Mormon Binary Thinking and The Great Sham

Gordon B. Hinckley taught the First Vision of Joseph Smith is “the hinge pin on which this whole cause turns. If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple.” 

New York Rochester Missionary Meeting, July 12, 1996
Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 227 (Quote removed in later and online versions)
Gordon B Hinckley, 15th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

As a believing member, I really appreciated Gordon B Hinckley. He had a very wise approach to teaching the gospel, included interesting and funny stories and wasn’t afraid of jokes at his own expense sometimes. He treated himself as a fallible human being. He shared words of love and wisdom. He also said many things that I now believe to be false or misleading at best. But maybe most influentially, he (among many others) pushed a binary perspective on the world. He taught things were either black or white, clean or dirty, true or false.

Teaching that there was no middle ground I think on the assumption that would show that he was “all in” and to encourage others to join him in being “all in”. But this is a problem when we find out that the church that we are told to be True (with a capital T) has a more shady origin story that we’d known. The rosy “faith-promoting” version of church history is not the real history. We quickly become disillusioned and follow the same binary logic we are fed to the only other available conclusion. It is a sham.

“Every claim we make concerning divine authority, every truth that we offer concerning the validity of this work, [finds its] roots in the First Vision of the boy prophet. This was the great curtain-raiser on the dispensation of the fulness of times, when God promised that He would restore all the power, the gifts, the blessings, of all previous dispensations in one great summing up. … That [event] becomes the hinge pin on which this whole cause turns. If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. Now, it is just that simple. Everything … turns on the reality of that first vision”.

Messages of Inspiration from President Hinckley, Church News, Feb. 1, 1997

This very ultimatum we have heard church leaders pronounce seems more like a feeble last defense, or a tribal call to arms to defend the homeland and defend the tradition.

Binary thinking is a low-resolution view of the world. Computers are binary, the tiny bits of memory only have two options, 2-bits, 1 or 0, on or off, true or sham. They are complex systems, but in the end, are just a series of black and white and intense computational power. People are not, there are layers upon layers of complexities, and people are spectrums of possibilities. It may take more thought and consideration, but going beyond binary thinking does better reflect the real world.

While binary thinking requires less cognitive load, it also tends to help us feel better about ourselves. We can view the world as an “us vs them” scenario. We want to band together with our tribe and together believe that because the others are different, they are wrong and they are bad. This is reinforced by any two-party political system, the media and the church.

Real life is so much more complex – there are grays, and life is full of color! There is so much context and understanding to gain. We have to increase the resolution and carefully look at the details. There’s nothing to be gained by thinking in extremes and absolutes.

You don’t always have to simply agree or disagree. It is quite possible to read an article, and neither agree nor disagree with it entirely. It’s quite possible to also simply not be sure because you don’t have enough information. It is also possible to not care. All of these outcomes are ok. We have to significantly reduce the habit of looking at the world in this way.

Does it need to be so binary? So literal? Is it supposed to be real and taken so seriously? We can still learn from stories even when they are not 100% historical, right? Because they are not historical, does it make them less useful? Some Mormons are able to continue attending and participating at church once they have become woke to the real history of the church. Some members may say that they do not drink the Kool-aid. They treat the stories as just that, stories. Some can find (or make) some grey space. They find space in their own faith, in their own family, or in their own ward for this. They may call it a big tent or middle ground, or just nuance. This literal belief is not an actual requirement, but it has been made a requirement by binary statements and binary leaders who make binary policies and “revelations”.

But, we can see with careful scrutiny that the church’s history is fabricated and has grown into legend. The Mormon narrative is carefully set up to promote faith in itself. We retell and retell these stories turning them into the legends we repeat until we all think it’s real, but it never was. The first vision, the priesthood restoration, the temple ceremony, the apostleship, and the whole foundation as passed down from the beginnings of this tradition are all simply that – tradition. They were all inventions to aggrandize the power of the church leaders and infer that they have some great authority from God, whereas in real life, they are just humans, just men, flawed men.

Some families or wards will allow some gray space, at least for a time. But with an organization that is from it’s top and from it’s own definition true or false, black or white, good or evil, eventually we are made to choose where we fit or where the church fits.

Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.

The church actively works to edge out and marginalize members with nuance, those who find haven in the gray space. They do make it clear that though nuanced members are welcome to attend (and pay tithing), we are not welcome to share opinions (or facts) or to ask questions. We’re discouraged from researching or even looking at anything not published by the church. Not allowed to express doubt or ask for improvements or make changes. Just ask the September 6 who were excommunicated for sharing facts, for being too intellectual. Ask John Dehlin, or Bill Reel who have been excommunicated for talking about the church’s dirty laundry on their podcasts. Ask Kate Kelly and Sam Young, who were excommunicated for apostasy when they petitioned the church to be better.

The church wants binary members who only talk about the faith-promoting parts of the church. They want members who have no problem doing whatever it takes to keep people “all in”. Who pay tithing, no questions asked. Who trust the Brethren more than they trust themselves. Who don’t think. Who don’t believe in their own internal authority or voice. Who have conditional love for even their own children. These are the members the church wants because these are the members the church keeps. This is the position in which the church has, by its own official pronouncements, voluntarily placed itself.

Perhaps Hinckley was woke! Maybe he was sending everyone a secret message, that it was a fraud from the inside. Couching it in a statement of severe faith but really being completely honest in a sly way in order to ease his own conscience. Is that the meaning behind the twinkle in his eye? Funny musings, but the statement stands. Binary thinking and logic used to promote something that is not as certain as one may hope will not hold. The world is not binary, but the church leaders who think in terms of true and false have made good their point. If the church is not as true as they say it is, it’s not only false, but a fraud. They admit this in their proud confidence because to them, it being false is not even conceivable. They want to show that confidence and inspire others to be all in too. But it has set up this dichotomy where you have to be all in or all out. If they could only allow some nuance into their own mind and into the church it may be a much healthier place with healthier people with healthier faith.

Why did I leave? Because Gordon B Hinckley told me it was a great sham.

If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple.

Gordon B Hinckley

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