Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Author: Daniel Midgley (page 2 of 15)

D&C Lesson 8 (Restoration of the Priesthood)

The Restoration of the Priesthood

Reading assignment

Doctrine and Covenants 13; 20:38–67; 27:12–13; 84:6–30; 107:1–20; 110:11–16;
Joseph Smith—History 1:66–73;
Our Heritage, pages 11–14.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Overview

The Priesthood is the power of God, and so (not coincidentally) it’s exactly like God in two important respects.

One, it’s entirely fictional. And two, it’s immensely sexist.

Reading

Was the world created by the priesthood?

Mormons have the idea that Elohim used the priesthood to create the world and the universe.

• What is the priesthood? (The priesthood is the eternal power and authority of God. It is the power by which He created and governs the heavens and the earth.

This is a bit like using the Force to make a sandwich. You might as well say “A wizard did it.” There’s no difference between Elohim did it and A wizard did it. Both are equally absurd.

We know how something about the universe was formed. We can explain it without invoking a god, a wizard, or The Force. Natural processes are all we need; the priesthood is irrelevant.

A Mormon: “Yes, but a wizard did all of that.”

The restoration of the two priesthoods

So the story goes that Joseph and Oliver wanted to know about the authority to baptise. They prayed in the woods, and who should appear but John the Baptist, who gave them the Aaronic priesthood. Later (but Smith never wrote how much later), Peter, James, and John were supposed to have conferred the Melchizedek priesthood.

The Gospel Doctrine manual says that men are supposed to take this power very seriously.

Talmage:
“The effect of my ordination … entered into all the affairs of my boyish life. … When at play on the school grounds, and perhaps tempted to take unfair advantage in the game, when in the midst of a dispute with a playmate, I would remember, and the thought would be as effective as though spoken aloud—‘I am a deacon; and it is not right that a deacon should act in this way.’ On examination days, when it seemed easy for me to copy some other boy’s work … , I would say in my mind, ‘It would be more wicked for me to do that than it is for them, because I am a deacon’” (Incidents from the Lives of Our Church Leaders [deacons instruction manual, 1914], 135–36).

“Yay — I’m better. Oh, no! I’m not living up to my betterness!”

And this is how you give someone a superiority complex, while keeping their guilt complex alive.

There’s a big problem with the story of the restoration of the two priesthoods — they seem to have been entirely unreported at the time. Joseph Smith didn’t write down this story until five years later, so it must not have made much of an impression on him.

View post on imgur.com

David Whitmer, one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, is reported to have said,

“I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] [183]5. or [183]6—in Ohio.… I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver…” (Early Mormon Documents, 5:137).

Another early convert, William McLellin, stated, I joined the church in 1831. For years I never heard of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver. I heard not of James, Peter, and John doing so.” Some time later he repeated that “I never heard of it in the church for years…” (An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, pp.224-25).

So what happened? Joseph Smith wrote it in later. Here’s a screen shot from this page, which shows the differences between the 1833 Book of Commandments (the precursor to the D&C), and the current D&C. On the left, no mention of Peter, James, and John. On the right, a huge after-the-fact update.

But why would they have made up this story later? Well, it was later that their authority was being challenged, so they doubled down. Let’s check in with Grant Palmer, in his book “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins“.

When Joseph and Oliver began mentioning their angelic ordinations in late 1834 and early 1835, they were facing a credibility crisis that threatened the church’s survival. In late 1833 a group in Kirtland, Ohio, denounced Joseph Smith for ministering “under pretense of Divine Authority.” They employed D. P. Hurlbut to investigate Joseph’s past, hoping to bring him down “from the high station which he pretends to occupy.” Hurlbut traveled to Palmyra, New York, and collected affidavits from residents about Joseph’s early treasure seeking and other aspects of his youth. Hurlbut began a lecture tour starting in January 1834 to “numerous congregations in Chagrin, Kirtland, Mentor, and Painesville; and … [he] fired the minds of the people with much indignation against Joseph and the Church.” Finding disillusionment spreading among the Saints, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon began preaching against Hurlbut. It was under these circumstances, exacerbated by problems associated with the failure of Zion’s Camp–the paramilitary trek to assist fellow Saints in Missouri–that Joseph mentioned for the first time in public that his priesthood had “been conferred upon me by the ministering of the Angel of God.”

Unofficial church historian Mithryn has written a terrific post about how Book of Commandments was retconned to make this restoration look legit.

The notable revelations on priesthood in the Doctrine and Covenants before referred to–Sections 2 and 13–are missing, and Chapter 28 gives no hint of the restoration which, if actual, had been known for four years. More than four hundred words were added to this revelation of September 1830 in Section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the additions made to include the names of heavenly visitors and two separate ordinations. The Book of Commandments gives the duties of Elders, Priests, Teachers, and Deacons and refers to Joseph’s apostolic calling, but there is no mention of Melchizedek Priesthood, High Priesthood, High Priests, nor High Councilors. These words were later inserted into the revelation on church organization and government given in 1830, making it appear that they were known at that date, but they do not appear in the original, Chapter 24 of the 1833 Book of Commandments. Similar interpolations were made in the revelations now known as Sections 42 and 68.

From MormonThink:

As pro-LDS historian Richard Bushman admits in his landmark biography on Joseph Smith (Rough Stone Rolling, 75): “the late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication”—even though he doesn’t draw that conclusion himself. Many do raise that possibility, however. In a nutshell, they believe that there are good reasons to doubt that the restoration of the priesthood actually happened in the church, despite Joseph Smith’s later descriptions of the events in his 1838 History of the Church. The actuality of those angelic events and the exclusivity of power/authority which such events would denote, are highly questionable.

If this priesthood restoration really happened, we should expect it to have been discussed by members of the early church, and written down somewhere. But we don’t. That’s a sign of a fishy story.

Moses, Elias, and Elijah?

This part of the reading is unintentionally hilarious. Jesus talks about all the guests he’s going to invite to a massive piss-up. There’s going to be Jesus, and Moroni, and Elias, and John… and Elijah.

D&C 27:5 Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel, to whom I have committed the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim;
6 And also with Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days;
7 And also John the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias;
8 Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron;
9 And also Elijah, unto whom I have committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse;

This is funny because — as Richard Packham has pointed outElias is simply the Greek version of the name Elijah. It’s like saying, “I was listening to the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi… and then the one by Joe Green.”

Joseph Smith does it again in Section 110.

D&C 110:11 After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.
12 After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.
13 After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said:
14 Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—

LOLs.

So how do Mormon apologists explain this? Simple — just start redefining words! Elias isn’t the name of a person, it’s more like a title. An Elias is a forerunner, like John the Baptist. JtB was an Elias. Noah was an Elias. Elijah was an Elias. Even Jesus could have been an Elias. Or Elias could be Elias. There; doesn’t that make everything clearer? Now you have no idea who the scriptures are talking about in any given verse.

Richard Packham wryly observes:

Moral: all it takes is one stupid mistake to form the basis for an entire complicated theology.

Women and the Priesthood

This is a part of the manual that is “by request only.” Says the manual:

The following material is provided to help you address questions class members may have about women and the priesthood. This topic should not be the focus of this lesson. (emphasis mine)

Translation: Oh, God — please don’t bring this stuff up unless you gotta.

The LDS Church displays its sexism in the way it bans women from having the priesthood, and in the way that it disciplines women who question this ban.

It’s not that I care if women aren’t given a fictional power — the problem is that every 12-year-old male is given more authority in the church than any adult woman. Not incidentally, male leaders get paid (rather a bit, according to leaked pay stubs), and it seems female leaders don’t.

Ask: If you were a young woman growing up in the church, how did the priesthood ban for women affect you? Did it contribute to any sexism that you experienced?

The manual says, not entirely convincingly:

• How are women blessed by the priesthood? How are children blessed by the priesthood? (Review some of the blessings of the priesthood that women and children may receive during their lives. Emphasize that although women and children do not hold the priesthood, they are continually blessed by it. For help in answering these questions, you may want to refer to The Latter-day Saint Woman, Part A, chapters 12 and 13 [31113].)

In a sense, it’s appropriate that the manual lumps women and children into the same category.

Let’s finish with a gross joke that was common around Utah Valley when I was going to church there:

How can women hold the Priesthood?

All night long.

Am I right, ladies?

I need to have a shower now. Let’s close.

D&C Lesson 7 (First Four Principles)

“The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel”

Reading assignment

Study the scripture passages listed in the following questions and in the scripture chain.
2 Nephi 25:23; Alma 42:13–24; D&C 18:10–13; D&C 19:15–19; Articles of Faith 1:3

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Reading

This lesson is about the first four principles of the gospel. Let’s recite them in unison.

Article of Faith 4 We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

A side note: As a member of thirty-plus years, it drove me insane that we would be studying this again in Gospel Doctrine class. It made me feel like I was in some kind of intellectual lacuna of vapidity, and this was one of the things that convinced me that there was no “there” there. If you can get through this lesson and say, “Gee, I actually learned something from this lesson, and I can’t wait to return to it in another four years,” then you’re not me.

So let’s get to it!

Faith

As I’ve mentioned before, faith is belief without evidence. If you have evidence, we call that knowledge. And the Book of Mormon agrees.

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.

Faith is a terrible thing to have. If you don’t have evidence for something, but you’ve decided to believe it anyway, then it’s very likely you’re believing something wrong. Find evidence (but first learn what good evidence looks like), and then believe it.

But of course, religious leaders are always there to convince us to ignore the evidence of our senses.

Back to the manual.

• Read D&C 8:10 with class members. What can we accomplish without faith? What can we accomplish with faith? (For some answers to this question, see D&C 35:9; 42:48–51; 63:9–11; Moroni 7:33.) How have you seen the power of faith manifested?

You can accomplish anything without faith. All the great scientific discoveries we’ve made have not required faith. You can disbelieve in them and they’re still true.

But surely if you believe in a scientific idea that you don’t fully understand, you’re exercising faith, right?

Wrong. For one thing, you can find out about it from someone who does understand it. For another, if anyone can point out why that idea is wrong, people who do science will change their minds about that idea.

Faith only works when people choose to believe the idea. Science works because people relentlessly challenge ideas, and change them when they don’t work. No faith required!

Repentance

This part starts with an object lesson.

Ask a class member to volunteer to come forward. Blindfold the volunteer and ask him or her to write the following phrase on the chalkboard: Jesus is the light of the world. Remove the blindfold and ask the person to write the same phrase again on the chalkboard. Then have the person sit down.

How is sinning like putting on a blindfold? How is exercising faith in Jesus Christ and repenting of our sins like removing the blindfold? What can we see more clearly when we repent?

Wouldn’t a better metaphor be that you do things worse when your church causes you to wilfully blind yourself?

Now you might think that it’s a good idea to get rid of your bad habits. But the manual tells that this isn’t the real goal.

• What is the difference between true repentance and merely breaking a bad habit or changing a behavior?
President Ezra Taft Benson explained: “Repentance means more than simply a reformation of behavior. … True repentance is based on and flows from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way. True repentance involves a change of heart and not just a change of behavior (see Alma 5:13)” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson [1988], 71).

Self-improvement is great, but the manual makes it clear that it’s not about self-improvement; it’s about accepting that you’re broken and you need to be fixed by someone else.

Explain that when we sin, we become unclean and subject to the punishments required by the law of justice. Being imperfect, we cannot become clean again or meet the demands of justice on our own. By atoning for our sins, the Savior took upon Himself the punishments required by the law of justice and is able to offer the mercy and forgiveness we need to become clean. These blessings of the Atonement are available to us only on the condition that we repent (Alma 7:14).

It’s important to remember that this was all God’s idea. Being all-powerful, he could have made this system any way he wanted, but he decided to do it this way:

He made us imperfect so that we couldn’t help but sin. Then he decided to get his son killed so that he could forgive us. Then he didn’t.

D&C 19:15 Therefore I command you to repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sorehow sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.

Nice one, God!

D&C 19:16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spiritand would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink

Again, why would God demand suffering from his creations?

Learning to do better is great, but this has little to do with the perpetual debasement ceremony that Mormons call repentance, some of which may involve humiliating and pointless confessions to local church leaders.

Yes, in the LDS Church, they actually have…

My advice: Never confess anything to an LDS leader. Whatever you do is nothing that he needs to know about. Tell your partner. Tell the police, if you must.

Baptism

Pointless repentance is followed by a farcical aquatic ceremony in which you get soaked.

The manual asks:

What are the purposes of baptism?

The purpose of baptism is to put someone through a public declaration of commitment, because people are less likely to back out of a commitment if they had to make some public declaration about it. It signals to the person and others, “Wow, now you really must believe it, since you did that dumb ceremony.”

Why is it necessary to be baptized by one who has the proper authority? (See D&C 22.)

Okay, let’s see.

D&C 22:1 Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.

“I know I described the old covenants as everlasting, but this time I mean it.”

2 Wherefore, although a man should be baptized an hundred times it availeth him nothing, for you cannot enter in at the strait gate by the law of Moses, neither by your dead works.

“You could be baptised a hundred times by Jews and it won’t do any good.”

3 For it is because of your dead works that I have caused this last covenant and this church to be built up unto me, even as in days of old.

“No seriously, doing things doesn’t accomplish anything.”

4 Wherefore, enter ye in at the gate, as I have commanded, and seek not to counsel your God. Amen.

“Do what I told you to do, and don’t tell me what to do.”

So basically, this is a cranky god’s attempt at brand protection.

Confirmation

After baptism, you get the gift of the holy ghost. He can be your constant companion, until the very minute you do anything wrong, at which point he buggers off.

 

According to LDS leaders, non-Mormons only get sporadic visits, and these are really only supposed to convince them to become Mormons.

• What is the difference between a manifestation of the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost?
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve taught: “Manifestations of the Holy Ghost are given to lead sincere seekers to gospel truths that will persuade them to repentance and baptism. The gift of the Holy Ghost is more comprehensive. … [It] includes the right to constant companionship, that we may ‘always have his Spirit to be with [us]’ (D&C 20:77)” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1996, 80; or Ensign, Nov. 1996, 60).

So how does the spirituality of Mormons compare with that of non-Mormons?

Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve compared the manifestations of the Holy Ghost that a person can receive before baptism to flashes of lightning that “[blaze] forth in a dark and stormy night.” He compared the gift of the Holy Ghost that a person receives after baptism to “the continuing blaze of the sun at noonday, shedding its rays on the path of life and on all that surrounds it” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith [1985], 262).

It’s nice to know that Mormons have this level of enlightenment. They can’t help but disparage people, can they?

On the other hand, it’s sad that Mormons show so little goodness, discernment, or moral leadership in their everyday lives, of which the 2016 election was only one example.

Enduring to the End

From the manual:

When we are baptized, we enter the path that leads to exaltation. However, this single experience does not ensure that we will be exalted. As the Lord frequently admonishes in the Doctrine and Covenants, we must also keep the covenants we made at baptism to endure faithfully to the end of our lives.

I had a couple of sister missionaries knock on our door this week. I invited them in for a drink, and explained that I was an ex-Mormon. I like to do this because it shows them that your life doesn’t fall apart when you leave the church. You can live a good, satisfying, ethical life as a non-believer.

One of the missionaries asked me why I left. (They don’t usually.)

I explained that many people in the church think that ex-members “were offended” or “wanted to sin”. And most disparagingly, they think ex-members couldn’t “endure to the end”. But I explained that this is wrong. I simply stopped believing it was true, for reasons I was happy to explain. And if you don’t think something is true, then not supporting it is the right thing to do. It’s what a person of integrity would do.

“Well,” said one, “I guess everyone has their view.”

That was the sound of someone checking out.

D&C Lesson 6 (Personal Rev 2)

“I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart, by the Holy Ghost”

Reading assignment

Doctrine and Covenants 6; 8; 9; 11.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Overview

We’re continuing our discussion of personal revelation from Lesson 5, in which we saw that relying on feel-good intuitive methods for finding truth or making decisions is just asking to be fooled. This time, we’ll see the mechanisms the church employs to keep you fooled even when personal revelation fails.

Reading

Let’s start with a scripture.

D&C 109:44 But thy word must be fulfilled. Help thy servants to say, with thy grace assisting them: Thy will be done, O Lord, and not ours.

The manual asks:

Why should we submit our will to God’s will when we seek personal revelation?

Answer: Because there’s no one answering. That means you have to generate the feels yourself, and when you can’t, you have to tell yourself that your lack of an answer is “God’s will”. Sucks, doesn’t it?

It works like this:

Ask: If it’s very likely that nothing will happen when someone prays, how can you fool them into thinking something did happen?

Here are two answers:

Tamp down expectations

Tell people it shouldn’t be a big showy feeling. It can be a tiny quiet feeling. (Or, as we’ve seen, it can be no feeling.)

D&C 85:6 Yea, thus saith the still small voice, which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest,

From the manual:

Why is it important to understand this principle of how the Holy Ghost communicates? What are the dangers of expecting divine communication to come in more dramatic or spectacular ways?
Elder Dallin H. Oaks cautioned:

“Some [people] have looked exclusively for the great manifestations that are recorded in the scriptures and have failed to recognize the still, small voice that is given to them. … We need to know that the Lord rarely speaks loudly. His messages almost always come in a whisper. …

“Not understanding these principles of revelation, some people postpone acknowledging their testimony until they have experienced a miraculous event. They fail to realize that with most people … gaining a testimony is not an event but a process” (Ensign, Mar. 1997, 11–12, 14).

Describe it as confusingly as possible

Dallin Oaks admits he’s never felt a “burning in the bosom”.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: “I have met persons who told me they have never had a witness from the Holy Ghost because they have never felt their bosom ‘burn within’ them. What does a ‘burning in the bosom’ mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word ‘burning’ in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity” (Ensign,Mar. 1997, 13).

Right, because burning means serenity, and a horse is a tapir, and my dog is a cat. And words don’t “mean things”. Surely.

Then the manual asks:

How can we discern whether a revelation has come from God? (See D&C 11:12–14; 50:23–24.)

That’s a great question with a disturbing answer. Because Mormon Doctrine keeps changing, we have to keep throwing old prophets under the bus. (It’s getting crowded under there.)

For example, Brigham Young taught racist things

odd things

and terrible things.

Nowadays, these things make church members feel uncomfortable, so under the bus goes Brother Brigham! Those teachings are deprecated.

Not a problem for Latter-day Saints, who remind us that the word of a living prophet is worth more than a dead one.

All well and good. But think: at some point Brigham believed something that was wrong. And as the Lord’s unique representative on earth, he had all the keys of revelation that anyone had. So if he couldn’t tell that he was wrong, what chance do the rest of us have?

“As a man”

A common dodge is: He spoke “as a man”.

Ask: Is there a way to tell in advance if a prophet is speaking as a man or not?

About Oliver

I mentioned that Brigham was a bit of a racist, but as for Oliver, he wasn’t too woke on the subject of race either.

Let the blacks of the south be free, and our community is overrun with paupers, and a reckless mass of human beings, uncultivated, untaught and unaccustomed to provide for themselves the necessaries of life—endangering the chastity of every female who might by chance be found in our streets—our prisons filled with convicts, and the hangman wearied with executing the functions of his office! This must unavoidably be the case, every rational man must admit, who has ever travelled in the slave states, or we must open our houses, unfold our arms, and bid these degraded and degrading sons of Canaan, a hearty welcome and a free admittance to all we possess! A society of this nature, to us, is so intolerably degrading, that the bare reflection causes our feeling to recoil, and our hearts to revolt….

That’s the kind of thing a regular guy might have said in the 1830s, but hey — Oliver had the Big Guy writing him sections of the D&C. God could have told him to knock it off, and apparently didn’t.

Even though Oliver was rubbish at revelation using a dowsing rod, we can be thankful to him for one of the more fanciful stories in early church lore: when he and Joseph Smith were walking around the Hill Cumorah, the hill opened up, revealing a cave of wonders.

‘Oliver [Cowdery] says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon-loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates.’

Persistent exploration of the hill has revealed no such trove.

However, we can be grateful to Oliver for publishing his ideas on the where Moroni buried the plates (right in New York), and who the Lamanites are (Native Americans). As these ideas look less and less plausible, and as gas-lighting LDS apologists try to distance themselves from them by concocting other explanations, it’s nice to know that people close to Joseph Smith really did think what I (at least) was taught in church.

By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon’s account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. (it is printed Camorah, which is an error.) In this vally fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites—once so highly favored of the Lord, but at that time in darkness, doomed to suffer extermination by the hand of their barbarous and uncivilized brethren. From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains of those who, the day before, were filled with anxiety, hope or doubt. A few had fled to the South, who were hunted down by the victorious party, and all who would not deny the Saviour and his religion, were put to death. Mormon himself, according to the record of his son Moroni, was also slain.

The Nephites who were once enlightened, had fallen from a more elevated standing as to favour and privilege before the Lord in consequence of the righteousness of their fathers, and now falling below, for such was actually the case, were suffered to be overcome, and the land was left to the possession of the red men, who were without inteligence, only in the affairs of their wars; and having no records, only preserving their history by tradition from father to son, lost the account of their true origin, and wandered from river to river, from hill to hill, from mountain to mountain, and from sea to sea, till the land was again peopled, in a measure, by a rude, wild, revengful, warlike and barbarous race.— Such are our indians.

D&C Lesson 5 (Personal Revelation)

“This Is the Spirit of Revelation”

Reading assignment

Reading assignment: Doctrine and Covenants 6; 8; 9; Joseph Smith—History 1:8–17.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Main points for this lesson

Revelation

Ask: How is revelation supposed to work?

D&C 8:2 Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

D&C 9:7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right,

Answer: Members are expected to work out the problem themselves, and then decide if they feel spiritual about it.

If it’s right, you feel something like dyspepsia, and if it’s wrong, you feel dumb.

D&C 9:8 and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

From the manual:

Why does the Lord expect us to study matters out in our own minds before receiving revelation? (Answers could include that the Lord intends for us to be active, not passive, as we seek revelation from Him. He also expects us to use our agency. We grow as we use the gifts and resources He has provided to help us study matters out in our minds.)

In other words, you’re supposed to use your brain to solve the problem, but then you’re supposed to pretend that the answer came from God. That way, you do all the work, and God gets the credit. But you have an answer that you feel positive about. If it all blows up later, then you can pretend there was some sort of “greater purpose” for you getting it wrong.

This is a good time to review this video from Jeff Holland, in which he arrives at what he admits is an unambiguously wrong answer to prayer.

Ask: What was his explanation for why the Spirit told him to go in the wrong direction, on (in his words) “clearly the wrong road”?
Answer: The Lord allowed him to go the wrong way for a while, so that he would know it was wrong.

Ask: How would you ever know if this method of getting answers didn’t work?

With this rationale, there would be absolutely no way to disconfirm this method. Either it gives right answers, or it gives wrong answers that are also right! Either your faith is strengthened, or your faith is strengthened more. This method is a closed circle.

This is also blind faith. An eye that responds the same to light and darkness is a blind eye. Faith that responds the same to confirmation and disconfirmation is blind faith.

Personal revelation in my life

I actually got my testimony of the church by praying about the Doctrine and Covenants, and not the Book of Mormon. I might be atypical in this regard.

I finished reading it, and when I was alone, I prayed to ask if it was true, being well aware of the feelings I was supposed to feel. And I really did! I remember feeling somewhat carried aloft by the swelling, pulsating sensations of the Spirit — or perhaps some other internal organ located near the chest area.

That experience kept me in that church for decades. As with the effect of homeopathic pills, it was never quite effective as it was on the first miraculous experience. But I was sold.

What didn’t occur to me until much later was that the consequences of not having that spiritual confirmation were too terrifying to contemplate. Parents wrong? Entire ontological system a myth? Future plans a waste of time? Setting myself against my family, friends, community, and entire support network? Brain said: Tell you what, endocrine system — it’s make-or-break time. Give him the buzz — he’s already worked up — and we can work out the rest later.

What was Oliver’s gift?

Here’s a rather cryptic passage from D&C 8, written to Oliver Cowdery.

D&C 8:5 Oh, remember these words, and keep my commandments. Remember, this is your gift.
6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.

Gift of Aaron?

Aaron was Moses’ brother, and his gift was the gift of gab. He did the talking while Moses did the revealing. But that’s not the gift here.

Aaron also had a rod (supposedly) that he could throw down on the ground and turn into a snake.

Exodus 7:9 When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.
7:10 And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
7:11 Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
7:12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

Okay, now things are getting interesting! The association with the rod of Aaron is apt, but even now we’re not on the right track. The rod being referred to here is a dowsing rod.

I just want to give credit where credit is due: I never would have known this without the Joseph Smith Papers, which the LDS Church has published. Unlike some of the church essays, they’re not shy about publishing them online — or even linking to them from a story about Oliver Cowdery. Good on them for putting this out there, even though it’s a little… out there.

So let’s get to the good stuff. What about this rod? Here’s the link.

O remember these words & keep my commandments remember this is thy gift now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout

Sprout?

Well, the article is helpful again, because it has a footnote:

In preparing the text of Revelation Book 1 for publication, Sidney Rigdon replaced “sprout” with “rod.” Green, flexible shoots or rods cut from hazel, peach, or cherry trees were sometimes used as divining rods.

There you have it. Oliver was intended to use a divining rod. That makes the following passage make more sense:

D&C 8:8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
9 And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.

What a shame, though — Oliver was rubbish at using it, especially to translate documents. How do you translate with a stick? Probably the same way you translate with a rock in a hat. I don’t know. Maybe that’s because divining rods are complete rubbish. People still use them to try to find water, but no one can do it under controlled conditions. They do try, though. And fail.

Ask: In this video, what evidence do people offer for dowsing?
Answer: Anecdotes.

Ask: How do the dowsers respond when they fail?
Answer: One man says that a mischievous prankster god is thwarting him for fun. One woman is shattered.

Dowsing is (or was) the most common form of paranormal claim that claimants brought before James Randi’s million dollar challenge. No one ever managed to demonstrate such an ability under controlled conditions.

However, frauds (like Joseph Smith) still try to use them to fleece the credulous. A man named James McCormick sold fake bomb detectors — which were just dowsing rods — to the Iraqi government for $60,000 a pop. They probably were responsible for deaths, as these useless devices were actually being used at checkpoints to detect bombs. McCormick was jailed.

Ask: What kinds of questions are Latter-day Saints encouraged to answer using this phoney method of personal revelation?
Answer: The most important questions in life, including whom to marry, what to study, where to live, and what work to take.

Ask: What kind of trouble can someone get into for using fake intuitive methods to solve real problems?

D&C Lesson 4 (Book of Mormon)

“Remember the New Covenant, Even the Book of Mormon”

Reading assignment

Joseph Smith—History 1:27–65; Doctrine and Covenants 3; 5; 10; 17; 20:5–15; 84:54–62; Our Heritage, pages 5–10.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Reading

Says the manual:

• When Joseph was 17 years old, he was visited by Moroni.

Actually, in the early days it was Nephi. Then the story changed, as made-up stories do.

More info here: http://www.mormonthink.com/nephiweb.htm

The 116 pages

From the manual:

One example of the miraculous preservation of the Book of Mormon occurred when one of Joseph Smith’s scribes, Martin Harris, lost 116 pages of the translated manuscript. Ask the assigned class member to summarize this account (see “Preparation,” item 3.) Then teach and discuss D&C 3 and D&C 10, which the Lord revealed after the pages were lost.

Here’s my summary:

Martin Harris was a credulous boob who fell for every religious scam going around in the 1830s. He mortgaged his house to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon. Not coincidentally, he stood to gain handsomely if the book succeeded, and would lose his house if it failed. One obstacle was his wife, Lucy. Apparently she wanted some evidence that the book was legitimate, so Martin Harris pestered Joseph into lending him the draft of the manuscript, which amounted to 116 pages. The manuscript was lost, perhaps burned by Lucy Harris.

At this point, a god would have several options. He could have Smith retranslate the pages word for word, which would be very good evidence that he was not making it all up on the fly. Since the Book of Mormon was a scam, this option wasn’t available.

Instead, Smith created retconned the thing by writing a rather implausible bit into the Book of Mormon about how Nephi felt inspired to rewrite large chunks onto the plates a second time, so that Smith could translate them.

1 Nephi 9:3 Nevertheless, I have received a commandment of the Lord that I should make these plates, for the special purpose that there should be an account engraven of the ministry of my people.
9:4 Upon the other plates should be engraven an account of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people; wherefore these plates are for the more part of the ministry; and the other plates are for the more part of the reign of the kings and the wars and contentions of my people.
9:5 Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.

God, for his part, helped cover the mess by explaining that retranslation wasn’t an option because someone probably changed the words in a cunning plan to trap Smith.

D&C 10:8 And because you have delivered the writings into his hands, behold, wicked men have taken them from you.
9 Therefore, you have delivered them up, yea, that which was sacred, unto wickedness.
10 And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands.
11 And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written;
12 And, on this wise, the devil has sought to lay a cunning plan, that he may destroy this work;
13 For he hath put into their hearts to do this, that by lying they may say they have caught you in the words which you have pretended to translate.
14 Verily, I say unto you, that I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing.
15 For behold, he has put it into their hearts to get thee to tempt the Lord thy God, in asking to translate it over again.
16 And then, behold, they say and think in their hearts: We will see if God has given him power to translate; if so, he will also give him power again;
17 And if God giveth him power again, or if he translates again, or, in other words, if he bringeth forth the same words, behold, we have the same with us, and we have altered them;
18 Therefore they will not agree, and we will say that he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift, and that he has no power;
19 Therefore we will destroy him, and also the work; and we will do this that we may not be ashamed in the end, and that we may get glory of the world.

Ask: Were there any better ways that a god could used in accomplishing this?

Here’s another cartoonist’s idea.

Click through for more.

Smith should have been grateful to Lucy Harris. Many writers would benefit from losing a first draft and having to write it all again, now that they have the idea in their minds. The rest of the Book of Mormon would have better if Smith had done this; compare the rollicking adventure tale of 1 Nephi to the tedium of everything else.

Criterion of embarrassment

Some people have pointed to this episode as evidence for the prophetic veracity of Joseph Smith, even though it’s anything but. The rationale goes like this: God was calling Smith out for his weakness, and if Joseph really had been a self-aggrandising phoney, then he wouldn’t have included a long bit about his failings. He would have hidden it, or left it out. In short, if it’s embarrassing to the author, it must be true.

Well, as it turns out, Smith did lots of embarrassing things that he did manage to cover, and we’ll get to them in subsequent lessons.

Besides, if a story is embarrassing, that doesn’t mean it’s true. SMBC has an example.

The Three and Eight Witnesses

From the manual:

•Who were the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon? (See “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses” in the introductory material of the Book of Mormon; see also Our Heritage, page 10.) In what ways can you be a witness of the Book of Mormon? (See Moroni 10:3–5.)

The Witnesses were people who stood to gain from the success of the Book of Mormon. Many were also members of the same family.

Mark Twain wrote:

Some people have to have a world of evidence before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything; but for me, when a man tells me that he has “seen the engravings which are upon the plates,” and not only that, but an angel was there at the time, and saw him see them, and probably took his receipt for it, I am very far on the road to conviction, no matter whether I ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel, or his nationality either.

And when I am far on the road to conviction, and eight men, be they grammatical or otherwise, come forward and tell me that they have seen the plates too; and not only seen those plates but “hefted” them, I am convinced. I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.

It wouldn’t have mattered if there were 11 witnesses or 100 witnesses. That’s not how evidence works; it must be publicly available to be valid. See this lesson for more about the witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

More info at this page: http://cesletter.org/debunking-fairmormon/witnesses.html

and this one: http://www.mormonthink.com/witnessesweb.htm

D&C Lesson 3 (First Vision)

“I Had Seen a Vision”

Reading assignment

Joseph Smith—History 1:1–26; Our Heritage, pages 1–4.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Overview

This one is about what’s become known as the First Vision, when Joseph Smith supposedly saw God and Jesus. The story is a relatively new thing in the church, but it has become an important part of its origin story.

Differing versions of the First Vision

For a long time, I was aware that there were multiple conflicting accounts of the First Vision. But I really didn’t understand why they were a problem. Doesn’t everyone tell the same story slightly differently through time? And doesn’t the way we tell a story depend to some extent on our audience?

Well, yes. But the differences in the “First Vision” accounts go deeper than just highlighting details. The circumstances around the story look less like a matter of emphasis and detail, and more like a bullshit story that has been made up.

Details

Yes, the details of the story differ across the tellings. Sometimes it’s an angel. Sometimes it’s many. Sometimes it’s Jesus. Sometimes it’s God and Jesus.

Change in canon

But wait — couldn’t it be all of the above?

That’s the problem. For years, the story of the First Vision that church leaders learned and taught explicitly excluded everyone except an angel. Like, they explicitly taught that God and Jesus did not visit Joseph Smith, and that there were good reasons for them not to show up. From MormonThink:

In 1854

“Some one may say, ‘If this work of the last days be true, why did not the Saviour come himself to communicate this intelligence to the world?’ Because to the angels was committed the power of reaping the earth, and it was committed to none else.” – Apostle Orson Hyde, General Conference Address, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p.335

In 1855

The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith Jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him.” (Journal of Discourses 2:170-171)

In 1857

Church Apostle Heber C. Kimball, speaking Nov. 8th, 1857, was unaware of a vision where Smith saw God and Christ:

“Do you suppose that God in person called upon Joseph Smith, our Prophet? God called upon him; but God did not come himself and call, but he sent Peter to do it. Do you not see? He sent Peter and sent Moroni to Joseph, and told him that he had got the plates.” (Journal of Discourses, vol.6, p.29)

If the story had happened the way it’s taught today, why were church leaders telling it this way as late as the 1850s?

Comparatively late appearance

The answer is that when these church leaders were talking about heavenly beings appearing to Smith, they were talking about Moroni —

— sorry, Nephi — appearing to him. The story of the First Vision isn’t a thing that people started talking about until much much later. This didn’t become an important part of the church’s origin story until the 1880s.

In other words, the church had 50 years to get its story straight.

The more you look into this, the less it looks like simple differing accounts, and more like a cobbled-together story that didn’t happen.

Leg operation

From the manual:

3. Ask a class member to prepare to summarize the account of young Joseph Smith’s leg operation (Our Heritage, pages 1–2).

I always thought this story was bullshit. Joseph Smith gets a leg infection, and heroically (and inexplicably) refuses the trappings of frontier medicine.

The doctor brought cords to bind the boy, but Joseph objected, saying that he would bear the operation without them. He also refused brandy, the only form of anesthetic available to him, and asked only that his father hold him in his arms during the operation.

Why would young Joseph Smith refuse brandy? The Word of Wisdom wouldn’t have been out for another 20 years. Redditor Mithryn suspects that if this did happen, it was Joseph’s reaction to his alcoholic father.

The Apostasy

If there was an organised church in Jesus’ time, this would be God’s chance to get his plan going. But according to the LDS Church, he decided to drop it all and pick it up again later, leaving millions of people in the dark about his plan. This means that, if the Mormon religion is right, very few people in history will ever have been exposed to God’s teachings.

Is that a sensible way of doing things? Or is this a story invented after the fact, as an attempt to explain why Joseph Smith needed to start up a new religion?

D&C Lesson 2 (Jesus)

“Behold, I Am Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World”

Reading assignment

Study the scripture passages listed in the following questions and in the scripture chain for this lesson.

D&C 19:16–19
D&C 88:14–18; 93:33
D&C 18:11–12; 19:16–17, 20; 58:42; 76:62–70
D&C 6:20–21
D&C 6:32–37
D&C 19:1–3
D&C 29:1–2
D&C 38:1–3
D&C 45:3–5
D&C 50:44
D&C 93:5–19
D&C 133:42–52

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Overview

This lesson is about Jesus, whose job was to fill in for the inadequacies that God built into his system. God created a system where he decided that there were some actions that he didn’t like, and if anyone did those things, they’d have to be punished forever. (This probably involves eternal isolation from loved ones.)

Even so, he insists that people are his thing.

D&C 18:10 Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;
11 For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.

This scripture says that “the worth of souls is great”, and yet God decided to create an awful lot of people who he knew in advance would not accept the gospel, and who would therefore be stuck in a lower kingdom or in outer darkness for eternity.

Punishing people for eternity is a bit harsh, so God made a loophole (for a rule that he created): an innocent person could be tortured and killed instead.

This means that, instead of simply forgiving everyone, God decided to kill his son Jesus, and then forgive people.

However, he will only forgive those few people who decided (on the basis of no evidence) to believe that such a nonsensical mechanism was a good idea.

He will then force everyone else to suffer torment like Jesus did.

D&C 19:16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

Translation: “I will torture my son, so that I don’t have to torture you. Then I will torture you.”

Why would a God demand suffering from his creations? This is unnecessarily sadistic.

Sacrifice

From the manual:

Read D&C 122:8 with class members.
D&C 122:8 The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

Actually, yes — all of us are greater than Jesus, if we don’t teach that hell is real, and we don’t intend to kill billions of people at our return.

Remember also how, in the Book of Mormon, Jesus levelled entire cities full of people, and then bragged about it from the sky.

In what way has the Savior “descended below” all things?

Not in any meaningful way. He had a bad weekend, knowing in advance that he would be promoted to Godhood. That’s not a sacrifice; that’s a career move. Anyone who has suffered from a lengthy terminal illness has suffered more than Jesus.

Resurrection

The manual says:

Through the Atonement, we will all be resurrected
• Read the following passages with class members: D&C 88:14–18; 93:33; Alma 11:42–44. What can we learn about the Resurrection from these passages? (Answers could include those listed below.)

a. Resurrection is the redemption of the soul. The spirit and the body are reunited, inseparably connected in a perfect form (D&C 88:14–16; 93:33; Alma 11:42–43).
b. Resurrection prepares us for the celestial glory (D&C 88:18).
c. Resurrection is necessary for us to receive a fulness of joy (D&C 93:33).
d. All people will be resurrected (Alma 11:44).

Resurrection seems to be a pretty important principle to Mormons. “Getting a body” is thought to be an absolute must. But this is weird for a couple of reasons.

1. Bodies are meatbags. They are fiddly and susceptible to poor reasoning when they get tired or hungry. If you already have a spirit that can reason, think, perceive, and so on, then why do you need a body?

A common explanation would be something like “To be like God, who also has a physical body.” So God is a meatbag. That explains why he was acting so crazily in the scriptures.

But wait — he’s not a meatbag like us. He’s a perfected meatbag.

None of this makes any sense.

2. God created a system where we get bodies. But he also created death, in which we lose our bodies. He then needed Jesus to do his thing, so that we can all get bodies again. Why go through the back-and-forth rigamarole? Why not just let everyone keep their bodies?

Throughout this process, God is putting everyone through a lot of silly things that didn’t need to happen in this way. He creates sin, which we can’t avoid committing. He creates death, which we can’t avoid undergoing. Then, to undo the problems that he himself created (and blames us for), he tortures and kills his son, so that he can stand to have a relationship with us again.

Advocacy

The manual again:

2. Our “advocate with the Father” (D&C 45:3)
Write Advocate on the chalkboard. Explain that several times in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says that He is our Advocate (D&C 29:5; 45:3; 62:1; 110:4).
• What is an advocate? (Someone who pleads the cause of another.)
• Read D&C 45:3–5 with class members. Why do we need an “advocate with the Father”? In verses 4 and 5, what evidence does the Savior present to the Father to show that we should receive everlasting life? (First He speaks of His Atonement—His sufferings, death, and blood. Then He refers to our belief in Him.)

Apparently, there’s going to be a scene where God is about to cast us into the abyss, and then Jesus-as-lawyer pops up and convinces him not to.

D&C 45:3 Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him
4 Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;
5 Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.

Summary: God has created a flawed system in which humans will inevitably suffer. He then offered Jesus as a workaround for the flaws in his system.

D&C Lesson 1 (Preamble)

Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Reading assignment

Explanatory Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants; Doctrine and Covenants 1; introduction to Our Heritage.

Links

Teacher’s manual | Student manual

Overview

This year, we’re rounding out our Gospel Doctrine program with the Doctrine and Covenants.

There are a few themes to keep in mind.

  • Joseph Smith wrote the Doctrine and Covenants as a way of manipulating people into doing what he wanted. Hey, that’s one of the things about getting people to think you speak for God. We’re going to keep track of times that “God” tells people to do things for Joseph Smith, or give things to Joseph Smith, or be nice to Joseph Smith.
  • It’s possible to go through Sunday School — or even teach Sunday School — and be completely oblivious to what’s going on in these chapters. You just kind of read through it. Then when you find out what it’s really talking about, you slap your forehead. So we’re going to take a look behind the scenes, delving into the history and the Book of Commandments, which was altered to create what we now know as the Doctrine and Covenants. Prepare for forehead slaps.

Reading

Section 1 is a preamble that was attached to the Book of Commandments. It’s the Supreme Leader of the Universe — he’s back with a message for mankind! So what does he do?

Threaten people.

D&C 1:11 Wherefore the voice of the Lord is unto the ends of the earth, that all that will hear may hear:
12 Prepare ye, prepare ye for that which is to come, for the Lord is nigh;
13 And the anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and it shall fall upon the inhabitants of the earth.
14 And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people;

Sin

D&C 1:31 For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance;

Apparently, the Lord looked upon Joseph Smith’s adulteries with a great deal of allowance.

Can a prophet ever be wrong?

In our course of study, we’re going to be keeping track of the times when (putative) prophets were wrong, or made predictions that didn’t come true. You’d think this would mean that they’re not prophets, but Mormons are sanguine about prophetic blunders.

Ask: What rationalisations have you heard to excuse prophet fails?

  • He spoke as a man.
  • Prophets are human.
  • The Lord works with them through their imperfections.

Gordon Hinckley once wrote:

“We recognize that our forebears were human. They doubtless made mistakes. . . . There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building his perfect society. If some of them occasionally stumbled, or if their characters may have been slightly flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much.”
(“The Continuous Pursuit of Truth,” Ensign, April 1986, p. 5)

This is quite something! If a church has a prophet who speaks to God, that would have consequences. But if you ask a Mormon, “What consequences are there for having a prophet?” their answer will be: “Nothing in particular.” It doesn’t mean that the prophet has to get it right. It doesn’t mean they have to have solutions to any problems (least of all the church’s own problems).

And yet, this verse appears in the Doctrine and Covenants:

D&C 1:37 Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.
38 What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

If you say that you are a prophet whose words are the same as those of God, then that means that you don’t get to be wrong. Ever.

Especially when you claim 10 percent of believers’ income, you claim the right to tell people when they get to have sex, and you claim the sealing power over their families.

No. You don’t get to be wrong and then fudge it, claiming you’re still a prophet.

BoM Lesson 35 (Samuel the Lamanite)

“Repent and Return unto the Lord”

Helaman 13–16

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage skepticism and critical thinking

Reading

This lesson is about Samuel the Lamanite. You know — this guy.

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Helaman 13:2 And it came to pass that in this year there was one Samuel, a Lamanite, came into the land of Zarahemla, and began to preach unto the people. And it came to pass that he did preach, many days, repentance unto the people, and they did cast him out, and he was about to return to his own land.
13:3 But behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him, that he should return again, and prophesy unto the people whatsoever things should come into his heart.
13:4 And it came to pass that they would not suffer that he should enter into the city; therefore he went and got upon the wall thereof, and stretched forth his hand and cried with a loud voice, and prophesied unto the people whatsoever things the Lord put into his heart.

Samuel is calling the Nephites unto something called “repentance”, which is a twisted concept. See if this quote from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual doesn’t make you agree.

President Ezra Taft Benson taught:
“Repentance means more than simply a reformation of behavior. Many men and women in the world demonstrate great will-power and self-discipline in overcoming bad habits and the weaknesses of the flesh. Yet at the same time they give no thought to the Master, sometimes even openly rejecting Him. Such changes of behavior, even if in a positive direction, do not constitute true repentance. . . .
“ . . . True repentance is based on and flows from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way. True repentance involves a change of heart and not just a change of behavior (see Alma 5:13)” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson [1988], 71).

In other words, what you do doesn’t matter so much. It’s what you believe. This is in line with the presumed character of God, who will forgive misdeeds, but punishes people for misbelief.

Helaman 13:6 Yea, heavy destruction awaiteth this people, and it surely cometh unto this people, and nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ, who surely shall come into the world, and shall suffer many things and shall be slain for his people.

Somehow, he knows Jesus’s name, way in advance.

Helaman 13:7 And behold, an angel of the Lord hath declared it unto me, and he did bring glad tidings to my soul. And behold, I was sent unto you to declare it unto you also, that ye might have glad tidings; but behold ye would not receive me.

If a guy was standing on a wall, babbling about how an angel was telling him stuff, I’d have reservations about believing him, too. Sorry — receiving him.

Helaman 13:8 Therefore, thus saith the Lord: Because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of the Nephites, except they repent I will take away my word from them, and I will withdraw my Spirit from them, and I will suffer them no longer, and I will turn the hearts of their brethren against them.

As we’ve seen, societies are more peaceful and prosperous when they become secular and ignore gods.

Helaman 13:9 And four hundred years shall not pass away before I will cause that they shall be smitten; yea, I will visit them with the sword and with famine and with pestilence.

A prophecy. I wonder if that will come true later on in the same book.

Helaman 13:12 Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla; for behold, it is because of those who are righteous that it is saved; yea, wo unto this great city, for I perceive, saith the Lord, that there are many, yea, even the more part of this great city, that will harden their hearts against me, saith the Lord.
13:13 But blessed are they who will repent, for them will I spare. But behold, if it were not for the righteous who are in this great city, behold, I would cause that fire should come down out of heaven and destroy it.

Religious people think they’re acting as superheros, saving the rest of us. A better metaphor would be that God is a terrorist, and they’re human shields.

Slippery riches

Joseph Smith, in his pre-cult-leader days, got paid — and arrested — for trying to find lost treasure. Basically, it was a con job. You got people to pay you to find buried gold. You could use a magic rock. Smith did — the same rock that he later used to write the Book of Mormon.

Of course, you don’t find any gold because you have no special powers, but you’ve got to find a way to string your patron along, so you have to say, “We got awfully close — I’m sure if you give me just a little more money, we’ll find the treasure!” Then you have to invent some story, like maybe a witch or a spirit is protecting the treasure.

Or — you could say that you almost got it, but the treasure slipped away. It moved! Just like Bugs Bunny travelling underground, the treasure scooted away somewhere else. Darn that slippery earth!

It was a common enough dodge back in those days. (See, for example, Early Mormonism and the magic world view by D. Michael Quinn.) And wouldn’t you know, it makes an appearance here in the Book of Mormon.

Helaman 13:30 Yea, behold, the anger of the Lord is already kindled against you; behold, he hath cursed the land because of your iniquity.
13:31 And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them.
13:32 And in the days of your poverty ye shall cry unto the Lord; and in vain shall ye cry, for your desolation is already come upon you, and your destruction is made sure; and then shall ye weep and howl in that day, saith the Lord of Hosts. And then shall ye lament, and say:
13:33 O that I had repented, and had not killed the prophets, and stoned them, and cast them out. Yea, in that day ye shall say: O that we had remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would not have become slippery that we should lose them; for behold, our riches are gone from us.
13:34 Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone; and behold, our swords are taken from us in the day we have sought them for battle.
13:35 Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land.

A good excuse works in a multitude of situations.

When did Jesus come?

The time of Jesus’s birth (if it happened at all) has been the source of speculation. Samuel (in 6 BCE) declares:

Helaman 14:2 And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

He was probably off by a few years. According to the Bible, Jesus was born during the time of Herod, who died in 4 BCE. Samuel probably should have said “one more year cometh”. Whoops.

Helaman 14:5 And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.

14:20 But behold, as I said unto you concerning another sign, a sign of his death, behold, in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead.

The Bible has it as three hours of darkness; the Book of Mormon extends this to three days. No reason for the extension is given.

Helaman 14:23 And behold, there shall be great tempests, and there shall be many mountains laid low, like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains, whose height is great.

Can you imagine how much energy it would take to turn a mountain into a valley? Surely this would leave some kind of geological record.

Helaman 14:25 And many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their dead; and many saints shall appear unto many.

That’s about as likely as the mountain and valley thing. That was lifted from Matthew, by the way, and no other Bible writer corroborates it (to say nothing of anyone else).

Helaman 14:28 And the angel said unto me that many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe that these signs and these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land, to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men

Wait, so God is going to make provide evidence so that we won’t have any reason to disbelieve? From my chats with Mormons, that’s something that God strenuously refuses to do! What changed his mind?

Helaman 14:30 And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.

If the choice is between belief and punishment, then we’re not free. Any choice that results from a threat is not a free choice. That’s coercion.

Reactions to Samuel’s preaching were varied. Some people believed him.

Helaman 16:1 And now, it came to pass that there were many who heard the words of Samuel, the Lamanite, which he spake upon the walls of the city. And as many as believed on his word went forth and sought for Nephi; and when they had come forth and found him they confessed unto him their sins and denied not, desiring that they might be baptized unto the Lord.

Others were predictably less impressed at first.

Helaman 16:2 But as many as there were who did not believe in the words of Samuel were angry with him; and they cast stones at him upon the wall, and also many shot arrows at him as he stood upon the wall; but the Spirit of the Lord was with him, insomuch that they could not hit him with their stones neither with their arrows.
16:3 Now when they saw that they could not hit him, there were many more who did believe on his words, insomuch that they went away unto Nephi to be baptized.

Good for them; they updated with new evidence.

But others thought Samuel’s force field was of Mephistophelian aetiology.

Helaman 16:6 But the more part of them did not believe in the words of Samuel; therefore when they saw that they could not hit him with their stones and their arrows, they cried unto their captains, saying: Take this fellow and bind him, for behold he hath a devil; and because of the power of the devil which is in him we cannot hit him with our stones and our arrows; therefore take him and bind him, and away with him.

This isn’t a crazy conclusion to reach. Honestly — if you saw someone with a supernatural force field, how could you tell if it was coming from God, the Devil, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? All supernatural explanations are untestable and indistinguishable.

Helaman 16:7 And as they went forth to lay their hands on him, behold, he did cast himself down from the wall, and did flee out of their lands, yea, even unto his own country, and began to preach and to prophesy among his own people.
16:8 And behold, he was never heard of more among the Nephites; and thus were the affairs of the people.

So he went.

Time passed.

Helaman 16:13 But it came to pass in the ninetieth year of the reign of the judges, there were great signs given unto the people, and wonders; and the words of the prophets began to be fulfilled.
16:14 And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

It’s Christmas! Too bad Jesus had been born four years previously.

Helaman 16:15 Nevertheless, the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, both of the Nephites and also of the Lamanites, and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom, saying:
16:16 Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken.

This shouldn’t be dismissed. If someone makes a sufficient number of blind guesses, some of them will come true by coincidence. This is a principle that mediums use. They throw out a large number of suggestions, counting on us to remember the hits and forget the misses.

This, from the late Robert Todd Carroll:

The fact is, psychics may know certain things about you in the same way that many people know many things about others by knowing their age, sex, occupation, education, where they live, how they dress, what kind of jewelry they’re wearing, or their religion. Does anyone have perfect knowledge of others based on what are sometimes called warm reading techniques? Of course not. We’re dealing with probabilities, not absolute certainties here, but it doesn’t matter. The psychic is not obligated to stop the reading when she makes a mistake. If she misinterprets your wearing black as a sign of grieving for someone who has died, she doesn’t have to say “oops, wrong again.” No, she just slithers on to the next question or statement, ignoring her “miss” and counting on you to ignore it as well. Eventually, she’ll hit something that resonates with you, that you can validate. The key to a psychic reading is not the psychic’s ability to tap into a world you are not directly privy to. The key to a psychic reading is your willingness to find meaning or significance in some of the statements she makes or questions she asks. If mentioning the death of a loved one evokes no response from you, the psychic will move on to another statement, another question.

Helaman 16:17 And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying:
16:18 That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, as it has been spoken, why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?

Is it reasonable that Jesus would come? Consider: God, who could make any plan he wanted to save the souls of his children, decided on a barbaric and repugnant plan that inexplicably involved getting his son killed, which humans wouldn’t be able to understand, and that a very few would accept.

Yes, I find that quite unreasonable. But I shouldn’t be like that: it’s almost Christmas! In the next lesson, we’ll see the circumstances leading up to the birth of Jesus.

BoM Lesson 34 (Pride cycle)

“How Could You Have Forgotten Your God?”

Helaman 6–12

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To dismantle the idea that pride causes societal destruction

Reading

Now we’re to one of the parts of the Book of Mormon when the Lamanites are more righteous than the Nephites. How strange! Those dark, filthy, and unenticing Lamanites are actually more righteous than the light-skinned Nephites. That’s certainly unexpected — if you see race as a reflection of righteousness.

Helaman 6:1 And it came to pass that when the sixty and second year of the reign of the judges had ended, all these things had happened and the Lamanites had become, the more part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites because of their firmness and their steadiness in the faith.

When I read this, I feel like I’m listening to Mormons describing non-Mormons as “good people…”. Is it my imagination, or do I hear an “…even though they don’t have the Gospel” in there somewhere?

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The hero of this story is Nephi₃. He’s so righteous that God gives him the smiting power.

Helaman 10:6 Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God. Behold, I declare it unto thee in the presence of mine angels, that ye shall have power over this people, and shall smite the earth with famine, and with pestilence, and destruction, according to the wickedness of this people.

Wow, the power to kill people who do things that God doesn’t like!

Also teleportation, just like Jesus. You’ll remember that he was able to “convey” himself out of the clutches of his enemies. Well, Nephi₃ has this too.

Helaman 10:15 And it came to pass that when Nephi had declared unto them the word, behold, they did still harden their hearts and would not hearken unto his words; therefore they did revile against him, and did seek to lay their hands upon him that they might cast him into prison.
10:16 But behold, the power of God was with him, and they could not take him to cast him into prison, for he was taken by the Spirit and conveyed away out of the midst of them.

Apparently when you’re sufficiently Godlike, it’s a superpower you can unlock.

Nephi₃ sees the wickedness of the people, so rather than let them kill each other, he suggests a famine instead.

Helaman 11:3 And it came to pass that in this year Nephi did cry unto the Lord, saying:
11:4 O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee.
11:5 And so it was done, according to the words of Nephi. And there was a great famine upon the land, among all the people of Nephi. And thus in the seventy and fourth year the famine did continue, and the work of destruction did cease by the sword but became sore by famine.

You might think from this that Nephi₃ is some kind of ghoul. But really, he’s a bit of a softie. God would have taken things in hand himself, and put the big smite on people. But then, what do I know? I’m such a pushover, I probably wouldn’t have tried to kill anyone. I probably would have let them ignore that destructive “God” maniac, and let them get on with living their lives, free of the fear of such a being.

Main ideas for this lesson

Pride cycle

This lesson identifies pride as one of the big no-nos for humanity. And a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon is known as the “pride cycle”. Here’s the graphic that appears in the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.

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Latter-day Saints see this pride cycle as a real pattern.

The problem is that it isn’t. This is something that has never happened in the history of the world. Nations do not decline because they don’t adhere to religious principles. If they did, we would expect to see the least religious countries become cesspools of misery. Surprise — they’re actually doing quite well.

The theory is simple: If people become less religious, then society will decay. Crime will skyrocket, violence will rise, and once-civilized life will degenerate into immorality and depravity. It’s an old, widespread notion. And it’s demonstrably false.

If it were true that when belief in God weakens, societal well-being diminishes, then we should see abundant evidence for this. But we don’t. In fact, we find just the opposite: Those societies today that are the most religious — where faith in God is strong and religious participation is high — tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while those societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest — the most secular societies — tend to have the lowest.

This dovetails into the other side of the pride cycle — not only do less-religious countries not fail, but religiously zealous countries don’t do better. It’s when the religious crazies take over that countries do the worst. This shouldn’t be surprising, when God himself shows so little concern for people around the globe. Something about yearning for an afterlife seems to be incompatible with improving this one.

If you want to see an example of someone advocating humility and repentance, think of this guy.

There’s more: he’s convinced that — as the Book of Mormon says — God gave up on people and left them to themselves.

“Why do homosexuals murder homosexuals?” he asked. Because, according to Romans 1, “God gave them up to vile passions.” “Violence” and “murder,” he said, are deeply tied to homosexuality.

“What’s the bottom line as we view what’s happening in Orlando today?” he said. “I think it is, again, the Romans 1 scenario, it is that God gives them up.”

The Orlando massacre, Swanson added, shows what happens when God’s “restraints have been lifted entirely and when God doesn’t restrain, people go nuts in their sins.”

Believers think the Book of Mormon sounds entirely sensible, but just try listening to someone who takes these ideas seriously, and who says so. He sounds like a dangerous lunatic. At the very best, his way is unlikely to bring about the model of social cohesion that the Book of Mormon promises.

Enough about nations. Do individual people “dwindle” when they stop believing, as the Book of Mormon says?

Helaman 6:34 And thus we see that the Nephites did begin to dwindle in unbelief, and grow in wickedness and abominations, while the Lamanites began to grow exceedingly in the knowledge of their God; yea, they did begin to keep his statutes and commandments, and to walk in truth and uprightness before him.

My friend Tim on Facebook responds very eloquently. He said I could share this status:

Hey LDS friends and family. One of your leaders said things about me (and others like me) and I’d like an opportunity to set the record straight.
I did not die spiritually. I feel joy, peace, happiness, and am quite alive.
– I did not lose my testimony. I did not lose anything except for that which I already did not have. I learned a new perspective which gave me new insight to what my religious experiences meant. I don’t value those experiences less, I interpret them in a way that is more consistent with reality.
– Sin / guilt did not cloud my mind as I decided to leave. I felt very enlightened as I decided to journey out of LDS activity. It was a matter of earnest prayer and heartfelt study. If there was anything that tried to cloud my mind, I think it would be church apologetics, something which I now find very deplorable and dishonest. I consistently found that the neutral resources were far more honest and direct than those of the apologetics.
– I don’t hate Mormonism, as a whole. I love aspects of it, and dislike others. I love the people, generally, and I think frequently about participating in some form or fashion, but the organization perpetually demonstrates that it is able to change, but on it’s own timeline, not mine. I’m not willing to wait nor do I care to participate in catalyzing the change from the inside. I see what the church does to those people. I find it deeply disappointing and dishonest.
– It is super frustrating that the LDS church tried to place blame on those who leave. “It’s not our fault you didn’t know this stuff before you committed two years of your life as a missionary / all of your resources to building up our definition of the Kingdom of God”. Huh? Maybe. You certainly made it a priority for me to learn the information that served you over that which may have served me to make a choice. The church tasked me with so many church things, and told me what was important to study; I could never fully complete it. I never had time for the “unimportant stuff”. How much time did you task me with Temple Prep? With Mission Prep? Couldn’t have fit it in, huh? “Oh by the way this painting of Joseph Smith using Gold Plates is a farce it was a rock in the hat”. Couldn’t squeeze it in? :/ The church stigmatized the unimportant stuff. The church excommunicated people for saying that which was true but “not uplifting”. And, the church endlessly invents ways to shift blame to me for any behavior the church finds undesirable. This is sickening and abusive. I reject this line of thought.

Advice to other Mormons: I’m observing the LDS church is continuing down a path which values membership retention above honesty. I don’t think it is looking out for your welfare as much as it is it’s own. This may seem fine, but geez, I implore you to gain the perspective to at least be able to see both sides. A perspective which keeps you in control of your faith.
I implore you, READ the “Mormon Challenge”, a document which helps show the “other perspective” on Mormonism using LDS church-approved sources only. It will only help you gain perspective, and you don’t lose anything by gaining perspective:
https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/…/The%20Mormon%20Challeng…
My only motive and desire for saying any of this is that minds can be free.
“Truth never damages a cause that is just.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” – Richard Feynman
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson

So why are prophets so down on prosperity? Probably because it puts no money in their own pocket.

President Ezra Taft Benson said: “The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich. The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them; otherwise, the prophet is just giving his opinion — speaking as a man. The rich may feel they have no need to take counsel of a lowly prophet” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson [1988], 138).

As I’ve said before, religion doesn’t have much to offer someone who’s content, happy, and doing well. It has a lot to offer someone who’s desperate for a second chance in life.

Contention

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual is quite set against contention.

• What was the first sign that the short-lived period of humility and righteousness was ending? (See Helaman 11:22.) How did Nephi, Lehi, and their brethren put an end to this contention? (See Helaman 11:23.) In what ways can teaching “true points of doctrine” help us put an end to contention?

Ask: Why would the LDS Church warn against contention?

Having a range of available opinions — with the contention that this sometimes engenders — is actually healthy for discussion and learning. It’s not great for managing a group though. If you’re a cult leader, you want a docile group where everyone listens only to you.

Warning against contention, then, is a way of shutting down discussions in which people might have to face unpleasant facts — like the fact that the religion is wrong.

Rather than avoid contention, we should be engaged in discussion with people we might disagree with. It can be a great way to find flaws in your argument. It might force you to examine and change your views.

I’m with this guy.

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