70: The Special Language of Prayer… Makes No Sense

Heather, Clay, Greg, and Jay tackle a conference address given by Oaks in the 90’s and share why they think it’s problematic. Greg shares why the talk has stuck with him over the years and how it played a role in his mission experience.


The Special Language of Prayer by Dallin Oaks


  1. Joel

    Good podcast. When I was young I remember giving a heartfelt prayer and then getting a lecture on thees thys and thous from my dad. It’s like Oaks knows he is being excessively legalistic but just can’t help himself.

    Reply May 21, 2014 @ 10:28:12
  2. Jason

    Loved the discussion of corporate sinister intent vs. evolved group pragmatism and the correlation to emergent behavior in other species. It just makes sense to me that the church organization has evolved over time in response to internal and external pressures. For instance, I think the Brighamites adoption of polygamy and the organziation’s response to pressures around that, both internal and external, is a major reason why this branch of the religion that Joseph Smith founded has survived and flourished compared to others.

    Reply May 21, 2014 @ 12:46:42
  3. Christopher Allman

    This was a good episode guys!
    I enjoyed the discussion about the evolution of organizational power.
    I think part of what makes the Church as powerful and effective as it is, in terms of controlling member’s life and being a very tight run group generally, is the structure lends itself to evolutionary pressures more than other religious groups.

    This occurs primarily through the lay leadership. By having the members themselves asked to be part of the leadership leadership, it allows certain attributes to raise to the top while others sink to the bottom.
    With most religions, where the leaders essentially choose themselves, this is a more difficult and slow process and evolutionary forces move more slowly.
    If someone chooses to be a preist or a pastor and aren’t any good or don’t have certain attributes favorable to reinforcing organisational power, it is very difficult to remove them. Wheras in Mormonism, one need not even remove an overly liberal Bishop, just don’t call him to any other callings of leadership. (and, chances are, he wouldn’t have been called as bishop to begin with having first proven his liberal leanings as an elders quorum president or something)

    Reply May 21, 2014 @ 14:18:46
  4. Christopher Allman

    One thing about the Amish, I think their attitudes towards technology tend to be severely misunderstood (understandably, since they aren’t in much of a position to explain themselves).
    They aren’t against technological innovation per se, even running factories (often using compressed air instead of electricity to power tools), rather, they oppose technologies which would interfere with community life.
    So, the automobile is an obvious example, if you can go a long distance in a short time, you are no longer reliant on the group. By connecting oneself to the power grid, one is no longer dependent on the group (hence the use of compressed air). Etc. Etc.

    Reply May 21, 2014 @ 14:21:08
  5. Christopher Allman

    One thing about the Amish, I think their attitudes towards technology tend to be severely misunderstood (understandably, since they aren’t in much of a position to explain themselves).
    They aren’t against technological innovation per se, (they even run factories often using compressed air instead of electricity to power tools), rather, they oppose technologies which would interfere with community life.
    So, the automobile is an obvious example, if you can go a long distance in a short time, you are no longer reliant on the group. By connecting oneself to the power grid, one is no longer dependent on the group (hence the use of compressed air). Etc. Etc.
    But technologies, however advanced, which they belief foster their community are entirely acceptable. Each group tends to make their own distinctions about what they allow and what they do not, but the decision making relies on that one principal: is it good for the community as a whole.

    Reply May 21, 2014 @ 14:23:03
    • Expositor's Heather

      Fair point. But it still seems rather arbitrary to me to say that X amount of innovation and development is good for society while anything past that is not. Their scales seem oddly balanced to me. It still seems to come down to what their deity says is good for the community… rather than reason.

      Reply May 22, 2014 @ 11:07:11
      • Christopher Allman

        It would only be arbitrary if there were some sort of limit to their technology which did not serve a practical function. I believe that everything they shun in order to serve the greater closeness of their community is generally correct, even from a non religious perspective.
        Generally, what they believe is good for the community is whatever leads to very close, reliant bonds on the group.

        How many groups do you know like the Amish that, in contemporary America, maintain such a distinct cultural identify? Not the Mormons, not even the Fundamentalist Mormons, at least not to the same degree.
        Granted, there are things a non religious person may not value, such as the concern with pride and vanity that comes from fashion trends, but it is their community value regardless. I think they reason they are so singularly successful, is because of the practical choices they have made in terms of technological adoption.
        They use all sorts of sophisticated, modern technology, it is not the ‘newness’ of it which is at issue. The only reason they choose to reject a technology is if it is deemed social cohesion of their group.
        Of course, the type of group they choose to maintain, one that has intense and close ties with everyone in the community, the choice for that particular type of community may indeed be arbitrary, but the technological choices they make to achieve those ends are not.

        Reply May 22, 2014 @ 18:00:42
  6. Ang

    Oh Greg how I love you. This isn’t the gospel of scholarship it is the gospel of bumpkins and making shit up.

    Reply May 21, 2014 @ 18:57:14
  7. YouKnowMe

    Greg, why the dig on Ayn Rand? Just like you she was a voice against nonsensical authority. Her message was simply that you aught to be able to keep what you earn and that it’s not immoral or ignoble to look out for your own interests. It was a response to efforts by politicians to take control of more and more of our lives by manipulative bullshit arguments that appealed to a warped sense of morality. And whereas the church plays games with your head, the state plays games with your head and backs it up with a gun, and you forget about the games they’re playing with your head!

    I”m always surprised at the liberal turn that ex-mormons seem to take, as if politics revolved around gay marriage. I just left one big manipulative organization, I don’t feel like running into the arms of another. Government aught to be as small and uninvolved in our lives as possible. I have a high opinion of Ayn Rand for pretty much the exact same reasons I have a high opinion of you.

    Reply May 22, 2014 @ 09:52:28
    • Expositor's Heather

      Personally, I am conflicted about Ayn Rand. The way you frame it, I agree with her philosophy. However, I also think she takes her conclusions way too far to the point that she’s somewhat a black and white thinker. Take Atlas Shrugged, for example. The industrialists are the personification of pureness and goodness. They are 100% innocent victims. The government folks are the personification of evil. They are 100% malicious villains. That’s not the way the real world works. Capitalist industrialist type folks are often exploitative. People who work in government are often motivated by good intentions. There just simply is no black hat brigade and white hat brigade in real life. Bad guys and good guys are found on all sides. So I find myself unable to connect to her ideology as expressed in her novels. (Well, except Anthem. It’s been a long while since I’ve read it. But I remember loooving it. I was a believer then. So I might need to re-read it.) To be fair, I think Ayn’s position is understandable. She came here from Russia. It makes sense to me that she is as extreme in her thinking as she is. I think there is also an argument to be made that perhaps she created the black hat white hat story to prove a point about government overreach and that she was more nuanced in her approach in real life. Though, I don’t know how strong that argument is. I’ve never been motivated to look into it.

      In one way, I’m like you. I want to be a libertarian. I want the government to stay the eff out of people’s lives. But on the other hand, I have zero faith in laissez-faire capitalism. I don’t believe unregulated markets are good for society. In fact, I think they’re often just as big a source of exploitation as government is. As I get older, the more I come to the conclusions that humans just suck in general and all human systems are a cluster to some degree or another.

      Reply May 22, 2014 @ 11:01:56
      • YouKnowMe

        Thanks for the honest and open reply Heather. Part of what I’m fascinated about, and what draws me to the podcast, is learning about how deep and pervasive the influence of the church has been in our lives. It’s far more than I had a sense of when I first dared to truly question it. I feel like I’ve been going through a parallel disaffection with government. The more layers I peel back, the more pervasive I see that it is, with banks that are too big to fail, the destruction of healthcare, the picking and choosing of economic winners and losers. Corporations after all, are creations of our government, and the rules and regulations they follow are designed by legislators who are not exactly apathetic about the connections they groom. I don’t think that what we have in America is an example of laissez-fare capitalism by any stretch. It’s an example of what you get when an organization that needs to be relevant works to ensure its relevance, but unlike the church, can enforce whatever it does, and unlike the corporations it creates, isn’t vulnerable to poor product sales or performance. Very scary, despite all of the claimed good intentions, don’t you think? The church is full of good people with good intentions too, and look at how it’s need to stay relevant has effected it! You guys always expound on that quite eloquently! Ayn Rand is on our team! She doesn’t ask us to submit to anyone or anything in a world where, think about it, nearly everyone else is. I think that that is what makes her seem extreme. She argues for the individual. I just hated to hear her get thrown under the bus.

        Reply May 22, 2014 @ 13:14:18
        • Expositor's Heather

          You’re right that what we have in our economy now isn’t a very good example of laissez-fare capitalism. A better example is the swaths of people dying of black lung, living in company housing, starving because the prices are high in the company store and all they have to purchase with valueless company scrip, working themselves to the bone, while Ayn Rand’s hero, the industrialist, lined his pocket with more and more money earned off what is essentially slave labor. Or the millions of people (mostly Chinese) who died blasting and hammering the railroads across the nation while, again, Ayn’s hero lined his pockets, built mansions, increased his power, and lived the comfortable life of an elite. Or the millions of people who actually WERE slaves while Ayn’s hero relaxed in plantation splendor.

          Government is not the problem. Religion is not the problem. HUMANS are the problem. Blaming an abstract entity is a canard. Humans are inherently self-interested. There will always be a portion of us that game the system and exploit. It doesn’t matter if that system is government, religion, or anarchy. The problem is only compounded as people groups get bigger. The larger the system the more broken it is. Our society stopped *really* working when our communities became larger than ~200 individuals and our lives became more complex than focusing on food and sex all day. That’s “just the way it is.” There is no philosophy (and thus no philosopher) who holds the answer to our salvation from what we just, simply, ARE.

          Reply May 22, 2014 @ 15:56:02
          • Expositor's Heather

            sidenote: I should have edited before I posted. Lots and lots o mistakes up thar. ;)

            May 22, 2014 @ 15:58:00
          • YouKnowMe

            Good points Heather, I do agree that it always comes down to our individual behavior. Still, an opportunity to work a hazardous or ill paying job was apparently preferable for many over not having that opportunity. I may envy the elite lifestyle of Ayn’s hero’s, but I don’t resent them. How many people do you know who resent Steve Jobs or Mark Cuban? On the other hand I deeply resent the politicians who have messed up my health care system and created artificial barriers for by business and the businesses of many potential employers and potential clients. I could tell stories. I’d rather have people game a capitalist system than game a government bureaucracy any day.

            May 22, 2014 @ 18:32:25
          • William Law

            Heather, if Ayn had stayed in Russia she and Putin would have been soulmates; They could have run off to another planet to populate an Alter-Mormon Society.
            I put up a page on the Conservatory for the Preservation of the Status Quo Ownership Society or the The Ownership Society Trickle-Down Blues staring Ayn Rand and Allen Greenspan.
            “For the best of all possible worlds choice is the one force that drives the need to have needs. So many choices — so many needs, the invisible hand is the best hand for demanding supply –– supplying demand.”
            I believe you are tracking well on Alissa Rosenbaum ‘s Objectiveism.

            May 24, 2014 @ 17:33:49
    • Christopher Allman

      Like many people my age (32), I was passionately into Ayn Rand in my late teens/early 20′s. (a friend of recently said getting Ayn Rand was our generations version of dropping acid and being a hippy).

      What I eventually came to realize was, although her ideas can feel great and empowering to read, unless you happen to be the sort of person who is a super genius and never wrong about anything ever , her values just turn you into a stubborn asshole.

      Reply May 22, 2014 @ 20:16:09
    • Greg Rockwell

      Sorry I’m so late to responding about this. Not sure if I’m going to sway any thoughts here on Ayn Rand or not, but I can at least talk a little about what I think.

      Reply May 24, 2014 @ 22:06:36
      • William Law

        Greg, I particularly appreciate your insights. I’m flummoxed that a Rockwell can hold these views after ancestors had polished Joseph Smith’s shiny black boots. Just goes to show reason can prevail. Thanks for your contribution to this and other topics.

        Reply May 28, 2014 @ 19:26:38
    • Greg Rockwell

      My antipathy towards Rand is well earned. Like Heather, I was a serious Randian acolyte earlier in life. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Anthem all at least twice. Her philosophy is alluring and I can understand why people like her.

      But she’s wrong. And she’s a sociopathic asshole.

      But let’s dissect the comment for a minute before we get to the substance of the issue.

      “Just like you she was a voice against nonsensical authority.”

      This is not true. The authority of God over humans is nonsensical because it is based on a lie. There is no divine investiture of authority, only assertion. On the other hand, the rules of a social group are real. Government authority derives from the participation of the group. You can complain all you want about being born a human, and being born in a group, but you WERE born a human, and humans are social animals. (We’ll come back to this point) Government authority is the authority of the polis, or the group at large and it is very real.

      “Her message was simply that you aught [sic] to be able to keep what you earn and that it’s not immoral or ignoble to look out for your own interests.”

      This is like a great example of the Mormon idea of the philosophies of man mingled with scripture. The second clause is fine. I agree that it is not immoral or ignoble to be self-interested.

      However, the second clause is an attempt to gloss looking too closely at the first. “Keep what you earn” in this context presumes too much. It presumes functioning meritocracy in which earnings correlate with desserts. It also presumes independence, which is simply not true. Our economic system is not independent as a market or an infrastructure. Pres. Obama rightfully pointed out, you didn’t build the roads or the system that permits you to “earn” this. You did not create the marketplace of buyers or provide the system of exchange. While I like the idea of keeping stuff for my benefit, presuming that the society (and fictional economic engine) in which I participate has no power to regulate the thing that IT created is simplistic.

      Let’s ignore the subsequent strawman and focus on the conservative canard “backs it up with a gun”. This is hyper-rhetoric to try to amplify fear. You can make this kind of argument about any aspect of life in society. The thing is, humans are, once again, social creatures, and except for those of us that are severely broken, we like living in society and accept the rules of society. You can use this same rhetoric to say that parking rules are enforced “with a gun”. It’s fear-mongering bullshit.

      “Government aught [sic] to be as small and uninvolved in our lives as possible.”

      I don’t think this statement has a ton of meaning, but I am willing to argue that when government is not in control, the corporate titans will be (as Heather adequately pointed out).

      Finally, I appreciate that you admire me and I am sorry if I have offended you. This being the internet, and you not using your real name, I’m going to play this internet style and just say things without mincing.

      So, why is Ayn Rand wrong?

      I already basically said it, but just so we can be clear, let’s say it again.

      Ayn Rand is wrong because she presumes the ideal person is a sociopath. Heather wondered if it was kind of a ruse, but from everything I have ever heard it wasn’t. Rand herself was sociopathic in the way she managed her personal relationships. Humans are social beings. We cannot live otherwise. We should not pretend otherwise.

      Ayn Rand is wrong because she presumes people are rational. She believed in classical economic theory that says that people will make rational choices to their own benefit. 1) We don’t. 2) In our complicated world we aren’t capable of having enough information to make rational choices even if we could. Without government protection, we are left to the manipulations of marketers who know how to push our evolutionary buttons better than anyone else.

      Ayn Rand is wrong because she presumes meritocracy is real. Inevitably I have found that the greatest supporters of meritocracy are the greatest beneficiaries of unearned benefits. They tend to be white, born into privilege and are totally blind to that privilege. Meritocracy is simply unsupportable as a concept outside of cherry picked anecdote. Any statistic showing persistent racial or gender inequality is proof that we do not live in a meritocracy.

      Ayn Rand is wrong because she presumes independence from societal infrastructure. The silliest thing in Atlas Shrugged is Galt’s Gulch where the titans of industry go live in a small town together and set up shop as blacksmiths and shoemakers. You don’t get to be a titan of industry without a titanic market and consumers. You don’t get to be it without an infrastructure and rule of law.

      Ayn Rand is wrong because she writes about a simplistic world of people who are all good or all bad. Heather did a perfect job of explaining this. I may not agree that the “problem is people”. But the portrayal Rand makes of human nature and behavior is unforgivably inaccurate.

      Ayn Rand writes political and economic philosophy that is appealing because it is black and white, but it withstands no scrutiny whatsoever.

      Reply May 24, 2014 @ 22:50:19
      • YouKnowMe

        Thanks Greg for the substantive reply. I’d use my real name, but I’m not “out” yet, if you know what I mean. I plan to be out eventually.

        Your reply reminds me of the saying “America is the worst country on earth, except for all of the others.” I agree completely that we don’t have a “functioning” meritocracy, and I agree completely that we all depend on an infrastructure that we didn’t individually create or “merit”. But we also don’t have a functioning Republic, much less anything resembling anything like a democracy. We have an aristocracy, really, despite a constitution that was meant to prevent it. We are comparing two broken systems here.

        Every decision in life has to be made by a human. So we can appoint more humans and give them authority (a gun, and that is what authority is, whether you call it fear mongering or not. Stop paying your taxes, and see if one makes an appearance in your life.) or we can leave more decision making in the hands of individuals. And frankly I’m not so worried about private individuals being “bad”, because (without buddies in the government) they are subject to natural limits. In my opinion Steve Jobs was a first class jerk. But jerks like him have a system that they have to work within. They have to create something that is wanted. The products have to sell. If they don’t, they’re out. Hell, Steve was fired even when they did sell!

        On the other hand, when a politician is bad, it’s devastating. A politician’s only concern is appearances. A politicians decisions can be arbitrary and capricious. There are no natural limits. Nothing has to sell. Budgets don’t have to balance. Laws can be made too complex to decipher. We are literally surrounded by laws that were written specifically to benefit a select few people (ahem,.. connections), and which created the problems that get blamed on a so called “free market”. Exhibit A is corporate law. CEO’s are never liable for anything. Exhibit B is medical insurance. Even before Obamacare, there was a whole web of laws governing who could insure whom and where they could go etc., which eliminated competition.

        There was a time when the Soviets were mocked for believing that a government bureaucrat was capable of planning out how may loaves of bread should be baked and who should bake them. Popular culture doesn’t seem inclined to mock that idea anymore, and not because it’s obvious that government can’t, but because it’s not obvious that government shouldn’t. It shouldn’t. True, we’re social creatures, but we’re not children,.. and government can’t.

        My main inspiration in these things is not really Ayn Rand, who’s ideas I’d champion even if she were an axe murderer, but Milton Friedman. Look him up on YouTube. His short little answers have more beauty in them than the most beautiful music. It’s like watching your favorite athlete do what they do best, or like,.. feeling the holy ghost, take your pick. He’s awesome,.. seriously,.. check him out on Donahue!

        Reply May 26, 2014 @ 22:30:26
      • JT


        You may enjoy this fictional account of an encounter with Any Rand. It is a short story that also appears as a chapter in Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School. The chapter is titled Übermensch. Coincidentally, I just read it.


        The protagonist of the novel (and narrator) is a boy at an elite New England prep school in 1960 – an an outsider from Washington state who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. The school has established program for bringing in renowned writers to the school and having the boys compete for a private audience with them. The competition involves the boys submitting a poem or short story that the writer judges and chooses. In the novel, the three writers chosen for narrator’s senior year are Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemmingway. This chapter covers Ayn Rand’s visit.

        Reply Aug 09, 2014 @ 08:04:41
  8. HPMBH

    Jay, do you mind saying which mission in Italy you served in? Based on your mission president description we may have served at the same time?

    Reply May 22, 2014 @ 14:25:13
    • Greg Rockwell

      I presume you mean me, I was in the Catania mission from 94-96.

      Reply May 24, 2014 @ 22:04:40
  9. Christopher Allman

    Like many people my age (32), I was passionately into Ayn Rand in my late teens/early 20’s. (a friend of recently said getting Ayn Rand was our generations version of dropping acid and being a hippy).

    What I eventually came to realize was, although her ideas can feel great and empowering to read, unless you happen to be the sort of person who is a super genius and never wrong about anything ever , her values just turn you into a stubborn asshole.

    Reply May 22, 2014 @ 20:15:03
  10. Christopher Allman

    Sorry about the duplicate posts! I didn’t notice anyway to delete them.

    Reply May 22, 2014 @ 20:17:58
  11. Billie B.

    Bit late to comment but here’s a thought: This topic might be illuminated as well by checking out the lectures on youtube by the amazing neurobiologist and primate researcher Robert Sapolsky; Sapolsky on Religion. Fascinating stuff and too long to summarize here but he ties in OCD behavior, evolution as social primates and brain function with the development of religious observance and culture.

    Reply May 26, 2014 @ 08:12:34
  12. Gail F. Bartholomew

    Once again thank you for a podcast that was thought provoking.
    Dawkins has a lot to say about the evolution of organizations. This also makes me think about what John Larson says about the church taking stuff from us and selling it back to us. Yes evolution cares about sex or reproduction but it also needs to care about consumption. The church as an organization to be effective needs capital, in the form of money and time. One of you made the comment about controlling or restricting our access to God. Which I think is the most intimate parts of ourselves. Access to God is really our right to find a way to find peace with our selves and peace with our lives. It also controls how we can make moral choices. These the most inner, sacred, important parts of our selves is really what the church sells to us. In fact I think these are the things that really are our sense of self or identity. I think they take who we are and sell it back to us.

    Reply May 28, 2014 @ 23:24:56
  13. JT

    Thanks for this one – everyone. Many of good insights all around and all through. I’m glad I checked in again. – coincidentally, my last listen was the Dallin’s Oaks “Witness to God” episode.

    IMO analyses of Brethen-speak provide an excellent way to deconstruct Mormonism generally as you all move from a singular Mormon puppet mind to the group-mind behind it – as you did here (even as you fairly acknowledged some degree of speculation and I now acknowledge that “puppet” wasn’t a charitable word choice).

    For instance, the way you sought to understand Oaks’s stratagem in evolutionary terms, and not necessarily with self-conscious disingenuousness, was interesting. In this regard, kudos (from the Ancient Greek κῦδος) to Greg for expositorating so well on that.

    Greg, you once offered a kind response to a comment I left on the Mormon Expression “Cults” episode where I offered such an evolutionary perspective. I’m delighted to return the compliment. Seems you’ve done some homework … you anti-eusocial you!

    Again, thanks – definitely worth a second listen.

    Reply Aug 08, 2014 @ 20:04:31

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