he primarily studies is the psychology of language. He is what’s called a nativist. In other words, he believes that we have, born within us, from the very first moments of life, kind of an empty language module that allows children to pick up language faster and easier than they should be capable of picking it up, given basic principles of behaviorism. So, he thinks that all children, regardless of what language their parents speak, they have kind of like, the empty skeleton of a language, and they’re fitting into that skeleton, the things they’re hearing from their parents. So, they’re ready-primed sponges to pick this up in a way that they don’t pick up other things more naturally.
Jesse 18:44 As I’ve read the evidence, I disagree with that argument. There’s a lot of research that shows that other animals who don’t have any reason to have a language module have the same capacities for picking up language sounds that we have. So, like chinchillas, for instance, have been demonstrated to have the same capacity for hearing the differences in phonemes, after just a few exposures that human infants have. Nativists, like Pinker, have kind of pointed to this ability in infants and said, “Wow, this suggests that we have this innate, fantastic ability that’s unique to language.” Well, if chinchillas have it, too, probably it’s not a unique, fascinating ability. It’s still impressive, but not unique and probably not suggestive of an innate language module.
GT 19:38 Wow. We’re going deep into the…
Jesse 19:43 Sorry, I didn’t mean to get sidetracked here.
GT 19:45 No, that’s good. We’re all about tangents here. This is where the best conversations happen is when you’re not expecting them. So, you think humans have freewill.
Jesse 19:57 I do. Yeah.
GT 19:58 It’s not just an illusion.
Jesse 19:59 I’m pretty convinced of it. Yes.
GT 20:00 It’s not just a bunch of biological processes.
Jesse 20:03 Yeah, I mean–here’s the thing. None of us can know for sure. No matter how much evidence comes out, there’s never going to be a firm answer to say [that] yeah this is fact, or this is… It either is or isn’t. But we’re not going to know it. It’s not something that can be determined, I don’t think. In part…
Will Artificial Intelligence Rule the World?
GT 20:30 This gets into artificial intelligence, though, because that’s kind of a new [bogeyman.] In fact, wasn’t it Stephen Hawking just said that we’ve got to be careful with this, right?
Jesse 20:42 Yeah.
GT 20:43 I mean, is there a way where we can take a robot and give it freewill?
Jesse 20:49 So many neuroscientists believe that the capacity of metacognition–to reflect back on your own thinking is what gives us the illusion of freewill, which would be the same thing for a robot. If you give a robot or AI sufficient computing power to be able to not only learn, but also to reflect on its own learning. In other words, to look back on itself in that way, then, presumably, they would develop agency. They would develop the feeling that they have free will, that they’re sentient. It doesn’t seem like something that’s right around the corner to me. We have this Turing Test. I think Alan Turing, in the 70s, developed this test where, basically, it’s a kind of test where, if you have a typed conversation with somebody, on the other end of a computer program, and you can’t tell whether it’s a human or a robot speaking to you, no matter how hard you assess, no matter what kind of questions you ask, or what kinds of things you say, then that would be evidence of artificial intelligence, real artificial intelligence.
Jesse 22:09 If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a bot today, like the best bots that exist, they pale. I mean, you can vet a bot in moments. You can automatically know this is not a person, right? Because they’re not flexible enough to communicate. The computing power of the human brain is so–okay, here’s a couple of just anecdotes to anchor us in how complex the human brain is. Google recently got from–there was a woman who had some brain surgery, and they took out a segment of her brain that was causing seizures. In order to get to that region of the brain, they had to take out a healthy part of the brain, as well. So, they took this healthy part of the brain. It was like one cubic centimeter, a tiny little portion of the brain, cubic centimeter. They put it in some resin to harden it, and then they sliced it in thousands of slices, and then they computerized it, and then they created a computer program to kind of create a three-dimensional technological model of that segment of her brain. The amount of time that it took to produce that–I can’t remember the exact numbers, somebody’s going to fact check me here, and it’s going to be wrong, but it was something like a decade to produce this computer model of a centimeter of brain. It took terabytes of information. I mean, it took an unbelievable amount of information. And that was just to just to represent the physical structure of that segment of brain, not even the functioning, not even the neurotransmitters or the glial cells, that support and interact with neurons, not the firing of individual nerves. None of that was represented in this terabytes of information. It was just the structure of the brain. If you wanted to represent the entire human brain, it would take something like 700,000 average computers to represent one human brain, just the structure, not even the functioning. So, it feels to me like the best AI in the world right now can’t even come close to what the human brain is capable of, in terms of not just even function, but just structure. We’re not even close. It’s just so far off.
Jesse 24:37 So, is it possible that 1000 years from now we might be able to create artificial intelligence and 1000 years from now we might realize the answer to the question of do we have freewill? And maybe we create AI that has freewill. Maybe, but I don’t think we’re even, I think we’re nowhere close.
GT 24:53 We’ll see, this is so funny. There’s a new movie out. It’s got Ryan Reynolds in it. I wish I could remember what the name of it was. My kid loves it. It’s a video game where they create this
Ryan Reynolds is a video game character in the game, and then he becomes sentient, basically. They refer to him as blue shirt guy. I wish I could remember what the name of that movie is. But he kind of becomes conscious. That’s the whole part of the movie.
Jesse 25:24 Yeah. This is on the Disney Channel, right? It’s like Free Guy or something.
GT 25:29 Free Guy.
Jesse 25:29 Okay. Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet.
GT 25:30 You’ve got to watch it. Because the artificial intelligence in this video, because they would have human characters go into this video game and they would rob banks or whatever, anyway. Then, all of a sudden, they kept calling him blue shirt guy. He became sentient. It’s really interesting.
Jesse 25:52 Yeah. I think a lot of people are kind of concerned that this is around the corner. I think it will probably happen someday, but I think we’re way off from that happening. I could be wrong.
GT 26:05 Because from a theological point of view, just…
Jesse 26:12 Well, transcendental Mormon humanists, or I can’t remember what they call themselves. There’s this little group of people in Provo that, I mean, they’re pretty convinced that all of the spiritual things we talk about are based in some kind of unknown technology, as yet. So, God is maybe an alien species or something, and they’ve discovered a capacity to communicate with us, telepathically or something. And, that, when the millennium comes, it’s going to be because the human species has become so peaceful and so technologically advanced, that we’re capable of living in this transcendent state of harmony and plenty. It’s not going to be some metaphysical, supernatural kind of intervention. It’s going to be like the human species just gradually becomes better and better, like we’ve seen already over the past couple of hundred years.
GT 27:12 The thought occurs to me is, supposedly, you could reconstruct your ancestors just from your own memory. It almost sounds like artificial intelligence, as a form of resurrection.
Jesse 27:25 Yeah, so the reason I raise this issue is because people of this mentality, kind of believe that we’re already modeled. What appears to us to be some biological existence is actually like a simulation. That’s the word that I was trying to come up with. So, they think that this is like a simulation, like some advanced species created this illusion for us, and that what feels real to us is really just a simulation. So, I mean, if you’re simulated anyway, then why can’t you become an eternal thing within a simulation. Like, we’re not actually limited by biological constraints, except that they’re programmed into the system. That’s what they think. So, I’m not thoroughly convinced by it, I mean, it’s certainly interesting food for thought.
Reviewing Jana Riess’s Survey
GT 28:23 All right, well, you have a big statistics background, right?
Jesse 28:25 Yeah.
GT 28:26 Because I think you even teach a statistics class.
Jesse 28:28 Yeah, I have in the past. I used to teach for Central Washington University. I had attended there, and then after I graduated with a Ph.D., I went back and taught there for a few years, and then I kept teaching online there. So, I’ve taught that class more than any other psychology class, and I really love it.
GT 28:46 Well, that’s why we get along, because I’m a stats guy. So, you have to take a lot of statistics to do what you do with research psychology, right?
Jesse 29:00 Yeah. I took a few classes in undergrad, a few classes as a grad student. I just self-taught a lot of things. Whenever you come up against a statistical problem, you have data that needs to be analyzed, and you know that you don’t have a particular statistic in mind that’s going to be able to handle this data, then you go and Google and you figure out what can handle these data? Then, you learn how to run that statistic. So, a little bit self-taught as well. Once you have the foundation of statistics, you can learn any additional statistical analyses you need. I really do love statistics. I think it’s so, so much fun, once you start to delve into the theory a little bit. It’s just so boring for other people, but I’ve instilled in my students a passion for statistics, because once you start learning about these population distributions and the sampling distributions, the sampling distribution, the fundamental undergirding foundation of statistics is the most fascinating thing in the world. I mean, this doesn’t even exist in the real world. But this idea of the sampling distribution is just so fascinating.
GT 30:14 Well, yeah, and I always like to say, because a lot of times I will teach freshmen, and a lot of times they’ve been like, “When am I ever going to use this?” So, what I will do is I will give them a statistics project that they have to come up with the idea. And then they’re like, “Wow, this is useful.”
“I told you. This is the best math there is. It’s statistics.”
Jesse 30:36 I know, it’s so painful, because yeah, exactly. It’s so painful, because statistics carries the baggage of the rest of math. And so much of math really is not useful unless you’re a mathematician. Like, you’re never going to do it. But statistics is so different. Statistics is used all the time in everyday life. I would say, maybe 25% of news articles that you’ll read will include some form of statistics in them. Often, they’re descriptive statistics. But sometimes they’re even inferential and they’ll give you an r squared or something or a correlation. If you don’t understand what’s going on there, then you can’t really like you can’t really grasp the concept that the article is talking about. Oftentimes the journalists, themselves, don’t really know what’s going on. So, they misreport things and, if you don’t know yourself, then you’re just swallowing false information. So, I always try to encourage my students to kind of learn how to interpret a few basic kinds of statistics really well, so that they can be good consumers of information.
GT 31:38 So you’ve got a good background in statistics. I know Jana Riess and Benjamin Knoll did the book The Next Mormons. It was a great book and great interview. You guys should watch it if you haven’t.
Jesse 31:49 Definitely.
GT 31:50 What did you what did you think of Jana and Ben? Did you learn anything there?
Jesse 31:54 Yeah. So, Jana’s work is fascinating, and I think, really important. I think it’s important, in no small part, because she has answered questions that the public has not had access to for a long time. So, before coming to Graceland University, I worked at Church headquarters in the correlation research division. There we did all kinds of studies with members of the Church. We answered, already, most of the questions that Jana answered. But the information is considered proprietary, and people who work there aren’t really allowed to talk a lot about what they’re doing, or the findings that they’re coming up with. They share it with the brethren and some project managers at the headquarters, but most of the information is just kept within headquarters, behind closed doors. So, Jana answered a lot of questions that I already knew the answer to, because I was privileged to have the information, because I worked there. But, most people didn’t have the answer to those kinds of questions. The one thing that really surprised me of what she found was related to the Word of Wisdom. So, oftentimes we don’t investigate questions at Church headquarters, we don’t often dig into like the worthiness issues of people’s lives, because it’s maybe too sensitive or because we leave that up to individual members and the Lord and individual members and their ecclesiastical leaders.
Jesse 33:27 So, we’re not collecting, oftentimes, data about whether people are keeping the law of chastity or the word of wisdom, or, sometimes we ask, “Do you hold a temple recommend,” which is a proxy for a lot of worthiness questions, but also belief questions. So, you can’t know from just seeing somebody’s temple recommend or not–if they have it, you know a lot about them. But, if they don’t, it doesn’t mean that they’re unworthy. It could mean something about their belief. It could mean something about one question not… So, it doesn’t feel so sensitive to ask about do you have a temple recommend or not? But we don’t ask, for instance, usually, we wouldn’t ask, “Do you pay a full tithing?” and things like that. So, when Jana found that many people are consuming, like many self-proclaimed Mormons are consuming coffee on a regular basis, that was really surprising to me. I hadn’t realized that.
Jesse 34:19 When you were interviewing Jana, you kind of asked her, who does this survey represent? She seemed to struggle to answer that question. Having read, not her whole book, but I’ve read parts of her book, and having heard her speak, and having asked her similar questions, I was surprised that it was a little bit of a struggle for her to answer that. Because, to me, the answer is incredibly clear. The people that she surveyed were self-proclaimed Mormons. Okay, they could be active or not. She said, “Eighty-five percent of our sample self-described themselves as active,” but many in our sample said they were active and didn’t attend church regularly.
GT 34:54 Right.
Jesse 34:54 So, this is another thing that really surprised me. Most of the time people, like at headquarters when I’m working as a researcher for the Church, I define active as participating weekly, or most weeks. So, usually, if we’re trying to figure out what active members of the Church look like, we’ll survey a bunch of members who are in–sometimes we send out paper/pencil surveys that get distributed, like in second hour or something like that. So, it captures everybody who happens to be there on a particular Sunday, whether they attend every week, or just every once in a while. But, if you want to know what active members look like, we kind of screen out those people who say, “I only attend every once in a while.” We just look at those people who attend like two to four times a month, and we say this is probably what active members of the Church look like today.
Jesse 35:43 Well, to know, from Jana’s research, that many people consider themselves active, even though they’re not attending, was also a really fascinating insight. It suggests that what it means to be Mormon and how people think of themselves as a righteous Mormon is shifting. Because it used to be, well, back in Brigham’s era, people thought of themselves as Mormon, even if they never attended church. Because you just were. It was similar to being Jewish. If you never attend, Jewish is a heritage, in addition to a religion. So if you never attend synagogue, you still are Jewish. You don’t have to be participating. In Brigham era, there were lots of people who considered themselves to be Mormon, even though they weren’t attending church. But, as we kind of drew harder boundaries, and said, “You’re in only if you do all these temple recommend things and only if you live the standards, and only if you pass the home teaching interview,” and all these kinds of things, then all of a sudden, we start to have higher standards of what it means to be a Mormon. So, as those standards become more and more strict, then people stop, I think, for a long time, identifying as active, if they’re not participating, and doing their home teaching, and doing all the stuff. You kind of think of yourself as active, only if you’re all in. But in recent years, according to Jana’s research, it suggests that some people are calling themselves active, even if they’re not really participating, not doing hardly anything.
GT 37:07 Do you have a sense–because like you said, Jana said that 85% of people call themselves active. Do you have a sense for what percentage of that group the Church would agree were active versus would call them inactive?
Jesse 37:22 There are people online who write blogs and do Mormon statistics stuff. You can infer a lot from percentages that are reported by Pew Research when they do national studies and things like that. So, I’m going to say some stuff that that can be inferred and can be learned, just from the general population. Many people who are baptized members in the Church do not consider themselves Mormon. They don’t mentally affiliate with the Church. So, if you were to give them a survey, according to our numbers, according to membership statistics, you would expect for about 2% of the US population, two to three percent, to self-report as a Latter-day Saint. What you find is about one percent report as Latter-day Saint, one to one and a half. So, about half the number of people on statistics, like on our member records, actually think of themselves as a Mormon. So, Jana’s research is applicable to that half who think of themselves as Mormon. Church records show another twice as many people who don’t think of themselves as Mormon. So, of Jana’s research, what is it representing?
Jesse 38:46 Well, we know of the half who consider themselves Mormon, we’ve got some people who are participating and some people who aren’t. I don’t remember from Jana’s research, what percentage of people were actively attending, like, two to four times a month. But I would guess, just based on some of the broader statistics that we know, that most people have a tendency to over inflate in when answering a survey, how often they do any religious thing, because it’s socially desirable. So, they want to come across as better than they really are.
GT 38:46 I feel like everybody in my statistics class teaching this. This is awesome. Most people don’t know that, but I teach this every semester.
Jesse 39:12 So, you get these bias representations. People overestimate by about 50%. When you ask them on a survey, “How often do you attend church?” They kind of inflate by about 50% more often than they really do, at the population level. Not every individual, but like, if you look at a population, you can expect that people are saying they go about 50% more often than they really do. So, if you kind of extrapolate from some of those statistics, and you look at what we hear people saying [about] how often they go to church in Pew research studies, you can kind of suggest that maybe half of the people who identify as Mormon are attending regularly.
Jesse 39:59 So, Jana’s research appears, to me, to be biased, a little bit, in terms of sampling those people who–well, not biased. I shouldn’t say biased. It represents the people who are both attending and not attending. And that’s another critical reason why I love Jana’s work because she is contributing to the knowledge about members, who consider themselves Mormon, but aren’t really actively participating in what they do. So, I think some of the kinds of people who she’s finding are not participating in the–not following the Word of Wisdom, not wearing garments, and things like that. So, they consider themselves Mormon, but they’re not doing all of the Mormon-y things.
Jesse 40:42 Much, much of the work that we did at the Correlation Research Division for Church Headquarters, represented the active members who were attending regularly. Because that’s who we have access to that will answer a Church survey, if we email it to them. People who are not that attached to the Church, who still call themselves a Mormon but aren’t really participating that much…
GT 41:02 The Church doesn’t know that much about them.
Jesse 41:04 We don’t really know that much about them. They’re not really that willing to take a survey from the Church. If it comes from somebody else, if it comes from Jana Riess, they might take it. I think, sometimes, they don’t trust the Church to listen to their opinion. So, every once in a while, maybe 10% of our survey respondents will be somebody who’s not actively participating. They kind of rail against the Church, like, “Nobody ever listens to me.” I’m reading these surveys, and I’m just like, “Well, I’m here, I’m listening.” We really do convey what comes across in these surveys to the brethren. The fact that that doesn’t end up making it to the end of the row, like through General Conference, sometimes, isn’t because they don’t know what you’re saying. It’s not because they’re not listening. It’s because they’re torn. They’re between a rock and a hard place. They can’t make everybody happy. I think a lot of people just have this general sense, like, “The brethren don’t know what I’m experiencing. The brethren don’t hear my troubles, and don’t care.” I don’t know what the brethren do and don’t feel. But I do know that the brethren are aware. I do know that the brethren here about this stuff.
GT 42:14 So, one of the other interesting things about Jana’s research, was she had a 500 ex-Mormons in her [survey.] Does the Church study that?
Jesse 42:26 Yeah, so we have done studies about ex-Mormons.
GT 42:28 Really?
Jesse 42:28 Yeah.
GT 42:30 Cool. I know, because she said that was the first time anybody had ever studied ex-Mormons.
Jesse 42:33 Yeah, so, certainly, within the public domain [that’s true.] I think her sample of 500 is a really, really impressive sample of ex-Mormons. I’m not sure. I mean, John Dehlin and some others were involved in this faith crisis research, right?
GT 42:54 Right.
Jesse 42:54 And she gave an answer why that wasn’t the same, and I don’t remember…
GT 42:58 Well, it was a self-selected sample. That’s why.
Jesse 43:01 Oh, it wasn’t representative. That’s right.
GT 43:02 Yeah. Whereas Jana’s was statistically significant.
Jesse 43:05 Yeah, it was statistically representative. Yeah.
GT 43:07 Yeah. Because she used, I don’t remember who she used, but she used a national firm to find those people.
Jesse 43:13 I don’t remember which firm she used either. But what she essentially did was, she used what’s called a quota sample. A quota sample is not actually, like a probability sample, it’s not perfectly representative, but it’s about as good as you can get in a society like we live in, where, basically, you know what the population is supposed to look like. You know that Mormons are way more white than the general United States population. So, we might be like, 90% white. I don’t remember exactly what it is, but it might be like, 90% white, whereas the general US population is like 70%, or 60% white.
Jesse 43:14 So, you know approximate age brackets of what people are participating in the church, because of representative Pew research, for instance. You know gender breakdowns, and you know education breakdowns and things like that. Then, you go out, and you collect people who fit within these different groups: I need a person to fill out a survey who is white and has a bachelor’s degree and is a female and falls within the age bracket of 20 to 30. So, once you fill that, once you grab that person, they fit into a quota. They fit into that group. Once you fill all your quotas, then you say [that] this wasn’t actually randomly selected, but because the sample that we got approximately represents the population parameters on these demographic characteristics, then you can say it’s probably representative, even though we didn’t collect it in a randomized way. So, it’s a good approach. It’s about the best anybody can do when you don’t have access to a random sampling approach. So, it definitely is better than what’s been done so far.
GT 44:57 Even with random sampling, you’re going to oversample people with phones, versus people who don’t have phones and that sort of thing.
Jesse 45:04 Yeah, even like the census, we spend something like $6 billion, conducting the census every 10 years, and it’s still biased. It still underrepresents people in gated communities and underrepresents the homeless and things like that. So, a sample is more than adequate. It’s silly that we continue to do the census. Because, if you just allowed the Census Bureau to perform representative samples of every community, then it would be good enough for a fraction of the cost.
GT 45:07 Oh wow. Well, it’s in the Constitution.
Jesse 45:09 We have to do it, whether it makes sense or not.
GT 45:39 So what do you think about her sample of ex-Mormons? Was that pretty representative of what the Church already knows?
Jesse 45:45 Yeah. You have to remember. She hasn’t written that book yet.
GT 45:48 Well she did, with The Next Mormons. She’s on another book.
Jesse 45:50 My understanding is that her original sample represents, like, she collected, at the same time, these people who were ex-Mormons and the people who were actively participating, identifying as Mormons. So, The Next Mormons, characterizes people who currently say that they’re Mormon. And so she hasn’t written this book yet about the 500 people who are ex-Mormons. We don’t really know–I don’t know what she’s saying there.
GT 45:54 No, it was in there. Yeah, she talked about Mormons and ex-Mormons. I can’t remember what her new book is going to be about. But, yeah, because she had a thousand people who self-identified as Mormons and then she had 500 people who were ex-Mormons, and there was a chapter or two in the book, about the 500.
Jesse 46:35 Maybe it was peppering in or something. But I think [in] her next book, she’s planning to do a lot more analysis about that. So, I haven’t dug into that enough to really say, but my impression is that, because just having worked at Church Headquarters, we’ve done a lot of research about people who are formerly Mormons, and who have left the Church. [The Church has done] representative samples about the reasons why they leave and what’s going on. One of the things that Jana said in her interview with you that I found really insightful, and a critical takeaway was that most of the people in her survey, and most of the people we know more generally, who leave the Church, are not leaving for faith crisis reasons.
GT 46:45 But they are the most vocal.
Jesse 46:45 So the faith crisis people appear to us to be like the huge group of people who are leaving, because they’re so vocal about it. But most people actually leave, like she said in her interview, that the median age of leaving was 19, which is not at all surprising. Most people are leaving any church, not just the Latter-day Saint Church, any church, they’re leaving around the time when they’re in their late teens, and they’re kind of grappling with this for the first time in deciding, “I don’t have a religious personality and this is not for me,” or right when they first leave home. They have to decide for the first Sunday of their life, whether they’re going to [church.] They’re attending a college and they live in a dorm, and they have to wake up Sunday morning and decide, “Am I going to actually do this? Am I going to go to church? My parents always made me but, is it my thing?”
Jesse 46:45 So, you’ve got people who, for the first time, are grappling with this question. And, if you don’t end up getting married right away, in your early 20s, and you’re a Mormon, it feels like you’re heretical, or, like, you’re not doing the right thing. You’re not on the right path.
GT 48:15 You’re a Democrat.
Jesse 48:16 Yeah, exactly. So, increasingly, people are kind of feeling like what the Church represents is not aligned with my personal life, my experiences, and so they just grow distant. They just fall away. And it’s not like a faith crisis. It’s not like they dug into the hard issues, and they decided, “I don’t believe this.” Most people just drift. And we find that that’s especially concentrated in that late teens, early twenties period. But it can happen to anybody. Most people who leave the church really do leave because they drift away. Like, for instance, maybe you’re traveling for business, or you’re going on vacation or something. You don’t go to church for a couple of weeks while you’re gone. You realize it’s kind of nice to not go to church. You come home, and you’re like, “Honey, do you want to go?” So, you go every other week instead of every week, like you did before. Then, eventually, you’re like, every three weeks, and then it’s every month. Then, you just kind of gradually part.
Jesse 49:09 This is the reason why the pandemic is so scary for the church, because by shutting down church meetings for a period of time, people got in the habit of waking up Sunday morning and not having to get dressed and maybe wearing their pajamas to church. It’s like General Conference on steroids. It’s nice to bake pancakes in the morning and just hang out with your family and have a more relaxed Sunday morning. And because it feels so good, you’re like, “Do I want to go to church as often as I was?” And you just kind of drift away. I think both local and global church leaders are looking at the pandemic right now as a potential catalyst for a lot of people just drifting away, not necessarily having a faith crisis, but just parting ways with the church because it’s easy. It’s just easy to fall away.
GT 49:59 Hmm.
Jesse 50:01 We’ve already seen some anecdotal evidence. I mean, I suspect, I haven’t been at the church [headquarters] for a little while, now. But I suspect that people there at headquarters are continuing to do research to kind of quantify how many people do we have fewer now than before? How many people have left? But we kind of have some anecdotal evidence that’s come from certain wards and stakes where it seems like maybe our in-person attendance is down maybe a third compared to what it used to be. We don’t know if that’s [permanent.] How do [we] extrapolate that? But it seems like a lot of people might either still be attending online, or maybe not participating anymore. So, it’s a little scary.
GT 50:40 One of the things I love about President Nelson is letting cameras in sacrament meeting, which was–that was completely different than before.
Jesse 50:49 Yeah.
GT 50:50 So it’s been nice. Do you see? Do you see cameras going away? I mean, we think we’re at the bottom of the pandemic, but it could come back. Who knows?
Jesse 51:02 Yeah, exactly. We keep hearing maybe this pandemic is kind of wavering out. But I’ve heard some epidemiologists say, like, “This isn’t ever going to go away. For the rest of our lives, we’re always going to have flare ups of COVID, where we have new variants with spikes.” We’ll probably be able to deal with it. Basically, you just have to have a healthcare system that can kind of handle spikes in cases and hospitalizations. But you have to get back to real life. This is going to be with us for a long time. So, whenever we have these spikes, going forward, we may kind of revert back to a more virtual temporary kind of thing, whether it’s in the workplace or in church or whatever. You might have these periods where people kind of lock down again. As that happens, I think you have to have kind of an openness to continued videography of sacrament meetings and other things.
GT 51:51 I had conversation with Richie Steadman, from The Cultural Hall podcast one time and he said he hopes that the cameras never go away. Because he has said, and I don’t look and see who’s online, or whatever. But he said he’s noticed people who never went to church that are going now because it’s online.
Jesse 52:09 Yeah.
GT 52:10 And you know, there are a lot of elderly people. I know in my ward, my Aaronic priesthood son used to go take sacrament to people couldn’t come to church.
Jesse 52:21 Yeah.
GT 52:21 Well, now they can come and so that’s an option. While I understand that physical attendance might be down, I wonder if they keep track of virtual attendance, because that’s probably up.
Jesse 52:37 Yeah, it’s hard to know because when you have a single person joining with their name on the screen in Zoom, you don’t know if four people are at home watching or if one person is at home. So, you can’t count heads the same way you could when they’re in seat. So, it’s really hard to know what’s going on. Again, at Church Headquarters, they may be doing some kind of research to ask ward clerks to do an in-depth follow up in certain sampled wards to see how many people are behind the names on Zoom? How many people really are attending? How under counted are in-seat sacrament meeting numbers right now, for instance?
GT 53:15 I was in Boise a few months ago, and my nephew had a missionary farewell. And because it was online, even though I was in Boise, I tuned in and watched. I don’t know, if I was home, I probably would have gone in person. But I wonder how many people–because I’ve heard some wards that actually shut off the virtual because they’re like, “You have to come to church.”
Jesse 53:39 Yeah.
GT 53:39 I know that’s ticking off some people.
Jesse 53:41 So far, they’ve left it up to the..
GT 53:41 So, that’s just a rogue state president or whatever?
Jesse 53:48 I mean, it’s not even rogue. They’ve kind of left it up to each individual leader to decide for their stake and their ward whether they’re going to do it. Many local leaders are deciding [that] we need to be as accommodating as we can, for people who are elderly or are sick or immunocompromised or something. “We need to be as accommodating as we can.” There are other leaders who are kind of more hard-nosed, who are deciding [that] if we don’t shut this off, then we’re going to train up some people to expect it for the rest of our lives, and we can’t do that.”
Jesse 54:20 At some point, I’m hoping that the Church will make a decision to allow it for everyone, all the time, kind of encourage stakes and wards to [do it,] maybe not leave that up to their own decision making. [I hope they] maybe just universalize it so that everybody can [attend virtually.] So far, it appears like, again, this is anecdotal, but I’ve lived in a few wards since the pandemic and as I look at who’s joining online, often the numbers are kind of small. You might have like seven people joining offline. When I go to in-person church, often I’ve gotten–most everybody I’m seeing. This is like a full ward. This is what we had before. So, it seems like most people are back to attending church in-person who are going to go back to attending church in-person. And if you shut it off, you may be disenfranchising people who are not going to go back, if you shut it off. So, allow them, perhaps, to participate in the only way they will.
Jesse 55:19 Just from my personal life, my wife has a lot of health concerns. She, already, before the pandemic, she wasn’t able to attend church, probably more than once or twice a month, if she was lucky, because she just has a lot of pain all the time. She’s been attending church every single week, virtually, since the pandemic started, and she feels so much better.
GT 55:47 This has been a blessing for her.
Jesse 55:48 It’s a huge blessing. She loves it. But her pain over the course of the pandemic, I mean, it’s gotten worse for the last 14 years, but it’s kind of gotten worse during the pandemic, as well. And if we shut it off, I don’t think she would be able to even attend once a month. She’s got all kinds of issues. I think that she would be precluded from attending church, almost always if we shut it off for her. So, I’m hoping that bishops will recognize, whether the institutional church tells them they need to, or whether they leave it up to individual bishops decisions, I really hope that bishops will recognize this is important for some members to have access in a way they didn’t before.
“Spiritual but Not Religious”/Placebo Prayers?
GT 56:21 Yeah. Cool. Well, so I guess that kind of leads into the other question about, I know it was Elder… Oh, I can’t remember his name. But he talked about–Jensen, Elder Jensen. He was the former Church Historian, two church historians ago. So, it’s been a while, but he said, this was the biggest crisis in the LDS Church since Kirtland, with the number of people that are just leaving the Church. When I talked to you, you said, it’s not just the LDS Church. Every church is losing members. Can you tell us what do you think are the reasons behind that?
Jesse 57:09 Yeah, so there seems to be well, let me just reference my notes here. Because there’s a lot of things going on. And I just don’t want to overlook some things. Okay, so there seems to be a generalized distrust in institutions today. It’s not just churches, though people feel kind of icky about churches. More and more people are kind of saying, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I want to connect with God, but I don’t want to do it through that institution. Because they have rules and regulations that don’t feel true to me or don’t feel right to me. Or they seem judgmental in that church, or they seem hypocritical in that church or things like that. So, people are viewing churches with more distrust, but that’s not specific to churches.
Jesse 57:55 In an individualized society, like we have, with such rampant individualism… The United States of America is the most individualistic country in the world, where we care mostly about ourselves, everybody else be damned. “[I care about] my unique personality, my needs. I am not that concerned about other people.” It’s like, self-gratification is off the charts, more than any other country in the world. When you have that, you look at everybody else with a sense of distrust. You can kind of see this just generally bleeding into the culture of the United States where people are, in perhaps, more disagreement than they’ve been. Things feel more divisive than they’ve ever been. So, they look at the government with more distrust than they have before. They look at banks with more distrust. They look at corporations with more distrust. So, it’s not really about religions. This is about just a generalized distrust in society and kind of a generalized selfishness about our culture. Some people have called this, they say the religion of the United States today is moralistic therapeutic deism. Meaning, moralistic, not actually moral, but having the illusion of morality, like doing things that appear good without actually being good. They don’t have to be good just to look good.
Jesse 59:20 So you affiliate with something that sounds [good.] You do engage in behaviors, and you affiliate with organizations that give the impression of being good, whether or not they’re actually doing any real good in the world. Therapeutic, meaning like, “I have psychological needs, and I’m seeking out God only to satisfy those needs for me. If my relationship with God isn’t meeting my needs, then I have no need for him. If he asks something of me, some sacrifice, oh, hell no. Because that’s not what I’m about. I’m about like, getting from God something, rather than giving to God something.”
Jesse 59:54 Deism is this idea, of course, like, God is there, kind of not really demanding much of us and He kind of set things in motion, but He expects us to just kind of figure out our own lives. So, the Christianity of today is not the Christianity of the Bible. It appears to be, just generally speaking, when you talk to people who identify as Christians, this kind of moralistic therapeutic deism, where they’re kind of seeking out God only for their own needs, because it reflects the cultural mentality of individualism in the United States. When we see that people are leaving churches in droves, part of it is the broader culture. Part of it’s just this worry that we’ve got a lot of people who are not concerned about what Christianity is supposed to mean. They’re more concerned about what they can get from it. And if it’s not giving them something, then not going to continue to affiliate.
Jesse 1:00:49 So if churches want to retain a large populace, a large attendance, then they either have to find ways of correcting the broader culture, so that people stop feeling quite so selfish, and so contractually utilitarian toward God, or they have to cave and find ways of meeting people’s expectations as they are. You find that a lot of churches, increasingly, are just caving. They’re just kind of not asking that much of their congregants. They’re just saying, like, “Whatever life you live, it’s good. It’s good enough, and we’re here to meet your needs, and we’re not going to ask anything of you.” Those kinds of religions, you can see that, unfortunately, that seems like it should bring in more congregants, but the more you relax standards, the less likely people are to engage with religion. So, the sociology of religion suggests that religions that pull in a lot of adherents, and they get them really committed and keep them long term, are those that have comparatively higher standards.
Jesse 1:02:02 So, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has historically required a lot of its members. We have this long list of things in order to get a temple recommended [that] you have to do and ways in which you participate. We have a lay ministry, and so everybody’s kind of actively filling roles in the ward. You’re paying 10% of your income, and you’re having to wear awkward underwear and keeping the Word of Wisdom, abstaining from a lot of different things that are just colloquially accepted in your society like coffee and tea. So, all these kinds of things kind of set you apart and require you to live in what feels like a sanctified way. It feels like a better holy or higher way. But because it requires so much of you, it ends up forcing you into an all or none kind of categorization. Like you’re either all in and you’re really in, or you’re not. So, you have a lot of really hardcore adherents who are committed to the institution.
Jesse 1:03:08 Churches that are more liberal, that kind of just allow anything to go, they lose congregants a lot more often. So, if the path that you choose, as a church, is to cave to the whims of the people, and kind of give them this moralistic therapeutic deism that they’re seeking, oftentimes, you think you’re going to up your adherents, and you actually don’t. Because what causes people to affiliate is high standards, not lower. Another thing that we see going on today, compared to in the past, is we see that the dissociation of people from the Church today and from all churches, generally, is part of a historic roller coaster of waves of kind of affiliation and disaffiliation and affiliation, and disaffiliation over and over.
Jesse 1:03:56 So you see, like, in the mid-1700s, you’ve got the first Great Awakening. People are kind of feeling repulsed by the enlightenment and the scientific method, and the theory of evolution, and these naturalistic explanations for things. Preachers, especially of Christian denominations, are saying, “This is so ungodly. We can’t do this. We have to abandon these ways.” They preach hellfire and damnation against it. It kind of riles up people and pulls them back into faith denominations and it is rejecting the science of the day. Gradually, that kind of wanes. The people stop affiliating so strongly and the preacher stops preaching so harshly. The standards kind of drop a little and so people disaffiliate with religion. Then, there’s, mid-1800s, a second Great Awakening. So, people come back.
Jesse 1:04:53 We see people disaffiliate again in the early 1900s, mid 1900s. You’ve got kind of like a third great awakening. I don’t think historians really call it that. But within United States, you’ve got a growing importance of Christianity in the nation, generally. You’re coming out of World War Two. You’re trying to distance yourselves from the communist countries of the East, Russia and China.
GT 1:05:21 Godless communists.
Jesse 1:05:22 Yeah, exactly. So how do you do that? You identify yourself even harder as a Christian nation. So, you’ve got President Eisenhower becoming baptized while he’s in office, to identify himself and the nation as a Christian nation. People start participating again, in droves in churches.
GT 1:05:39 Changing the Pledge of Allegiance to include “under God.”
Jesse 1:05:40 Yes, yes, one nation under God.
GT 1:05:42 In God we Trust on the coins.
Jesse 1:05:44 All that stuff gets added to identifies us as a Christian nation. This is like a third great awakening, where we kind of re-affiliate. And then you see a falling away again, where people just drift away from religions, generally. It’s not just our church, in every church, people drift away.
GT 1:05:48 Would you say that goes from World War II to about the 90s, that kind of third great awakening?
Jesse 1:06:07 It’s hard to give–it didn’t really last that long, I don’t think. I would say it probably lasted like, from like the 50s to the 60s.
GT 1:06:17 Oh really?
Jesse 1:06:18 By the 70s, you’ve already got the hippie counterculture movement, and the growth of science.
GT 1:06:24 You had the 80s with the Moral Majority.
Jesse 1:06:27 Yes, yes, it’s all messy. You’ve got this constant tension of back and forth between, the religionists and the scientists. You’ve just got this constant tension. It’s always hard, when you’re living in a contemporary time, to see how much of what’s going on is a broad trend, or how much of it is like, just a little tension that’s just a chronic back and forth. Is this something that’s going to be identified as a movement, later? Or is this just something that’s smaller?
Jesse 1:06:59 So as I look at going forward into the mid-2000s, I think there’s no reason to suspect that there won’t be some kind of advent, that brings people back to religion in the same kind of fourth great awakening that we’ve already seen every 100 years since the founding of our country. Already, you can kind of see signs of this, a little bit. For instance, look at the anti-science movement among many people in the country today, this distrust in institutions. It’s manifesting as a distrust of religion, but it’s also a distrust of science. It’s a distrust of enlightenment.
GT 1:07:41 No Vaccines.
Jesse 1:07:41 Exactly. So, you’ve got a lot of people, like, my parents, for instance, believe in wearing magnets as a healing thing. You’ve got people who are like crystal-wearing DoTerra users, and things like that. You look at the science, like the actual science of these things, and almost never does it pan out. It’s usually because of placebo effect that these things have some kind of propitious benefit. But you can’t convince most people of that, because their intuition just suggests [that] this seems to be working, and I’m going to use it. Actually, to be honest, as long as the placebo effect is working, maybe you should just let them use it.
GT 1:08:27 It’s funny you bring that up. Do you listen to Freakonomics?
Jesse 1:08:31 Sometimes, yeah.
GT 1:08:32 Because they have a wonderful set of podcasts on the placebo effect. Sometimes it can be useful. Just use it, if it works.
Jesse 1:08:40 Well, I know this is a tangent, but, there’s some research that suggests even if you know that a drug is a placebo, it will still have beneficial side effects. So, you can, for instance, you can design your own placebo drug. Like, you meet with a therapist, and they’ll say, “If you could take a pill to solve this, what would it look like? How big would it be? How many would you take? What color would it be?” And then you send the prescription off to a pharmacy, you have them fill it, they charge you money for a placebo drug that looks to your specifications. You know it’s placebo, you take it and feel better. Like, that kind of thing is so–it shouldn’t exist. It should not be, but human brains are just bizarre, just so inexplicable.
GT 1:09:21 Well, and I even heard, and this might offend some people, but they’ve done some studies, where you’re sick. I tell you that I’m praying for you. Then, another person in another room is sick with the same disease. I pray for them, but I don’t tell them. But, because I told you, [the sick person,] the placebo effect is actually what heals you.
Jesse 1:09:49 These are called intercessory prayer studies. Yeah. So, you’re trying to intercede on somebody’s behalf. Some individual studies have found that even if you pray for somebody, and they don’t know that you’re praying for them, that they still get better, compared to people who aren’t being prayed for. But if you do a meta-analysis of a bunch of these kinds of studies, those effects generally wash out. So, mostly, it doesn’t appear that there’s any propitious benefit of praying for a stranger, for instance, if they don’t know that they’re being prayed for. But, if they know they’re being prayed for, then they actually get a lot better than if they don’t know that somebody’s praying for them.
Jesse 1:10:30 So how much of that is coming from the placebo effect? How much is coming from just like the community support and knowledge that somebody cares for me and loves me? We don’t know. But we do know, for instance, in another study, researchers paid somebody, they paid a panel of people like $800, a piece, to sniff a vial of cold virus. They tracked whether they got sick or not and tracked it back to whether they had a strong social support network or didn’t. People who had a strong social support network and lower levels of stress in their life, didn’t get sick from sniffing in the cold virus. Their immune system was stronger and was able to fight it off before it caught hold. Whereas people who don’t have that same kind of social support network and the same kind of friend connections, they got sick. So, we don’t know how much of it is the placebo effect from being prayed for and how much is like a social effect of just knowing that somebody cares about me.
Jesse 1:11:22 But it’s possible that the same kind of thing is going on with these pills. Like if you have, you take two purple capsules a day, we don’t know how much of that is from the pills and how much is from meeting with a therapist who is giving you concern and talking about your problems and imagining this solution to a problem with you. We never can tell how much is placebo and how much is just the interpersonal interactions.
GT 1:11:44 There’s a great Freakonomics episode–I’m going to convert you all to Freakonomics, it’s great. But you’re talking about, you’ve heard the phrase, “Being mesmerized.”
Jesse 1:11:53 Yes.
GT 1:11:53 So there was a guy, his last name was Mesmer, and he dressed up like a wizard and, “I’m going to heal you,” and whatever. And it worked about half the time, and it was all placebo effect. That’s what being mesmerized is, is the placebo effect.
Jesse 1:12:07 Yeah, this is actually the precursor to modern hypnosis. Hypnosis is an almost inexplicable phenomenon. Even people who are expert in hypnosis don’t really get what’s going on. Nobody knows why this happens. There are some theories that suggest maybe it’s better connecting your conscious brain with your unconscious brain. Maybe it’s dissociating your conscious brain from your unconscious brain. Or they say, maybe it’s heightening your attention to certain facets of the environment and distracting you from other aspects of environment. Nobody knows exactly what’s going on here. But one thing seems to be for certain, some people are more hypnotizable than others, and the kind of people who are more hypnotizable have more active imaginations, and they’re more compliant individuals. So, they’re more willing to go along with things. We don’t know. Going back to what you’re saying about Mesmer, we don’t know how much of the effect of mesmerism or hypnotism in treating pain, for instance, is because of the placebo effect or how much of it’s just social compliance and how much of it is just freeing your subconscious minds to kind of play out better in your life. Often, our conscious mind kind of gets in the way of our unconscious mind from doing what it does really well.
GT 1:13:34 Shannon Flynn tells a story about Mark Hofmann that Mark was so good at self-hypnotizing himself that he actually, when he was in prison, I believe he had a root canal with no anesthesia. Because he could control his pain that much.
Jesse 1:13:53 Yeah, dental. Well, it’s surprising that he could self-hypnotize. A lot of people undergo external hypnosis by a therapist, and dental procedures are actually the most commonly studied phenomenon with hypnosis for pain control. Other kinds of surgeries have been explored, but dental procedures are — it’s very common to use hypnosis to get through a dental procedure. It’s rare that people can self-hypnotize. Even these like online classes that walk you through hypnosis induction, are usually walking through something that’s more like a mindfulness induction rather than a hypnosis induction. So, most of the time, people who think they’ve been hypnotized, probably haven’t been. If you’ve engaged in stage hypnosis, it’s probably not real hypnosis. I mean, if you’ve met with like a therapist, like a psychologist who’s done it, then, probably, you have. But, if you’ve done it with some kind of online service or something, it’s probably more of a mindfulness thing than a hypnosis thing. It’s just a bizarre phenomenon.
Unconscious Performances: Psychics, Automatic Writing
Jesse 1:15:09 I’m glad that we are talking about hypnosis because I actually wanted to shift gears and talk a little bit about kind of what’s going on in the subconscious brain that gives rise to some of the spiritual experiences that we experience in life. Our understanding of hypnosis, as poor as it is, helps us as an analogy for understanding some of the spiritual experiences that we have. So, when somebody is experiencing hypnosis, an induction might have them focus their attention on something in particular. Somebody who’s easily hypnotizable can just focus on a thumbnail or something of themselves or of the hypnotherapist. As you focus on the thumbnail, you go deeper and deeper. You might use like a number system where you count backwards from five. And every step, as you go lower in the numbers, you get deeper in this state of hypnosis, and then you find yourself there, in this hypnotized trance. In order to test the induction, a therapist might say, “You’re going to feel like your right hand is floating higher and higher in the air.” And as you do this, you feel like your hand is floating. What’s fascinating here is, your hand is, it’s being held here. But it feels, to you, like it’s floating autonomously. It’s not happening because you controlled your hand. I’m lifting my hand right now. But the muscle movements that are required in order for me to lift my hand could be interpreted by my brain as either originating from myself or as originating external to myself.
Jesse 1:16:56 If my brain misinterprets the cause of the raising as something external, then it feels like it’s floating or being raised by somebody else, rather than my doing the muscle lifting. We know that people in hypnosis are actually lifting their own hand, but they self-report that it feels like it’s something external to them. Now, this is critical for understanding, because a lot of, especially early spiritualism, like in the 1800s, interacting psychics, mediums, table turning, even like Ouija boards and dowsing for water and things like that, involve this kind of muscular movement. It involves some degree of moving your hands, moving your muscles, and then attributing the muscle movement to something other than yourself. [The person is attributing it] to some spirit in the environment, or to some otherworldly force or something like that.
Jesse 1:17:53 We’ll just talk for a second about dowsing. Dowsing is this practice where you have two sticks in your hand independently. You hold them out parallel, and as you walk around a field or a room or something like that, then eventually the rods will kind of cross. They will make an X shape as the two rods just cross on top of each other. At that point, you know there has to be water. That’s a good source of water, in that place.
Jesse 1:18:22 This movement will happen accidentally and naturally. If you hold out your hands for a long time, your muscles just kind of start to fatigue and you lose control, and the rods are guaranteed to cross at some point while your dowsing. They will absolutely cross. But where they cross is uncertain. If, though, you have already demonstrated dowsing to other observers, and they’re unfamiliar with the process. They’ve never done this before, and then you hand them the sticks and you tell them to wander the field and you’ve already showed them where water is, they will cross their rods over the same place that you did, even though they feel like they didn’t control it. It just happened. It feels external to them, even though it happened at the exact same spot where they saw somebody else cross their rods.
Jesse 1:19:15 If on the other hand, if you don’t demonstrate the procedure first, and you just let people kind of dowse, each person will cross their rods at a different place in the field or a different place in the room. And it feels the same, either way, to the participant. If they’ve never dowsed before, they’ll cross their rods and they’ll be like, “Oh my goodness. Look. It just happened. I can’t believe there’s water here.” And it feels the same if you are crossing the rods at the same spot as somebody else who demonstrated it, or a different spot. It feels the same, intrinsically, to you. It feels like some force crossed the rods. But you, actually, psychologically forced the rods to cross where somebody else demonstrated previously, if you saw it happen there. This suggests that there’s some part of you that’s making the rods cross that you don’t have conscious access to. This is not surprising if you understand about the brain at all, because we’ve got layers of brain.
Jesse 1:20:12 So, the brain is about the size of two fists, like this. If you look at the cortex of the brain, that’s the outermost layer that’s kind of surrounding the external brain. So, the cortex of the brain is the conscious area of the brain, we do our thinking here. In the front, we do our seeing, our visual processing here in the back. We do our auditory listening here. We do spatial reasoning and movements with this part at the top. All of that is conscious. But, beneath that thin layer of about six millimeters or something, on the outside of the brain, everything else that’s deeper inside is unconscious. Everything else that’s part of our brain matter, most of our brain is outside of our conscious awareness. So, this is all where we process our emotions, negative and positive emotions, rewards and punishments. This is where we process most of our digestion, our breathing and respiration, our circulation, or any kind of motor movements that we’ve already learned how to do in the past. We already know how to walk, so, you don’t have to think about walking. You don’t have to think, “Okay, every step, I have to pick up my foot, move it forward, put it down.” You don’t have to think about stuff, it’s automatic. All the automatic things we do, occur in the unconscious part of the brain. So, we know that a bunch of stuff is going on that we’re not aware of. We don’t have conscious access, and we can’t control it if we wanted to. Some things we can control if we wanted to. But some things we really, even, can’t control it if we wanted to.
GT 1:21:43 Beathing,
Jesse 1:21:44 Beathing, we can control if we want to. Sometimes we can’t. iIf you practice really hard, and you have a good trainer and they use biofeedback therapy, you can learn to control your heart rate and your blood pressure, too. But it takes a lot more work. You have to be hooked up to sensors to see what’s going on inside your body. While you’re thinking certain thoughts or while you’re breathing in certain ways, you can learn to control your heartbeat and your blood pressure and things like that.
Jesse 1:22:13 But for most people, we don’t have conscious control over these kinds of things. Well, there’s, there’s about 10 regions in your brain that decide the muscle movements of your body. There’s the cerebellum. There’s the basal ganglia. There’s the motor cortex and your cerebral cortex. There are all kinds of areas that are kind of peripherally involved in the movements that you make. Only one region is involved in conscious intentional movements. All the other ones are part of that unconscious brain. So, if the rods cross, and part of your body, an unconscious part of your body is trying to give manifestation to the dowsing that you already saw somebody else do. You might not be aware of the fact that that unconscious part of your brain is driving your actions. It feels external to you. It feels like the rods crossed, when, really, your brain crossed the rods, but some part of your brain you aren’t aware of.
Jesse 1:23:07 But we see the same kinds of thing happen with Ouija boards when people are moving the planchette. When people are moving the planchet across the board, like their own muscle twitches. Their movements [are causing it.] This is called ideomotor movement. It’s this kind of motor movement that is outside of your conscious awareness. You’re actually controlling it, but you’re not aware of your intentionality.
Jesse 1:23:29 So, you’re spelling out things that you aren’t even aware that you’re spelling out. It’s your unconscious brain getting manifestation through your hands. We find the same thing happening with a lot of mediums who did table turning back in the 1800s. And even contemporary, we’ve got a lot of cases of these people who have severe cases of autism or other physical disabilities that kind of prevent them from communicating with the outside world. And so, they can use little tablets and point to pictures on the tablet and spell out sentences. I think this is called a communication board or something like that. And when people spell out these sentences with pictures on the board, they can communicate. Even if they’re not verbal, they can still tell people their needs and wants. Some people are so disabled that they can’t even use a communication board. They can’t physically control their fingers to tap out what they want to say. But there are folks who think of themselves as facilitators, who hold the hands of somebody who is disabled and kind of control–well they don’t think of it as controlling. They think of it as physically supporting the finger, so that they can tap on the board.
Jesse 1:24:40 And the facilitator ends up accidentally, unintentionally and unconsciously manipulating the finger to spell out things that they themselves, the facilitator, wants to be spelled out. So, the person whose disabled isn’t actually doing the spelling in these cases. We’ve had case, like, legal cases where these disabled individuals have made accusations of horrific sexual abuse against their parents and things like that, through the use of a facilitator, who’s communicating these kinds of things. And they turn out to be false. They’re not true stories and the way that you know this is because if you use a different facilitator, who’s also trained, but isn’t aware of the situation, and you ask the disabled person to tell the same story, it doesn’t come out the same way. So, this ends up being evidence that the person who’s doing the facilitation is actually doing the communication. But if you ask them, they’re not bad people. They’re not trying to cause havoc for the lives of these disabled folks in their parents. They literally do not know that they’re controlling the movements of this kids hands.
Jesse 1:25:51 So, these kinds of things manifest themselves in all kinds of fascinating ways and seem to be the underpinning, this ideomotor phenomenon seems to be the underpinning of things like free writing, spiritual writing, channeling. When you give revelations or speech that you feel are channeling other people, you aren’t aware that what you’re writing is actually coming from your brain. It feels like it’s coming from some external spiritual source. But some people engage in this practice of writing or speaking on behalf of the dead, and evidence suggests that it’s not actually coming from the dead. It’s actually coming from their unconscious brain. But this allows for people to accidentally fool themselves into thinking that they’re a spiritual channel for the dead. They’re not charlatans. They’re not trying to trick people. They just accidentally don’t know that their unconscious brain is kind of playing this out for them.
GT 1:26:55 So, you’re kind of describing psychics who solve murders.
Jesse 1:26:58 Yeah, so this can happen sometimes with psychics and mediums today. But one of the immediate and obvious applications is some people have suggested that an explanation for the Book of Mormon is something along these lines, that as Joseph is dictating this revelation, that it’s coming, perhaps, from his unconscious brain, and he doesn’t know that. Tight? He’s kind of pulling together stuff that he might have read from maybe a Spalding manuscript, or maybe some stuff that he’s read from other…
GT 1:27:29 Jonathan Edwards, Adam Clarke.
Jesse 1:27:31 Thank you.
GT 1:27:32 I’m trying to remember who the other ones are.
Jesse 1:27:34 Yeah, things like this, right? If he’s gathered up thoughts through reading a lot of books through the years, then, it’s possible. He’s kind of amalgamating him in his subconscious, and it’s coming out in the form of what he feels is really a revelation and may actually be from his subconscious brain. So, I mean, I’m not advocating that that is my opinion, that’s my explanation for it. But some people will explain what happened there in psychological terms like that.
GT 1:28:01 They call that automatic writing. Brian Hales talked about that.
Jesse 1:28:02 Yeah, and it can happen, like using your hand in an ideomotor fashion, or it can happen when you’re just talking and somebody else is writing down what you’re saying. But either way, whether you’re free writing, or just automatic writing, or whether you’re speaking, either way, something is going on your subconscious to make you feel as if it’s not coming from you, even though it really is. Honestly, if you start down this road, and you start stepping back and thinking about the spiritual experiences that you and I have experienced in our lives, some of the things that we’ve experienced might feel that same way. Like, we don’t know, is this my thought? Or is this external to me? Is this a revelation? Or is this just OCD? Like what is this I’m feeling? So, sometimes people can attribute a spiritual experience to maybe your own thoughts or maybe they attribute a spiritual experience to some divine being, being there present with them. They might even feel like a spiritual entity is present in the room with them or something like that. One scientific explanation of this is that it’s actually just your subconscious. So, sometimes people will look for a different kind of spiritual experience. I’m just going to reference my notes real quick here.
Can Seizures Lead to Spiritual Experiences?
Jesse 1:29:34 So, spiritual experiences can be divided into two major categories. There’s ordinary experiences and extraordinary experiences. Ordinary experiences are those that almost all of us are guaranteed to have experienced at some point. These are things like prayer and meditation, reading sacred texts, maybe feeling some moderate calm or peace or something like that. Those are the kinds of things that we intuitively know. They’re simple enough and undramatic enough that they could potentially be faked. We could be fooling ourselves, if we engage in these things, and we feel just a simple feeling of peace. So, when we’re looking for confirmation of a testimony, like when people pray at the beginning their mission to figure out, “Is this really something I believe? Am I really going to spend the next two years of my life doing this?” They’re looking for something bigger, something extraordinary, not something ordinary. So, they start to look for things that are more mystical, supernatural, metaphysical, charismatic.
Jesse 1:30:31 And as we talk about these spiritual experiences it’s important. I’m going to define the word charismatic, because it’s different than [how,] colloquially, we talk about charisma as a really likable personality. That’s not, scripturally, how the word is used. In the New Testament, the word charisma is not used in English. At least I don’t think it is, but the word charisma, as it’s used in the Christian faith tradition kind of stems from a translation of two different kinds of words. Paul talks about spiritual gifts. And both are translated as gifts in the New Testament. But there’s two root words that are both translated the same, even though they’re actually different. One is a charismatic gift, and one is a more ordinary gift. So, if people happen to be good leaders, or good teachers, good speakers, those are ordinary things that you might just happen to have because of your biology, your personality. They’re natural gifts. Paul talks about these things as important to the church.
Jesse 1:31:32 But Paul also talks about charismatic gifts, that are only of divine origin. You can’t just trip and fall into them because of biology. These are things like speaking in tongues, and having visions, revelations, manifestations, prophecies. These seem to be more miraculous, more of a supernatural nature. They’re not just personality traits. They seem to be God given. At the very beginning of the field of psychology in America, William James, early 1800s…
GT 1:32:09 Any relation?
Jesse 1:32:10 No, unfortunately, not yet. As far as I can tell, I have no relation to William James, nor to Jesse James, unfortunately. (Chuckling) It’s like, with such a name, I mean, why couldn’t I have had some claim to fame or something? So, William James, was mostly known for is his work in functionalism and structuralism, which is so funny. Because it’s such a small and unimportant part of what he did. But what he really was passionate about, what he spent most of his time doing, especially his free time, was investigating spiritual phenomena. He was looking for proof of the afterlife. He saw the spiritualists and mediums and stuff, and he wanted to to debunk as many of them as were not real. But he also hoped, really desperately, that some of them would be real. So, he was hoping that by putting them through a battery of tests, and just really subjecting them to a lot of scrutiny, that eventually he could demonstrate that some of them were legit.
Jesse 1:33:16 He wrote a book. Shoot, I wish I could remember the title. It’s something about spiritual experiences. Somebody will look it up. But, anyway, he wrote this book, and he talked about some of the conclusions that he was drawing about the nature of religion and spirituality. He said that these extraordinary experiences have four main criteria that define them as unique and separate from these ordinary spiritual experiences, kind of unfake-able aspects. So, he said that they have ineffability. In other words, you can’t put words to them. They’re really difficult to describe. We’ve all experienced this kind of ineffability, in our own spiritual experiences. You hear about them in general conference all the time where people are, like, “I knew in a way I cannot describe.” That sense that we all sometimes get, where you know, and you don’t know why you know, and you don’t know how you know. But it’s an ineffable experience that you can’t put words to. But you know in a way that transcends language.
Jesse 1:34:30 People can experience this outside of the Mormon tradition as well. They kind of have a knowledge come upon them. But they also experience this noesis. This is another facet of what I was just describing. This is bestowing of knowledge. It feels like some insight came upon you that you didn’t have before. Now, if something is clear or something is–you have a better perspective than you used to have. It feels, again, like it’s external to you. He said that these are transient. In other words, you can’t maintain them over long term. They happen at unexpected moments. They happen for a short bit of time and then they go away. Then, also, they seem passive. They seem like something you’re not controlling. You didn’t do. They happen to you. So, these traits, William James identifies, seems to characterize this unique experience of extraordinary spiritual experiences that many people of many faith traditions have had. More recent research has suggested that these spiritual experiences have a neurobiological basis. As it relates to the Mormon tradition, there’s a professor at the University of Utah, Jeff Anderson, in 2016, he did this MRI study where he stuck people in the MRI machine to scan their brains and had them watch, like one of the First Vision movies that the Church has produced. While people were watching this scene of God the Father and Joseph Smith appearing, and there’s this beautiful music in the background, and it’s just this crescendo of moments. It’s just like this beautiful, beautiful moment of cinematic drama. People in the MRI machine are sitting there sobbing, having spiritual experiences while their brains are being scanned. Jeff Anderson is identifying that, various parts of their brain are active, mostly the reward centers, like the nucleus accumbens are active, when these people are experiencing this very rewarding spiritual experience.
Jesse 1:36:22 We also know that there’s like there’s ictal religiosity. Ictal means medically based religiosity that happens in people with certain kinds of epilepsy. So, epilepsy is a condition where you have seizures pretty often. But some people, when they have this ictal religiosity, they have seizures that provoke upon or provoke within them, a feeling of religion, a feeling of religiosity, a feeling of deep spirituality. They often feel like they’ve heard external voices. They might experience visions, or auditory hallucinations, and things like that. They are, I mean, we can identify the brain regions that appear to be giving rise to these phenomenological experiences. But when you talk to the people who have experienced them, they’re convinced that they’re real. This is not a brain thing. This is something that I actually experienced. It was definitely external to me.
GT 1:37:23 So, these people were having a seizure, that other people noticed, and they experienced a vision instead?
Jesse 1:37:29 Yes, during the course of the seizure, or shortly after the seizure, they will experience a vision or an auditory vision, a voice of God or something like that.
GT 1:37:40 I’ve heard Ezekiel is somebody that I think might have had this.
Jesse 1:37:43 Yeah, it’s funny. Because lots of the Old Testament prophets have bizarre characteristics, bizarre behavior. Some clinical psychologists have looked at them and said, “This manifests almost like schizophrenia.” [They did] not [have] all the symptoms of schizophrenia, but some of the symptoms of schizophrenia, enough where–I’ve read a paper where they actually tracked which symptoms which prophets had. [They] suggested many of the people in the Old Testament, who are religious leaders, may have had some kind of ictal religiosity. [They may have had] some kind of brain-based something going on. Because it wasn’t just spirituality. It was also, in addition to that, other bizarre behaviors and practices and kind of like…
GT 1:38:27 I’m trying to remember, was it Isaiah, who walked through the city naked?
Jesse 1:38:31 I don’t even remember that.
GT 1:38:32 There was a prophet, I can’t remember. I think it was Isaiah.
Jesse 1:38:32 You’ve got paranoia. People just engage in odd behaviors and stuff. Of course, auditory and visual hallucinations or spiritual manifestations. We don’t know. But some scientists have kind of reinterpreted the data to say, [that] a lot of this might have been some kind of brain-based something. So, we know that these experiences that William James described as extraordinary spiritual experiences, and he gives these qualifiers, too. We have recent research that suggests they really are centered in the brain. But going back to this idea of the placebo effect and of hypnosis, we pull these in. And we start to kind of characterize the differences that we see across denominations. So, if you look at Pentecostals, they are far more likely to engage in speaking in tongues than people of other faith denominations.
GT 1:39:36 And Bickertonites.
Jesse 1:39:37 Yeah, and Bichertonites, too. Yeah, and let’s see. You’ve got people, the Appalachian Pentecostals, who live in the Tennessee/Kentucky region, who are engaging in sign seeking. So, they’re going to have spiritual experiences while handling snakes or drinking poisons and things like that. But you really only see that mostly in that region of the country.
GT 1:40:03 Aren’t they Pentecostal, as well?
Jesse 1:40:04 Yeah, they’re Appalachian Pentecostals. Yeah. You’re going to see that Catholics are going to have a lot more apparitions. They’re far more likely to see visions and to interpret other–there’s this phenomenon called pareidolia. Pareidolia is where you perceive faces in randomness and random noises. So, we’ve all experienced this, where you’re looking down at the tile while you’re sitting on the toilet, and the patterns in the tile look like faces. Or where you look at your curtains and the patterns and the curtain look like faces, right?
GT 1:40:49 Or a cloud.
Jesse 1:40:50 We look at a cloud, all kinds of things. This phenomenon seems to be embedded in the brain in what’s called the fusiform facial gyrus, where we have a particular area that is attuned from the very first moments of life, like day one of birth, to pick up on things that look more like faces, compared to things that look less like faces. So, if you have two dots, and a line underneath them, that kind of reflects the basic outline of a face, then infants will stare at that for a lot longer than a line and two dots where the line is on the side of the two dots.
Jesse 1:41:21 So, this suggests that infants are caring about things that look like faces, and not things that don’t. That carries forward through our whole lives. It’s just inborn in us to care about face-looking things. Well, Catholics are a lot more likely to see divine apparitions in random objects. We hear the story about the piece of toast that looked like the Virgin Mary. That that would only happen to a Catholic, because Catholics are more likely to experience… I mean, everybody experiences this phenomenon of pareidolia, but Catholics are more likely to see that as a spiritual phenomenon, to see that as not just a face, but the Virgin Mary’s face. It’s a divine manifestation, because that’s an expected part of their religion. It’s the kind of thing that is approved, sanctioned by their church.
Jesse 1:42:10 So, you start to see that the kinds of spiritual experiences people have, are almost always the kinds of spiritual experiences that are sanctioned, that are authorized within their faith denomination. So, what does this mean? You can start to conclude that–oh, another fun example is during the Second Great Awakening, people would experience all kinds of bizarre behaviors, when they were called upon by the Spirit. They would like bark like a dog or shake or faint, fall down, yell out.
GT 1:42:37 Methodist used to do that.
Jesse 1:42:38 Yes, yes. Right. This is so funny, because Pentecostals revived this in the 1900s. But Methodists, were doing this a long, like, 100 years before. So, even Joseph Smith is experiencing some of these things in his early church. The Spirit comes upon people, and they bark like a dog, or they jump around the room, like a monkey or something. He has to find ways of rooting that out. The only way you can do that is to say, “That’s of the devil, and this is of God, and these are not sanctioned, and these are sanctioned. These are good kinds of spiritual expenses. These are not.”
Jesse 1:43:10 So, you end up with a Book of Mormon that says, “We should experience visions and manifestations and, speaking in tongues, and all kinds of metaphysical and extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.” But then you’ve also got Joseph, himself, trying to root out some of these very things from the church because they’re disruptive and bizarre. So, what ends up from one denomination to the next being manifested is just always that thing that’s allowed in the church, what your leaders tell you [that] you should be experiencing. You experience the spirit, how you expect to experience the spirit. Okay. What is this like? This is just like the hypnosis analog, where your hand floats, because somebody tells you it should be floating, and it feels like it’s external to you, but it’s actually you. It’s actually your subconscious. This is just like the placebo effect where you get better because you expect to. Or the opposite of the placebo effect called the nocebo effect, where people are getting worse, because of the side effects of the drug that’s not actually a drug. They take a placebo, and they have like stomach pains and headache because they’re expecting side effects from a drug that’s not even a drug.
Jesse 1:44:26 So, you can experience all kinds of things you expect to experience, both good and bad. All of us kind of have things that we experience. We have impulses and drives, some of which we push down and some of which we give manifestation or light to. So as a personal thing for my life, sometimes when I’ve had a really rough day, I get in my car. I usually walk to work, but if I drive to work, I might get in the car and just yell out a guttural scream, just like BAHHHH! It’s something that I would never, ever do at any other time or place in my life. The only place I feel comfortable doing that is in my car, the privacy of my car. I would never do it at my office. I would never do it once I’m here at home. But it feels nice to have a place where sometimes I can just guttural scream, because it’s just a rough day.
Jesse 1:45:20 That’s the kind of thing where, I don’t always have that impulse. But sometimes I have an impulse. Most of the time I push that impulse down. Every once in a while, if the opportunity is right, then I let it go. So, if you look across faith denominations, everybody might have a little bit of an impulse to say, “Hallelujah. Amen, brother.” But if you’re not allowed to, within your fifth denomination, you push that down, and you sit in your chapel, and you reverently say amen. And that’s all you’re allowed to do, even though you might have an impulse to want to say hallelujah. People in other faith denominations are allowed to, so they do. And they feel like the spirit compelled them to do that. Well, the spirit might be compelling us to say, “Amen, brother. Hallelujah.” But we don’t feel allowed or permitted to do that. So, we kind of push it down.
GT 1:46:10 We’re not Pentecostals.
Jesse 1:46:11 Yeah, yeah. But the same kinds of thing might be happening with even more extraordinary experiences. Maybe some of us, from time to time, have an impulse that feels like we want to speak in tongues. I can’t identify a time in my life where I felt that, but if it came upon me, I wouldn’t be aware of it, because I would push it down faster than you can believe. Because it’s not allowed in this faith tradition. But, if it were to ever come about, and I was Pentecostal, then I would give voice to it. So, these kinds of things happen, where they’re allowed to happen. In the same way that the placebo effect kind of gives manifestation to subconscious things, like your own expectations. If you expect it, and it’s allowed, then it’ll happen. So a lot of our spiritual experiences can be understood in that kind of way.
Jesse 1:46:54 Whatever kinds of manifestations you have, as a Latter-day Saint, you’re going to have within the bounds of what you’ve heard in general conference, dictated, what we are allowed to have. If people have spiritual manifestations that feel like they’re outside that norm, it’s going to be hard to reconcile, like, how do I…
GT 1:47:10 You’d be excommunicated like Denver Snuffer, or people like that.
Jesse 1:47:13 Yeah, so sometimes people are allowing themselves, they’re choosing to be led first by God, and second by the brethren. Sometimes there are consequences of that. If you feel like God’s really leading you to something, and you give voice to that, you give manifestation to that, there can be consequences, sometimes. So, I worry sometimes, as Latter-say Saints, that we work too hard to put God in a box. We say, “God can only function our lives in these ways.” Who’s to say how God can manifest? I mean, Joseph believed in magic, and he believed in all kinds of bizarre things that we might not practice today.
GT 1:47:34 Well, we used to speak in tongues. It used to be okay to do.
Jesse 1:47:53 Yeah. So, there’s all kinds of things, I think, that occurred in the early church, that if they were to occur today, we would frown on them. Even if you had a vision of an angel, or you saw Jesus and you tried to talk about it publicly, even if you were the Prophet, the prophets might even be having these kinds of manifestations and they don’t feel comfortable talking about it. But why? All the historical prophets always said, “I know that God lives for I have seen him.” They would tell about their visionary experiences and their firsthand witnesses. So, I don’t see why we have to be so stringent about what God can and can’t do and how he can and can’t speak to his people.
[End of Part 1]
 That is a line from a comedy called “The Three Amigos.” A Mexican telegraph operator used the word “infamous” to substitute for “murderous, thieving, lying.” However, it was misinterpreted as “more than famous” by the Three Amigos who thought they were dealing with actors, not a criminal gang.
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