The Creation of Pillars of Faith

From Practical to Pillar of Faith

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2012


"You have to have faith." the umpteenth proselyte tells me for the umpteenth time. (I enjoy talking about religion, so I will spend some time with these people.)

For decades I was a skeptic, but these days I believe. You do: You have to have faith, and lots of it. If you don't, these beliefs are just plain wacky. The beliefs in question are those I call Pillar of Faith beliefs. Pillars of Faith are religious beliefs that have no basis in logic or reality. You believe in them just to demonstrate you're part of the religion. (I will give examples shortly.)

So the questions become how did these particular choices become "pillars of faith", and why is having pillars of faith a valuable human thinking trait? That is the topic of this essay.

Examples of odd choices

Because there are thousands of religions and belief systems, there are thousands of pillars of faith, I'm going to discuss just three in depth.

o The choice of Jews not to eat pork.

o The choice of Mormons not to drink "stimulating beverages".

o The choice of FLDS Mormons to embrace polygamy.

The Common Evolution

What we find with all three of these is that they are practices that were first embraced by the religion for practical reasons, but with time the practicality of the choice disappeared. As this happened the leaders and followers then had the choice of either giving up the practice or sustaining it by embracing it as a pillar of faith. If the choice is to sustain the practice then it becomes a pillar of faith. When that happens the practitioners de facto recognize that there is no longer any practical reason for the choice, and choosing to have this faith becomes a badge of believing in the religion.

The Jews have a practical description of what is happening. This comes from the Wikipedia description of ‪Kashrut‬:

Philosophical Explanations

Jewish philosophy divides the 613 mitzvot into three groups—laws that have a rational explanation and would probably be enacted by most orderly societies (mishpatim), laws that are understood after being explained, but would not be legislated without the Torah's command, (edot), and laws that do not have a rational explanation (chukim). Some Jewish scholars say that kashrut should be categorized as laws for which there is no particular explanation, since the human mind is not always capable of understanding divine intentions. In this line of thinking, the dietary laws were given as a demonstration of God's authority and man must obey without asking why. However, Maimonides believed that Jews were permitted to seek out reasons for the laws of the Torah.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of emotion behind making the choice to transform something into a pillar of faith, and the choice can often split the religion. The third example, the FLDS choice to embrace polygamy, is an example of this. More on that later.

The Practical Roots

Let's look at the practical roots that started each of these choices.

Not eating pork --

Thanks to my Anthropology teacher, Robin Chalhoub, I was introduced to Marvin Harris and his essay The Abominable Pig which talks about pragmatic ecological explanations for why the Israelites gave up on pig raising. The essence of the argument is that while pig raising worked in some circumstances in the Judean part of the Middle East, it was usually an expensive alternative to cattle, sheep and goat raising and the Jewish leaders wanted to encourage the latter. As late as the 12th century Egyptian Jewish rabbi Moses Maimonides, court physician to the Islamic emperor Saladin, was still dead-set against pork eating.

Not drinking stimulating beverages --

Once again from Wikipedia, this time quoting from Brigham Young's Journal of Discourses about the origins of the Words of Wisdom.

"When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet [Joseph Smith] entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry."

In other words, this pillar started as a practical solution to a real world problem.

And from the same article, as late as 1842 there were still questions about what this really meant.

"In 1842, Smith's brother Hyrum, who was the Assistant President of the Church and its presiding patriarch, provided an interpretation of the Word of Wisdom's proscription of "hot drinks":
And again "hot drinks are not for the body, or belly;" there are many who wonder what this can mean; whether it refers to tea, or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea, and coffee."

Fast forward to the 2010's and the question of what to consume now revolves around soft drinks with caffeine in them. They aren't hot but...

Which demonstrates another issue of pillars of faith. Since they become completely arbitrary -- no longer based on anything practical -- the question of what it really means to follow them comes up constantly and must be decided arbitrarily by contemporary opinion makers. The choice is arbitrary, but opinion makers are rarely comfortable with passing on a simple fiat, so there is often an effort on the part of the opinion maker to develop a story or logic case to provide additional support. That justification will then vary from opinion maker to opinion maker.

From another Wikipedia article, about Warren Jeffs, we see how FLDS polygamy has evolved into a pillar of faith for that community.

"In January 2004, Jeffs expelled a group of 20 men from Colorado City, including the mayor, and reassigned their wives and children to other men in the community. Jeffs, like his predecessors, continued the standard FLDS and Mormon fundamentalist tenet that faithful men must follow what is known as the doctrine of "Celestial Marriage" or plural marriage in order to attain the highest degree of Exaltation in the afterlife. Jeffs specifically taught that a devoted church member is expected to have at least three wives in order to get into heaven, and the more wives a man has, the closer he is to heaven. Former church members claim that Jeffs himself has seventy wives."

Jeffs was the 2000's definer of what this pillar of faith meant and he appears to have gone whole-hog -- the more wives the better.

The FLDS experience is also an example of how crisis in belief in a pillar of faith can split a community.

Unlike pork eating and hot drink consuming, polygamy seems to have come into Mormonism by historic accident. Some of the earliest converts to Joseph Smith's new religion were Cochranites -- followers of a short-lived religious order founded by Jacob Cochran. His followers practiced a lifestyle comparable to 1960's hippie commune aspirations and are perhaps where the LDS ideas for United Order (a community share all the wealth system) and plural marriage came from.

I say "perhaps" because no one knows for sure now, and the leaders and followers may not have known for sure even in their own time. The US in the 1830's and 40's was an exciting time for many things, and one of those things was experimenting with new religious ideas, think California in the 1950's and 60's only more so. Mormonism was just one of hundreds of new religious forms being experimented with, and Cochranites were another, and both were quite chaotic in their beginnings, so even though there is a lot of documentation from this period the roots of various ideas that became parts of these various religions remains quite uncertain. In sum, these beginning times really were exciting, and chaotic.

As the Mormons finally settled down in Utah in the 1850's (they had moved dozens of times around the Midwest during the 1830's and 40's and made lots of enemies there in the process) they got more open about their polygamy and it became a pillar of faith. In the 1880's this became a crisis again as the Mormons were torn between keeping the pillar and giving it up so they could become more a part of mainstream US culture. The symbol of this moving mainstream was getting statehood for Utah, something that had been denied many times in the previous decades. The mainstream church gave polygamy up, but those who wanted to sustain it split away and became a cluster of fundamentalist groups who were Mormon but no longer mainstream Mormon. The FLDS was one of those breakaway groups.

These are some examples of pillars of faith evolving from practical roots.

What is the survival value?

The benefit of having pillars of faith is similar to the benefits of having a kinship system. In both cases the goal is to help a person quickly decide who they can trust and who they can't, and determining this accurately remains of great benefit even to this day.

Believing in a pillar of faith demonstrates that a person is willing to sacrifice to become part of a group. When that happens other members of the same group can trust this person more -- he or she will not betray them as easily as "outsiders", those who don't embrace the pillar of faith.

The system is far from perfect, but perfection has never been an important criterion for evolutionary success. So Mother Nature has endorsed this way of thinking. The challenge of the Globalized Decades is to figure out ways to mesh pillars of faith thinking with modern globalized reality. It's a big challenge.


-- The End --