Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: confirmation bias (page 1 of 2)

D&C Lesson 13 (Joseph Smith’s work)

“This Generation Shall Have My Word through You”

Reading assignment

The scriptures listed in the following questions and in the scripture chain:
D&C 84:19–25 (Melchizedek Priesthood),
D&C 88:15–24 (Three kingdoms of glory; see also D&C 76:50–112),
D&C 93:29 (Premortal existence),
D&C 107:23, 33, 35 (Apostles and prophets),
D&C 124:37–42 (Temples),
D&C 128:16–18 (Baptism for the dead),
D&C 130:22 (The Godhead);
Bible Dictionary, “Joseph Smith Translation,” 717;
Our Heritage, pages 23–25, 41, 58.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

Overview

This lesson is about Joseph Smith, and his impact on Mormon doctrine. (Since he’s the founder, the answer is an unsurprising “huge”.) For Mormons this lesson is kind of a breather, a list of what Smith wrote, along with exhortations to be grateful for it, and invitations for class members to tell what it “means to them”.

For us, it’s a chance to take an all-encompassing look at the full horror, and see how wrong it all is. If somewhere I missed an opportunity to bash away at a volume of scripture, here’s where I make up for it.

Joseph Smith was part story-teller, part con artist, part religious mystic, and all sexual predator. Richard Dawkins’s description of him as “enterprisingly mendacious” is just right. He was a magpie, scanning the frontier culture of his day, picking up anything shiny that crossed his path, and working it into a narrative that he busily constructed for the whole of his life, in hopes that it would be the One Big Sell that would get him money, sex, and power.

We’ll be looking at his major works:

  • The Book of Mormon
  • Doctrine and Covenants
  • The Joseph Smith “Translation” of the Bible
  • Pearl of Great Price

Reading

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is arguably the most beloved book of scripture for Latter-day Saints, and predictably, it gets everything wrong.

It misidentifies Hebrews as ancestors of Native Americans — a hypothesis that was current in Joseph Smith’s day, but which has been disconfirmed by modern evidence. It mentions plants and animals that did not exist in the ancient Americas, and fails to mention many that did. The Lamanites should have left an extensive archaeological footprint, but would appear to have vanished without a trace.

Joseph Smith plagiarised the Bible in its entirely, even the bits that weren’t supposed to have been written at the time of the Book of Mormon. No one in the church seems to notice this.

Joseph Smith was supposed to have seen God the Father and Jesus Christ as two separate individuals — a theological bombshell for Christendom at the time — but then went ahead and wrote the Book of Mormon to reflect a trinitarian doctrine, as though the First Vision had never happened. It also addresses theological, social, and political concerns of the American frontier Protestantism of the 1800s, in a way that would have been entirely foreign to ancient Mesoamerica.

Even more brashly, Joseph Smith inserted himself into the Book of Mormon as a fulfilment of prophecy, in a move that would make any writer with a sense of shame blush. From the manual:

The Book of Mormon
Read 2 Nephi 3:11–15 with class members. Explain that this passage contains a prophecy about Joseph Smith. The writings mentioned in verse 12 are the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

2 Nephi 3:11 But a seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and unto him will I give power to bring forth my word unto the seed of thy loins — and not to the bringing forth my word only, saith the Lord, but to the convincing them of my word, which shall have already gone forth among them.
3:12 Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.
3:13 And out of weakness he shall be made strong, in that day when my work shall commence among all my people, unto the restoring thee, O house of Israel, saith the Lord.
3:14 And thus prophesied Joseph, saying: Behold, that seer will the Lord bless; and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise, which I have obtained of the Lord, of the fruit of my loins, shall be fulfilled. Behold, I am sure of the fulfilling of this promise;
3:15 And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father. And he shall be like unto me; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation.

Talk about audacity!

Ask: If you were a believer, what did you think about these verses? Did you allow yourself to reflect on how transparent a con this might have been?

Doctrine and Covenants

The manual explains:

The Book of Commandments. This is the first compilation of the revelations given through the Prophet Joseph Smith. These revelations later became part of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Ahem: not in their original form. The chapters from the Book of Commandments were reworked (in some cases, extensively). And the best part:

Interestingly, most of the revelations collected in the Book of Commandments were first printed in the Church periodical The Evening and Morning Star. When Doctrine and Covenants was printed, the first fourteen issues of The Evening and Morning Star were reprinted so as to agree with the revised revelations.

Down the memory hole!

There’s a bit in this lesson about the tensions between the people of Missouri and the Mormon settlers. That’s not cool, and I don’t want to excuse that. But there’s a tendency to think that the opposition facing the church — then and now — is the result of blind, unreasoning (possibly Satanic) prejudice. There are a couple of reasons for that.

  1. It’s a way of explaining opposition. If people are against the church, members must not give in to the idea that they might have a point. Make it seem unreasoning, and thereby invalid. That way, there’s nothing to explain or think about. No self-analysis is necessary.
  2. Blind implacable aggression is frightening. Fear drives members farther into the in-group. It galvanises support.

In fact, there were reasons that the early Saints and the Missiourians didn’t get along. I’d encourage having a read of the relevant entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which surprised me by being pretty even-handed in its treatment, without whitewashing the actions of the Mormons.

Tension between the Latter-day Saints and their neighbors in frontier Jackson County mounted for several reasons. First, marked cultural differences set them apart. With New England roots, most Saints valued congregational Sabbath worship, education of their children, and refined personal decorum. In contrast, many Jackson County residents had come to the Missouri frontier from other states precisely to avoid such interference in their lives. Many held no schools for their children, and Sunday cockfights attracted more people than church services did. Often hard drinking intensified violent frontier ways. In the opinion of non-LDS county resident John C. McCoy in the Kansas City Journal (Apr. 24, 1881, p. 9), such extreme differences in customs made the two groups “completely unfitted to live together in peace and friendship.”

Second, Missourians considered the Latter-day Saints strange and religiously unorthodox. Many LDS Church members aggressively articulated belief in revelation, prophets, the Book of Mormon, spiritual gifts, the Millennium, and the importance of gathering. Some went further and claimed Jackson County land as a sacred inheritance by divine appointment. Even David Whitmer, presiding elder of one branch, thought these boasts excited bitter jealousy. Articles on prophecy and doctrine published in the Church newspaper at Independence, the evening and the morning star, added to hard feelings. In addition, local Protestant clergy felt threatened by LDS missionary activity.

Third, because the Saints lived on Church lands and traded entirely with the Church store or blacksmith shops, some original settlers viewed them as economically exclusive, even un-American. Others accused LDS immigrants of pauperism when, because of diminished Church resources, they failed to obtain land.

A fourth volatile issue was the original settlers’ fear that Latter-day Saints might provoke battles with either slaves or Indians. They accused the Saints of slave tampering. As transplanted Southerners who valued their right to hold slaves, the settlers erroneously feared that the Saints intended to convert blacks or incite them to revolt. They also correctly asserted that the Latter-day Saints desired to convert Indians and, perhaps, ally themselves with the Indians.

Finally, Missourians feared that continued LDS ingathering would lead to loss of political control. “It requires no gift of prophecy,” stated a citizens’ committee, “to tell that the day is not far distant when the civil government of the county will be in their hands; when the sheriff, the justices, and the county judges will be Mormons” (HC 1:397). These monumental differences between the Latter-day Saints and the Missourians eventually led to violence.

The short story: utopian religious groups don’t play well with others. The frontier people of Missouri might have had some valid concerns about people from a strange unknown religious tradition moving in en masse and agglomerating economic and political power — not to mention firepower. But that’s going to figure in later.

That fourth point — “slave tampering” — became an issue at this time. The Mormons published a pro-abolitionist article (<a href=”http://mit.irr.org/joseph-smith-and-abolition-of-slavery”>atypical for Mormons at the time</a>) called “Free People of Color”. Incensed, the Missourians destroyed W. W. Phelps’ printing press, and copies of the Book of Commandments were destroyed. The destruction of the printing press was a move that the Mormons would later reciprocate.

The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

Ever written a book of fan fiction based on another work, and then found out that it conflicts with the canon? How annoying! But Joseph Smith has the answer — just retrofit the Bible so it works better with your theology. This attempt was the so-called Inspired Version, now called the Joseph Smith Translation.

It’s awful. He rewrites the poetry of the Creation account by sticking “And it came to pass” right up the top! (He doesn’t fix the problem of plants coming before the sun, though.) Instead of the KJV Lot offering his daughters to the men of Sodom,

KJV Genesis 19:8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

he has Lot make a rather unpersuasive detour:

JST Genesis 19:13 And Lot said, Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, plead with my brethren that I may not bring them out unto you; and ye shall not do unto them as seemeth good in your eyes;

Why would the JST need to be a thing? Because Latter-day Saints teach that the Bible has many textual errors. From the manual:

• Read the eighth article of faith with class members. What is the significance of the phrase “as far as it is translated correctly”?

The problem here is that Mormons don’t bother to find out how we would know what a correct translation looks like, or what’s even involved in translation. They don’t want to use a better translation. “Translated correctly” just means “agrees with Mormon doctrine”. It’s a lazy way of dismissing inconsistencies between LDS dogma and the Bible.

I might also add that the word “translation” doesn’t have the conventional meaning to a Mormon. It means something like, “providing inspiration or a jumping-off point for something spiritual that you want to write”.

Instead of making a literal translation, as scholars would use the term, he used the Urim and Thummim as a means of receiving revelation. Even though a copy of Abraham’s record possibly passed through the hands of many scribes and had become editorially corrupted to the point where it may have had little resemblance to the original, the Prophet—with the Urim and Thummim, or simply through revelation—could have obtained the translation—or, as Joseph Smith used the word, he could have received the meaning, or subject-matter content of the original text, as he did in his translation of the Bible. This explanation would mean that Joseph Smith received the text of our present book of Abraham the same way he received the translation of the parchment of John the Revelator—he did not even need the actual text in front of him.

More word games from apologists. Translation doesn’t translation, horses don’t mean horses, and steel doesn’t mean steel. And no one knows what the hell a curelom or a cumom is.

But now we’ve wandered into Book of Abraham territory, so maybe it’s best to go there now.

The Pearl of Great Price

The Book of Abraham is the best evidence that Joseph Smith was making stuff up. If there’s a bigger smoking gun, I don’t know what it would be.

Joseph Smith pretended to translate Egyptian papyri that he procured, and — what do you know! — it was written by Abraham’s own hand. At the time that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Abraham, decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics was not well understood. Joseph Smith could have written anything, and no one would have able to tell him he was wrong.

We can now, though. The papyri are ordinary funerary documents. The meanings given to the facsimiles are what you’d expect from someone who was making stuff up, and who was trying to fool people.

Click to follow the links.

More here.

Conclusion

If I wanted to snark, I could say that if God didn’t pick a fact-challenged con-man to lead his church, he sure went to a lot of effort to make it look like he had.

But then my kinder nature kicks in. Joseph Smith was a writer of terrible and historically inaccurate fiction. For most of us, this is uncontroversial. But he and his followers have created a community that thinks it’s fact, and they can’t see their way out of it. Their reasoning is upside-down; they’ve decided it’s true, and reason backward from there. As LDS apologist Kerry Muhlestein said:

“I start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, and anything else that we get from the restored gospel, is true,” he said. “Therefore, any evidence I find, I will try to fit into that paradigm.”

Ask: How are you avoiding poor reasoning and confirmation bias in what you think and read?

Are you finding sources that you disagree with? Do you try to understand their arguments, and can you identify the strengths in their arguments, as well as the weaknesses?

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?

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:

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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 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 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.

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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 20 (Alma the Younger)

“My Soul Is Pained No More”

Mosiah 25–28; Alma 36

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage separation of church and state, and to point out how, for religious people, misplaced concern bleeds over into contempt.

Reading

The story of this reading is the story of conflict between believers and unbelievers. How can we live peacefully among people with whom we have religious disagreements?

This has been on my mind lately, because I’m about to go on a big family visit, and just about all the rest of my family is still in the church. What to do?

My answer: Go, and have a great time, because that’s what we always do! Lucky for me, my family members aren’t a bunch of jerks. And I don’t mention the church unless someone asks. (Which some do.) Basically, it’s going to be AvoidFest 2016. That’s how we work it out, and yeah, there’s some distance, but at least we have some fun getting together, eating food, meeting young grand-nieces and -nephews, and never mentioning the church at all ever.

Main points of this lesson

How the Book of Mormon recommends dealing with non-believers

How does the Book of Mormon handle this? Let’s drop in on the Nephites, who are all one big group now. Mosiah’s reading them the records of Zeniff.

Mosiah 25:7 And now, when Mosiah had made an end of reading the records, his people who tarried in the land were struck with wonder and amazement.
25:8 For they knew not what to think; for when they beheld those that had been delivered out of bondage they were filled with exceedingly great joy.
25:9 And again, when they thought of their brethren who had been slain by the Lamanites they were filled with sorrow, and even shed many tears of sorrow.
25:10 And again, when they thought of the immediate goodness of God, and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites and of bondage, they did raise their voices and give thanks to God.

You’ll have to give them a minute here, people! It’s all a bit much.

Mosiah 25:11 And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of their sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls.

Okay, well, now we have a problem. If my family decided to wail and moan over my “sinful and polluted state”, I’d tell them to get the hell over themselves and mind their own damn business (sorry for swears), because I’m actually doing quite well. I think everyone would be a lot better off if they could just chill the darn heck out over other people’s sins.

In the modern church, this spills over into a fear of contamination. When it comes to the truth about the church’s history, the church uses a disease and contagion metaphor to instill fear of outside information in its members. From the awful Boyd K. Packer:

“That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith – particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith – places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities… Do not spread disease germs!” (Boyd K. Packer, 1981, BYU Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 259-271)

As the story continues, we find that there are some people among the Nephites who have the good sense not to believe the prevailing religious nonsense of their time.

Ask: How does the Book of Mormon depict non-believers?

Mosiah 26:1 Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.
26:2 They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ.
26:3 And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.
26:4 And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God.

Answers: Hard-hearted, carnal, sinful. They “can’t understand the gospel”.

Ask: Have you been described this way by believers?

Ask: What could be the church’s purpose in slandering non-believers in this way?

Answers:

  • To instill a fear of non-believers in the membership
  • To down-weight non-members as a source of information
  • To poison the well

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Note that the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual grimly asserts:

Many Church members are led into sin by unbelievers.

Well, many church non-members are led into stupidity by church members!

It should be pointed out, as well, that “wanting to sin” might be a perfectly good reason for leaving the church.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the non-believers are hauled up before the priests and admonished for “sins” and “iniquities”.

Mosiah 26:5 And now in the reign of Mosiah they were not half so numerous as the people of God; but because of the dissensions among the brethren they became more numerous.
26:6 For it came to pass that they did deceive many with their flattering words, who were in the church, and did cause them to commit many sins; therefore it became expedient that those who committed sin, that were in the church, should be admonished by the church.
26:7 And it came to pass that they were brought before the priests, and delivered up unto the priests by the teachers; and the priests brought them before Alma, who was the high priest.
26:8 Now king Mosiah had given Alma the authority over the church.
26:9 And it came to pass that Alma did not know concerning them; but there were many witnesses against them; yea, the people stood and testified of their iniquity in abundance.

Imagine that you’re at home trying to get some iniquity done, and someone drags you from your place and throws you into a boring religious meeting to account for your actions! There, people accuse you of non-specific crimes of a religious nature.

You’d think this would ring some alarm bells for Alma, who saw Abinadi hauled up before a bunch of priests in similar fashion.

Anyway, Alma takes it to God, and God says, it’s chill: just kick them out of church, and I’ll burn them for eternity later.

Mosiah 26:25 And it shall come to pass that when the second trump shall sound then shall they that never knew me come forth and shall stand before me.
26:26 And then shall they know that I am the Lord their God, that I am their Redeemer; but they would not be redeemed.
26:27 And then I will confess unto them that I never knew them; and they shall depart into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Laws about religious persecution

King Mosiah lays down some laws preventing persecution.

Mosiah 27:1 And now it came to pass that the persecutions which were inflicted on the church by the unbelievers became so great that the church began to murmur, and complain to their leaders concerning the matter; and they did complain to Alma. And Alma laid the case before their king, Mosiah. And Mosiah consulted with his priests.

Again, note that the unbelievers are charged with some form of non-specific persecution. Probably just existing.

The LDS manual says this:

“Mosiah issues a proclamation forbidding believers and unbelievers from persecuting each other.”

Well, not from the text!

Mosiah 27:2 And it came to pass that king Mosiah sent a proclamation throughout the land round about that there should not any unbeliever persecute any of those who belonged to the church of God.
27:3 And there was a strict command throughout all the churches that there should be no persecutions among them, that there should be an equality among all men;

These verses state that

  • Unbelievers can’t persecute believers
  • Believers can’t persecute each other

Guess what’s missing.

Before we leave this section, let me say that I never noticed how puritanical and dictatorial this society is, and I find this astounding. This is not the kind of conduct that any society should aspire to. It’s more a product of Saudi Arabia or Iran. And yet, it’s presented to Mormons as normal.

Destroy the church

The rest of this reading concerns one Alma the Younger, son of Alma, and one of the unbelievers.

Mosiah 27:8 Now the sons of Mosiah were numbered among the unbelievers; and also one of the sons of Alma was numbered among them, he being called Alma, after his father; nevertheless, he became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities.

You know what — I want to hear some of this flattery. I’m trying to imagine how I could flatter people so hard that they’d perform some iniquities.

Mosiah 27:9 And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them.
27:10 And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king —

Destroy the church? Surely this is a straw man, isn’t it? Apostates don’t want to destroy the church — they’re happy to live and let live, right?

Actually, no. I would dearly love to destroy the church. I want it reduced to atoms. Not through violence or anything like that — I want to destroy it through education.

It may be hard for members to understand why I oppose the LDS Church — and really all forms of religion, superstition, pseudoscience, and unreason. So I’ll tell a story.

One night, I was out in front of a phoney talk-to-the-dead medium event, handing out “Psychic Bingo” cards. (Yes, this is another thing I do.)

psychic bingo

And I saw two women, presumably a woman and her daughter. The older one looked at me with a wearily concerned expression, and asked me, “Why do you care?”

I guess she’s tired of skeptics.

I responded, “Because I think people need to have good information when they’re making choices.” That’s true for phoney mystics of any stripe. People deserve informed consent, and that’s not something they get from the LDS Church. Instead, information about the church (the temple, the history, the underwear) is carefully dished out to those who “ought” to have it. When caught doing this, the church dissembles carefully.

But if you really want to know, here’s my top ten list: Why I want to destroy the church.

  • Because it teaches a false feel-good method for finding out what’s true, which makes it really difficult to find out what really is true using evidence
  • Because it teaches things that can’t be proven true, or that have already been proven false
  • Because it teaches a narrow sex-based view of morality which makes people feel ashamed of their bodies and desires
  • Because it interferes with marriage equality, and it has the blood of LGBT kids on its hands
  • Because it makes its members look down on those who don’t believe its nonsense
  • Because it tears families apart, just like Jesus said he would do
  • Because it whitewashes its history, and turns an adulterous con-man into the second-best thing next to Jesus
  • Because it charges its members for the pleasure of being lied to, and builds a multi-billion dollar empire with it
  • Because it absorbs the lives of its members in an endless chain of arbitrary moral commands, ceaseless admin duties, and time-wasting make-work, so they don’t have the time to think
  • Because it makes people devalue the only life we know we have, in the hopes of a better one later

Those are just the first ten I could think of. It wouldn’t be hard to do a hundred more, depending on how fine-grained I wanted to get. But you get the idea.

Ask: If you want to destroy the church, what are your reasons? Your list is welcome in comments.

Ask: Why might members say that ex-Mormons “can leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone”?
Answer: It’s an attempt to silence ex-members, so that the only people giving information about the church is the church itself.

Ask: Does the church “leave people alone”?
Answer: No. It sends out tens of thousands of missionaries every year to convert people, it indoctrinates children, and it enmeshes itself in legislation — in country after country — to strip LGBT people of the legal right to their marriage relationships.

A lot of people — even ex-Mormons – say that you haven’t really progressed until you can “move past it” and “leave it alone”. Well, I hope I never do. I hope I never get so blasé about human suffering or deception that I could ever just leave the LDS Church alone.

I feel like I’m watching the church collapse in real time, but I won’t be happy until it’s shrunken into a hard conservative rump, and then divested of its membership and converted into The Corporation of Latter-day Real Estate. I won’t be happy until every chapel is a community centre, and every temple is either a library or a bookstore, one of those nice ones where you can sit down and read and have a coffee.

Here are some photos of churches that have been converted to bookstores and libraries. Aren’t they lovely?

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Anyway, here’s what happened to Alma the Younger. Hint: It’s a plagiarism of Paul’s Road-to-Damascus story.

Mosiah 27:11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;
27:12 And so great was their astonishment, that they fell to the earth, and understood not the words which he spake unto them.

27:19 And now the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father.
27:20 And they rehearsed unto his father all that had happened unto them; and his father rejoiced, for he knew that it was the power of God.

27:23 And it came to pass after they had fasted and prayed for the space of two days and two nights, the limbs of Alma received their strength, and he stood up and began to speak unto them, bidding them to be of good comfort:
27:24 For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.

From then on, they begin preaching. And why?

Mosiah 28:2 That perhaps they might bring them to the knowledge of the Lord their God, and convince them of the iniquity of their fathers; and that perhaps they might cure them of their hatred towards the Nephites, that they might also be brought to rejoice in the Lord their God, that they might become friendly to one another, and that there should be no more contentions in all the land which the Lord their God had given them.
28:3 Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.

Again, it’s all very nice of people to be concerned for my welfare. But if you believe that God is going to torture me forever — as the Book of Mormon clearly says — then this is your problem, not mine. And if you’ve decided to worship a being that would do that… then frankly, I’m concerned for you.

Your conclusions make sense in view of your beliefs. But it’s your beliefs that are the problem.

Additional lesson ideas

Chiasmus

Oh boy, chiasmus! When apologists discovered this little angle in the 1970s, they thought they’d hit the freaking jackpot. A heretofore unknown form of Hebraic poetry, but one that appears in the Book of Mormon.

Chiasmus is a fairly simple way of structuring information. You give a bunch of items, and then give them again in reverse order. Isaiah (or “Isaiah”) does this.

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And take a look at the elaborate chiasm in Alma 36.

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There you have it: Joseph Smith didn’t know about Hebrew poetry, since he was but a simple and uneducated (?) farm boy who didn’t never get no larnin’. But there chiasmus is, in the Book of Mormon. So surely this must be evidence of its Hebraic origins!

Well, not exactly. In the case of Alma 36, you have to ignore an awful lot of text to get the chiasm to work out properly. Check out Earl Wunderli’s critique in Dialogue.

The existence of extended chiasmus in the Book of Mormon seems far from proved by Alma 36. While the inverted parallelism developed by Welch is impressive on first reading, on closer analysis it is Welch’s creativity that is most notable. By following flexible rules, he has fashioned a chiasm by selecting elements from repetitious language, creatively labeling elements, ignoring text, pairing unbalanced elements, and even including asymmetrical elements.

And that’s not taking into account all the real chiasmus that pops up in lots of non-scriptural places.

It appears in Dr Seuss’s classic Green Eggs and Ham (PDF).

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It shows up in Ralphie’s letter to Santa, from A Christmas Story.

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Would you believe that half-term US governor Sarah Palin has dipped into it on occasion?

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Clearly evidence of God’s inspiration!

And more to the point, chiasmus was known and used by authors of Joseph Smith’s time. Here’s an equally elaborate example used in The Late War, a book of history retold in Biblical style, which bears a strong resemblance to the Book of Mormon.

 

chiasmus_the_late_war

 

The fact is, chiasmus appears naturally in all kinds of places. It’s not even hard to make a chiastic paragraph. It’s just writing things in one order, and then writing them again in reverse order. In fact, in this very paragraph, I made some chiasmus myself. It’s not rocket science. Chiasmus is a natural way of ordering information, and that’s a fact.

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BoM Lesson 9 (Quoting Isaiah 2)

“My Soul Delighteth in the Words of Isaiah”

2 Nephi 11–25

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show the mistakes in the (supposedly) “most correct book”, the Book of Mormon.

Reading

Oh, frigging hell, more Isaiah. Clearly the writer blew his wad on the story of Nephi, and has decided to plagiarise his way out of the slump. That’s one way to pad a book out.

And notice the size of the reading for this lesson! Other lessons have focused on two or three chapters — not here. Even the lesson writers knew there wasn’t much here.

I’ve said it before: people who believe in Isaiah’s prophecies are… shall we say… lacking in rigour. Here’s a tip from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual about understanding Isaiah.

Many of Isaiah’s writings seem difficult to understand because they refer to a wide range of past and future events described in symbolic language.

Let’s break that down. If I make a prediction about the weather tomorrow (rainy, sunny), or the stock market this year (it’ll go up, it’ll go down), it’s only a useful prediction if I manage to foretell what happens within the specified time frame.

On the other hand, Isaiah fans are happy to claim a hit if the things written by Isaiah (all three of him) happen either in the past or the future — and it’s okay if it happens symbolically instead of literally.

What couldn’t be counted as a fulfilment, using this sloppy criterion?

And that’s not even counting all the stuff that ‘Isaiah’ knew about because it had just happened. Sez the manual:

For example, in 2 Nephi 20:28–34, Isaiah named the cities the Assyrian army would pass through and how it would be stopped just as it reached Jerusalem. The events happened exactly as he prophesied.

Yes, because they were written after the fact.

Note that this is a bit of a giveaway: The writer of Isaiah is perfectly capable of writing clearly when it comes to things that the writer could have witnessed and then written down. But for events in the distant future (or past), it’s all a bit hazy and obscure.

Main ideas for this lesson

Christ is God

Remember, the Book of Mormon is Mormonism v1.

2 Nephi 11:6 And my soul delighteth in proving unto my people that save Christ should come all men must perish.
11:7 For if there be no Christ there be no God; and if there be no God we are not, for there could have been no creation. But there is a God, and he is Christ, and he cometh in the fulness of his own time.

Suddenly trinitarianism!

Well, sputters the Latter-day Saint, Christ is a god. That’s one way to get around it. But remember, this was God’s big chance to restore his wonderful perfect doctrine, and he muffs it. God is the author of confusion, and the BoM writer didn’t foresee the later Mormon doctrine.

Translation mistakes

Curt Huevel of infidels.org has written an article detailing Nephi’s Isaiah problems — and they go beyond the little problem with quoting a too-late Isaiah. It seems that, when the King James Bible makes a translation mistake, the Book of Mormon dutifully follows right along.

In several cases, the Book of Mormon follows King James Version translation errors. In the verse just cited, for example, Isaiah 9:1 should read ‘honor’ in the place of ‘grievously afflict’. The Book of Mormon makes the same mistake.

Here’s the passage.

2 Nephi 19:1 Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.

KJV Isaiah 9:1 Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.

Now here’s a more appropriate translation.

NIV Isaiah 9:1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The Book of Mormon also throws in some mistakes of its own.

In general, most of the changes occur in the italicized portions of the King James version (which the King James Translators employed to indicate that the translation is not original to the text). Smith either dropped or modified the italicized phrases. In some cases, the changes made to the text result in impossible readings. For example, II Nephi 19:1 adds the phrase ‘red sea’ to Isaiah 9:1, which makes no sense in the geographical context.

Let’s have a look at those passages.

2 Nephi 19:1 Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.

Isaiah 9:1 Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.

Which sea was Isaiah talking about?

Ellicott’s commentary: The way of the sea . . .—The context shows that the “sea” is that which appears in Bible history under the names of the sea of Chinnereth (Numbers 34:11; Deuteronomy 3:17), the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1), Gennesaret (Mark 6:53). The high road thence to Damascus was known as Via Maris in the time of the Crusaders (Renan, quoted by Cheyne).

Cambridge Bible: the way of the sea] either “in the direction of the (Mediterranean) Sea,” or “the region along the West side of the Sea of Gennesareth.” In the time of the Crusades Via Maris was the name of the road leading from Acre to Damascus.

Not quite the same sea then.

Creative interpretation of prophecy

The LDS Church would like to show that it is the fulfilment of prophecy. From the manual:

• When the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, he said that chapter 11 of Isaiah (quoted in 2 Nephi 21) was about to be fulfilled (Joseph Smith—History 1:40). How is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ an ensign to all nations? (See D&C 64:41–43; 105:39; 115:4–6.)

Let’s have a look at the reading.

2 Nephi 21:6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
21:7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
21:8 And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den.
21:9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
21:10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek; and his rest shall be glorious.
21:11 And it shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.
21:12 And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

Hang on — let me get this straight. The first part of this bit shows (as I understand it) the conditions at the time of the Millennium — complete cessation of hostilities, lions cavorting with lambs, the whole thing.

And then — at that very same time — the Lord sets the Mormon Church up as an ensign to the nations.

Well, it looks like the first part of the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled. I haven’t seen any cows and bears feeding together, have you? The church is trying to say that it’s fulfilled the second part of prophecy when the first part hasn’t happened, and yet they’re supposed to take place at the very same time.

Believers are always accusing me of ignoring context. “You’re taking that out of context!” they moan. Well, it’s not me. They’re the real cherry-pickers.

Then Nephi goes back to quoting Isaiah, with all the attendant…

Misogyny

2 Nephi 13:11 Wo unto the wicked, for they shall perish; for the reward of their hands shall be upon them!
13:12 And my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they who lead thee cause thee to err and destroy the way of thy paths.

Horror

2 Nephi 19:19 Through the wrath of the Lord of Hosts is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire; no man shall spare his brother.
19:20 And he shall snatch on the right hand and be hungry; and he shall eat on the left hand and they shall not be satisfied; they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm

God threatening people if they don’t believe in him

2 Nephi 23:6 Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.
23:7 Therefore shall all hands be faint, every man’s heart shall melt;
23:8 And they shall be afraid; pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames.
23:9 Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
23:10 For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
23:11 And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay down the haughtiness of the terrible.

23:15 Every one that is proud shall be thrust through; yea, and every one that is joined to the wicked shall fall by the sword.
23:16 Their children, also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled and their wives ravished.

Just plain loopiness

2 Nephi 16:1 In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.
16:2 Above it stood the seraphim; each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.
16:3 And one cried unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.

Nephi decides to go one better and throw in some anti-Semitism.

2 Nephi 25:2 For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.

People sometimes say that the church helps to build moral values. Well, in this one reading, we’ve seen some of the worst values religion has to offer. Let’s be clear: there are much better values out there.

And remember also: this was the very best God could do. What words to humanity were so important that they needed to be written by Isaiah, and then written again by Nephi? Knowledge about science? A little advice about health? Rules about treating everyone equally? Any one of those would have benefitted humanity greatly. But no, all we get are some relatively minor details about battles between ancient warring tribes, along with a side helping of marginalisation. It’s pathetic for the church to be promoting this.

If you’d like to see more about the Isaiah chapters, here’s the relevant lesson.

BoM Lesson 5 (Building a Boat)

“Hearken to the Truth, and Give Heed unto It”

1 Nephi 16–22

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to notice the implausibility of the Book of Mormon account, and to listen to truth and avoid becoming “past reason”.

Reading

One of the amazing yet frustrating things about being an ex-Mormon is that you look back at the stuff you used to believe and think, “How the hell did I believe this stuff?”

For me, that’s especially true of this lesson.

In this lesson, Lehi and his family are starting an eight-year sojourn in the wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula. Strangely, it’s the most well-provisioned wilderness anyone’s ever seen. There’s so much food and resources, you could build a ship out of them. Everything in this reading is simply bursting with implausibility, to the extent that I must have been stupid or blind to have granted it the least bit of credence.

But in retrospect, all the implausibility vanished away with one wave of the magic wand: God can do anything. In which case, God’s an idiot for doing things this way, making humans go through the motions for these impossible actions, when he could have thought of a more direct and less tedious way for people to do it, or just done it himself.

So here’s what’s in this reading.

  • Lehi and family travel to pick up Ishmael’s family. No concern for the wishes of the daughters is evinced. Or indeed, their names. Mormonism never misses an opportunity to tell women they don’t matter.

1 Nephi 16:7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife.

  • They find a Liahona, which is kind of like an iPad, but rounder and more steampunk.

1 Nephi 16:10 And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.

1 Nephi 16:28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.

This is why I love my iPad — I don’t have to believe in it for it to work.

  • The company takes seeds and provisions,

1 Nephi 16:11 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.

  • and they travel for eight years.

1 Nephi 17:4 And we did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness.

I suppose the reason for all the wandering is that God is trying to figure out what to do with these people. Writer’s block.

  • Finally, God gets an idea: He commands Nephi to build a boat

1 Nephi 17:8 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.

  • His brothers murmur, but the Lord shocks them

1 Nephi 17:53 And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: Stretch forth thine hand again unto thy brethren, and they shall not wither before thee, but I will shock them, saith the Lord, and this will I do, that they may know that I am the Lord their God.
17:54 And it came to pass that I stretched forth my hand unto my brethren, and they did not wither before me; but the Lord did shake them, even according to the word which he had spoken.

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  • They sail to the Promised land, but en route Nephi’s brothers become rude, and tie him up, probably because he’s so uptight and hates fun.

1 Nephi 18:9 And after we had been driven forth before the wind for the space of many days, behold, my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and also their wives began to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance, and to sing, and to speak with much rudeness, yea, even that they did forget by what power they had been brought thither; yea, they were lifted up unto exceeding rudeness.

18:11 And it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel did take me and bind me with cords, and they did treat me with much harshness; nevertheless, the Lord did suffer it that he might show forth his power, unto the fulfilling of his word which he had spoken concerning the wicked.

One theme that keeps coming up throughout the Book of Mormon is that apostates are filled with some kind of murderous desire.

Ask: Now that you’re an ex-Mormon, which of the following do you want to do?

a) Tie people up
b) Kill them
c) Hunt wild beasts
d) Become filthy and idolatrous
e) Debate people on the internet

If you said e), then you’re kind of normal. Be prepared to be accused of a) through d), though.

  • Upon their arrival in the Promised Land (USA! USA!), they put their seeds into the earth, and they grow

1 Nephi 18:24 And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance.

No trace of Middle Eastern plants have been found from this time.

  • They find animals that didn’t exist, and none that do

1 Nephi 18:25 And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.

These animals were not in the Americas at this time.

Now in church, they use to make a big deal out of ancient horses and mastodons caught in the La Brea tar pits. Sorry, guys, but that was the wrong time — about 10,000 years too early.

These are anachronisms — things in the wrong time.

Richard Packham gives a wonderful example of why anachronisms ought to put paid to the Book of Mormon’s claims of authenticity.

One of the most important tests for uncovering an allegedly ancient text that is really a product of later times is the presence of anachronisms, that is, things that are inappropriate to the time in which the work supposedly was written. It is a very straightforward and relatively common-sense test.

For example: Suppose I show you a small book that says on its cover: “Journal of Gen’l George Washington.” You look through the book and at first reading it does, indeed, appear to be the journal of a period in the life of George Washington. What a treasure! It sounds authentic. Its language is typical of the late 18th century, when Washington lived. It contains material hitherto unknown to historians, and yet not contradictory to what is known. I explain to you that it is a faithful typewritten copy of a handwritten book that was found among my grandfather’s belongings.

As you read it, however, you come across this sentence: “This aft’noon rec’d an urgent wire, took the rr train to Philadelphia, arr’d toward evening, met by M. Adams at the sta.”

What is your reaction? Are you suspicious? You know that the railroad did not exist in Washington’s day, nor did the term “rr train” or “sta[tion]” as a place where one would meet a “rr train.” Nor was a message called a “wire”, since that term came into use only with the invention of the telegraph in the next century. These are anachronisms, and immediately mark the text as not from the times of Washington.

What explanation could I give you that would persuade you to accept this text as genuine? I could probably try to defend the authenticity of my text. I could suggest that “rr train” was probably a special shorthand Washington was using for “stagecoach” (even though there is no evidence of such a use in any genuine Washington writings, or in any other writings from the time). A similar argument might be made for “wire” for a message. But to any scholar, and to any ordinary person using common sense and a rudimentary knowledge of history, this text is a clumsy fraud.

Would you change your mind if I listed all the things that are authentic in the text, or that sound believable or possible? No, I would hope not.

Would you change your mind if I argued that, after all, it was only two little anachronisms? No, I would hope not. Even only one anachronism – unless it can be conclusively shown to be a later insertion by someone else (a corruption of the original text) – is enough to condemn a text as not authentic.

Would you change your mind if I confided to you that the journal had been given to my grandfather by an angel of God, and that the angel had told him that it was authentic? I suppose to some people that would make a difference, but only the very, very gullible.

The examples given above are of anachronistic objects. A linguistic anachronism is the use of a word which actually did not come into use until much later than the alleged date of the document. For example, if we found in the purported journal of Washington the expression “fifth column” (meaning undercover sabotage agents), we would know that the journal is not authentic, since that expression was coined and first used during the Spanish Civil War in the twentieth century.

If this biography of George Washington says, “We’ve got our iPods charged, and we’re ready to rock and roll,” then thats it. It’s fake. We’re done. It doesn’t matter if it gets a few other things right.

Apologists try to explain their way around anachronisms by using their favourite trick: redefining words. A cow might have been a bison. An ox might have been a mastodon. Anything might have been anything other than what the word means.

duffy_horse1It would have been simple for Nephi to say, “We found a bunch of weird freaking animals that we’d never seen before.” But no.

Let’s focus on horses for a second. There’s no evidence of any horses native to the Americas during the time of Lehi’s fictional family. They died out 11,000 years ago, and were reintroduced by the Spanish. (Same for goats.)

Rather hilariously, Robert Bennett of FARMS suggested that the word horse actually referred to the tapir.

It is also possible that some Book of Mormon peoples coming from the Old World may have decided to call some New World animal species a “horse” or an “ass.” This practice, known as “loanshift” or “loan-extension,” is well known to historians and anthropologists who study cross-cultural contact. For example, when the Greeks first visited the Nile in Egypt, they encountered a large animal they had never seen before and gave it the name hippopotamus, meaning “horse of the river.” When the Roman armies first encountered the elephant, they called it Lucca bos, a “Lucanian cow.” In the New World the Spanish called Mesoamerican jaguars leones, “lions,” or tigres, “tigers.”

Similarly, members of Lehi’s family may have applied loanwords to certain animal species that they encountered for the first time in the New World, such as the Mesoamerican tapir. While some species of tapir are rather small, the Mesoamerican variety (tapiris bairdii) can grow to be nearly six and a half feet in length and can weigh more than six hundred pounds. Many zoologists and anthropologists have compared the tapir’s features to those of a horse or a donkey.

Yes, it’s one of these.

tapir

Lamanites rode these noble steeds across the dusty plains.

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As a result, the tapir has become the unofficial mascot of the ex-Mormon movement.

  • Nephi copies a lot of Isaiah.

1 Nephi 19:23 And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.

He even copies Deutero-Isaiah, who hadn’t written anything by the time Lehi was supposed to have left. Whoops — another anachronism.

It doesn’t end with Isaiah. Nephi copies a lot of things that hadn’t been written yet. Check this page from the Skeptic’s Annotated Book of Mormon, and see how the author quoted everyone from Malachi to Revelation.

Main ideas for this lesson

Impossible things

I want to focus on two impossible things that Nephi and family did:

  • building an enormous ship
  • making a long sea journey
Building a ship

To build anything that could be called a “ship” would be impossible to build for people living in anything that could be called a “wilderness”. Ship building is something that took entire communities working together to bring about, with a complex array of goods, materials, and labor.

I’ve got to ask you to take the time and listen to this episode of John Larsen’s Mormon Expression podcast: How to Build a Transoceanic Vessel. Not only is it hilarious, it’s devastating.

The short version: Nephi would have had to extract iron ore from somewhere with his bare hands, and then smelted tools. He would have had to bring together entire forests of high-grade wood, loomed cloth to make sails, and gotten together an array of provisions of Noachian proportions. Just assembling the raw materials would have required Herculean effort from the tiny group (who would have been busy tending children and… you know… rebelling), to say nothing of the time it would have taken to build the actual ship. It’s not just a bit off – it’s all screamingly wrong. As Randy says: “It’s Gilligan’s Island Level ridiculousness.”

Joseph Smith, or the author of the Book of Mormon, knew dick-all about ship building, which is probably why he covers the entire project in three verses, in as little detail as possible.

1 Nephi 18:1 And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.
18:2 Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.
18:3 And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.
18:4 And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord.

Lehi’s path

Have you ever thought about the family’s putative path on a map? I hadn’t.

Their starting point would have been somewhere on the Arabian peninsula, according to LDS sources.

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And they would have had to get to somewhere on the American continent.

Now here’s a graphic from the wonderful series “Brutally Honest Mormon Coloring Pages (Part 5)” by gileriodekel.

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Ask: Does this look like a plausible path for someone around 600 BCE? Take all the time you need.

They would have had to either sail around the Horn of Africa (in the near-Antarctic cold), or navigate through Indonesia. Either way, that’s a long freaking path.

I spent nearly forty years in the church, and as much as I read the Book of Mormon and told others about it, I’d never thought about the path. Maybe it was my poor geography or my thoughtlessness, but when I saw that map this week, I stared at it for five minutes before tossing the laptop aside and wondering again: How did I ever belive this rubbish‽

Maybe it’s that the bullshit goes so deep and spreads so wide that it’s impossible to consider all the BS, item by item. Yet there it is.

Additional lesson ideas

600 BCE?

We’ve already seen a problem with the chronology and Hezekiah.

1 Nephi 19:8 And behold he cometh, according to the words of the angel, in six hundred years from the time my father left Jerusalem.

The church pegs Lehi’s departure at 600 BCE because of this verse, but if there’s one year Jesus couldn’t have been born, it’s the year 1, according to the Bible chronology. Short version: Jesus would have been about 2 years old when Herod put the hit out on him, and Herod is known to have did in the year corresponding to 4 BCE. That makes the Book of Mormon chronology about 6 years out.

This book’s a mess.

Nahom

Now here’s an apologetic item. The Book of Mormon mentions a place called Nahom.

1 Nephi 16:34 And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.

And what do you know: in the Arabian Peninsula, alters have been found with an inscription that corresponds to NHM. Clearly a win for Book of Mormon archaeology!

Nahom-altars.

Well, maybe not. It’s NHM, not Nahom — vowels not typically written in Semitic languages. So NHM could be Noham, Nihum, Nahem, or any other combination. It could have been Nahum, which is the name of an Old Testament book, and which Joseph Smith could have copied.

And remember also that, with only 30-odd consonants in use for most languages, it’s not implausible for any combination to pop up somewhere. If someone had found BTF or BNT or BNF on an inscription somewhere, they’d be claiming a match for Bountiful. SHML could be a hit for Ishmael, even though it might have been used to mean something else. And the same could happen for any one of the place names and character names in this part of the story. NHM is firmly within the realm of linguistic coincidence.

Check out these pages for more criticism of the tenuous Nahom connection.

A side question: If Nephi and co. gave the place that name, how would anyone know it, and carry the name on? On the other hand, if the place already had that name, then when did Nephi and co. meet up with them? They never mention seeing anyone else. We’ll see this problem again — if there were other people around, Nephi sure is thoughtless in not mentioning them.

Let’s put this into perspective: If the Book of Mormon were true, there should be loads of evidence for it on multiple continents. Instead, what do we get? A group of three consonants, that could be a coincidence. This is literally the best they have.

And again, if something turns out right, it doesn’t help the case for the Book of Mormon. We’d still have to explain away all of the linguistic, historical, and archaeological anachronisms that turned out wrong.

Past reason

Finally, here’s a bit from the LDS lesson manual about being “past feeling”.

• Nephi told Laman and Lemuel that they “were past feeling, that [they] could not feel [the Lord’s] words” (1 Nephi 17:45). What does it mean to feel the words of the Lord? (See the quotation below.) What causes people to become “past feeling”? How can we prepare ourselves to feel the words of the Lord?

I would argue that a more serious condition would be that of being past reason, where a person is no longer able to be convinced by evidence and logic, since they’ve forsworn its use.

Robert Kirby of the Salt Lake Tribune has written a wonderful article called “Kirby: Could you handle the truth about your religion?” He asks:

What if you could learn whether the religion you follow is true simply by pushing a button?

No more need for faith. Now you could actually know instead of just believing that you do. Would you push the button? Even if knowing the truth might make you really unhappy?

Are you kidding? I’d be scrambling to push that button. If I’m wrong, I want to know it.

But other people aren’t so keen. Kirby continues:

The way I see it, your answer to the button question depends on where you are in the truth-seeking process.

First is that you want to know the truth badly enough to push the button regardless of which answer comes up. Truth is more important to you than personal comfort.

Second, you’re the kind of person not willing to place what you believe in jeopardy. Ignorance is so blissful that you stay as far away as possible from the truth button lest your emotional security be undone accidentally.

Finally — and most stupidly — are the people who wouldn’t push the button because they already “know” their religion is true.

There’s no relating to the last group of people, who believe their personal faith is the final word, so there’s no need to investigate further.

Kirby’s piece actually makes me wonder if he’s on the way to the Land of ex-Mormonia. I’ve often asked that question to religious people, “If your religion is wrong, would you want to know?” And if their answer is no, then there’s not really a point, is there? They’d rather keep being wrong their whole lives. They’re past reason, past curiosity, past thinking.

We need to let ourselves go along with reason, logic, and evidence. It doesn’t work otherwise.

BoM Lesson 1 (Keystone)

“The Keystone of Our Religion”

Scripture: None

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To question the credibility of the Book of Mormon

Reading

This year we embark on a study of the Book of Mormon, which is a collection of fabrications, plagiarisms, and exhortations that Latter-day Saints think is a volume of scripture.

When I was in the process of deconversion, my Stake President asked to meet. We spent an hour or so in his office, during which I explained that I no longer believed in the truth claims of the church, as they lacked any evidentiary basis. Toward the end of our visit, he pulled out his trump card: “How do you explain the Book of Mormon?”

Now that’s a strange question, isn’t it? But the strangeness isn’t obvious to someone who thinks (as nearly all Mormons seem to) that the Book of Mormon is totes amazing. Dictated in a very short period of time (not necessarily true) by an illiterate farm boy (Smith wasn’t) from gold plates (that no one ever saw).

So how did I explain the Book of Mormon? I told my Stake President, “I think somebody sat down and wrote it.”

It really is as simple as that. People do write amazing books, you know. And they can do it pretty fast, too. Every November during NaNoWriMo, people write 50,000-word novels in a month. The Book of Mormon checks in at 268,033 words, but we could get up to that pretty quickly if we add “it came to pass” 1,353 times (yes, seriously), plagiarise the Bible for a few chapters, and take inspiration from books that are floating around.

I’d suggest a better question: what is it about the Book of Mormon that needs explaining? To me, the book seems not only unremarkable, but also quite wrong in every particular. It’s one of many treatments of the idea that the Native Americans were of Hebraic origin — an idea that was popular in Joseph Smith’s day, but which hasn’t panned out. It contains lists of things that do not appear in the New World (sheep, horses, barley), and omits things that do (avacados, tapirs). On page after page, the Book of Mormon shows the evidence of its all-too-human origins.

Mormons are repeatedly told that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book” on the earth, when in fact, it is not even a correct book.

Side note: The Book of Mormon is the inspiration for these nerfballs.

geez_seriously

Jeez, how sad is that. People need to know about the Book of Mormon if only so they know that it turns you into this.

Man.

Main ideas for this lesson

The entire church fails if the Book of Mormon is not true

Read this quote from the LDS manual.

Why do you think Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the keystone of our religion?
President Ezra Taft Benson explained, “Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1986, 5; or Ensign, Nov. 1986, 6).

This is actually good to see. It annoys me when people are namby-pamby about religious claims. When you say that a thing is true, and then it turns out not to be, too often people say that it’s “intended metaphorically”. So it’s good to see that the church is walling off that kind of dodge. Either it’s true or it’s not. And if the Book of Mormon is not true, the church isn’t.

Except hold on. A shift happened in the last decade. The church is backing away from the view that the Book of Mormon is a historical document, instead describing it a spiritual document.

James Faust: It is important to know what the Book of Mormon is not. It is not primarily a history, although much of what it contains is historical.

The test for understanding this sacred book is preeminently spiritual. An obsession with secular knowledge rather than spiritual understanding will make its pages difficult to unlock.

Ask: Why would Latter-day Saints describe the Book of Mormon as a primarily spiritual document, rather than a primarily historical one?

Mormons in times past had no problem describing the Book of Mormon as historically true. But this view is now less and less defensible, as details from the Book of Mormons are either failing to be confirmed — or are disconfirmed — by findings in archaeology, genetics, linguistics, and so on. In response, the church is kicking the Book of Mormon one rung up the ladder of abstraction so it can’t be disconfirmed on a literal level. This is a very common tactic for religious apologists.

The Book of Mormon is not reflective of LDS doctrine

From the LDS manual:

Write on the chalkboard Doctrine.
In what ways is the Book of Mormon the “keystone of our doctrine”? (See D&C 10:45–46; 20:8–12.)

This is a tricky one. The Book of Mormon contains no mention of many LDS doctrines, including three degrees of glory, temple worship, and the corporeal nature of the Godhead.

The Book of Mormon is really Mormonism v1.

In light of this, many Latter-day Saints view the Book of Mormon, not as a source of doctrine, but as a kind of talisman that proved that Joseph Smith had God’s phone number.

This view is a little silly. God writes a book to restore his church. Here’s his chance to reveal his knowledge to humans for the first time in millennia, and he only includes doctrines that pertain to an early phase of Mormonism that (coincidentally) mirrors the exact time of the book’s publication?

Ask: Why would God hold back on his doctrines?
Possible answer: The world wouldn’t have been ready to accept his deeper doctrines at first.

Ask: Would an all-powerful God have been able to think of a way to express his deeper doctrines in a way that people would have accepted?

  • If so, why didn’t he?
  • If not, he’s not all-powerful.

The Witnesses were not witnesses

The Book of Mormon, the story goes, was written on gold plates — improbably light ones, it would seem — and these plates were allegedly seen by three — and later eight — witnesses. Mormons are fond of saying that none of the witnesses ever denied their testimony.

Have the assigned class members present their summaries of the Testimony of the Three Witnesses and the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses.
• Why was it important to have witnesses of the gold plates? (See Ether 5:2–4.) How do you think having additional witnesses helped the Prophet Joseph Smith?

Ask: Does it matter if eleven witnesses claim to have seen some gold plates, if they’re not publicly available?

Imagine that I’m presenting a paper at a conference. During question time, a member of the audience asks if they can see my data. In response, I say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t show you that. Instead, I’ve shown it to eleven other people, and they promise it’s true.”

While it’s not unheard of to restrict access to data, there has to be a good reason (for example, if it will reveal the identity of an subject). Absent that, refusal to show data is a bit of a red flag. That’s how you catch fabrication.

Evidence must be publicly available to be credible.

Let’s look at some of the problems with the witnesses.

• There’s reason to believe that the witnesses never saw the plates.

The evidence is extremely contradictory in this area, but there is a possibility that the three witnesses saw the plates in vision only, for Stephen Burnett in a letter written in 1838, a few weeks after the event, described Martin Harris’ testimony to this effect: ‘When I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David . . . the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations.'”

From mormonthink.com

Several LDS sources give the eleven men who bore their testimony to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon the special title of eyewitness; however, it appears doubtful that any of them actually saw the plates apart from a supernatural and subjective experience. While they all claimed to have handled what they were told were ancient plates, they did so while the plates were covered up and not visible.

See also: curious_mormon’s excellent post.

• The witnesses joined other religions, and testified of them just as much.

Phineas Young wrote to his older brother Brigham Young on December 31, 1841, from Kirtland, Ohio: “There are in this place all kinds of teaching; Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was for the Book of Mormon” (Martin Harris – Witness and Benefactor of the Book of Mormon, 1955, p. 52)
During the summer of 1837, while in Kirtland, David Whitmer pledged his new loyalty to a prophetess (as did Martin and Oliver) who used a black seer stone and danced herself into ‘trances.'(Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, pp. 211-213)

• Some of the witnesses (Martin Harris in particular) had a lot invested in the scheme, and had much to gain if it succeeded.

• It’s difficult to retract a really big lie.

If you were in on a big religious fraud, would be able to take it back? How would that affect others’ confidence in you? Wouldn’t it be easier to just let it ride?

Additional lesson ideas

Bogus prophecy

Another snippet from the manual:

3. The Book of Mormon was written for our day.
Point out that although the Book of Mormon is an ancient document, it was written and preserved for our day (2 Nephi 25:21–22; 27:22; Mormon 8:34–35; Moroni 1:4).

More like in our day, amirite?

Gospel Doctrine teachers are given this teaching suggestion:

• Read with class members Mormon 8:26–41. Explain that these verses contain a prophecy about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. What conditions did Moroni foresee would exist in the world when the Book of Mormon was again brought forth? (Write class members’ responses on the chalkboard. Answers may include those in the list below.) How are these conditions evident in the world today?

a. “The power of God shall be denied” (verse 28).
b. “There shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth” (verse 31).
c. People will “lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts” (verse 36).
d. People will “love money . . . more than [they] love the poor and the needy”
(verse 37).
e. People will be “ashamed to take upon [themselves] the name of Christ”
(verse 38).

In other words, the Book of Mormon says that, in the days of its publication, people will be awful… and it was right! Prophecy fulfilled.
x0lkr
Ask: What problems are there with using these Book of Mormon verses as a prediction?

Answers:

  • This applies to all times and all places. There’s literally no time in history when some people weren’t awful.
  • The opposite of the prophecy is also true, which means that it’s meaningless. The writer could have said that the book would come forward at a time when people were nice, and that would be true, too.

But as a missionary, oh, did I ever lean hard on verse 31 and the “pollutions”. It worked on one of my investigators. (Sorry, Mark, if you’re out there.)

Next week, we’ll get into the actual reading. Great to be back, and see you next week.

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