Tag Archives: Mormon

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Cognitive Science of Religion, and CREDS

You are likely aware by now that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has agreed to perform at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th. Both support and criticism have been expressed for this decision by Church members and by non-members. Critics have largely focused their concern on the way the decision and its framing as a continuation of a proud tradition contribute to the normalization of a thoroughly abnormal incoming presidential administration that rode a belligerent wave of bigotry, lies, and depravity to a controversial electoral win. Trump is no normal president, and to treat him as such not only mitigates our ability to challenge and undermine the threats he explicitly and proudly poses to the safety and freedoms of millions and millions of Americans, but also belies the sincerity of our moral convictions. How can we signal tolerance, if not support, for an unrepentant sexual predator and then stand before our congregations and honestly tell them—with victims of sexual abuse among them, who already feel marginalized and devalued—that sexual sin is the sin next to murder?

Supporters have focused on the way the acceptance signals our patriotism. The performance, they insist, does not honor the incoming president anyway, just the office and the country as a whole. To turn it down would be seen as engaging in partisan politics, against which our Church has an ostensibly firm policy. We have never turned down an opportunity to let our light so shine at a presidential inaugural, and we’re not about to start now. Additionally, this provides a wonderful missionary opportunity. We should not turn down a chance to inspire, influence, and move those around us (and perhaps even Trump himself). These supporters of the decision are not unilaterally supporters of Trump, either. Many loathe the man but see this acceptance as a sign of our prioritization of our responsibility to our nation.

As I’m writing a doctoral dissertation right now that incorporates the cognitive science of religion, I thought I would share some thoughts on how these two reactions can be viewed through that lens. First, some background: in short, the cognitive science of religion, or CSR, applies insights and theories from the cognitive sciences and other related and cognate fields to the study and explanation of patterns of thought and behavior that we commonly call “religious.” Since the 1990s, two broad evolutionary approaches have been common: the more common approach views the features of our conventional conceptualization of religion as the evolutionary byproducts of cognitive features evolutionarily selected for other more generic purposes. The three main features are mentalization (or our ability to perceive and draw conclusions about the presence and intentions of minds in the world around us), teleological reasoning (the propensity to find purpose and reason in the things that exist and happen around us), and mind/body dualism (the intuitive belief that our minds are neither identified with or confined to our physical bodies). These cognitive features mainly served other evolutionary functions, like survival, but also contribute to the production and cultivation of mental representations of deities and other types of supernatural agents. Religion is thus a spandrel (or unintended byproduct) of other cognitive architecture.

The other approach sees religion as an evolutionary adaptation itself, primarily on the grounds that these features were selected because they contributed to greater prosociality, or social robustness and cohesion. One of the main ways they helped social cohesion was to provide mechanisms for high-cost displays of in-group fidelity (with a deity usually as proxy for the group), allowing larger populations that extend beyond normal kin-based groups to maintain trust and mitigate the free-rider problem (the problem of free-loaders who take advantage of the group’s productivity without contributing themselves). Those not willing to invest in the appropriate displays will not be considered part of the in-group. These displays have become known as CREDs, or Credibility Enhancing Displays. In performing these displays, our commitment is perceived as more genuine, which enhances our credibility within as well as outside the group, increasing the cohesiveness of the group and the likelihood of others joining as a result of that degree of cohesion. These can range from fire-walking, to crucifixion, to self-castration, to vows of celibacy, silence, and/or poverty, to food restrictions, to dress and grooming standards, and on and on and on.

These days, these two CSR approaches are coalescing into a coevolutionary model that sees the constituent parts of “religion” as cognitive byproducts that were then adapted for through the mechanisms of cultural evolution as societies grew larger and larger. If you want a very recent and very thorough case for this model, along with over two dozen responses from other CSR scholars, see here.

So how does this relate to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Both responses betray the CREDs given priority by the individuals asserting them. For critics of the choir’s performance, sacrificing that publicity in the name of our rejection of racism, sexism, and oppression would be a powerful display of commitment to those standards, both to other members within our group and to those outside the group assessing our sincerity and our values. For supporters of the choir’s decision, the acceptance of the invitation may signal to them commitment to the country, to the office of the presidency, or to conservatism/the RNC (depending on their position vis-à-vis party politics). There is an additional dynamic in play with the latter, however: opposing the choir’s choice represents opposition to the inspiration and infallibility of Church leadership, and so the position we take itself represents a display of our own commitment. Are we willing to subjugate our own feelings about the choir’s performance to our “Follow the Prophet” standard? Those prioritizing this consideration tend to be more authoritarian in orientation, and are largely concerned either with rooting out those considered inadequately committed to the group’s authority structure or with using that authority structure as a rhetorical trump card.

One more theoretical model of CSR is relevant: dual-process cognition. According to this model, our mind operates on a spectrum, with one end largely the purview of our subconscious or intuitive cognition, which is quick, automatic, and tied to those evolutionary predispositions about mental agents, teleology, etc. As we move toward the other end, we have more conscious control of our cognition, and it slows down and incorporates reason, evidence, and other considerations. Conflict frequently occurs between these two types of cognition as thinking unfolds, with two broad approaches possible: rationalization (the use of reason and evidence to try to affirm or defend our intuitive beliefs) or decoupling (the use of reason and evidence to overrule or inhibit our intuitive beliefs). These dynamics have been demonstrated in numerous different ways, with an interesting recent example discussed here.

So these different beliefs about what the choir is signaling are all in conflict with each other as different members of the Church with different cognitive predispositions, understandings of our ethical priorities, and convictions about the relationship of the Church to the United States, try to apply their reason to either rationalizing or decoupling their intuitions and their conscious ideological frameworks. We either prioritize our values related to the oppression/abuse of marginalized classes, our values related to patriotism, or our values related to the infallibility/authority of Church leaders. The second priority is inarguably not given priority in the literature and rhetoric of the Church and its leadership, but we have become so thoroughly integrated into the conservative evangelical American worldview that it has become an undeniably central part of Latter-day Saint self identity for many. To assert that the LDS Church actively avoids all displays of partisanship in light of this is demonstrably untrue, but this is the worldview I think has become intuitive for many, and so there are many who are hard at work rationalizing this, with concerns for authority or the infallibility of leadership frequently buttressing it. The assertion that the inauguration is a celebration of democracy and the office of the presidency, and not Trump himself, is an example of another factually incorrect attempt to rationalize that intuition.

I, for one, proudly and absolutely unapologetically prioritize standing against the oppression and abuse of minorities, women, and the poor. I have relationships with victims of abuse who already feel marginalized and devalued in the Church, and seeing the choir further marginalize them in the interest of celebrating democracy, maintaining tradition, or not appearing partisan has been especially dehumanizing. Donald Trump is a self-described unrepentant sexual predator who has repeatedly asserted intentions to facilitate grotesquely racist, sexist, xenophobic, and generally hateful, violent, and destructive legislation. His elevation to the presidency has already catalyzed a spike in hatred and a scurrying to exploit and protect the mainstreaming and normalization of that hatred. I believe this is the greatest threat to our nation and to its citizens that our generation has ever faced, and I will not participate in its normalization, much less its celebration, in any sense whatsoever. If you are LDS and you’ve made it this far in this post, consider where your priorities are placed, whose wellbeing is most important to you, and how you may have been trying to rationalize things.

SBL Paper Handout – LDS and the Bible

This is an extended bibliography with links to complement the handout distributed during my SBL paper, Psalm 82 in the Contemporary Latter-day Saint Tradition (which will be available later).

Ackerman, James S. “An Exegetical Study of Psalm 82.” Th.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1966.

————-. “The Rabbinic Interpretation of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John.” Harvard Theological Review 59.2 (1966): 186–91.

Alexander, Philip. “The Targumim and Early Exegesis of ‘Sons of God’ in Genesis 6.” Journal of Jewish Studies 23 (1972): 60–71.

Barlow, Philip. “Unorthodox Orthodoxy: The Idea of Deification in Christian History.” Sunstone 8.5 (1983): 13–19.

Bokovoy, David. “‘Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John.” FARMS Review 19.1 (2007): 267–313. (link)

————-. “שמעו והעידו בבית יעקב: Invoking the Council as Witnesses in Amos 3:13.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127.1 (2008): 37–51.

Budde, Karl. “Ps. 82,6f.” Journal of Biblical Literature 40 (1921): 39–42.

Burnett, Joel S. A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 183; Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.

Chalmers, R. Scott. “Who is the Real El? A Reconstruction of the Prophet’s Polemic in Hosea 12:5a.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.4 (2006): 611–30.

Cho, Sang Youl. Lesser Deities in the Ugaritic Texts and the Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Study of Their Nature and Roles. Deities and Angels of the Ancient World 2; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007.

Cole, Robert L. The Shape and Message of Book III (Psalm 73–89). JSOTSup 307; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

Collins, John J. “Jewish Monotheism and Christian Theology.” Pages 81–96 in Aspects of Monotheism: How God is One. Edited by Hershel Shanks and Jack Meinhardt; Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1997.

————-. “Powers in Heaven: God, Gods, and Angels in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Pages 9–28 in Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2000.

Collins, John J., and Adela Yarbro. King and Messiah as Son of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Diez, Sebastian. “‘Nun sag, wie hast du’s mit den Göttern?’ Eine Forschungsgeschichte zu Ps 82.” Ph.D. dissertation, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, 2009. (link)

Dunn, James D. G. Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence. London: SPCK, 2010.

Eissfeldt, Otto. “El and Yahweh.” Journal of Semitic Studies 1.1 (1956): 1–30.

Emerton, James A. “The Interpretation of Ps lxxxii in John x.” Journal of Theological Studies 11 (1960): 329–32.

Frankel, David. “El as the Speaking Voice in Psalm 82:6–8.” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (2010): 2–24. (link)

Gieschen, Charles A. Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Goulder, Michael D. The Psalms of Asaph and the Pentateuch. Studies in the Psalter, III. JSOTSup 233; Sheffield,: Sheffield Academic Press,1996.

————–. “Asaph’s History of Israel (Elohist Press, 725 BCE).” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 65.1 (1995): 71–81.

Hanson, Anthony. “John’s Citation of Psalm LXXXII Reconsidered.” New Testament Studies 13 (1966): 363–67.

Hadley, Judith M. “The De-deification of Deities in Deuteronomy.” Pages 157–74 in The God of Israel. Robert P. Gordon, ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Handy, Lowell K. “Sounds, Words and Meanings in Psalm 82.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 47.1 (1990): 47–56.

Hannah, Darrell D. “Guardian Angels and Angelic National Patrons in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity.” Pages 413–35 in Angels: The Concept of Celestial Beings—Origins, Development and Reception. Edited by Friedrich V. Reiterer, Tobias Niklas, Karin Shöpflin; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007.

Heiser, Michael S. “Deuteronomy 32 and the Sons of God.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158.1 (2001): 52–74. (link)

————-. “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin – Madison, 2004. (link)

————-. “Are Yahweh and El Distinct Deities in Deut. 32:8–9 and Psalm 82?” Hiphil 3 (2006): 3–9. (link)

————-. “You’ve Seen One Elohim, You’ve Seen Them All: A Critique of Mormonism’s Use of Psalm 82.” FARMS Review 19.1 (2007): 221–66. (link)

————-. “Israel’s Divine Council, Mormonism, and Evangelicalism: Clarifying the Issues and Directions for Future Study.” FARMS Review 19.1 (2007): 315–23. (link)

————-. “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible.” Bulletin of Biblical Research 18.1 (2008): 1–30. (link)

————-. “Jesus’ Quotation of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34: A Different View of John’s Theological Strategy.” Paper presented at the Pacific Northwest Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, 13 May 2011, Spokane, WA. (link)

Himbaza, Innocent. “Dt 32,8, une correction tardive des scribes Essai d‘interprétation et de datation.” Biblica 83.4 (2002): 527–48. (link)

Hossfeld, Frank-Lothar, and Erich Zenger. “The So-Called Elohistic Psalter: A New Solution for an Old Problem.” Pages 35–51 in A God So Near: Essays on Old Testament Theology in Honor of Patrick D. Miller. Edited by Brent A. Strawn and Nancy R. Bowen; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2003.

————-. Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51–100. Hermeneia Commentary Series; Minneapolis, Min.: Augsburg Fortress, 2005.

Hurtado, Larry. “New Testament Christology: A Critique of Bousset‘s Influence.” Theological Studies 40 (1979): 306–17.

————-. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, Second Edition. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2003.

————-. “Monotheism, Principal Angels, and the Background of Christology.” In the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2010.

Hwang, Won-Ha and J. G. van der Watt, “The Identity of the Recipients of the Fourth Gospel in the Light of the Purpose of the Gospel.” HTS Theological Studies/Teologiese Studies 63.2 (2007): 683–98. (link)

Jones, Christine. “The Psalms of Asaph: A Study of the Function of a Psalm Collection” (Ph.D. dissertation, Baylor University, 2009).

Joosten, Jan. “Une théologie de la septante? Réflexions méthodologiques sur l‘interpétation de la version grecque.” Revue de théologie et de philosophie 132.1 (2000): 31–46.

————-. “A Note on the Text of Deuteronomy xxxii 8.” Vetus Testamentum 57.4 (2007): 548–55.

Jüngling, Hans-Winfried. Der Tod der Götter: Eine Untersuchung zu Psalm 82. Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1969.

Kaminsky, Joel, and Anne Stewart. “God of All the World: Universalism and Developing Monotheism in Isaiah 40–66.” Harvard Theological Review 99.2 (2006): 139–63.

Kee, Min Suc. “The Heavenly Council and Its Type-Scene.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31.3 (2007): 259–73.

Kharlamov, Vladimir. “Theosis in Patristic Thought.” Theology Today 65 (2008): 158–68. (link)

Kirk, Alan. “Social and Cultural Memory.” Pages 1–24 in Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity. Semeia 52; Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, eds.; Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.

Klink, Edward W., III, The Sheep of the Fold: The Audience and Origin of the Gospel of John. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 141; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Larson, Stan. “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text.” BYU Studies 18.2 (1978): 193–208.

MacDonald, Nathan. “Aniconism in the Old Testament.” Pages 20–37 in The God of Israel. Robert P. Gordon, ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 2007.

————-. Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism.’ Forschungen Zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 1; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Machinist, Peter. “How Gods Die, Biblically and Otherwise: A Problem of Cosmic Restructuring.” Pages 189–240 in Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism. Edited by Beate Pongratz-Leisten; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011.

McClellan, Daniel O. “What is Deity in LXX Deuteronomy?” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, 22 November 2010, Atlanta, GA. (link)

————-. “Monotheism—Still a Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, 29 May 2011, Fredericton, New Brunswick. (link)

Meier, Samuel A. “Angel I מלאך.” Pages 81–90 in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Second Edition, Extensively Revised. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, eds.; Leiden: Brill, 1999.

————-. “Angel of Yahweh מלאך יהוה.” Pages 96–108 in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Second Edition, Extensively Revised. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, eds.; Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Mosser, Carl. “The Earliest Patristic Interpretations of Psalm 82, Jewish Antecedents, and the Origin of Christian Deification.” Journal of Theological Studies 56 (2005): 30–74.

Neusner, Jacob. “Conversation in Nauvoo about the Corporeality of God.” BYU Studies 36.1 (1996–97): 7–31. (link)

Neyrey, Jerome H. “‘I Said: You Are Gods’: Psalm 82:6 and John 10.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108.4 (1989): 647–63.

Nasuti, Harry P. Tradition History and the Psalms of Asaph. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1988.

Niehr, Herbert. “Götter oder Menschen—eine falsche Alternative. Bemerkungen zu Ps 82.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 99.1 (1987): 94–98.

Nispel, Mark D. “Christian Deification and the Early Testimonia.” Vigiliae Christianae 53 (1999): 289–304.

Oosting, Reinoud. “The Counsellors of the Lord in Isaiah 40–55: A Proposal to Understand their Role in the Literary Composition.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32.3 (2008): 353–82.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Parker, Simon B. “The Beginning of the Reign of God—Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy.” Revue Biblique 102.4 (1995): 532–59.

Paulsen, David L. “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses.” Harvard Theological Review 83.2 (1990): 105­–16.

Peterson, Daniel C. “‘Ye are Gods’: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind.” Pages 516–53 in The Disciple as Scholar. Edited by Stephen D. Ricks, et al.; Provo: FARMS, 2000. (link)

Porter, Larry C. and Milton V. Backman, Jr. “Doctrine and the Temple in Nauvoo.” BYU Studies 32.1 (1992): 41–56. (link)

Prinsloo, W. S. “Psalm 82: Once Again, Gods or Men?” Biblica 76 (1995): 222–28.

Reimer, Andy M. “Rescuing the Fallen Angels: The Case of the Disappearing Angels at Qumran.” Dead Sea Discoveries 7.3 (2000): 334–53.

Rösel, Martin. “Theologie der Griechischen Bible zur Wiedergabe der Gottesaussagen im LXX-Pentateuch.” Vetus Testamentum 48.1 (1998): 49–62.

———–. “Towards a ‘Theology of the Septuagint.’” Pages 239–52 in Septuagint Research: Issues and Challenges in the Study of the Greek Jewish Scriptures. Wolfgang Kraus and R. Glenn Wooden, eds.; Septuagint and Cognate Studies 53; Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006.

Sanders, Paul. Provenance of Deuteronomy 32. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Schneider, Thomas. “The First Documented Occurrence of the God Yahweh? (Book of the Dead Princeton ‘Roll 5’).” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 7.2 (2008): 113–20.

Scott, James M. Adoption as Sons of God. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992.

Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel‘s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

————-. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities of Early Israel. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.

————-. God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.

Strawn, Brent A. “The Poetics of Psalm 82: Three Notes (and a Plea for the Poetic).” Unpublished manuscript.

Stuckenbruck, Loren T. “‘Angels’ and ‘God’: Exploring the Limits of Early Jewish Monotheism.” Pages 45–70 in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism. Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E. S. North, eds.; London: T&T Clark, 2004.

Tsevat, Matitiahu. “God and the Gods in Assembly, an Interpretation of Psalm 82.” Hebrew Union College Annual 40/41 (1969–70): 123–37.

Tuschling, R. M. M. Angels and Orthodoxy: A Study in their Development in Syria and Palestine from the Qumran Texts to Ephram the Syrian. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 40; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.

Van Winkle, D. W. “The Relationship of the Nations to YHWH and to Israel in Isaiah 40–55.” Vetus Testamentum 35 (1985): 446–58.

Wernick, Nissim. “A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writings.” Ph.D. dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1968. (link)

Widtsoe, John A. A Rational Theology: As Taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1915.

Zakovitch, Yair. “Psalm 82 and Biblical Exegesis.” Pages 213–28 in Sefer Moshe. The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume: Studies in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, Qumran, and Post-Biblical Judaism. Edited by Chaim Cohen, Avi Hurvitz, and Shalom M. Paul; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2004.

Zenger, Erich. “Psalm 82 im Kontext der Asaf-Sammlung: Religionsgeschichtliche Implikationen.” Pages 272–92 in Religionsgeschichte Israels. Gütersloh; Gütersloh: Kaiser, 1999.

Mormon Missionaries in the UK

Just read an interesting Times Online article on England’s Missionary Training Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s a thoughtful piece, although it plays off of one or two stereotypes that aren’t quite correct. It shared one fact of which I was unaware, though. Apparently Latter-day Saints now outnumber the Jewish in the United States. That’s kinda hard to believe, but if Wikipedia is accurate on the topic (and leaving aside the incredibly complex “What is a Jew” discussion) then it’s about right. Interesting.

I served my mission in Uruguay, by the way. I was there from December of 2001 to December of 2003. Below are pictures of me with the Baptista family in Fraile Muerto (dressed partially in a traditional gaucho outfit), and playing golf in Montevideo (golf is free on Mondays at this course).