Mesomania and cognitive dissonance part 3

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Mesomania scholar encounters Letter VII – h/t Scott Adams

One of the most frequent questions posed to me is, “Why does anyone still believe in the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography?”

It’s a great question. In fact, that’s the question that prompted me to research the topic and write Mesomania.

In my experience, there are two categories of LDS people who still believe in the Mesoamerican theory:

1. Ordinary LDS who have not yet heard about Letter VII* and its historical context, as well as all the evidence that supports the North American setting.

2. LDS who know about Letter VII but who have been teaching and promoting the Mesoamerican theory.

LDS lay member encounters Letter VII – h/t Scott Adams

Both categories of people are declining as a percentage of total LDS membership, but the influence of category 2 remains strong.

It is understandable why people in Category 2 experience a higher degree of cognitive dissonance than ordinary members do. There is a formula for understanding levels or degrees of cognitive dissonance that I’ll discuss below.

First, we need to realize that most LDS instinctively experience some cognitive dissonance about Book of Mormon geography because of the inherent improbability of a Mesoamerican setting when Joseph Smith obtained the plates in New York. Most LDS have been taught Mesomania their entire lives, both explicitly and subliminally. Most investigators are taught Mesomania thanks to the artwork in the missionary and foreign language editions of the Book of Mormon and the displays in the Visitors Centers. You see it in Mesomania Meridian Magazine, as recently as today.

All of this is because some LDS scholars decided years ago that when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery wrote Letter VII, they were ignorant speculators who misled the Church about the Hill Cumorah being in New York. Instead, these scholars insisted Cumorah is in southern Mexico, and their influence continues. This is the two-Cumorahs theory that we see throughout Church media.

Most members of the Church have never heard about Letter VII, and when they do, their instinctive cognitive dissonance is elevated. They are usually shocked to discover that the Mesoamerican theory is based on the two-Cumorahs theory, which explicitly rejects Letter VII. They reconsider their Mesomania-inspired beliefs. It is relatively easy for them to recognize the fallacies of Mesomania and change their minds to accept the North American setting.

For these individuals, the process is simple: just replace one belief with a better belief that is more consonant with their beliefs about Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and related issues. Not much of a problem. A relief, actually. Questions answered. Faith supported. For many, the Book of Mormon becomes more meaningful in this new context, for many reasons.

But consider the situation of someone who has taught and/or promoted the Mesoamerican theory. He/she has sincerely wanted to teach the truth. He/she has relied on faithful, dedicated LDS scholars and educators who have developed and promoted the two-Cumorahs and Mesoamerican theories for decades. He/she has relied on FairMormon, FARMS, BYU Studies, the Interpreter, and other sources (including the artwork in the blue Book of Mormon and the Visitors Centers). Confronted with the possibility that the Mesoamerican theory is false–and, worse, that it causes members to become confused and disturbed in their faith, as President Joseph Fielding Smith said it would–how can they handle the high level of cognitive dissonance?

Three options:

1. Support the cognition most resistant to change. The individual will add “consonant cognitions,” meaning he/she will seek to add more evidence that confirms what he/she already believes. In the case of Mesomania, this means finding more and more “correspondences” that reinforce the Mesoamerican theory. This is what we see at Book of Mormon Central, for example, which continues to promote the Mesoamerican theory exclusively and refuses to give a voice to alternative theories–including the one taught by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

2. Diminish the dissonant cognition. The individual will diminish or minimize the “dissonant cognitions” by ignoring them, decreasing their importance, or outright attacking them. In the case of Mesomania, this means ignoring Letter VII (the common practice until recently when it became untenable), characterizing Letter VII as an insignificant outlier (ignoring the historical contest), or attacking the credibility and reliability of Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, and David Whitmer. The final resort–the place where we are currently–is characterizing Joseph and Oliver as ignorant speculators who misled the Church about Cumorah.

3. Changing one’s mind. The individual will recognize that the dissonant cognition (Letter VII) is actually more credible than the consonant cognition and will, despite the hurdle of acknowledging years of advocacy for an incorrect theory, change his/her mind and embrace the previously dissonant cognition.

Obviously, I hope the Mesomania scholars and educators choose the third option.

There is plenty of academic background and explanation of cognitive dissonance. I chose the one below because it expresses the problem in a formula that I find useful.

There are many factors that determine the amount of cognitive dissonance an individual experiences. Generally, the more a person has invested in an idea, the greater cognitive dissonance he/she will feel when confronted with dissonant cognitions.

The originator of the theory of cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger, “theorized that when an individual holds two or more elements of knowledge that are relevant to each other but inconsistent with one another, a state of discomfort is created.”**

In this context, knowledge can be described as dissonant and consonant cognitions.

“Festinger theorized that the degree of dissonance in relation to a cognition = D/(D + C), where D is the sum of cognitions dissonant with a particular cognition and C is the sum of cognitions consonant with that same particular cognition, with each cognition weighted for importance. Several theorists have proposed that the dissonance between cognitions could be determined by assessing whether a person expects one event to follow from another.”

“Festinger theorized that persons are motivated by the unpleasant state of dissonance and that they may engage in ‘psychological work’ to reduce the inconsistency. This work will typically be oriented around supporting the cognition most resistant to change. To reduce the dissonance, individuals could add consonant cognitions, subtract dissonant cognitions, increase the importance of consonant cognitions, or decrease the importance of dissonant cognitions. One of the most often assessed ways of reducing dissonance is change in attitudes.”

Those struggling with cognitive dissonance might like this discussion about how to resolve the problem:

We also don’t like to second-guess our choices, even if later they are proven wrong or unwise. By second-guessing ourselves, we suggest we may not be as wise or as right as we’ve led ourselves to believe. This may lead us to commit to a particular course of action and become insensitive to and reject alternative, perhaps better, courses that come to light. …

A part of that self awareness that may help in dealing with cognitive dissonance is to examine the commitments and decisions we make in our lives. If the resolution of cognitive dissonance means that we move forward with a commitment and spring into action, making us feel better, maybe the dissonance was trying to tell us something. Maybe the decision or commitment wasn’t as right for us as we initially thought, even if it means overcoming our “no second-guessing” bias and making a different decision. Sometimes we’re just plain wrong. Admitting it, apologizing if need be, and moving forward can save us a lot of time, mental energy and hurt feelings.


*Letter VII is shorthand for Letter VII itself as well as the associated context, including the two sets of plates, Mormon’s repository in Cumorah, Joseph’s multiple endorsement of Letter VII, and the relevant archaeology, anthropology, geography, geology, etc.

**All quotations are from E. Harmon-Jones, “Cognitive Dissonance Theory,”
Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Second Edition), 2012.

Bonus link:

Source: Book of Mormon Wars

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