Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

BoM Lesson 30 (Plan of Salvation)

“The Great Plan of Happiness”

Alma 40 – 42

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show Joseph Smith’s tendency to plagiarism, and to encourage readers to take time for things that matter.

Reading

For this reading, Alma continues his discussion about the Plan of Happiness. That means it’s time for this chart again (taken from the Gospel Doctrine manual). Maybe you’ve seen it.

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It’s lovely, isn’t it. As a kid, I always felt grateful that we had the Full Plan of What Life Was All About. And it was as simple as drawing circles on a board! (Which I did many times in teaching discussions to investigators.)

However, as basic as this plan is, it looks like the Book of Mormon contains no trace of it. How about that! Is this a case of God revealing things “line upon line”? Or had Joseph Smith not made it up yet?

Or perhaps Joseph Smith hadn’t yet run into the work Emanuel Swedeborg, a visionary and occult mystic from the 1700s? Swedeborg’s 1784 book Heaven and Hell and Its Wonders has a vision of heaven, and it comes in three flavours.

Swedenborg insisted: “There are three heavens,” described as “entirely distinct from each other.” He called the highest heaven “the Celestial Kingdom,” and stated that the inhabitants of the three heavens corresponded to the “sun, moon and stars.”

Celestial Kingdom, eh? That sounds familiar.

Not only that, but Joseph Smith probably became familiar with his work.

A library near the Smith home carried the book, Sibly’s Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences. Historian Michael Quinn has already demonstrated that this book is the likely source for the Smith family’s magic parchments.

Joseph himself acknowledged his familiarity with Swedenborg. In 1839, Edward Hunter, a convert from Swedenborgianism, recorded a conversation with Joseph:

“I asked him if he was acquainted with the Sweadenburgers. His answer I verially believe. ‘Emanuel Sweadenburg had a view of the world to come but for daily food he perished.’” (William E. Hunter, Edward Hunter: Faithful Steward, pg. 316, original spelling).

And would you believe that the ideas of the three heavens was incredibly controversial in Smith’s time?

In fact, Smith’s description of the “Celestial Kingdom” was not only a copy from earlier written works, but also very controversial to the Latter-Day Saints.

The diaries of Orson Pratt and John Murdock from the 1830’s record their efforts to reassure members who questioned the 1832 vision of heaven. The two men described countless excommunications of Mormons, including branch presidents, who denounced “the degrees of glory” as a “satanic revelation.” Even Brigham Young had a hard time with it at first and described it as “a trial to many.”

Why were faithful Mormons choking on this idea of three heavens?

Quinn explains that it’s because members correctly recognized it as coming from the occult. The only other sources of separate degrees in heaven came from occult writers of Smith’s time.

Shoot, they knew Smith had been dabbling in the weird occult stuff.

Plagiarised or no, it’s not like having more circles on your chart makes any more sense. What it all really means is this:

planOfHappiness

Main ideas for this lesson

No one knows

Alma does his best to explain the resurrection.

Alma 40:4 Behold, there is a time appointed that all shall come forth from the dead. Now when this time cometh no one knows; but God knoweth the time which is appointed.
40:5 Now, whether there shall be one time, or a second time, or a third time, that men shall come forth from the dead, it mattereth not; for God knoweth all these things; and it sufficeth me to know that this is the case — that there is a time appointed that all shall rise from the dead.

Gee, he doesn’t know very much. The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual excuses Alma’s ignorance thus:

• Alma mentioned several things that he did not know about death and resurrection (Alma 40:2–5, 8, 19–21). What can we learn from the fact that Alma testified of the doctrine of resurrection even though he did not know all the details about it? (Help class members see that it is not necessary to understand every detail of a doctrine or event before receiving a testimony of its truthfulness.)

Ask: If someone claims to be a prophet, and have a direct line to God, then is their ignorance really excusable?

In the absense of a reliable source, I’ll go with this, which has the advantage of being observably true.

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Click here to see the full comic.

But Alma soldiers on.

Alma 40:11 Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection — Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.

Wait — an angel told him? That’s what Korihor said.

Alma 40:12 And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.
40:13 And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil — for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house — and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.

This all sounds like Christian heaven and hell to me. Of course, this would later clash with Joseph’s newfangled three-degrees idea — to say nothing of “outer darkness” — so it was necessary to retool this into “spirit paradise” and “spirit prison”. It’s all very clever how things work out in the long run.

Alma 40:14 Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.

Joseph Smith is plagiarising the author of Hebrews.

Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
10:27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.

Ask: Freaking heck — did Joseph Smith plagiarise everything?

Probationary state

Alma says that this life is a probationary state.

Alma 42:2 Now behold, my son, I will explain this thing unto thee. For behold, after the Lord God sent our first parents forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground, from whence they were taken — yea, he drew out the man, and he placed at the east end of the garden of Eden, cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the tree of life —
42:3 Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil; and lest he should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit —
42:4 And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.

In this lesson, I gave some reasons why this life being a “probationary” state was a silly and wrong-headed idea. Here’s the short version:

God sent us to earth, having wiped our memory, so already the deck is stacked against us. Then he punishes Adam and Eve for taking a piece of fruit when they didn’t know it was wrong to do so. Or they wanted knowledge of good and evil, which is supposed to be a good thing. God punishes them and all of us by having us born into a fallen system. So already this is a set-up.

Alma 42:5 For behold, if Adam had put forth his hand immediately, and partaken of the tree of life, he would have lived forever, according to the word of God, having no space for repentance; yea, and also the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated.
42:6 But behold, pit was appointed unto man to die — therefore, as they were cut off from the tree of life they should be cut off from the face of the earth — and man became lost forever, yea, they became fallen man.
42:7 And now, ye see by this that our first parents were cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord; and thus we see they became subjects to follow after their own will.

42:12 And now, there was no means to reclaim men from this fallen state, which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience;

Brought upon himself? God set this system up. If he hadn’t wanted it to be this way, he could have arranged it differently. Why didn’t he?

God would “cease to be God”

Alma 42:13 Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.

Would God cease to be God if he did something unfair or wrong? This raises an interesting theological conundrum.

I’m no theologian, but in discussions I’ve had with believers, God’s position seems pretty much set. After all, if he’s the Almighty One and some kind of moral expert, then what standard would we use to say he was doing something wrong? That’s if he’s the one making the rules.

But on the other hand, what if he weren’t? What if there were rules or principles that God had to obey? This is the view we’re taking if we say that God could “cease to be God”.

But if that’s the case — if God doesn’t make the rules, and he’s bound to principles that he has to obey — then why worship him? We could save a step and just worship the principles. Cut out the middleman. Clearly the principles are higher than he is, since he has to obey them.

Back to the first hand. If we’re wrong, and whatever God says goes, then we have another problem. He could declare by divine decree that murder was okay. Or that chocolate ice cream was wrong.

In other words, is a thing good because God says it’s good, in which case we’re bound to a moral tyrant who declares things sinful for arbitrary reasons? Or is the goodness in the thing itself, in which case God can safely be ignored? This is Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and it’s a game-ender for claims to theistic “objective morality”.

Cake or death

And finally, God gives us a choice: either we partake of the waters of life, or “evil shall be done unto” us.

Alma 42:27 Therefore, O my son, whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds.
42:28 If he has desired to do evil, and has not repented in his days, behold, evil shall be done unto him, according to the restoration of God.

Remember, you’re not compelled — but if you don’t, torment forever. This is God’s idea of a free choice.

For more about why Jesus’s atonement makes no sense, check out New Testament Lesson 25.

Additional lesson ideas

More about ‘God would “cease to be God”‘

There’s something else strange about this verse.

Alma 42:13 Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.

This is a funny sort of expression. It doesn’t seem to come up anywhere else in my experience. And whenever that happens, it makes me wonder if that was an idea that was floating around at the time Joseph Smith was working on the Book of Mormon. This is the same thing I found when I investigated the Mormon teaching that Jesus “bled from every pore”. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for more about that.)

So let’s investigate. We’ll do a quick Google Ngram search for “would cease to be God”. Here’s the chart.

Wow, look at that spike in 1820! This was clearly an idea that people were writing about in Joseph Smith’s time. No wonder it found its way into the Book of Mormon.

And if we zoom in on some of the books, we find a discourse about — what a coincidence! — the state of the soul after the dissolution of the body.

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The full text:

And this one:

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Again, the full text:

I have no idea if Smith or his friends would have had access to these books. But the idea that God could “cease to be God” if he did something wrong was clearly going around. The Book of Mormon is not a product of pre-Jesus Central America. It’s very much a product of 19th-century frontier-American theology. Whatever they were talking and writing about, that’s what got in.

Joseph Smith was a kind of cultural magpie. He borrowed whatever was at hand to construct an increasingly elaborate — and at times, contradictory — theology.

Wickedness never was happiness

Here’s a very popular verse.

Alma 41:10 Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.
41:11 And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are pin the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual says this:

• Alma explained that Corianton could not be restored from sin to happiness because “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Why can’t wickedness bring happiness? (See Alma 41:10–13; Helaman 13:38.) How would you respond to the argument that some people seem to find happiness in activities that are against the commandments?

Latter-day Saints are in a strange position. They claim that the Gospel makes them happy, while they more or less admit that actual church is kind of unenjoyable. And so they tolerate the unnecessary and self-inflicted strictures, while gazing enviously at those on the outside.

They have to invent some kind of narrative to explain this, and very often, it’s that other people aren’t “really happy”. Glenn Pace made that the title of a General Conference talk.

When our children were younger and we would be on our way to Sunday church meetings, occasionally we would pass a car pulling a boat. My children would become silent and press their noses against the windows and ask, “Dad, why can’t we go waterskiing today instead of to church?”

Sometimes I would take the easy but cowardly way out and answer, “It’s simple; we don’t have a boat.” However, on my more conscientious days, I would muster up all the logic and spirituality available to a patriarch of a family and try to explain how much happier our family was because of our Church activity.

I first realized I wasn’t getting through when on a subsequent Sunday we saw a family laughing and excited as they loaded their snow skis onto their car. One of my teenage sons said with a sly grin, “They’re not really happy, huh, Dad?” That statement has become a family joke whenever we see someone doing something we cannot do. When I see a teenager driving a beautiful, expensive sports car, I say to my sons, “Now there’s one miserable guy.”

It’s funny in that Mormon Dad way, but it’s also kind of tragic. How many hours did we spend in meetings, instead of having great times together? How many hours did we spend away from home in Stake Meetings, propping up a system that wasn’t true? How much money and effort did we expend on something that didn’t really matter? Were we really happy doing so? Or were we putting up with it so we could have happiness in the “next life”?

President Ezra Taft Benson said: “While [people] may take some temporary pleasure in sin, the end result is unhappiness. . . . Sin creates disharmony with God and is depressing to the spirit” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1974, 91; or Ensign, Nov. 1974, 65–66).

This from a person who made a living from creating unnecessary guilt for people who were doing normal things.

When they said that living a secular and responsible life was “wickedness”, when they denigrated it as simply “fun”… they were wrong. As they were wrong about everything else.

I think it’s important to call this what it is — sourness — and reject it.

Listen to this performance of Roderick Williams singing George Butterworth’s song ‘Bredon Hill’ (from A Shropshire Lad).

Ask: How do you think he felt when she ignored the church bells and stayed with him? Have you had the opportunity to have a lie-in with someone wonderful on a Sunday morning? How did it compare to sitting in church? Which gave you a better opportunity to feel like you were enjoying what life was really about?

Ask: How does he feel at the end of the song? Why is it important to spend time with those you love?

Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sonnet from his Tony acceptance speech.

Ask: What are we promised in this life? Why is important to not waste one day?

We can live good, ethical, responsible lives as unbelievers. It’s the only life we know we’re getting. Let’s not waste a single day on unreason or smallness of spirit.

BoM Lesson 29 (Alma’s fatherly advice)

“Give Ear to My Words”

Alma 36–39

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage parents to give better parental advice than Alma does

Reading

There’s a bit of a lull in the action for this reading. Time for Alma to give one of his trademark fatherly chats! He speaks to his three sons — Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton — and gives really terrible advice. Let’s see how bad it gets.

Main ideas for this lesson

Helaman

In his chat with Helaman, Alma explains that God’s love is unconditional… but with conditions.

Alma 37:13 O remember, remember, my son Helaman, how strict are the commandments of God. And he said: If ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land — but if ye keep not his commandments ye shall be cut off from his presence.

Ask: Would a good parent cast off children for not doing everything they say?

Musical number: Sing this song with the class. (CW: language, possible casual misogyny)

Free will and divine hiddenness

When you ask a theist why God doesn’t resolve his apparent lack of existence by just appearing to everyone, a common answer is that God wants people to believe in him in faith, without needing evidence. If God were to prove his existence, it would essentially force us to believe in him and remove the need for faith.

But what about Alma and his friends? They saw an angel, and that didn’t remove their free will.

Alma 36:5 Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things; but God has, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself.
36:6 For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
36:7 And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

But Alma’s certain that God will resurrect him. He’s just as certain as he is about the Exodus, and the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea… which also didn’t happen.

Alma 36:28 And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; yea, and I will praise him forever, for he has brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time to time.

Whoops.

And if you say that Alma is dumb for believing in fairy tales, then he has an answer for you. His belief makes him smarter than wise people.

Alma 37:6 Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.
37:7 And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls.

So what does all this mean for Helaman? It means that when he writes about how wicked everyone is, he’s supposed to hold back on information.

Alma 37:29 Therefore ye shall keep these secret plans of their oaths and their covenants from this people, and only their wickedness and their murders and their abominations shall ye make known unto them; and ye shall teach them to abhor such wickedness and abominations and murders; and ye shall also teach them that these people were destroyed on account of their wickedness and abominations and their murders.

In the LDS Church, there’s a pattern of incomplete disclosure. The church is cagey about its finances. It tells only one side of its history. Its higher-level ordinances (like the endowment) are not explained to people who have not already accepted a series of commitments — and who are therefore less likely to disengage from their investment.

Ask: What kind of organisation relies on incomplete informational disclosure to “protect” its membership from facts?
Answer: Check out Steve Hassan’s BITE model, under “Information Control”. While this model is not well-accepted by psychologists, it is interesting to see how many of the LDS Church’s practices it describes.

1. Deception:

a. Deliberately withhold information
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
c. Systematically lie to the cult member

2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:

a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
b.Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking

3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines

a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
b.Control information at different levels and missions within group
c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when

4. Encourage spying on other members

a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
b.Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group

5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:

a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
b.Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources

6. Unethical use of confession

a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories

Ask: If the church is true, why would it need to roll out unpalatable information carefully?

There’s a scene from the Australian TV show Offspring that describes this situation.

***SPOILERS AHEAD for season 5***

Also don’t mock me for watching Offspring, I have a wife.

Here’s the short version:

In Wednesday night’s explosive episode of the popular Network Ten series Nina, played by Gold Logie-winner Asher Keddie, is confronted with the fact her new lover Thomas (Ben Barrington) is not only married, but had been cheating on his heavily pregnant wife.

His secret came out when a birth complication forced Thomas and his unknowing wife to Nina’s hospital instead of the maternity ward they had planned.

Quite a scene: Nina attends what she thinks is a routine delivery, and finds… her new boyfriend acting as birth coach to his wife.

When Thomas speaks to Nina later, he claims that his wife was actually his ex, and defends his lack of disclosure, saying:

Would you have started something with me if you knew my ex was pregnant?

Nina responds:

Well, shouldn’t that have been up to me?

And there it is. Maybe members would bail if everything were public. Maybe investigators wouldn’t like it if they knew that Joseph Smith had 30 wives, some as young as 14. But isn’t that up to them? How are we supposed to make good choices if the facts aren’t available?

Shiblon

Shiblon’s the middle child, so nothing interesting happens in his chapter. Alma tells the same conversion story that he just told Helaman, tells him to keep being good, yada yada yada.

Next!

Corianton

We all know Coriander because he’s the only character in the Book of Mormon who got any sex. This was, of course, with the legendary harlot Isabel™, who is one of only six women mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon, and the only one with an occupation.

Alma 39:2 For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom.
39:3 And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron, among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

Trivia: Who were the other five women? Answers are at the bottom of this post.

FB-Corianton-is-in-a-Relationship-with-Isabel

Observation about two names in the Book of Mormon: Corianton. Morianton. Discuss.

Alma’s parental counsel is terrible on so many levels. Let’s list them.

Alma blames Isabel.

Alma 39:4 Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

Why, that scheming hussy!

Alma wigs out, blowing sex all out of proportion

Alma 39:5 Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

Mormons say that sex is “the sin next to murder”, and this verse is why.

Fancy that: a bit of casual boinking — even when pursued responsibly and consensually — is almost as bad as murdering someone. This is a kind of — excuse the gendered term — hysterical anti-sex attitude that turns the concept of morality upside-down. Sex harms no one when it’s done well, but it can be awful when done badly. Ironically, it’s this kind of attitude that causes it to be done badly. You cannot have a normal sexual life with priorities as screwed up as this.

A lot has been said on the futility of teaching abstinence. It does not prevent kids from having sex, but that’s only part of the problem. It also promotes rape culture.

Purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin. Prior to marriage, women are instructed that they must say no to sex at every turn, and if they do not they are responsible for the consequences. This method of approach—“always no”—creates situations in which women are not equipped to fully understand what consent looks like or what a healthy sexual encounter is. When the only tool you’re given is a “no,” shame over rape or assault becomes compounded—because you don’t necessarily understand or grasp that “giving in” to coercion or “not saying no” isn’t a “yes.”

That’s from the girl’s perspective. From the boy’s side, you never learn what’s okay and what’s not okay because nothing is okay. Consent is a subtlety that doesn’t make the curriculum. This is not to excuse failure to obtain informed consent — you might have your own ideas about what’s twisted and what’s not, but they’ll have to be your own ideas; you won’t get them from the wider culture. Or you will, but it will be mixed up with a lot of other stuff.

This unrelenting sex-negativity is one of the most harmful things about the church. It fills people up with shame for their innermost desires. It tampers with who they are on a basic level.

For a better way, check out what I teach my kids about sex. I wrote this lesson a couple of years ago, and in the meantime, my youngest boy started dating. So I told him, “That means I have to tell you the things.”

“No,” he said, “you don’t have to tell me the things!”

“I do have to tell you the things, because it’s my job to tell you the things.”

So I told him the things, and afterward he said, “That wasn’t too bad.”

That’s how I broke the curse.

Alma blames Coriander for his own lack of success

Alma 39:11 Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots. Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.

Oh sure, it’s not because Alma’s selling a shit product. It’s Coriander.

Why would Coriander’s actions have this effect on the Lamanites? They weren’t even Christians yet, and therefore unlikely to be puritanical ninnies.

Testimonies are not good evidence

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Alma 36 contains Alma’s testimony as expressed to his son Helaman (see especially verses 3–5 and 26–28). Why is it important for children to hear their parents bear their testimonies? In what ways have your parents’ testimonies influenced your life?

I can tell you. My father told me lots of good things, but probably the worst information I got in life was given to me by him. It was when he sat me down, and very earnestly told me that if I had a question about anything, I could ask my Heavenly Father in prayer, and get an answer. And I believed him.

That was the worst thing anyone ever told me.

Rather than understanding that knowledge comes through careful, controlled observation, he taught me that knowing something was simply asking a deity and then sorting through your feels.

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Knowledge doesn’t come from feels. Basically he turned me into an an amateur intuitive. And that leaves people vulnerable to scammers and charlatans. Goodbye, critical thinking; hello, mysticism.

What parent tries to disable their child’s brain? Who tries to defeat their kid’s truth-finding mechanism? That’s not normal, but on religion it is.

I’m raising my kids with the Latin phrase nullius in verba. I’m telling them, “Don’t believe anything just because someone says it’s so — including me, because I could be wrong. Don’t believe anyone’s testimony.”

Additional lesson ideas

How to share?

The Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Alma counseled Shiblon to continue teaching the word of God, being “diligent and temperate,” using “boldness, but not overbearance” (Alma 38:10, 12.) How can we follow this counsel as we share our beliefs with others?

In fact, overbearance isn’t such a big problem, but backfire effect is. Telling someone correct information they don’t like can make them believe incorrect information more.

To avoid this, check out the Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky. It’s a must for anyone who needs to communicate ideas.

Answer: Mary, Eve, Sarah, Sariah, Abish, Beyoncé.

BoM Lesson 28 (Faith as a seed)

“The Word Is in Christ unto Salvation”

Alma 32–35

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers not to engage in wishful thinking and emotional reasoning

Reading

What is faith?

That was the question posed by my Stake President. He called me into his office one Sunday. I think he’d heard that I’d been having concerns. It was a great meeting! I was finally able to tell a church leader — to his face — that I thought the church’s claims lacked evidence.

“But that’s why there’s faith,” he said. “What do you think faith is?”

I knew I had an answer — I’d thought about this just a couple of days before — but I didn’t say it.

He pressed. “What is faith? I’m asking you.”

Well, he was asking. So I hit him with it.

I said, “Faith is the willingness to suspend critical reasoning facilities… in the service of a belief for which there’s no adequate evidence.

He stopped for a second. Then, to my surprise, he sort of agreed.

The discussion went on, but I think that discussion said everything about faith from a Mormon and an ex-Mormon perspective.

(Incidentally, I wrote a blog post shortly after the incident, and you can read it here. I didn’t go back and re-read it before I wrote this. Did I remember it accurately? Did I embellish? We all know memory is constructed. Here’s a chance to see how memory changes.)

In this lesson, Alma talks about faith. In religion, faith is considered a wonderful virtue that makes all things possible. I think faith is a terrible reason to believe something, and we need to stop thinking that faith is some kind of virtue.

Main ideas for this lesson

Preying upon the poor

As our story begins, Alma comes across the people who were kicked out of their synagogues for being poor.

Alma 32:5 And they came unto Alma; and the one who was the foremost among them said unto him: Behold, what shall these my brethren do, for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our eexceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?
32:6 And now when Alma heard this, he turned him about, his face immediately towards him, and he beheld with great joy; for he beheld that their afflictions had truly humbled them and that they were in a preparation to hear the word.

Humility

Ask: If you went on a mission for the LDS Church, which neighbourhoods were your most successful: rich ones or poor ones?

I don’t think anyone sees a great deal of success in areas where people are comfortable. That’s mirrored in this passage.

Alma 32:12 I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.
32:13 And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.
32:14 And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word?

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Why was it a blessing to these Zoramites that they had been compelled to be humble? (See Alma 32:12–13.) Why is it better to humble ourselves than to be compelled to be humble? (See Alma 32:14–16.) How can the word of God lead us to humble ourselves?

Ask: Why does the church promote humility?

Humility is a good thing generally. There’s an awful lot we don’t know, and we need to acknowledge as much. Otherwise, we won’t be open to new knowledge, and who couldn’t use a little of that?

This is precisely why I find it so galling that there’s a church whose leaders claim to know the mind and will of God. It’s the opposite of humility.

Arrogance of Faith

Atheists, by contrast, don’t think the universe was created for humans, and don’t think their moral system was handed to them by a god.

atheist arrogance

Ask: What’s the function of these verses? Why does a church that thinks it has God’s mobile number demand humility from its members?

A person with intellectual and emotional independence can ask questions and expect reasonable answers. That’s a disaster for a church that has none. But if you can inculcate a kind of intellectual docility in your members, you can use that as a fallback. “Have humility” is like saying “Have faith”. They’re an escape hatch for when the questions get too pointy. Sure, it’s okay not to know stuff, but if a church claims to have a prophet who reveals things to his servants the prophets, then why would there be gaps in knowledge? Is it that the Lord hasn’t revealed that yet, or is it a plot hole that will never get filled? It sure looks like the second. And why would God work to build a church with so many problems?

Ask: Why do well-off people not accept the gospel?

People who have enough don’t seem to need religion. The church pushes this as an indictment of rich people, but it’s actually a reflection on the church. In economic terms, religion is an inferior good. Just like you stop buying the generic ice cream when you can afford better, religion seems to work well enough until you get a better set of intellectual tools.

Christianity doesn’t have much to offer someone who’s doing well. But it has a lot to offer someone who’s at the end of their rope — a clean slate on sins and misdeeds, a second chance in life, promises of becoming a new person. (Too bad the promises are empty.)

If I were a church, I’d be in the business of promoting misery. Making people’s lives fall apart is a sure way to encourage dependence.

What is faith?

I often discuss faith with believers. But of course you need to define what faith is. I’ve given my definition above, but a more concise definition is this:

Faith is belief without evidence.

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Aron Ra elaborates.

Faith requires that we literally make-believe, that we presume, presuppose, and pretend; that we ignore what we really do see, and imagine something is there when it apparently isn’t.

Not everyone likes this definition, but Mormons should, because the Book of Mormon argues for it! Here’s the relevant passage.

Alma 32:17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.

Not exactly, Alma. But if you can show evidence for any of theism’s fundamental claims, then I’ll change my mind about that thing in the blink of an eye. That’s how reasonable people do it. But let’s continue.

Alma 32:18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

There it is. If you know something — if you have evidence for it — then you don’t need to have faith in that thing, or “believe” as Alma says. If you have evidence, you know it. Before the evidence, you simply believe — you have faith. Once you have evidence, you don’t need faith — it’s “dormant” (see v. 34).

So according to the Book of Mormon, faith is belief without evidence.

It's called faith because it's not knowledge

Alma reiterates.

Alma 32:21 And now as I said concerning faith — faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

Well, you hope they’re true, right?

There are lots of things that I hope are true, but hope’s not a good reason to believe that they’re true, is it? But for Alma, hope is a gateway drug to faith.

Alma 32:26 Now, as I said concerning faith — that it was not a perfect knowledge — even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
32:27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Look at how terrible this is. Even if you don’t have any evidence for an idea, you’re supposed to take whatever desire you have and convert it into hope, and then faith. Then later in a testimony meeting, you’re supposed to say that you “know” that thing.

This is known as “wishful thinking”. It’s one of the worst ways to decide what’s true, and yet Mormons want to lead you along bit by bit until you accept their ideas as true — in an evidentiary vacuum.

This is a terrible way to find out what’s true. Anything will seem more true if you want to believe it. If something is true, you don’t need to “hope” in it.

The seed, or: the experiment that wasn’t

Alma asks us to conduct an “experiment upon [his] words”. But is it a good experiment? Let’s see.

Alma 32:28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves — It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
32:29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
32:30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

Alma’s experiment — as promoted by LDS missionaries, say — differs from a good experiment in at least two respects.

  • A good experiment attempts to be unbiased.

By contrast, the missionaries begin by loading the subject up with a wide array of vaguely expressed expectations. Galatians 5:22 is typically used: the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, and many others. If you feel any of those, this is taken as evidence for the truthfulness of the message. It would be difficult not to have some emotion that could be counted as a confirmation.

  • You have to count the negative cases as well as the positive.

However, when someone gets no answer, the experiment isn’t considered to have failed. Instead, the subject is assumed to have gotten the “wrong” answer, and is encouraged to try again until they get the answer that the missionaries want.

Here’s the short version of how you do it in church:

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I’ll have more to say about this when we get to Lesson 48, but for now, I’ll say this:

Emotional reasoning and wishful thinking are two of the worst methods of finding out what’s true. As forms of evidence, they’re at the bottom. But Mormons hold them up as the best and most reliable sources of evidence that there is.

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The LDS Church has taken these psychological devices — these failings of human cognition — and parlayed them into a large membership — and a vast financial empire. It’s not just wrong. It’s an especially pernicious form of intellectual evil. Alma’s “seed” is that of an invasive plant. If you have it, consider rooting it out of your breast. Critical thinking is the dandelion-digger. Reading is the weed-killer.

Additional lesson ideas

Vicarious sacrifice for sin is immoral

Jesus was supposed to have given his life for the sins of the world. He got it back three days later, which why it’s very important to save your receipt.

Alma 34:9 For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.
34:10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.
34:11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

Tell ’em, Alma. It’s wrong to put the responsibility for one person’s crimes onto an innocent person. So why is it okay for God to do this with his son?

Alma 34:12 But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

Why? If God decided that he didn’t like certain actions, but made it possible for us to do them — in fact, gave us an inclination to want to do them — and then for some reason made it impossible for us to fix it ourselves…

…then why would getting his son killed help matters?

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For more on why vicarious sacrifice for sin is immoral, see NT Lesson 25 (Gethsemane).

BoM Lesson 27 (Korihor)

“All Things Denote There Is a God”

Alma 30–31

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show the poor reasoning in the LDS response to atheism, and that LDS arguments are designed to invalidate the experience of non-believers

Reading

This is one lesson that I’ve been looking forward to. It’s one of the interesting lessons, and it’s all because of Korihor — a character Joseph Smith wrote into the Book of Mormon. Aren’t the villains always the most interesting characters?

Korihor is a character from 1st century BCE Mesoamerica, but who for some reason sounds like a 19th-century Enlightenment-era atheist intellectual — the kind that Joseph Smith might have run across. Funny that.

Let’s get to the reading.

Korihor

Alma 30:5 And it came to pass that in the commencement of the seventeenth year of the reign of the judges, there was continual peace.
30:6 But it came to pass in the latter end of the seventeenth year, there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was Anti-Christ, for he began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ.
30:7 Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.
30:8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.
30:9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.

In Zarahemla, there’s no law saying you have to believe in a God, much like — ahem — modern America. Sounds great to me. I’m anti-Christ myself. And you shouldn’t get special privileges or different laws based on the religion you choose.

Let’s take a look at Korihor’s ideas. Are they quite good, or a cartoony idea of what atheists think? Let’s take a look.

Alma 30:12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:
30:13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.

Not quite true. While there’s always some uncertainty about the future, there is something that allows us to make predictions: science.

Sometimes people challenge me on science — or as they’re fond of calling it, “scientism”. They have the idea that science is just one narrative, and it shouldn’t be privileged over other narratives. I’ve been asked: How do you know that science isn’t just one way of thinking that’s internally coherent, but which ultimately has nothing to do with the real world and relates only to itself?

My response: We know that science pertains to the real world because it allows us to predict the future. Or to use other words: by observing what we can of reality, we can make hypotheses that explain what we’re observing. Then we can use these hypotheses to predict future events. A good hypothesis is one that explains our observations, and which has predictive power.

Religions do not have a good track record when it comes to predicting the future. Here’s one of my favourite examples:

A-Superior-Planet-Joseph-Fielding-Smith

We will never get a man into space. This Earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it.

The moon is a superior planet to the Earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.

Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith at Stake Conference in Honolulu, May 14, 1961

Oh, but he was just an apostle at the time. Why would expect him to know anything about that? You might as well ask the cat.

Alma 30:14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.

I think Mormon teachings are foolish traditions. I’m very grateful for the work of NewNameNoah, who has taken the LDS temple ceremonies, and exposed them to a wider audience. Mormons hate it — and I think that’s in part because they know that their ceremonies are ridiculous. They act like someone who feels silly because they’ve been caught doing something foolish.

I mean, who dresses like this?

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One point for Korihor.

Alma 30:15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

Can you know of things that you don’t see? This was a question posed to me by a well-meaning bishop who came for a visit.

It depends on your definition of “know”. If you’re an intuitive type who thinks knowing means “believing very strongly”, then you might say yes.

But if you’re an empiricist — and empiricism is the bedrock of science — then you’d say that evidence has to be observable. Feelings are evidence of how you’re feeling — your internal state — but not for anything external, or outside yourself.

Alma 30:16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.

Frenzy and derangement are strong words. I prefer the term delusion — a fixed belief, contrary to fact.

Alma 30:17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.

Whoa — that’s not a good reflection of my views. I think whatsoever a man does is no sin. Crime is another matter.

I do think, however, that people should prosper according to their genius. Look at someone like Elon Musk, who’s using his intelligence and vision to change our system of transport and energy, taking us away from fossil fuels and into a future of renewable power. That’s a huge benefit to humankind.

Alma 30:18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms

LOL — men too? That really is whoredoms.

Alma 30:18 …telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

Does anyone have any evidence of a life after death? Not near-death experiences — they can be induced in people who aren’t near death.

And don’t even get me started on those books where a kid dies. (Click on the graphic for the full cartoon.)

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Seriously, which story seems more straightforward to you?

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To say nothing of the secret passwords and handshakes.

And how was Korihor’s teaching received? Not very well.

Alma 30:19 Now this man went over to the land of Jershon also, to preach these things among the people of Ammon, who were once the people of the Lamanites.
30:20 But behold they were more wise than many of the Nephites; for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over that people.
30:21 And it came to pass that he caused that he should be carried out of the land. And he came over into the land of Gideon, and began to preach unto them also; and here he did not have much success, for he was taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land.

WTF? Even though the writer (presumably Alma) made a big deal out of saying that there was no law against a person’s belief, the minute someone says something contrary, they get tied up and ejected. Twice! And Alma comments on how wise this was, so he evidently approves.

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Alma 30:22 And it came to pass that the high priest said unto him: Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord? Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets?

Here’s something that people say to skeptics: Why are you bothering us?

One night recently, I was outside a psychic event handing out bingo flyers.

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You wouldn’t believe how easy this is. All you have to do is identify people who are attending the event, hand them a flyer, and say, “I hope you enjoy the show.” And they just take the flyers!

I know this sounds terrible, but there are two kinds of people at these events:

  • groups of women aged 40–65, and
  • isolated men who are being dragged along.

Men as a rule simply do not seem to go for the psychic mediums. If I ever tried to hand a bingo card to men, they’d say “Oh, I’m not actually going to that.” (Perhaps they were just embarrassed.)

Anyway, on this particular evening, a women saw what I was handing out, and we had this conversation:

Her: The thing is — Why do you care?

Me: Because I think people need to have good information when they’re making choices.

Her: It’s entertainment! It’s in a theatre.

Me: Well, if someone is just here for a bit of a laugh, then there’s probably no harm done. But if they’ve lost someone, and they’re hurting, and someone takes their money — they’re playing with something they shouldn’t.

Her: But we tell kids about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s fun!

Me: I think people deserve informed consent.

Why do I care? I care about people having good information, and so should everyone.

Alma 30:23 Now the high priest’s name was Giddonah. And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.

Good for him — what else can we call it when humans claim authority over other humans because of some imaginary power?

Alma 30:24 Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.

In an earlier lesson, I mentioned a time when someone asked me: what if I was wrong, and the church was true? What I didn’t say at the time was this: If somehow in a complete evidentiary vacuum, the church turned out to be true, God existed, and Jesus and everything was just as they say — even if despite all probability they guessed everything right — then Mormons do not know they’re right.

They don’t know they’re right. The only way you can be sure you’re right is by observation of publicly available reality and evidence. And it’s darn hard to know something even then! So if you’re not even doing that, what chance do you have of getting it right? As I’ve said before, there is no other way of knowing. And if you know another way, please tell me about it. (Mathematics might be a good answer. But even that needs some empirical backup to make sure the results apply to our universe.)

Alma 30:25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.

Point goes to Korihor again. God unjustly punished Adam and Eve (so the story goes) because they committed an action before they knew right from wrong. Now we’re living in a world affected by their actions. The chapter never returns to this idea to answer Korihor’s criticism.

Alma 30:26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world —
30:27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.
30:28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God — a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

With a few exceptions, this depiction of rational atheism / skepticism is pretty good.

But Korihor gets hauled up before the authorities — for the third time! — for teaching his brand of hedonistic anti-clerical atheism.

Alma 30:29 Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God, they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land.

Alma 30:37 And then Alma said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
30:38 And he answered, Nay.
30:39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.

No, you don’t. See above.

Alma 30:40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.

Alma is trying to turn the tables here. He’s saying “I say there’s a god, you say there’s no god; so it’s all a wash because all beliefs are equivalent.”

But it doesn’t work like that. Alma is shifting the burden of evidence. The burden of evidence rests with the claimant. Alma is the one claiming that a god exists, so it’s up to him to provide evidence for that claim. Watch out when people try to shift the burden of evidence. By asking Korihor for evidence that something doesn’t exist, Alma is asking him to prove a negative. It may not be possible to prove that gods (or leprechauns, or unicorns) don’t exist — when the concept of a god is not well-defined.

On the other hand, if the god in question is well-defined, and we fail to see the kinds of things we should be able to see if such a god exists, then we can say that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains.

That doesn’t mean that believers aren’t creative when it comes to shifting the goalposts, as James Randi points out.

Alma continues:

Alma 30:41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?
30:42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

This is one of the really annoying things believers say: I think you really do believe, even though you claim not to.

My response is: How about I tell you what I believe.

Now Korihor makes a perfectly reasonable request: Show me the evidence.

Alma 30:43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.
30:44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

Here, Alma shows that he does not understand the kind of evidence that is required to support a claim. He does this in two ways:

  • He claims that words written by prophets in holy books counts as evidence. It does not. The people who wrote those books could have been mistaken, dishonest, or insane. And if we do allow scriptures as evidence, then whose? The Bible? The Quran? The Bhagavad-Gita? They’re all mutually contradictory. Picking one and not another is just special pleading — claiming that one set of scriptures is “different” somehow, but not saying why. Finally, you can’t use scriptures as evidence for a claim. They’re not evidence — they’re the claim. They need their own evidence.
  • He claims that the earth and the planets are evidence. (This is what I call the “look around” defence, because a young missionary once told me exactly that when I asked him for evidence: Look around!) The earth and the planets are only evidence if we presuppose that a god made them. But there are other explanations that don’t require us to believe in a magical being. This is a big problem for believers: there are better explanations for the kinds of things people cite as evidence.

Korihor pivots a little bit. Perhaps he realises that it’s difficult to prove a negative, so he says:

Alma 30:48 Now Korihor said unto him: I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.

At this, Alma has had enough.

Alma 30:49 Now Alma said unto him: This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.
30:50 Now when Alma had said these words, Korihor was struck dumb, that he could not have utterance, according to the words of Alma.

At this point, it looks like God is frustrated enough to harm Korihor. He doesn’t take call-outs well. On the other hand, while Korihor’s sudden muteness could be taken as evidence of God’s existence (and peevishness), there are other explanations. He could have gotten sudden laryngitis or had a stroke. An evil god could have taken his voice. When it comes to supernatural explanations, one is as untestable as another.

Alma 30:51 And now when the chief judge saw this, he put forth his hand and wrote unto Korihor, saying: Art thou convinced of the power of God? In whom did ye desire that Alma should show forth his sign? Would ye that he should afflict others, to show unto thee a sign? Behold, he has showed unto you a sign; and now will ye dispute more?

The chief judge is a bit of a dope; why is he writing? He can speak.

Having forfeited its believability, the story now descends into farce.

Alma 30:52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.
30:53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

That’s right, folks; Korihor believed in God the whole time. And this is what believers need to think: that critics are secret believers, really. We’re just lying when we say we don’t believe. And we’re literally influenced by the devil.

What a disservice. For believers, not only is there no legitimate reason not to believe, non-believers shouldn’t be trusted when they say they don’t. Maybe believers need to think this because the prospect of a real honest-to-goodness unbeliever with real honest-to-goodness reasons is way too threatening. If there are reasons, then maybe they should stop believing too — and that would mean loss of social group, loss of family, loss of identity, and loss of investment. That would take change, work, and self-analysis. Who wants to do that? And so believers take the lazy way out.

They don’t seem to notice that unbelievers never suddenly go mute. Instead, our voices are growing.

Well, that’s the end for old Korihor, except for his untimely end. Unable to answer his claims, God simply dispenses with him.

Alma 30:58 And it came to pass that they were all convinced of the wickedness of Korihor; therefore they were all converted again unto the Lord; and this put an end to the iniquity after the manner of Korihor. And Korihor did go about from house to house, begging food for his support.
30:59 And it came to pass that as he went forth among the people, yea, among a people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram — and as he went forth amongst them, behold, he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead.
30:60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.

That’s confirmation bias there. Some of us do quite well, post-deconversion. But if anything ever did happen to me, I’m sure the dear old ward members would think of this chapter of Alma and infer some kind of judgment.

The Rameumptom

And then there’s a pretty humourous description of the Zoramites and their Rameumptom. Doesn’t that name sound like something Roald Dahl might have made up?

Alma 31:12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;
31:13 For they had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head, and the top thereof would only admit one person.
31:14 Therefore, whosoever desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top thereof, and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:
31:15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
31:16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
31:17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
31:18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
31:19 Now it came to pass that after Alma and his brethren and his sons had heard these prayers, they were astonished beyond all measure.
31:20 For behold, every man did go forth and offer up these same prayers.
31:21 Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.
31:22 Now, from this stand they did offer up, every man, the selfsame prayer unto God, thanking their God that they were chosen of him, and that he did not lead them away after the tradition of their brethren, and that their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.
31:23 Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after this manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand, to offer up thanks after their manner.

Assign two class members to read the following story.

The first time I saw it was in the venerable Student Review which operated out of BYU in the early 90s. Any information about the author would be welcome.

Cast: A father and his daughter.

“What’s a Rameumptom, Daddy?”

“Well, the Book of Mormon says it was a place where the Zoramites stood to worship and pray.”

“But my Primary teacher said it was a tower that evil people used.”

“I can see how someone could think that. The Book of Mormon says it was a place for standing which was high above the head’ and only one person at atime could go up there.”

“Was it like the speaker’s stand in the church?”

“A speaker’s stand? You mean a pulpit? Yes, I suppose it was. In fact, the word ‘Rameumptom’ means ‘the holy stand.'”

“What’s so evil about a holy stand, Daddy?”

“Well, it wasn’t the stand that was evil. It was how it was used. The people gathered there in their synagogue. . .”

“What’s a synagogue?”

“Just a different word for chapel or church, honey.”

“Oh.”

“They’d gather in their synagogue one day a week.”

“Which day, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, honey. It just says ‘one day,’ and they called it ‘the day of the Lord.'”

“It must have been Sunday.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because Sunday is the Lord’s day.”

“Well, maybe it was. . . Anyway, they’d gather there and whoever wanted to worship would go and stand on the top of the Rameumptom.”

“Could anyone go up there?”

“Well, no, that was part of the problem. Apparently, they had to wear the right clothes. . . ”

“You mean like us when we wear Sunday clothes, Daddy?”

“Well, not exactly, but in a way, yes, I suppose. Some of us might have a hard time accepting certain kinds of clothes or people in sacrament meeting. But we wear our Sunday clothes to help us be reverent, don’t we?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“So anyway, where was I?”

“They went to the top of the Rameumptom. . .”

“Yes, they would go up and worship God by thanking him for making them so special.”

“Were they bearing their testimonies?”

“Well, uh, I guess maybe they were in a way, but they weren’t true testimonies.”

“How come?”

“Because they were too proud.”

“What do you mean ‘proud,’ Daddy?”

“Well, they would talk about how they were ‘a chosen and holy people.'”

“My Primary teacher said Mormons are the chosen people and we’re a special generation.”

“Yes, honey, but that’s different.”

“How?”

“Because we are.”

“Oh.”

“Besides they were very, very proud about how much better they were than everyone else, because they didn’t believe the ‘foolish traditions’ of their neighbors.”

“What does that mean, Daddy?”

“It means that they believed everyone else was wrong and they alone were right.”

“Isn’t that what we believe?”

“But it’s different.”

“How?”

“Because we are right, honey.”

“Oh.”

“Everyone would stand and say the same thing. . .”

“That sounds like testimony meeting to me.”

“Don’t be irreverent.”

“Sorry.”

“Then after it was all over, they would go home and never speak about God until the next day of the Lord when they’d gather at the holy stand again.”

“Isn’t that like us, Daddy?”

“No honey, we have Family Home Evening.”

“Oh.”

BoM Lesson 26 (Anti-Nephi-Lehies)

“Converted unto the Lord”

Alma 23–29

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show the scriptural sanction for some of the hostile attitudes that Mormons have toward ex-members.

Reading

Last time, we saw that Ammon (etc.) converted a lot of former Lamanites. Having gotten a taste of the Jesus, they don’t want to fight anymore. Which is contrary to a kind of creeping Christianism we’re seeing in the US Armed Forces.

Whether Bibles are kept at registration desks or inside rooms may not seem all that big a deal. But the human stakes are higher in another religious-military row that erupted last month, when an atheist airman at a base in Nevada was denied the opportunity to re-enlist because he declined to say the words “so help me God”. In an older air force regulation, it was laid down that those four words could be omitted on grounds of conscience; but this waiver was removed from a new rule issued last year—you either invoke the Deity or you cannot take up your responsibilities to the nation.

In Mr Weinstein’s view, that change in the rules is a symptom of a new form of religious intolerance that has gained ground in the armed forces to the dismay of mainline Christians, among others. He calls the new religious mentality “dominionism”—a pejorative term for forms of Christianity that want to build religious principles into earthly power structures. One sceptical definition of “dominionism” describes it as “a theocratic view that…heterosexual Christian men are called by God to exercise dominion over secular society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.”

Other signs of that mentality? An increasing number of cases where service personnel are bullied or denied promotion because they refuse to conform to the religious beliefs of their superiors.

And, rather worryingly, this:

Coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ are inscribed on high-powered rifle sights provided to the U.S. military by a Michigan company, an ABC News investigation has found.

The sights are used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the training of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers. The maker of the sights, Trijicon, has a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army.

U.S. military rules specifically prohibit the proselytizing of any religion in Iraq or Afghanistan and were drawn up in order to prevent criticism that the U.S. was embarked on a religious “Crusade” in its war against al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents.

One of the citations on the gun sights, 2COR4:6, is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament, which reads: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

I guess Jesus affects people differently.

Be that as it may, the group decided that they needed a name. And did they come up with a doozy.

Alma 23:16 And now it came to pass that the king and those who were converted were desirous that they might have a name, that thereby they might be distinguished from their brethren; therefore the king consulted with Aaron and many of their priests, concerning the name that they should take upon them, that they might be distinguished.
23:17 And it came to pass that they called their names Anti-Nephi-Lehies; and they were called by this name and were no more called Lamanites.

Remind me not to let them pick my band name, because it would probably suck. I was going for Sea of Dudes, but apparently it’s taken. :(

Why would they be anti Nephi or Lehi? Well, there have been many explanations. Cue the gymnasts!

If anti is a transliteration, it might come from the EGYPTIAN relative marker nty (Coptic ente) meaning “which is,” which can be nominalized as “that which is”. Since the gentilic of the term is used in the plural, if it were pluralized as EGYPTIAN it should be ntyw. This would mean something like “those who are Nephi-Lehi”.

If anti is a translation, the meaning could be “facing Nephi-Lehi,” from the HEBREW word that means approximately “anti,” (neged), i.e., “facing, opposite, etc.” (HWN).

Hugh Nibley suggested to one of his classes that anti might come from Arabic inda which, like Greek anti, means “opposite”. Since this root is not found in other Semitic languages, it may actually be a borrowing from Greek.

Aren’t they creative? It’s easy to make things up when there’s no way you can be proven wrong.

Name aside, the most distinctive thing about them is that they decide never to fight again. Their king says:

Alma 24:12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
24:13 Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.

24:17 And now it came to pass that when the king had made an end of these sayings, and all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.

That’s convenient.

no physical proof

Alma 27:21 And it came to pass that the chief judge sent a proclamation throughout all the land, desiring the voice of the people concerning the admitting their brethren, who were the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
27:22 And it came to pass that the voice of the people came, saying: behold, we will give up the land of Jershon, which is on the east by the sea, which joins the land Bountiful, which is on the south of the land Bountiful; and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance.
27:23 And behold, we will set our armies between the land Jershon and the land Nephi, that we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon; and this we do for our brethren, on account of their fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin; and this their great fear came because of their sore repentance which they had, on account of their many murders and their awful wickedness.
27:24 And now behold, this will we do unto our brethren, that they may inherit the land Jershon; and we will guard them from their enemies with our armies, on condition that they will give us a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies.

This is actually interesting: there’s some scriptural justification for Mormons to either be pacifists, or protect pacifists.

Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, knows that Mormons are not pacifists, but he thinks we should be. Writing at Rational Faiths, he contends that “resort to violence” is incompatible with “worship of the Prince of Peace.” Most interestingly, he claims that the Book of Mormon—full of warriors heroes like Mormon and Captain Moroni—is actually a pacifist text hiding underneath a thin veneer of failed militarism. Is it? Does the Book of Mormon teach that pacifism is always superior to defensive war?

Mason’s central argument is that the apparent approval of defensive war in the Book of Mormon contradicts Christ’s teachings. Mason stipulates that—if we are careful in our reading and analysis—we will see that the Book of Mormon text itself undermines its own superficial sanction of violence. After all, writes, Mason, “it’s difficult to conceive of a text more poignantly testifying to the utter futility and folly of violence” than the Book of Mormon.

Religion is a shape-shifter. It teaches whatever believers want it to teach; all they have to do is cherry-pick the scriptures they like, and construct an apologetic to fill in the gaps. But it’s sort of nice that some Latter-day Saints are taking this lesson from the Book of Mormon, when there are so many worse messages they could be getting.

A scene ensues. The attacking Lamanites descend on the ANLs, hack their way through a few of them, and then — WTF? — they recoil in confusion as their victims refuse to fight back.

Alma 24:20 And it came to pass that their brethren, the Lamanites, made preparations for war, and came up to the land of Nephi for the purpose of destroying the king, and to place another in his stead, and also of destroying the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi out of the land.
24:21 Now when the people saw that they were coming against them they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them to the earth, and began to call on the name of the Lord; and thus they were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and began to slay them with the sword.
24:22 And thus without meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their God.

I know religion is supposed to be comforting, but no, you don’t know that.

And then the attackers have a change of heart. They join the ANLs, and make up the sudden deficit in their numbers.

Alma 24:23 Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren would not flee from the sword, neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword —
24:24 Now when the Lamanites saw this they did forbear from slaying them; and there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things which they had done.
24:25 And it came to pass that they threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again, for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them.
24:26 And it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved.
24:27 And there was not a wicked man slain among them; but there were more than a thousand brought to the knowledge of the truth; thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.

The writer is glad because more people have joined than were killed. I know this is fictional and everything, but damn — that’s a really statistical view of things.

Main ideas for this lesson

Never really converted

In this reading, the Book of Mormon shows a really terrible attitude toward ex-Mormons.

Here’s something I’ve been told at times: I left the church because I was “never really converted”.

Alma 23:6 And as sure as the Lord liveth, so sure as many as believed, or as many as were brought to the knowledge of the truth, through the preaching of Ammon and his brethren, according to the spirit of revelation and of prophecy, and the power of God working miracles in them — yea, I say unto you, as the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away.

Ask: Why do members need to believe that ex-Mormons were never really converted?
Answer: This comes from fear. It can be threatening for a Mormon to encounter someone who has left and doubtless now thinks that church is a collection of lies, fables, and foolishness. I know that, as a younger member, I might have felt that way to meet a former member, and I would probably have been horrified to learn that one day I would become one. It would have meant a forfeiture of family, money, time, and what I thought would be my eternal future.

In short, I might have tried to find any way I could to prevent myself from thinking that I could become “like that”. And that can mean blaming the ex-member for a perceived lack of sincerity (which missionaries routinely do with investigators who “neg” them), or a perceived lack of integrity (you didn’t “endure to the end”). When really, I finally recognised that it just wasn’t true, and it was my sincerity and integrity that took me out of the church.

If you want a demonstration that Mormons really do believe these things about ex-members, look no further than the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.

a. They “were converted unto the Lord” (Alma 23:6). Why is it essential that Jesus Christ be at the center of our conversion? For what other reasons might people be drawn to the Church? (Answers may include the personalities of missionaries, the influence of friends, or the appeal of social programs.) Why do these things alone fail to bring about true conversion?

I don’t know what “true conversion” means. I think they just mean “lifelong membership”, in which case any of those three things can get you there. I never hear a problem with those things when they get people into the font. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw anyone get baptised on my mission simply because they read the Book of Mormon and thought it was true. Baptism was always accompanied by elder infatuation or social relationships. I doubt that it can ever happen otherwise. And the church knows this; otherwise they wouldn’t stress friend referrals or co-teaching with the missionaries. It’s got to be about embedding the convert into a social relationship so that leaving will be more costly.

Apostates are worse than non-members

Here the other nasty thing that Mormons teach: ex-members are worse off than non-members. Here’s the scripture:

Alma 24:29 Now, among those who joined the people of the Lord, there were none who were Amalekites or Amulonites, or who were of the order of Nehor, but they were actual descendants of Laman and Lemuel.

Apparently conversion is genetic.

Alma 24:30 And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things.

Those terrible apostates!

Ask: Why would the church teach that ex-members are spiritually worse-off than people who didn’t know about the church?

Let’s make one thing clear: it’s not really true that non-members don’t really know about the church. Members (and missionaries) have the idea that non-members don’t know about it, and if they find out about it, then they’ll join.

It’s not true. People know about the church. Even if it’s just as simple as “polygamy” — well, what one issue could be more indicative of the church? It happened, it was shocking, and now members are trying to bury it down the memory hole — while still practicing a form of it (posthumously). Yes, I’d say that’s the essence of Mormon doctrine!

There’s a Christopher Hitchens quote that I can’t find at the moment: People don’t reject Christianity because they don’t know about it; they reject it because they know about it.

Anyway, why wouldn’t they think that ex-members are worse? At lest non-members might become members someday, while it seems unlikely that ex-members will. Why would you, when you’ve seen the man behind the curtain?

And there’s another fiction that Mormons are eager to promote: that if you leave, it’s because you’ve forgotten.

25:6 For many of them, after having suffered much loss and so many afflictions, began to be stirred up in remembrance of the words which Aaron and his brethren had preached to them in their land; therefore they began to disbelieve the traditions of their fathers, and to believe in the Lord, and that he gave great power unto the Nephites; and thus there were many of them converted in the wilderness.

I still remember everything. I remember all the so-called spiritual experiences. I just have better explanations for them now.

BoM Lesson 25 (Lamoni)

“They Taught with Power and Authority of God”

Alma 17–22

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To point out that emotional reasoning is not a good way of finding out what’s true

Reading

This reading concerns the missionary journeyings of Alma and the sons of Mosiah.

It begins with our heroes bumping into each other after 14 years of preaching — what’s meant to be a period covering around 91 to 77 BCE.

Alma 17:1 And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, Behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla.
17:2 Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.
17:3 But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.

I get feels from this bit.

In the town where I grew up, there was a medium-sized Mormon presence, and most of my best friends were in the church. Reading this, I could imagine a day when we would get back together and find that we were all still active Mormons — yay!

Now life has moved on, and some of us are still active, and doing churchy things that way. But some of us have realised that the church wasn’t what it said it was, we’ve left, and we’re moving on in that way — in, I think, a better way.

I’m sure that my church friends wish we’d all be in the church again. (One former mission companion told me pointedly that he’d liked me better when I was a believer. Facebook discussions can do that.) For my part, I wish my friends would wake up and get out, as I can see that damage that a demanding religion can do. It’s a shame, and a waste.

I guess the lesson here is that basing your relationships on religious affiliation can bring about a lot of closeness if you stay, but division if you leave. And that’s too bad. Religion poisons everything.

Ask: How have you been able to maintain your friendships with believers, post-deconversion?

Anyway, they take their leave, and go teach those wild, hardened, and ferocious people, the Lamanites. One might say they had a few prejudices, but anyway.

Alma 17:13 And it came to pass when they had arrived in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, that they separated themselves and departed one from another, trusting in the Lord that they should meet again at the close of their harvest; for they supposed that great was the work which they had undertaken.
17:14 And assuredly it was great, for they had undertaken to preach the word of God to a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them; and their hearts were set upon riches, or upon gold and silver, and precious stones; yet they sought to obtain these things by murdering and plundering, that they might not labor for them with their own hands.

The story moves to Ammon, who goes to the land of Ishmael, and winds up talking to their king Lamoni. Naturally he gets a welcoming committee.

Alma 17:20 And as Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites took him and bound him, as was their custom to bind all the Nephites who fell into their hands, and carry them before the king; and thus it was left to the pleasure of the king to slay them, or to retain them in captivity, or to cast them into prison, or to cast them out of his land, according to his will and pleasure.
17:21 And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael; and his name was Lamoni; and he was a descendant of Ishmael.

When Ammon tells Lamoni that he wants to live there, the king is impressed, and offers him a daughter.

Alma 17:22 And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people.
17:23 And Ammon said unto him: Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.
17:24 And it came to pass that king Lamoni was much pleased with Ammon, and caused that his bands should be loosed; and he would that Ammon should take one of his daughters to wife.

Wow, free daughter — and Ammon doesn’t even have a green card!

When I first got to Australia as a missionary, they gave me free health care, and I thought that was something. Could it be that the Book of Mormon writer has the Lamanites all wrong? They seem quite hospitable.

Alma 17:25 But Ammon said unto him: Nay, but I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites.

I’m sensing a Joseph-in-Egypt element to this story, but let’s continue.

Now comes the action: when robbers come to steal the “flocks” — of alpaca, presumably — Ammon sees an opportunity. He kills some of the robbers with a sling, and cuts off the arms of others.

Alma 17:26 And after he had been in the service of the king three days, as he was with the Lamanitish servants going forth with their flocks to the place of water, which was called the water of Sebus, and all the Lamanites drive their flocks hither, that they may have water —
17:27 Therefore, as Ammon and the servants of the king were driving forth their flocks to this place of water, Behold, a certain number of the Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered the flocks of Ammon and the servants of the king, and they scattered them insomuch that they fled many ways.
17:28 Now the servants of the king began to murmur, saying: Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men. And they began to weep exceedingly, saying: Behold, our flocks are scattered already.
17:29 Now they wept because of the fear of being slain. Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy; for, said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words.

17:36 But Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slain of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him.
17:37 But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm.
17:38 Now six of them had fallen by the sling, but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword; and he smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few.

After this grisly spectacle, Ammon brings in all the severed arms. Needless to say, the king finds his manner disarming.

Alma 17:39 And when he had driven them afar off, he returned and they watered their flocks and returned them to the pasture of the king, and then went in unto the king, bearing the arms which had been smitten off by the sword of Ammon, of those who sought to slay him; and they were carried in unto the king for a testimony of the things which they had done.

The king is even more impressed when he learns that Ammon is feeding the animals, as though nothing has happened.

Alma 18:8 And it came to pass that king Lamoni inquired of his servants, saying: Where is this man that has such great power?
18:9 And they said unto him: Behold, he is feeding thy horses. Now the king had commanded his servants, previous to the time of the watering of their flocks, that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi; for there had been a great feast appointed at the land of Nephi, by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land.
18:10 Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.

The real Gospel Doctrine lesson manual puts Ammon’s work ethic down to “giving service and developing trust”.

• How did the king respond when his servants told him how Ammon had defended his flocks? (See Alma 18:2–5.) What was Ammon doing when the king asked where he was? (See Alma 18:8–9. On the chalkboard write Give service and develop trust.) How did this help prepare King Lamoni to be taught? (See Alma 18:10–11.)

People who offer unsolicited help can be genuine. They can also be partaking in a more sinister pursuit: that of loan-sharking. Abusers do this to instill a sense of obligation in their victims.

We’re all familiar with the stranger who offers to help a woman with her groceries; most often he is a fairly unsophisticated loan shark looking to pick someone up. The debt he records in his ledger can usually be paid off quite easily, just a little talk will do it. But he has something in common with the predatory criminal who imposes his counterfeit charity into someone’s life: motive….At its best, loan sharking is on a par with asking a woman, “Do you come here often?” At its worst, it exploits a victim’s sense of obligation and fairness.

Once Ammon establishes trust with the king, it’s time to teach. Strangely, Ammon tells him that God is a Great Spirit, which doesn’t mesh with current Mormon doctrine, but may have been in line with Mormonism v1.

Alma 18:24 And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
18:25 And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth.
18:26 And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
18:27 And he said, Yea.
18:28 And Ammon said: This is God.

Maybe Ammon is just holding back on the strong stuff, so the king doesn’t flip out and stop the discussions.

Anyway — what do you know — the king accepts everything, and his mind gives out under the strain of having to believe so much nonsense at once.

Alma 18:40 And it came to pass that after he had said all these things, and expounded them to the king, that the king believed all his words.
18:41 And he began to cry unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, have mercy; according to thy abundant mercy which thou hast had upon the people of Nephi, have upon me, and my people.
18:42 And now, when he had said this, he fell unto the earth, as if he were dead.

But he’s okay, folks! His wife looks after him, and when he comes to, she faints. Ammon faints too, but that could just be peer pressure.

Alma 19:12 And it came to pass that he arose, according to the words of Ammon; and as he arose, he stretched forth his hand unto the woman, and said: Blessed be the name of God, and blessed art thou.
19:13 For as sure as thou livest, Behold, I have seen my Redeemer; and he shall come forth, and be born of a woman, and he shall redeem all mankind who believe on his name. Now, when he had said these words, his heart was swollen within him, and he sunk again with joy; and the queen also sunk down, being overpowered by the Spirit.
19:14 Now Ammon seeing the Spirit of the Lord poured out according to his prayers upon the Lamanites, his brethren, who had been the cause of so much mourning among the Nephites, or among all the people of God because of their iniquities and their traditions, he fell upon his knees, and began to pour out his soul in prayer and thanksgiving to God for what he had done for his brethren; and he was also overpowered with joy; and thus they all three had sunk to the earth.

Later on, Ammon’s friend Aaron teaches King Lamoni’s father — also a king — and teaches about a Great Spirit.

Alma 22:7 And Aaron answered him and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And the king said: I know that the Amalekites say that there is a God, and I have granted unto them that they should build sanctuaries, that they may assemble themselves together to worship him. And if now thou sayest there is a God, Behold I will believe.
22:8 And now when Aaron heard this, his heart began to rejoice, and he said: Behold, assuredly as thou livest, O king, there is a God.

Bad idea, king — that’s not how you verify a claim.

Then the king prays — to a God he doesn’t know — and wouldn’t you know it, he faints!

Alma 22:18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead.

Main ideas for this lesson

Fainting

So what’s going on? Why do all these Lamanites turn into fainting goats?

The Book of Mormon has its origins in 1800s American spirituality. So when something appears in the Book of Mormon, it’s a safe bet that it reflects something that was going on at the time. Was fainting a normal part of a religious conversion?

In the early 1800s, it was. The eastern US was the scene of camp revivals — mass delusions that saw the converted fainting by the hundreds.

In August, 1801, Barton W. Stone led a revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky that became the most famous camp meeting. The meeting lasted a week, and 23,000 people came. The preaching was simple, lively, and persuasive, with preachers from different denominations sharing the platform. The common people were deeply affected, and, as at the Gasper River meeting, strong emotional responses were considered proofs of conversion. Often these produced strange physical manifestations – some people fainted and fell to the ground (were “slain in the spirit”) or suffered uncontrollable shaking (“the jerks”). There was dancing, running and singing – all of which Stone said were manifestations of God’s presence. The noise of the meetings was so great that some said “the noise was like the roar of Niagara.” Revival camp meetings swept through Kentucky, Tennessee and many of the southern states.

Another account.

‘The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The bast sea of human being seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons and one standing on a tree which had, in falling, lodged against another. …
‘I stepped up on a log where I could have a better view of the surging sea of humanity. The scene that then presented itself to my mind was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens‘ (Pratney 1994:104).
The Rev. Moses Hoge wrote: ‘The careless fall down, cry out, tremble, and not infrequently are affected with convulsive twitchings
‘Nothing that imagination can paint, can make a stronger impression upon the mind, than one of those scenes. Sinners dropping down on every hand, shrieking, groaning, crying for mercy, convulsed; professors praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress, for sinners or in raptures of joy! …

You can imagine that these scenes would have had quite the effect on the public imagination for quite some time! Small wonder that it worked its way into the Book of Mormon. And in fact, Christian historian Nathan O. Hatch mentions fainting particularly in connection with early Mormons.

As Jonathan Edwards noted some 60 years earlier, religious ecstasy—trembling, groaning, crying out, panting, fainting—may be signs of God’s power, but you don’t know. In the 1800s, you see these same expressions in the early Mormons and Shakers.

So that’s why these fainting stories appear. It seems that, for early Mormons, fainting upon conversion was sort of a normal and well-accepted thing. I doubt early church members would recognise the rather boring church of today.

Conversion as a phenomenon

Fainting aside, I think these fainting stories have left their mark on modern Mormonism — not because fainting is still a part of Mormonism’s cultural repertoire, but because Mormons still think of conversion as something that “happens”.

I had a couple of missionaries over to the house for dinner recently. I like having them over — it’s good for them to get some food, and I remember what it was like to pound the pavement under less-than-encouraging conditions. The ensuing discussions are quite interesting, as well.

In these discussions, I tend to focus on the need for evidence, when establishing a claim. I often say, “You don’t get knowledge from feels.”

But one of the missionaries — a junior companion — inexplicably challenged me to read and pray about the Book of Mormon. As though that was something I’d never thought of doing before.

I guess if that’s the only tool you have, that’s what you go with.

But it’s a part of this idea that conversion involves some kind of big emotional experience. I can even see this in the eyes of Mormons I talk to; they’re thinking: If I can just say something, then he’ll see the sense of it all, and believe. (Then when I don’t, I’m hard-hearted.)

Of course, if I did pray about the church — never mind that praying presupposes the existence of a being whose existence is one of the claims under consideration — and if I did have a big emotional experience, what would that show? Only that I’m just as susceptible to emotional reasoning as anyone else. That’s something I already know.

I should also point out that not everyone has a big emotional experience. Many people pray and get no answer at all. So if this is a test, that means it failed, right? Nope — Mormons in that situation condition themselves to believe that they “already knew it was true” and that no big experience is necessary.

From a public forum:

I remember trying to get Moroni’s promise to work for me. When nothing happened, I finally decided that I didn’t need it because I already knew it was true.

And another.

This is how my experience went. I remember it quite clearly. My “answer” was that I already knew it was true. It sustained severe activity for fifty years……… Now I have to come to terms with the idea that my own mind just had to have the answer so it gave me one.

It goes to the highest levels.

Ask: How would this quote encourage someone to stay in the church, even if they feel no “spiritual manifestation”?

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This is how the church plays both sides of the epistemological fence. Pray, and you’ll have an experience that will make you believe — but if you don’t, you don’t need a big experience; just believe anyway.

Additional lesson ideas

Horses and chariots

We’ve mentioned the lack of pre-Columbian horses — and here they are again — but now let’s take it farther with chariots.

Alma 18:10 Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.

Did ancient Americans have chariots with wheels?

In a word, no. Wheels don’t appear in the archaeological record.

Did I say “don’t appear”? That’s not quite true. They do appear as kids’ toys.

There are around 100 known examples thus far and they vary in construction according to where they were found. Small solid-bodied examples were found around the Veracruz and northern coastal regions, whilst larger hollow-bodied examples have been found in Veracruz, Michoacan, Geurrero and El Salvador. If putting wheels on an animal wasn’t strange enough, the larger type are often flutes or whistles with the posterior or tail being used as a mouthpiece.

The majority were made by threading an axle through loops formed on each leg, with one between the front legs and another between the hind legs, with a wheel mounted on each end. Another composite type does exist, with the animal mounted on a plinth through which the axles were mounted. Both types result in a fairly robust mobile animal on wheels, which most people liken to a child’s toy – although it is very unlikely that they were given to youngsters to play with.

Okay, so when did they appear?

The majority of examples that exist today are thought to have been made in the Early Post Classic Era (900AD-1250AD), though some do come from the earlier Classic Era (200AD-900AD).

So that’s 200–1250 CE. That’s way too late for king Lamoni, who was strictly a BCE kind of guy.

So why don’t we see wheels on chariots?

Well, toys are one thing, but scaling it up is quite another.

The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder.

“The stroke of brilliance was the wheel-and-axle concept,” said David Anthony, a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College and author of “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language” (Princeton, 2007). “But then making it was also difficult.”

To make a fixed axle with revolving wheels, Anthony explained, the ends of the axle had to be nearly perfectly smooth and round, as did the holes in the center of the wheels; otherwise, there would be too much friction for the wheels to turn. Furthermore, the axles had to fit snugly inside the wheels’ holes, but not too snugly — they had to be free to rotate.

Uncle Cecil of the Straight Dope points out that the lack of big strong animals was also a problem.

Unfortunately, the New World suffered from a conspicuous scarcity of draft animals. The only beast of burden known in the Americas was the llama, a delicate critter restricted to certain parts of the Andes, which was used solely as a pack animal. Without draft animals you cannot do extensive hauling with sledges, and without sledges it will never occur to you that the wheel would be a handy thing to have.

In the end, the lack of ancient American wheels is a big problem for the Book of Mormon, and not just because it mentions wheels all the time. It’s also because Lehi and family came from the Old World, where wheels had already been in use. If someone traveled to the Americans with this knowledge, it would have taken the New World by storm (problems with animals notwithstanding). What, did Lehi forget?

So Lehi comes over and “forgets” to use the wheel. I’m sure that even a FARMS dude has got to admit that that is about as stupid as forgetting about fire or even forgetting how to eat…or breathe for that matter. As we all know, “forgetting about the wheel” isn’t even in the realm of possibility.

The oldest wheel found in archeological excavations was discovered in what was Mesopotamia and is believed to be over fifty-five hundred years old. The wheel was used extensively in the Greek and Roman civilizations and of course was well established in Jerusalem when Lehi made his supposed journey, (Hell, logic would say that Lehi even used wheels in his “trek” from Jerusalem to the coast.) But then once he arrives in the New world, he forgets all about it!!

Surely we’d see wheels being used in the Americas in some capacity during this time. But we don’t. Fictional people don’t innovate.

What’s the FairMormon answer?

The nature of “chariots” is not clear in the Book of Mormon text. The text nowhere states that wheels were a part of these devices.

We do not know what type of chariots the Nephites used, nor do we know if what they called chariots had wheels.

Aren’t they great, ladies and gentlemen? Chariots without wheels!

“Hey, I feel like a ride in my chariot! Wanna go out for a scrape?”
“Sure; our alpacas are rarin’ to go!”

But here’s the best part: we can’t find the chariots because they just decayed.

It appears that most chariots during Book of Mormon times did not survive, just like during the Exodus which the “six hundred chosen chariots” (Exodus 14:6) and “all the chariots of Egypt” (Exodus 14:6) did not survive in the sea. (Exodus 14:26-28)

Are they saying that the Lamanite chariots are just as real as Pharaoh’s chariots?

nevermind_nathan_fillion

Of course, this is dumb; we can find older wheels than that.

Bronze Age wheel at ‘British Pompeii’ Must Farm an ‘unprecedented find’

A complete Bronze Age wheel believed to be the largest and earliest of its kind found in the UK has been unearthed.

The 3,000-year-old artefact was found at a site dubbed “Britain’s Pompeii”, at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire.

Archaeologists have described the find – made close to the country’s “best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings” – as “unprecedented”.

Still containing its hub, the 3ft-diameter (one metre) wooden wheel dates from about 1,100 to 800 BC.

Unprecedented — but possible.

This wheel is even older than anything from our reading. If something like this were found in Guatemala, LDS apologists would claim it as a win for the Book of Mormon. And rightly so — it would turn Mesoamerican archaeology on its head. But when we don’t find such things, they don’t seem to care. And that’s careless.

BoM Lesson 24 (Alma and Amulek 2)

“Give Us Strength According to Our Faith . . . in Christ”

Alma 13–16

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show that God is unjust, and allows unnecessary suffering.

Reading

CONTENT WARNING: rape, murder

Is Alma still talking to Zeezrom? Poor guy must be getting bored by now. After all, you can’t spell Zeezrom without ‘Zz’.

Alma 13:1 And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.

And on and on. Check out chapter 13 — it’s a bit of a snore. And there was more beyond that.

Alma 13:31 And Alma spake many more words unto the people, which are not written in this book.

Main ideas for this lesson

Foreordination

Part of Alma’s discourse in chapter 13 centers around the Melchizedek Priesthood. (Amazingly, a doctrine from the Book of Mormon seems to have survived unedited in the modern church.)

Let’s browse some questions in the Gospel Doctrine Lesson Manual.

• When are men first “called and prepared” to be ordained to the priesthood? (See Alma 13:3.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 365).
How did men demonstrate in premortal life that they were worthy to be foreordained to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood? (See Alma 13:3–5.) What must men do in this life to remain worthy of their foreordination? (See Alma 13:8–10.)

And here are the relevant scriptures in the Book of Mormon.

Alma 13:3 And this is the manner after which they were ordained — being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.
13:4 And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.

In other words, whatever your station in life — whether worthy priesthood holder in affluent North America, or non-member in the benighted third world — you’re in the position you are because of what you did in the premortal life. You were foreordained to this condition.

There’s a narcissistic appeal to this idea. If you’re in the church, it means you’re special somehow. And it’s not just that you’re special because you were chosen; you earned this by your meritorious works before you were born.

We’ve talked a lot about the sunk-cost fallacy: it’s difficult to leave (or even question) the church because of the time, money, and effort you’ve invested. But adding in the premarital life kicks it up to Level One Million. Not only have you invested part of your life, you’ve (supposedly) invested an eternity in the life before this one! Talk about kicking up the commitment — and the cost of abandoning the investment. I remember learning about the premortal life, and thinking, “This life is so short, and if I can just get through it, I’ll be in heaven forever with Heavenly Father!”

Okay. So where’s the problem in thinking that our station in life depends on a premortal life?

It leads to the idea that people who are worse off somehow deserve their situation. And if that’s the case, then one could conclude that…

  • they deserve their situation
  • other forms of discrimination against them is justified
  • there’s nothing to do for them

See, for instance, this bit from LDS apostle Mark E. Peterson:

Is there reason then why the type of birth we receive in this life is not a reflection of our worthiness or lack of it in the pre-existent life?…can we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Latter-day Saints. There are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with His established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds….

The Brethren used this idea to justify discrimination, in not giving the Priesthood to men of African descent in the 1950s.

Official Statement of First Presidency issued on August 17, 1951
“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintained their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes…..
“Man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression. If this is carried further, it would imply that the Negro is punished or allotted to a certain position on this earth, not because of Cain’s transgression, but came to earth through the loins of Cain because of his failure to achieve other stature in the spirit world.

It’s hard to overstate how callous this belief is. I know lots of Latter-day Saints are good-hearted people who care about others, but this belief does not contribute to such a mindset. It provides a divine justification for why some people are worse off. If we can’t solve problems of poverty and injustice in the world — well, how can we, when such a condition is God-ordained? And the belief contributes to the narcissism that is general in religious circles: God helps me; finds my car keys, finds me parking spots, arranges things for me — and not only that, but he placed me here with benefits not afforded to others.

It puts a rather sinister pall on the Primary song:

I am a child of God
And he has sent me here…

I’ve come to a different view since my deconversion. I now think that every person on earth is a human much like myself, with a body, a brain, and a limited lifespan. We face unequal situations and unequal opportunities because of where and how we’re born. There are no gods, as far as I’m aware, that are going to work to fix this. So it’s up to us. The idea that we lucky few with enough to eat and the “right” ideology get to live this way because of some hypothetical premortal history is a terrible and unjust distraction.

The Problem of Evil (again)

But now here’s the interesting part: this long discourse doesn’t seem to have put the audience to sleep. Instead, it got them so riled up that they start burning people.

Alma 14:8 And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire, and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.
14:9 And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

Amulek thinks what any normal human would, and suggests stopping the horror.

Alma 14:10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

Alma says no. It’s okay, because God is whisking them all to heaven, and he needs the bad people to do bad things so he can judge them.

Alma 14:11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

It’s said that with great power comes great responsibility, so with infinite power comes infinite responsibility. If I’d had the power to stop the fiery deaths of all those people, I would have done so. So would anyone. Anyone, that is, except God, who allows them to suffer and die. And why? So that he can find out what he already knows — bad guys are bad.

The Book of Mormon says that it’s all okay because God is taking them all to heaven. Would that be a good enough reason for you or me to fail to prevent their deaths? Let’s return again to the Tale of the Twelve Officers, in which a woman is raped and murdered over the course of several hours, while officers look on.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” said the ninth officer. “Moments after Ms. K. flatlined, I had her resuscitated, and flown to a tropical resort where she is now experiencing extraordinary bliss, and her ordeal is just a distant memory. I’m sure you would agree that that’s more than adequate compensation for her suffering, so the fact that I just stood there watching instead of intervening has no bearing at all on my goodness.”

No one would accept this kind of justification from me, and yet many people are willing to give God a pass. They shouldn’t.

After this, Alma and Amulek knock the walls down, in a rehash of Paul’s escape in Acts 16. All the bad guys die, in a rehash of Samson in Judges 16.

Alma 14:26 And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound; and when the people saw this, they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them.
14:27 And it came to pass that so great was their fear that they fell to the earth, and did not obtain the outer door of the prison; and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain, so that they fell to the earth; and the chief judge, and the lawyers, and priests, and teachers, who smote upon Alma and Amulek, were slain by the fall thereof.

Fortunately, Zeezrom is healed and converted, so it was all worth it.

Alma 15:5 And it came to pass that they went immediately, obeying the message which he had sent unto them; and they went in unto the house unto Zeezrom; and they found him upon his bed, sick, being very low with a burning fever; and his mind also was eexceedingly sore because of his iniquities; and when he saw them he stretched forth his hand, and besought them that they would heal him.
15:6 And it came to pass that Alma said unto him, taking him by the hand: Believest thou in the power of Christ unto salvation?
15:7 And he answered and said: Yea, I believe all the words that thou hast taught.
15:8 And Alma said: If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.
15:9 And he said: Yea, I believe according to thy words.
15:10 And then Alma cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord our God, have mercy on this man, and heal him according to his faith which is in Christ.
15:11 And when Alma had said these words, Zeezrom leaped upon his feet, and began to walk; and this was done to the great astonishment of all the people; and the knowledge of this went forth throughout all the land of Sidom.

He still felt annoyed at everyone’s inability to pronounce his name, though.

Amulek felt his pain — his phone always tried to autocorrect his name to ‘Amulet’.

Additional lesson ideas

Mass graves?

The Book of Mormon talks about Ammonihah, a Nephite city that was destroyed by the Lamanites.

Alma 16:1 And it came to pass in the eleventh year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, on the fifth day of the second month, there having been much peace in the land of Zarahemla, there having been no wars nor contentions for a certain number of years, even until the fifth day of the second month in the eleventh year, there was a cry of war heard throughout the land.
16:2 For behold, the armies of the Lamanites had come in upon the wilderness side, into the borders of the land, even into the city of Ammonihah, and began to slay the people and destroy the city.
16:3 And now it came to pass, before the Nephites could raise a sufficient army to drive them out of the land, they had destroyed the people who were in the city of Ammonihah, and also some around the borders of Noah, and taken others captive into the wilderness.

16:9 And thus ended the eleventh year of the judges, the Lamanites having been driven out of the land, and the people of Ammonihah were destroyed; yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed, and also their great city, which they said God could not destroy, because of its greatness.
16:10 But behold, in one day it was left desolate; and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness.

Of course, no site has been found that corresponds to the city of Ammonihah, though all due props to ‘Captain Kirk’ for actually trying to suggest one. The problem is going to be that there’s no place with all the bones and human remains that would have been the result of such a slaughter.

It’s possible to discover remains of people from that time. Check out this article from Science showing the remains of a battle between just a few hundred people, about a thousand years before this passage in the Book of Mormon. You really should click through to see the photo of just how close together the bones are.

In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europe’s Bronze Age.

Yes, we can find piles of bones from ancient battles. We don’t find remains of Book of Mormon peoples because they didn’t exist.

BoM Lesson 23 (Amulek)

“More Than One Witness”

Alma 8–12

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to be appropriately open-minded.

Reading

Alma’s ministry continues, but now he’s joined by a sidekick: Amulek! It seems people weren’t too impressed when Alma told his story alone…

Alma 9:6 And they said: Who is God, that sendeth no more authority than one man among this people, to declare unto them the truth of such great and marvelous things?

But when there was another deluded loony, that settled everything!

Alma 10:12 And now, when Amulek had spoken these words the people began to be astonished, seeing there was more than one witness who testified of the things whereof they were accused, and also of the things which were to come, according to the spirit of prophecy which was in them.

Unfortunately, folie à deux is a real thing.

Shared psychotic disorder, also known as folie a deux (“the folly of two”), is a rare condition in which an otherwise healthy person (secondary case) shares the delusions of a person with a psychotic disorder (primary case), such as schizophrenia.

Shared psychotic disorder usually occurs only in long-term relationships in which one person is dominant and the other is passive.

That Amulek. Bit of a sub.

Thing is, it’s certainly possible for two people — or ten people, or a million people — to be wrong. What matters is the strength of the evidence.

But this is lost on the lesson manual, which recommends this attention activity:

4. If you use the attention activity, bring to class an object in a box or bag. Bring an unusual object, one that class members would not expect or believe you to have. Make sure that the box or bag conceals the object from class members.

Display the box (or bag) with the object inside it (see “Preparation,” item 4). Tell class members what is inside the box, but do not show them the object. Ask if they believe that such an item is really in the box.
After class members have had a chance to respond, invite one of them to come and look inside the box. Ask this person to tell the other class members what is inside the box. Then ask class members again if they believe the item is in the box.
• Why was it easier to believe that the object was in the box after someone else came and looked at it?

Probably because we’re inappropriately swayed by social relationships. This has been demonstrated by the Asch conformity experiments.

Notice, however, that if the group can sway what we’re willing to say, having a non-conformer in the group can be enough to help us break out. That’s the role that we postures are playing in the church, and that’s why it’s important for us to speak out.

An elder in my mission told me (anecdote warning) that a seminary teacher of his used this attention activity for a lesson. The seminary teacher was a medical guy, so the “object” was a stillborn foetus, which he showed to one of the students! Isn’t Mormonism wonderfully creepy sometimes?

There’s another story about a lawyer named Zeezrom, whose name probably should be spelled Zeëzrom, just to remind everyone that it’s three syllables. But that’s a rather boring and pointless story. Let’s stick to the good stuff.

Open-mindedness

Ask: Why don’t more people accept the church?

This one’s multiple choice.

a. The church teaches things that don’t make any sense.
b. The claims of the church have no evidentiary basis.
c. Church activities are largely irrelevant, serving to build members’ belief in itself rather than helping them.
d. The church teaches bad values, like discrimination, parochialism, and social and ideological insularity.
d. People have hard hearts.

Ask: Which of the above does the church teach is the right answer?

Before responding, consider: which of the answers would require the church to go through some self-analysis and work? Which of the answers allows the church to blame outsiders for the church’s lack of success?

Well, according to the Gospel Doctrine manual, it’s the last one.

• What did Alma teach about how the condition of our hearts affects our understanding of God’s word? (See Alma 12:9–11.) What blessings come to those who do not harden their hearts? (See Alma 12:10.) How can we develop hearts that recognize, understand, and accept the word of God? (See 1 Nephi 2:16; 15:11.)

Here’s Alma, going to town on the people.

Alma 9:31 Now it came to pass that when I, Alma, had spoken these words, behold, the people were wroth with me because I said unto them that they were a hard-hearted and a stiffnecked people.
9:32 And also because I said unto them that they were a lost and a fallen people they were angry with me, and sought to lay their hands upon me, that they might cast me into prison.

They didn’t like that? You don’t say.

The church teaches that people don’t accept the church because there’s something wrong with them. This is convenient; it allows the church to ignore concerns and contradictions.

There’s a closely related belief that members rely on, as well. It’s the idea that non-believers are closed-minded.

  • They just want to argue.
  • They just want to be right.
  • They’re not sincere.

And this one’s a treat:

  • Even if you gave them evidence, they still wouldn’t believe it. They could see (the Gold Plates, an angel, Jesus), and they still wouldn’t believe it.

That’s a switch — I’ve had believers tell me that if God were to give iron-clad evidence for the church, it would remove our agency and turn us into robots! But it also seems that we could see any evidence and still disbelieve. Which is it?

Let’s talk about open-mindedness. A good skeptic has the responsibility to stay open-minded to new evidence, and to change their minds if the evidence points that way. It’s all too easy to only accept the kind of evidence we’re looking for.

It’s ironic, then, that members sometimes hit us with this charge. They’re the ones who have perfected confirmation bias — for example, noticing when someone gets better after a blessing, but accepting a death as “God’s plan”; or accepting something that they prayed for, or in a patriarchal blessing, as a “hit” when it happens, while ignoring all the things that don’t happen — perhaps imaging that they’ll come true later (what I call “kicking it upstairs”).

In my experience, Latter-day Saints are very good at deflecting evidence against the church with a variety of cognitive defence mechanisms:

  • it’s anti-Mormon, and therefore to be dismissed
  • it doesn’t mesh with their feelings and experiences
  • it’s not uplifting, or they have a bad feeling about it
  • they don’t understand it, but they’re sure that the contradiction will be ironed out in the fulness of time.
  • they “just know” that the church is true

That said, we skeptics and unbelievers need to do better. We need to approach evidence in an unbiased way, even though that’s really hard. Maybe we could remember that thing we wish Mormons would do — not be afraid of what’s true.

Okay — so what about that evidence thing? If I had the Gold Plates in front of me, or if an angel appeared to me, would I accept this as evidence?

Well, no — not immediately. We need to remember an important point: when we examine evidence, we don’t automatically accept the first explanation we come to.

There’s a joke about some scientists on a train. They pass a field, and see a black cow.

One scientist says, “Oh, look — they have black cows in this part of the country.”
The second says, “Ahem: There is at least one black cow in this part of the country.”
The third says, “Ahem, ahem! There exists in this part of the country a cow — one side of which is black!”

It’s important that our descriptions don’t include more than can reasonably be observed!

So if an angel appeared to me, it could be that an angel is appearing to me. It could also be that I’m having a hallucination. I may be undergoing sleep paralysis. These are valid explanations that should be explored — and the fact that they’re natural and well-known actually gives them a bit of an edge over a supernatural explanation, like angels.

If someone showed the Gold Plates to me, it may be that they’re the Gold Plates that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. (It then becomes tricky to explain why Smith didn’t actually use the plates in translating, opting to stick his face in a hat instead. But anyway.) However, it could also be that someone sat down and made the plates recently. (James Strang had his plates. He showed them to people, too.) We would have to examine them, and it should probably be by a team that knows more about this than I do.

If those natural explanations can be ruled out, then that might boost our confidence in a supernatural explanation — unless a better natural explanation appears. Am I biased against supernatural answers? Well, I don’t think they’re very good, but this isn’t prejudice. It’s because supernaturalism has a terrible track record. Everything we know — every explanation we’ve ever used to successfully explain or understand something — has been natural.

So my mind is perfectly open to new evidence, but that’s not what the believers want. They want us to be open to no evidence. They want us to believe, in defiance of the evidence. They want us to believe the list of things — emotional reasoning, confirmation bias, bad sampling — that they offer in place of evidence. And that’s not good reasoning.

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Religious superheroes

From time to time, I’ve heard members of the church express the belief that God would have destroyed society by now, if not for the righteousness of the church members. Here’s a scripture that expresses this.

Alma 10:22 Yea, and I say unto you that if it were not for the prayers of the righteous, who are now in the land, that ye would even now be visited with utter destruction; yet it would not be by flood, as were the people in the days of Noah, but it would be by famine, and by pestilence, and the sword.
10:23 But it is by the prayers of the righteous that ye are spared; now therefore, if ye will cast out the righteous from among you then will not the Lord stay his hand; but in his fierce anger he will come out against you; then ye shall be smitten by famine, and by pestilence, and by the sword; and the time is soon at hand except ye repent.

This lets members imagine theselves as superheroes, staving off the Lord’s wrath with the sheer force of their faith. But does it work like that? What really happens when there aren’t a lot of believers?

Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies

It is said over and over again by religious conservatives: without faith in God, society will fall apart. If we don’t worship God, pray to God, and place God at the central heart of our culture, things will get ugly.

It is an interesting hypothesis. Perpetually-touted. And wrong.

Consider, for instance, the latest special report just put out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development…, which lists the ten states with the worst/best quality of life. According to this multivariate analysis which takes into account a plethora of indicators of societal well-being, those states in America with the worst quality of life tend to be among the most God-loving/most religious (such as Mississippi and Alabama), while those states with the best quality of life tend to among the least God-loving/least religious (such as Vermont and New Hampshire).

Religious folk imagine that when the righteous are removed during the Rapture, it will be the beginning of the Great Tribulation. But to me it sounds ideal.

RaptureFS-327x500

This idea that the religious people are protecting us all by their faith is absolutely backwards. Their faith is actually hurting us by creating a less-rational society. If there are a few irrational religious people, then society can sort of absorb it, but once they take over — as the USA is seeing with the rise of its batshit religious wing — then public policy goes to pot and everything gets crazy. It’s way past time to stop thinking religion has any kind of benefit for society.

Additional ideas for teaching

Evidence for Nephite coinage

Things get a little bit bookkeepy in chapter 11. There’s a bit about their money.

Alma 11:4 Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value. And the names are given by the Nephites, for they did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem; neither did they measure after the manner of the Jews; but they altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation, until the reign of the judges, they having been established by king Mosiah.
11:5 Now the reckoning is thus–a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a shum of gold, and a limnah of gold.
11:6 A senum of silver, an amnor of silver, an ezrom of silver, and an onti of silver.
11:7 A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain.
11:8 Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine.
11:9 And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon.
11:10 And a limnah of gold was the value of them all.
11:11 And an amnor of silver was as great as two senums.
11:12 And an ezrom of silver was as great as four senums.
11:13 And an onti was as great as them all.
11:14 Now this is the value of the lesser numbers of their reckoning–
11:15 A shiblon is half of a senum; therefore, a shiblon for half a measure of barley.
11:16 And a shiblum is a half of a shiblon.
11:17 And a leah is the half of a shiblum.
11:18 Now this is their number, according to their reckoning.
11:19 Now an antion of gold is equal to three shiblons.

Everybody got that? There’s a test afterward.

If there was a society that produced coins — pieces of gold or silver — then we should be able to find evidence of either the coins themselves, or the society that smelted them.

So far, there’s no evidence of any Nephite coins.

But we shouldn’t really expect to see them, should we? By now, any coins would have disintegrated.

Oh, wait.

Massive 600kg haul of ancient Roman coins unearthed in Spain

Construction workers have found 600kg (1,300lb) of ancient Roman coins while carrying out routine work on water pipes in southern Spain, local officials have said

“It is a unique collection and there are very few similar cases,” Ana Navarro, head of Seville’s archeology museum, which is looking after the find, told a news conference.

Dating back to the late third and early fourth centuries, the bronze coins were found on Wednesday inside 19 Roman amphoras, a type of jar, in the town of Tomares near Seville.

LDS apologists respond by saying that Alma 11 was never intended to refer to coins as such, but to a system of weights and measures.

This is a distinction without a difference. Verse 4 refers to “the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver”, and if that’s not a coin, then it’s a tangible object that could be found just as easily as a coin could be found — if it ever existed in the first place. This is another example of the apologetic tendency to create wriggle room by redefining words, while ignoring the lack of evidence.

BoM Lesson 22 (Alma)

“Have Ye Received His Image in Your Countenances?”

Alma 5–7

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to live by secular principles.

Reading

Alma, having gotten the chief priest gig, is doing the work of preaching and exhortation. As with all priests, a lot of his advice is just so much twaddle. However, the goal for a good humanist / thinker / person is to take the good and improve on it.

Main ideas for this lesson

His image in your countenance

In his preaching to believers, Alma gives a well-known checklist.

Alma 5:14 And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?

Apparently, one of the side effects of righteousness is that you get Jesus-face.

This is one of those ideas that gets taken with varying degrees of seriousness in the church. I don’t know if anyone thinks that your face changes when you become more “spurchul”, but there is a very human tendency to judge by appearances.

Back in my Provo days, I would visit my Uncle Richard, who taught me to play the Deseret News Wedding Game. Here’s how to play: In the Deseret News (an LDS-owned newspaper that serves as the propaganda arm of the church), take a look at the Weddings section. There are photos of all the couples who have announced their weddings, along with a blurb about them. DO NOT LOOK at the blurb yet. Just by looking at their faces, can you tell if they’re getting married in a temple? Then check out the blurb, and see if it says something like, “They will be married in the Panguich Temple” or something like that. Non-temple-goers would typically omit a reference to a temple.

Truth to tell, it didn’t seem very hard to pick the temple weddings. They usually had an appearance that I’d describe as ‘special’. Their countenances seemed to shine with a look that said, “We haven’t done it yet, but we’ve been having heaps of oral on the low.” Whereas the photos of the non-temple heathen wedding couples had a murky and dark appearance, though this may have been the colours that couple chose to wear for the photos. Dark shirt on the guy = automatic non-temple.

Uncle Richard was convinced that it was easy to tell — although you’d get it wrong with some couples — and he put it down to discernment, or the Sperrit. Or the countenance thing that Alma is talking about. Looking back, I’d put it down to someone in a human social community being able to recognise one of their own, on limited data. We’re extremely sensitive to the social cues that we all beam out every second of our lives. And then there’s confirmation bias; I don’t think Uncle Richard was great at remembering the ones he’d gotten wrong.

At its worst, the ‘countenance’ idea is a form of social conformity enforcement, and a way of judging people by appearances. I still remember the investigator who was really into the church. He showed up one Sunday wearing a white shirt like usual, but you could faintly detect that he was wearing an undershirt, which he never had before. What was this? Had he noticed that the other men were wearing a garment top? Was he trying to fit in? I wouldn’t doubt it; again, we’re very sensitive to markers of membership in social groups.

What if you’re wrong?

Alma continues.

Alma 5:15 Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?
5:16 I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?

I think this image is a very compelling one. Imagine good old Jesus wrapping you up in a giant bro-hug and saying in your ear: You’ve done an awesome job, Kevin!

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Yep, brings a tear to the eye.

Contrast this with the fearful wrath that awaits the non-believers:

Alma 5:17 Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say — Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth — and that he will save you?
5:18 Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?
5:19 I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?

I mentioned that I’ve been visiting my LDS family. We’ve been having a grand time, while dancing around the difference in belief. Mostly it’s territory we’re happy to leave alone. But on occasion, Dear Sister and I have been making incursions into the Dangerous Valley of Discussion. It’s dangerous because it makes it clear that, yes, I really don’t believe that nonsense. (I think she’s hanging out for my tearful redemption one day, and these discussions make her realise that it’s Not Happening.) It’s also dangerous because it tends to compel her to an emotional Testimony Bearing, which is annoying, and it always seems heartless and abrupt to respond with the obvious “Feels aren’t facts”.

Anyway — today we ventured there, and she asked Alma’s question: What if you’re wrong? Apparently it’s upsetting a few people in the family. They’re afraid of what God is going to do to me. (Isn’t that a horrible and unnecessary form of suffering they’re putting themselves through on my behalf? Another reason why I hate the church.)

Ask: What if you get to the Pearly Gates and God is up there saying, “LOL you screwed up — I existed all the time, and the Mormon Church is totes true!” What would you do?

One way of approaching this is to turn the question back on the questioner: What if you’re wrong?

Richard Dawkins used this one.

“What if I’m wrong? I mean, anybody can be wrong. We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.

“You happen to have been brought up, I would presume, in the Christian faith. you know what it’s like not to believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim — you’re not a Hindu.

“Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in in America, not in India. if you had been brought up in India, you’d be a Hindu. If you’d been brought up in Denmark at the time of the vikings, you’d be believing in Wotan and Thor. if you had been brought up in classical Greece you’d be believing in Zeus. if you had been brought up in central Africa, you’d be believing in the great Juju up the mountain.

“There’s no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god in which, by the sheerest accident, you happen to have been brought up, and ask me the question, what if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong about the great Juju in the bottom of the sea?”

I think this one would just bounce off a true believer, who would just say, “But I’m not wrong, because feels.”

My response? What will I do if I die and see God singing “Hello, It’s Me”? (Because Todd is God, you know.)

Simple: I’ll change my mind.

How about that?

And then I would have some pointed questions for him.

  • Why the absent father routine?
  • Why was it only possible to have a relationship with you if we cultivated a mindset that’s indistinguishable from self-delusion?
  • Why did you expect us to believe in you on the basis of bad evidence, when you could have provided good evidence?
  • Why did you have your son say that it was more blessed to believe something on the basis of no evidence?
  • Why did you try so damn hard to make it look like you didn’t exist?

And then I might follow that up with some damning Stephen-Fry-level questioning.

In short:

Day of Judgment

Changing my view in the face of new evidence is really all anyone can expect. But someone might say that that isn’t good enough. By the time you can see God and know for sure he exists, it’s too late! You were supposed to act by faith! Because it’s blessed to make major decisions based on no evidence.

Jumping ahead to Alma 34:

Alma 34:34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.

Well, that would be a hell of a thing. In the real world, one needs to have the full range of information in order to make a decision. But God expects us to make eternal choices without any of that. (He actually wiped our memory!) And he’ll condemn us for eternity if we don’t make the right choice. It’s like he’s setting us up to fail.

If that’s the way God’s going to do it, then he’s an unjust jerk.

Well, that isn’t the way I phrased it to Dear Sister, but here’s what I did: I showed her this quote of uncertain provenance. It’s attributed to Marcus Aurelius.

live-a-good-life-marcus-aurelius

And then something surprising happened. She seemed satisfied that I would change my mind with actual evidence. And she said she didn’t think it would be too late at that point (Alma 34 notwithstanding).

So I asked if that resolved her concerns, and she said that it did. How about that! She believes in a god who’s not a complete dick. It’s not the god of the Book of Mormon, but that’s encouraging.

I didn’t get to Part Two of my explanation: Having evidence would change my mind about God’s existence, but it wouldn’t change my mind about his character. Decided to drown everyone? Thinks gay people should be killed? Doesn’t reveal anything to his prophet except for the Gay Exclusion Policy? No, thank you. Even if the LDS Church is true, I’d still fight it, because the god of the Bible and the Book of Mormon is a homophobic, misogynistic, murderous asshole. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Pride

Alma continues his preaching:

Alma 5:28 Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.
5:29 Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.
5:30 And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
5:31 Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!

Well, mockery isn’t very nice; I’ll grant that. But I think Alma has misidentified pride as a really big problem. The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual does this as well:

• What do proud people set their hearts on? (Have two class members read Alma 4:8 and Alma 5:53 aloud.) What are some examples of “vain things of the world”? (Write class members’ responses in the heart with the word Proud written above it.)

Here are those scriptures:

Alma 4:8 For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.

Alma 5:53 And now my beloved brethren, I say unto you, can ye withstand these sayings; yea, can ye lay aside these things, and trample the Holy One under your feet; yea, can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?

Throughout the Book of Mormon, pride and materialism are held up as two very common sins.

Ask: What function would it have for a religion to warn against pride?

Answer: A demanding religion like the LDS Church requires the submission of its members. If the church can set itself up as the source of all good feelings, then this is a powerful motivator for people to stay with it. But having pride in one’s self works against this. It allows a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that works against the church.

Ask: What function would it have for a religion to warn against materialism (‘riches’, or the ‘vain things of the world’)?

Answer: A church / real estate corporation like the LDS Church needs money, and lots of it. Convincing members that material wealth isn’t all that important lowers the cost of giving their money away to the church — particularly if they think they’re getting pie in the sky when they die.

Here’s an idea — if the church is so deadset against riches, then don’t give them any. It’s hypocritical of them to preach against the “vain things of the world” — and then go build a mall.

George Carlin, ladies and gentlemen.

Read this quote from Ezra Taft Benson, a notorious conservative.

“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. . . . The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1985, 5; or Ensign, Nov. 1985, 6).

While this may seem like standard religious talk, there’s a socio-political element. Benson was alluding to the tension between social programs that try to lift people out of poverty (which is standard Democratic stuff), and exhortations to “character” and “personal responsibility” (which Republicans typically appeal to). Benson is adding a Jesus-y element to this debate. Why waste money on welfare in the hopes of changing people’s circumstances, when Jesus can change their circumstances for free?

And let’s not forget that religions do pretty well in times of economic uncertainty, as people struggle for a support network. When their needs are taken care of, they tend not to be quite so religious. (RMs: were your most successful neighbourhoods ever the wealthy ones?) And therefore, by cutting the legs out from under the social support network, churches find an ideal set of conditions for growth.

I’ve wandered a bit, so let me return to Alma’s checklist. I think Alma has it wrong. Pride isn’t necessarily bad, as it’s related to self-confidence. Envy isn’t necessarily bad, as it can fuel a desire for better things.

I think we can make a better list. So here are my questions for ex-Mormons:

  • Are you aware of the flaws in your perception? Having been wrong in the past, do you approach with enthusiasm new areas in which your mind could be changed?
  • Do you strive to cultivate intellectual humility? Being able to say “I don’t know” indicates an awareness of a new area that you can learn more about.
  • Do you make a mock of believers? Or are you able to attack ideas without attacking the people who hold them? Are you able to characterise someone else’s point of view fairly?
  • Do you now contribute to charities or worthy causes, as you used to tithe? There’s some research into whether religious people or non-religious people give more. Religious people sometimes have the edge in these discussions, but it’s not clear whether that’s because they’re more generous as people, because they’ve had a long time to build up a charitable infrastructure, or because religious donations are automatically counted as charitable. But we non-religious folk could be doing better at giving than we are. When we drop tithing, let’s not stop giving.

Here are some lists of secular charities.

Additional lesson ideas

Be ye separate

Alma advises the church members to separate themselves from others.

Alma 5:57 And now I say unto you, all you that are desirous to follow the voice of the good shepherd, come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things; and behold, their names shall be blotted out, that the names of the wicked shall not be numbered among the names of the righteous, that the word of God may be fulfilled, which saith: The names of the wicked shall not be mingled with the names of my people;

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual points out this theme.

Alma commanded his people, “Come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate” (Alma 5:57). How can we separate ourselves from wickedness while living in the world?

Ask: What is the function of this idea?

Answers: False ideas don’t last very long when there’s a free exchange of ideas and information. They do best in a bubble. Communal separateness helps foster social and ideological bubbles where the community’s alternate-history narrative can flourish.

Also, the creation of a ‘scary external world’ narrative — in which the ‘world’ is seen as fundamentally unsafe — keeps members inside the bubble. When Latter-day Saints give testimonies, saying “I don’t know what I’d do without the church”, they’re not kidding. They often struggle to function in the real world, and this anti-world mindset perpetuates this.

It was weird being among my LDS relatives. I just listened for how much of the conversation focused on the church. Answer: just about all of it. Every point of discussion was about this or that church member. Every discussion about every friend and acquaintance tied back to the church somehow, and I realised that it was possible (even in a state like Washington, which is by no means exclusively LDS) to restrict one’s social interactions to members of the church.

Communal reinforcement

That takes us to the next point: meetings.

Alma 6:5 Now I would that ye should understand that the word of God was liberal unto all, that none were deprived of the privilege of assembling themselves together to hear the word of God.
6:6 Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.

You know what — those of us who “know not God” probably know him better than you think.

It’s more or less acknowledged that church is the worst part of church. Why get together and have boring meetings?

One of the books that put me on the way out was “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger. Psychologists infiltrated a group of UFO enthusiasts who had predicted a specific date for the end of the world. The goal was to find out what they’d do when the prophecy failed. Would they dump it? Would they modify?

Spoiler alert: the world didn’t end. But there was one telling detail. The weekend after the prophecy failed, some people went back home for the weekend, and some stayed with the group. In general, those that stayed with the group stayed in the group, and those that left left. Being together with other members brought powerful feelings of belonging and affiliation.

This is why Mormons take one Sunday a month and tell each other that they “know the church is true”. Communal reinforcement keeps people pumped up, and reminds them of what the social group believes.

For me, this was an important realisation. If an idea is true, it doesn’t need to be continually propped up. Take an idea like continental drift. I haven’t studied continental drift since Geography 101, which was about 25 years ago. Yet I still think it’s as true as I ever did, and I haven’t been going to meetings to testify about it. True ideas simply do not need communal reinforcement in this way.

‘at’ Jerusalem

Is this a linguistic slip-up?

Alma 7:10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t born in Jerusalem; he was (allegedly) born in Bethlehem. But wait — the phrase is at Jerusalem. The guys from FAIR point out that at can be used for general locations, which is true enough. On the other hand, the folks at the Mormonism Research Ministry point out that the phrase “at Jerusalem” is always used in the Book of Mormon to refer to the actual city.

We can only offer our readers the simple suggestion that if a phrase is used 19 times, and in 18 of those times it can be demonstrated that it means the actual city of Jerusalem, it is both inconsistent and tenuous to interpret Alma 7:10 otherwise.

My take: Joseph Smith (or whoever) probably had a momentary slip-up and said Jerusalem when he meant to say Bethlehem, which is the kind of thing that can happen when you’re dictating a first draft with your face in a hat. But with all the linguistic problems of the Book of Mormon, this one slippery preposition is probably the least of its difficulties.

BoM Lesson 21 (Nehor and Amlici)

“Alma . . . Did Judge Righteous Judgments”

Mosiah 29; Alma 1–4

LDS manual: here

Reading

With a deep breath, we say adieu to the book of Mosiah, and enter the very long book of Alma.

As for Mosiah, this book ends with this look at the government of the Nephites.

Mosiah 29:6 Now I declare unto you that he to whom the kingdom doth rightly belong has declined, and will not take upon him the kingdom.
29:7 And now if there should be another appointed in his stead, behold I fear there would rise contentions among you. And who knoweth but what my son, to whom the kingdom doth belong, should turn to be angry and draw away a part of this people after him, which would cause wars and contentions among you, which would be the cause of shedding much blood and perverting the way of the Lord, yea, and destroy the souls of many people.

29:25 Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.
29:26 Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law — to do your business by the voice of the people.

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual explains.

• What did Mosiah propose to limit the power that could be obtained by wicked individuals or groups? (See Mosiah 29:24–26, 28–29. He proposed that they do all things by the voice of the people, appoint judges and make the judges accountable to the people, and have a system of appeals against judges who did not judge by the law.)

That’s strange: they were allegedly people in ancient America, but here they are operating under a system of government with checks and balances. It’s almost like they’re 19th-century Americans!

Main ideas for this lesson

Nether

In this reading, we meet two ideological enemies of the Nephites: Nehor, and Amlici.

Nehor has some unusual teachings. Then as now, it’s not having unconventional views, but expressing them.

Alma 1:2 And it came to pass that in the first year of the reign of Alma in the judgment-seat, there was a man brought before him to be judged, a man who was large, and was noted for his much strength.
1:3 And he had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people.
1:4 And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

For the writer of the Book of Mormon, it’s a terrible thought that everyone will be saved. Without the losers, how can we have winners? Let’s remember the teachings of the Book of Mormon: that some people will suffer in Hell forever, and that when people don’t get on board, God will be “slow to hear their cries”.

In other words, an all-powerful god will allow people who don’t believe in him to be persecuted and slain in agonising ways, and then punished by him forever… because they refuse to accept his moral superiority.

Alma 1:7 And it came to pass as he was going, to preach to those who believed on his word, he met a man who belonged to the church of God, yea, even one of their teachers; and he began to contend with him sharply, that he might lead away the people of the church; but the man withstood him, admonishing him with the words of God.
1:8 Now the name of the man was Gideon; and it was he who was an instrument in the hands of God in delivering the people of Limhi out of bondage.
1:9 Now, because Gideon withstood him with the words of God he was wroth with Gideon, and drew his sword and began to smite him. Now Gideon being stricken with many years, therefore he was not able to withstand his blows, therefore he was slain by the sword.

Okay, killing someone isn’t good. Nor is defending it.

Alma 1:10 And the man who slew him was taken by the people of the church, and was brought before Alma, to be judged according to the crimes which he had committed.
1:11 And it came to pass that he stood before Alma and pleaded for himself with much boldness.

So he’s condemned to die.

Alma 1:12 But Alma said unto him: Behold, this is the first time that priestcraft has been introduced among this people. And behold, thou art not only guilty of priestcraft, but hast endeavored to enforce it by the sword; and were priestcraft to be enforced among this people it would prove their entire destruction.
1:13 And thou hast shed the blood of a righteous man, yea, a man who has done much good among this people; and were we to spare thee his blood would come upon us for vengeance.
1:14 Therefore thou art condemned to die, according to the law which has been given us by Mosiah, our last king; and it has been acknowledged by this people; therefore this people must abide by the law.

But notice what happens before he’s killed:

Alma 1:15 And it came to pass that they took him; and his name was Nehor; and they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death.

The odd thing about this passage is that Nehor is guilty of murder, but when he’s forced to make a confession, they get him to confess about his teachings, not his actions.

This great post by Mithryn also reminds us that, between charging for blessings, giving General Authorities an income, and lucrative book deals with Deseret Book…

Nehor was just a peanut operation compared to the long sullied history of ‘preaching for profit’ that occurs in the LDS church.

Amlici

Here’s the second enemy: Amlici. Probably should be written Amliçi to make the pronunciation less confusing. Not that he’s French or anything.

Alma 2:2 Now this Amlici had, by his cunning, drawn away much people after him; even so much that they began to be very powerful; and they began to endeavor to establish Amlici to be king over the people.

2:7 And it came to pass that the voice of the people came against Amlici, that he was not made king over the people.
2:8 Now this did cause much joy in the hearts of those who were against him; but Amlici did stir up those who were in his favor to anger against those who were not in his favor.
2:9 And it came to pass that they gathered themselves together, and did consecrate Amlici to be their king.

They had marked themselves

The followers of Amlici had a way of distinguishing themselves:

Alma 3:4 And the Amlicites were distinguished from the Nephites, for they had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites.

Alma then explains that apostates mark themselves.

Alma 3:14 Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to Nephi: Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed, from this time henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them.
3:15 And again: I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren, that they may be cursed also.
3:16 And again: I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed.
3:17 And again, I say he that departeth from thee shall no more be called thy seed; and I will bless thee, and whomsoever shall be called thy seed, henceforth and forever; and these were the promises of the Lord unto Nephi and to his seed.
3:18 Now the Amlicites knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves in their foreheads; nevertheless they had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them.
3:19 Now I would that ye should see that they brought upon themselves the curse; and even so doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation.

I confess that I found myself thinking of this scripture when I saw (Neon Trees’ singer) Tyler Glenn in the terrific video for his song ‘Trash’. Glenn is a gay man who tried to find his place within the LDS Church, only to find that the church despises him — and in fact contributes to a climate of persecution that places young LGBT people at an elevated risk of suicide. ‘Trash’ is an angry video that sees Glenn lashing out at his faith.

Here’s the video.

Notice how, late in the piece, he draws an ‘X’ across his face, apparently in red lipstick.

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You can see why I might have thought: Ooo — Amliçites.

Because it’s not as if Latter-day Saints mark themselves in any ways to identify as members of… wait a minute.

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And don’t even get me started on linguistic markers. One of my relatives actually prayed that some food could — say it with me — “nourish and strengthen our bodies.” I almost cracked up during the prayer, and that wouldn’t have gone over well.

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Fact is, any social group will have markers that they use to identify each other as members of a social group. This is nothing peculiar to Amliçites, Mormons, gay ex-Mormon singers, or any other social group.

Additional lesson ideas

It’s not you

Times become tough for the church. It seems the rank-and-file members are the problem.

Alma 4:6 And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel.
4:7 Now this was the cause of much affliction to Alma, yea, and to many of the people whom Alma had consecrated to be teachers, and priests, and elders over the church; yea, many of them were sorely grieved for the wickedness which they saw had begun to be among their people.
4:8 For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.
4:9 And thus, in this eighth year of the reign of the judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God.
4:10 And thus ended the eighth year of the reign of the judges; and the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.

Ask: What function does this scripture have?

Answer: This is a way of blaming members if the church doesn’t grow. People not joining the church? It can’t be because it’s more than a little weird, that Testimony Sundays are squirm-inducing cringe fests, and that the church — at a significant cost — contributes little to the lives of its members that couldn’t be obtained in other ways.

No, it’s because the members are… and then fill in the blank.

When I was in a really bad relationship once, different friends would occasionally tell me something that comforted me immensely. They would say: It’s not you. By which they meant that, even though I wasn’t perfect and needed to work out my problems, I wasn’t the real problem here. They were trying to let me know that the real problem was a frankly abusive situation that I was trying to make work.

Eventually I figured out that they’d been right, and I got out of that relationship.

So the message I’d like to leave in this lesson is this: If you’re having a hard time with the church — if you feel unworthy, if you feel frustrated by the difficulty in getting it all to make sense, if the transcendance you seek seems to be driven out by the endless responsibilities and the mechanical worship — it’s not you.

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